Yellowstone Wildlife and Landscape Digital Photography Workshop | September 2012

Yellowstone Wildlife and Landscape Workshop, September 2012

Yellowstone National Park is a true gem within America's vast national park system. First established by US Congress and signed into law by President Grant in 1872, it is considered America's first national park. Once visited, it is easy to understand why this region is considered so special to those lucky individuals that choose to spend a few days (or weeks) exploring its unique features.

Although not as overtly dramatic as, say, the Grand Tetons or Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone's distinctive beauty lays within its sheer size (nearly 3500 sq. miles), nearly intact complete ecosystems, unique geothermal features, and abundant free roaming animal populations. For our Aperture Academy 2012 Yellowstone Workshop photographers and instructors Scott Davis and Ellie Stone, Yellowstone provided a wealth of photographic subject matter.

With Yellowstone's conditions always changing and its animal populations constantly on the move, our group discovered that each day of this three-day workshop was different and rewarding in multiple ways.

Our first day began just before sunrise, with clear skies. A faint bit of winter chill was in the air and everyone was giddy with anticipation following the previous night's orientation meeting. For most in the group, this was their first time visiting the park, and traveling with like-minded photographers made it that much more fun.

Since the park is so large, the animals often widely dispersed and the distances to some of the major photographic spots extensive, our workshop strategy is to spend one day focused on wildlife imagery, another day on specific scenic locations (with opportunistic wildlife thrown in for good measure), and the third day used for a mix of the two to make our time in Yellowstone as productive as possible.

On day one, it certainly didn't take long to locate our first wildlife subjects. We schedule our Yellowstone workshop each year to coincide with the elk rut season as closely as possible, and our timing for this year proved perfect. The hillsides were alive with the haunting sounds of male elk bugling as they tried to keep tabs on their females and warn off competing males. With a small amount of searching we came upon our first group against a beautiful alpine setting. A stunning 7-point male was busy calling and herding his females. Being careful not to spook him or his harem, we strategically positioned ourselves along the hillside and spent nearly an hour collecting some outstanding images worthy of any Elk Lover's Quarterly magazine.

Happy with our first batch of wildlife images, we packed up the ApVan and proceeded on down the road in search of our next subject. Bison and Pronghorn antelopes were next on the list. The Bison population of Yellowstone is considered the oldest and largest public herd of American Bison in the United States. With an estimated population of over 3000 individuals, there is certainly no shortage of possible images we can take of them.

Over the course of the day, every day of the workshop for that matter, we were able to collect many wonderful images of this uniquely American icon of the old west in all types of lighting scenarios. We worked on creating intimate portraits, behavioral moments, as well as scenic landscapes that incorporated this wonderfully entertaining animal.

Pronghorn antelopes are often a bit trickier to work with, due to their skittish nature, but on several occasions we were able to get relatively close to a number of individuals for some outstanding imagery.

By the end of the day, happy and content smiles were evident. We had compiled a wide assortment of classic Yellowstone critter images and were heading off to some unique geothermal sites to finish off the last hours of the day. Utilizing reflections of the colorful sky from the collecting pools of water from the geysers, we were able to create some truly special sunset images that had that special "Made in Yellowstone" look.

Day two focused more on traveling throughout the park and photographing some of the more iconic geologic features that has made Yellowstone famous throughout the world. We left a little bit earlier that morning to capitalize on the prime light needed to capture some of our planned locations at their best. Of course, things can often happen while en route to delay expected arrival times, and our first delay began with a big beautiful bull elk on the nearby hillside bugling in the morning light. Too picturesque to ignore, we stopped to take advantage of such a prime photo moment.

A short time later, while driving down the road towards Yellowstone Falls, we noticed two RVs off in the distance parked at the side of the road with some people out of their vehicles. Anyone who's ever been to Yellowstone knows this is a good sign of something possibly interesting.

As we got closer, we noticed a dark shadow lurking in the grass not more than 100 feet off the road. Immediately we recognized a big black beautiful wolf as he zigzagged his way through the golden-hued grass toward the forest. He was obviously on the scent of something and paid us no heed as we piled out of the vehicle in a quick effort to grab some images. We didn't have long before he disappeared again into the forest, but it was such a special sighting of a wolf up close, certainly not one to be forgotten.

The remainder of the day was spent covering a vast amount of area in the park, visiting and photographing the many famous and vibrantly colored hot springs, waterfalls, geysers and fumaroles throughout the middle and southern end of the park. No visit to Yellowstone would be complete without visiting these amazing examples of earth's ever changing geologic might. Since half of the world's geothermal features and two-thirds of the world's geysers are concentrated in Yellowstone, we devoted a full day to visit and photograph many of the most scenic and spectacular of them. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we had spent over 14 hours in the field. With camera cards full of new images, we lumbered off for a quick meal before heading off to bed in preparation for another full day of shooting.

Day three was a planned mix of wildlife, in search of animals that had so far evaded our cameras, and more scenic landscapes, as well as group suggestions.

Driving through famed Lamar Valley en route to Trout Lake, we came upon one of the grand predators of Yellowstone, the ever impressive Ursus arctos horribilis, aka, the Grizzly Bear. This big guy was just lumbering along and at first sighting was less than 40 feet away from our van, giving everyone an up close and personal look at one of North America's most formidable predators.

We quickly drove ahead, got out of the van and positioned ourselves in safe but strategic positions to get some stunning images. This fella seemed to be on a mission and just walked on by us, up the small ridge adjacent from us and off into the forest. Once again, some fantastic images were seen on the back of the camera LCDs.

Later in the day, we happened upon a group of bison that looked to be pondering a river crossing. Part of successful wildlife photography is having patience. Our group was perfect and their patience paid off as the group of bison finally decided the time was right, one by one and in small groups forded the river, providing us with some excellent photographic opportunities.

Sunset hours brought us to Mammoth Springs where, at the last moment, Mother Nature provided us with some stunning evening colors reminiscent of orange and blueberry sherbet ice cream. After our visual dessert, we headed to our farewell group dinner. Good food and great new friends provided the cherry on the top to an outstanding Yellowstone workshop.

On behalf of Scott Davis and Ellie Stone and the rest of Aperture staff, we want to give a hearty thank you to all of you who joined us and helped make this trip such a fun, productive and wonderful experience. Until next time....

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