3 Tips for Photographing Yellowstone’s Winter Landscape

Coyote (canis Latrans)

Yellowstone National Park in the winter is hushed under a blanket of clean snow. Bare trees like sentinels stretch their frosty branches up into crystal blue skies, and hot springs and geysers produce ever-changing and mysterious shrouds of steam that coyly obscure and shyly reveal a surreal landscape. Meadows and mountains and frozen waterfalls wait quietly under a winter sun.

But the park is not sleeping in winter. Animal life is abundant: bison and elk forage for food, you might hear the howl of a hunting wolf pack, and small creatures like rabbits and foxes go carefully about their daily routines.

All of this winter splendor makes photographing Yellowstone an exciting way to spend time in the park and feel connected to nature. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture breathtaking photographs of this area, but preparation is important. Here are three tips for snapping that prize-winning photo that will forever remind you of your trip to this beautiful national park.

#1. Pick the Best Location

3 Tips for Photographing Yellowstone’s Winter Landscape

Winter snow and cold limits road access into the park, so you will need to pick a location based on your ability to access it as well as its proximity to park entrances and the vehicles that can get you there. West Yellowstone is one of the best places to enter the park for winter photography. Fly or drive into Bozeman, Montana, and then rent a snowmobile or charter a snowcoach for backcountry expeditions that will take you to pristine vistas far from the haunts of man.

#2. Prepare Your Equipment for Frigidly Cold Conditions

3 Tips for Photographing Yellowstone’s Winter Landscape

Temps drop well below freezing in the high altitude winters of Yellowstone National Park. Even during daylight hours, it is common to watch the mercury drop to -20 degrees F. (-30 degrees C) and below. Not only will you need to be dressed appropriately, but you will also need to think ahead to keep your equipment from malfunctioning.

  • Batteries drain more quickly in freezing temperatures. Use lithium batteries for best performance, and bring along spare batteries that are kept warm inside an inner coat pocket. Don’t forget to bring along any tools you might need to change batteries (screwdrivers, etc.)
  • Be gentle with all equipment. If you are outside for 20 or more minutes in subzero temps, parts tend to seize or become very stiff; never force a zoom lens or tripod leg that is frozen in place, for instance. In some cases, the only thing you can do to adjust equipment is to warm it up first.
  • Bring a large plastic garbage bag with you. Place cameras and lenses inside the bag and close the opening tightly (a rubber band or elastic hair band works well) before you re-enter a warm vehicle or your lodge or hotel. This will prevent condensation from collecting on glass and metal surfaces, which could damage your equipment. Leave everything in the bag for at least two hours in warm conditions.

#3. Dress Appropriately

3 Tips for Photographing Yellowstone’s Winter Landscape

If you aren’t shooting from the comfort of a heated vehicle, you need to dress warmly and wisely. At -20 deg. F, bare skin will freeze in as little as two minutes—quicker with windchill. Layers are important. Start with a base layer designed to wick away moisture on both your torso and your legs. Follow up with a high-necked shirt like a turtleneck, a half-zip jacket, and an outer coat. Top it off with a windbreaker, if necessary. Long johns, jeans, and insulated snow pants are good on your bottom half. Warm gloves (a thinner woolen glove on the inside gives you more finger dexterity for adjusting equipment without exposing bare flesh), a balaclava, hat, and scarf are also musts. Only wear boots designed to withstand subzero temperatures (and never wear cotton socks!). When you are out on a snowmobile all day, it can be very easy to suffer from frostbitten toes if you aren’t careful.

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