Yellowstone and Grand Teton pt 3: The photographic experience

Yellowstone lake panorama

Yellowstone lake panorama

Here is my final post in this series, and it brings me down from Yellowstone into Grand Teton National Park. No one goes to the area without a visit to Yellowstone, but there are several that go to Yellowstone without having a look at Grand Teton. It is overshadowed by its bigger brother, and unjustifiably so. Stunning mountains that add to any landscape photograph, and wildlife equally stunning as Yellowstone: you get your bison, elk, grizzlies and even wolves there on top of which you get more frequent sightings of black bear, moose, beavers, river otters and birds of prey.

Having done several time-restricted photography trips in the past, I was not surprised to find the following true about my time in Grand Teton:

1)   No matter how well you plan everything in your own control, you can’t plan the weather.

If you’re a common soul like me, with little time and relatively limited equipment capabilities, the odds of you getting a shot that is worthy of comparison to professionals is (let’s be honest but kind) less that 50%. So I try to use other tools in my creative skillset, which almost invariably involve light. Up to this point, I had been rather unfortunate with the weather conditions so I was absolutely delighted to realise that in the few days that I had hoped to shoot one or two landscape shots in Grand Teton (which it is better for than Yellowstone) I had a blue sky all shivers aside. Marvellous! With lady luck on my side, I set off to photograph the sunset at Oxbow lake. If I had had internet access and used my photographer’s ephemeris app I could have realised that the sun sets behind the mountains. Not to worry! It was star trails I was after!

Oxbow bend sunset panorama

Oxbow bend sunset panorama

I had a clear sky. I had a fabulous location. I had all the settings right. If only the bloody moon hadn’t been at its fullest on the 3 nights I had a shot (meaning the sky was too bright when trying to keep the shutter open for a long time). This is the best I could do at a 30-minute exposure without blowing out the foreground.

Mormon barns at full moon with startrails

Mormon barns at full moon with startrails

I waited as long as I could, managed a milky way shot once, and this is as close to autumn colours at Oxbow Bend as I could get.

Autumn colours starting to show in Grand Teton

Autumn colours starting to show in Grand Teton

Grebes basking in the sunlight at oxbow bend

Grebes basking in the sunlight at oxbow bend

 

2)   Don’t get disheartened when you don’t get what you would expect…

If you are trying to photograph wildlife that tends to be shy (wolves), or if there are fewer individuals (grizzlies), you can be in as many places at once as you like, but at the end of the day without time a large percentage of wildlife photography is just luck  – right place, right time, right equipment, knowledge of how to use it. Some people cheat of course and tap into ranger walkie talkies – I met a woman who, using this method, could claim that she had seen 12 grizzlies in 3 days.

One of my key targets in Grand Teton NP was moose. Rangers, photographers and locals all told me the same thing – go to Gros Ventre campground as there are some that live there in the morning and evening. So on evening 1 I went and drove around for a while.

No one had seen the sow with her young. I decided to give it another go the next morning. Still nothing. And on evening number 2 – still nothing.

3)   … but still be prepared for the unexpected.

So in the late morning, after yet again no moose, I went down to Schwabager’s Landing to photograph the mountains with their mirror reflection in the still lake. You want to do this in the morning because a) the sun is still behind you and b) the wind tends to pick up in the afternoon. I also knew there were some beavers down there so when I got to the bottom from the road (a 15-minute walk or so as they have closed the trail from direct car access) my first point was to ask people if they had seen any and scout for some myself. I went towards the end of the trail and just as I had decided this turn back I saw these two ladies who were crouched down and whispered to me ‘look, there’s a moose!’. And then I heard him, making noise and his bulging red eyes as he was looking for a mate.

The bull moose was as surprised by us as we were by him

The bull moose was as surprised by us as we were by him

Moose shows up unexpectedly

Moose shows up unexpectedly

He was grazing but pacing about, and we followed him from the other side of the bank, hoping that he would do what he did next – he crossed the river inlets and allowed us shots of him in water.

Moose at Schwabager's landing

Moose at Schwabager’s landing

Still walking around the moose subsequently waded in the most idyllic picture-postcard spot you can imagine. He stopped right where you would have asked him to and stood there for a few seconds, as if he had a big life decision to contemplate. All the while I had my telephoto lens on! I was struggling to zoom out, because I wanted to mountains in above and in the water, but even after taking my teleconverter off, I couldn’t get much more wide than this. My camera with my wideangle lens was lying on the ground just out of reach.

Moose taken with a telephoto lens crossing water

Moose taken with a telephoto lens crossing water

Note to self: be prepared for the unexpected.

A day later I had reached the end of my time with the car and had to bring it back to town for 10:00. I was going to get a lift back from someone as I was still going to spend the next week in Colter Back and Jackson Lake Lodge. I didn’t want to burden myself with heavy gear but for good measure I took my camera with my wideangle lens. Big mistake.

Not too far for moose junction I saw a car jam. I pulled up with the others and saw a grizzly was hiding in the sage, just walking around. I was very aware of the time at this point, as the clock was ticking. But I squeezed out every minute I could, and slowly but surely the bear decided to come close enough for me to look for an escape route to my car and he crossed the road in not too far from where I ended up being parked.

Unexpected grizzly crossing!

Unexpected grizzly crossing!

In both cases I had the wrong lens. But it did allow me to get a shot I wouldn’t usually have thought of getting.  Lady luck was with me because in both instances I met people who were only a very short distance away, and had been positioned there for a while to get some other shot, and missed the moose and the bear completely.

4)   You are not alone; just don’t follow the crowd.

This has become an unintentional theme throughout my posts, looking back at them. But here is another interesting example of this point.

The Mormon barns, on Mormon row, are probably one of the most photographed barns in the world. And why not? They are beautiful constructions set against a beautiful backdrop! So when the light is right, and you get up to set up (see what I did there) you will not be alone. Think you plus 25 on average, and you’re close to reality. Here are my companions for the morning.

Photographers at the mormon barns

Photographers at the mormon barns

I had decided I wanted to do some more panoramas but using a relatively long focal length – xx in fact. This way I could compress the mountains and the barn and reduce the amount of empty foreground and sky. When I turned up, there were about 6-7 people already there, but I didn’t just plonk my tripod next to them – I took a few test shots here, took a few more there, and decided my angle was better taken more head on than where everyone else was standing – by the side. I set up, made sure I was in no one’s shot, and waited. Companion number 8 showed up. Then companion number 9. And so on and so forth. And they all did exactly the same thing: they got out of their car, stood next to all the other 20 companions, and waited. Not one person deviated from this wall of photographers that had now been created.

Panoramic sunrise of the mormon barns

Panoramic sunrise of the mormon barns

After I realised the light was no longer going to give me what I wanted I took one or two more test shots before heading off. And a few hours later, looking back at my shots, I really did think that the shot the others were trying to take was one of the least imaginative or pretty of the bunch. Don’t follow the crowd.

The shot everyone else got of the mormon barn

The shot everyone else got of the mormon barn

Creative take on the mormon barn

Creative take on the mormon barn

5)   And just sometimes wildlife can be predictable.

Finally, on the odd occasion, wildlife will do what you expect it to. I had heard there was a good spotting rate of black bears on the Moose-Wilson road behind the Moose visitor centre as the huckleberries were juicy and the pines hadn’t provided as many delicious cones this year compared to previous years. So I went and drove up and down only to find it quiet with wildlife activity. The Moose visitor centre is absolutely amazing, so I wanted to go there anyway, but I decided to ask the rangers inside what the deal was. Yes, they appear all the time. But key was that one ranger said they don’t abide by the sunrise/sunset spotting times rule. In fact, noonish and early afternoon are the best times to see them!

At 11:30 I went back down the road and found a car jam with an empty car space. Apparently a black bear had just appeared. The ranger decided to head off for lunch at around 12:00, meaning the show was over, and he said that if this bear did what she’s been doing the past week was that in two hours she would wake up from her nap, come down, cross the road, bathe in the stream, eat some huckleberries from ‘that’ bush (pointing), cross back over and lie back down for a nap. I came back two hours later only to find that at 14:30, what happened? Exactly what the ranger had predicted! Every single step, every single movement, every single action was what the ranger had described.

Black bear love a bit of huckleberry!

Black bear love a bit of huckleberry!

12-year old black bear heading straight towards me

12-year old black bear heading straight towards me

And as a photographer, with the road and the branchy bushes around, I couldn’t help myself from thinking ‘shame it’s not a great photo though, is it?’

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9 thoughts on “Yellowstone and Grand Teton pt 3: The photographic experience

  1. Wow, you saw some great wildlife… I had hope so much I would see a grizzly or a big bull moose…but alas, none came my way. Agree with your comment, when shooting wildlife, it is the luck of the draw and while I may hike and wait for a moments, if none show there is still a lot to admire and photograph. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: Grand Teton National Park | MowryJournal.com

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