Road Trip 2014: Yellowstone in the Spring

Lots of people talk about and keep bucket lists. Some of them are huge and clearly unattainable by any mortal. Others are short and simple. They can be a fascinating insight into a person, or simply a random list of shinies that caught the eye of a magpie one day.

I’ve known one too many person who kept a bucket list instead of actually emptying it, until the day came when the  day never came.

But first, a word from our sponsor

Ten years ago my head exploded all over myself and the people around me. Nervous Breakdown. For six weeks I was an absolute basket case and my team and management carried me and as needed covered for me while I scraped it all up, ran it through a blender (and a few weeks of therapy) and started putting my life together again. Years of doing it wrong combined with neglecting my health, too much stress and a severe care of undiagnosed apnea all combined into a small tablet of C4 that went off and spread all that unhappy smelly stuff on everything around me.

I talk about this (but not often enough) because I’ve found that Silicon Valley is full of people like me, but the usual response is embarrassment and hiding it and denying it, because we as a society are conditioned to think we have to be strong and not show our flaws and weaknesses. Funny thing is, when I started talking about it, I found a whole bunch of supportive people who wanted to help — and a whole bunch of people who contacted me to say that my talking about it helped them realize they weren’t alone, and that it helped them understand they could get help, and that it could get better.

That blew me away. It’s why I talk about it once in a while — not as often as I used to, but it’s an important message to get out: If you’re fighting those recurring anxiety attacks or depression, or like me, cycling between the two, you have options. If you’re feeling suicidal you have options. I’m fortunate that I sucked at killing myself. And you are not alone.

It can get better. There are people who can help. Take that first step. I did, finally, and it let me deal with and put behind me 30 years of crap and put together a life that for the first time since I hit puberty, I can say I’m honestly and without reservation happy with who I am and what I’m doing. It wasn’t easy learning to like living in my skin again, but my god, it was worth it.

it’s worth the fight. Take that first step.

What’s this to do with Yellowstone, anyway?

Oh, yeah. Yellowstone. One of the choices I made coming out of my interregnum was to simplify my life a lot, and I decided that my photography was going to be a primary focus of my efforts. My original thought was to work towards going pro so I could get out of the high tech industry, because at the time I wasn’t sure I still had what it took to survive Silicon Valley. As I studied photography and the business of photography, it quickly became obvious that taking myself pro in the field was a bundle of hurt in an industry under disruption, and along the way I rebuilt my high tech career away from coding 14 hours a day and discovered I was pretty good at Community Management, and actually in demand again. So I ended up doing things I really liked for companies that wanted to pay me to do them, and that let me choose to let photography be a hobby and an escape.

Then, in 2008, my dad got sick, and went in the hospital, and never came out, and 2008 because this massive blur where I somehow kept my job going while commuting constantly between San Jose and SoCal, and it wasn’t until October that mom was settled in and the estate was settled down and I could pop out of my foxhole, look around and breathe a bit, and so Laurie and I grabbed a week and we headed off to Yellowstone to decompress.

I loved Yellowstone, but I was more than a bit of a basket case, and what I didn’t know at the time was that I’d gone diabetic (best guess, summer 2007) and that wouldn’t be diagnosed for another year — but it was starting to seriously affect my body. Taking that body up to 8,000 feet — people forget that Yellowstone is 1,000 feet higher (and more) than Denver — did some serious crap to my body, and I was seriously affected by the altitude, badly enough I came close to aborting the trip. By about day 3, I started to adapt and went to feeling merely lousy.

I also wasn’t very happy with my photography. I was shooting a Canon 30d and a kit lens at the time, and I’m sure my physical problems weren’t helping, but much of what I was shooting was frankly crap, and even the good stuff I didn’t feel did the location justice.

That was really a turning point in my photography, because I realized that I was in one of the more beautiful places in the universe, and I couldn’t do it justice — it was a real eye opener to me. I always considered myself a good photographer, but that trip showed me how much work I had to do to get where I wanted to be. (I think every serious photographer has to go through this horrific realization where you start looking at the images you were convinced were pretty good and start seeing all of the flaws that sit between you and real quality).

So basically, I went to Yellowstone and it kicked my butt, and told me to come back when I had it all figured out.

So that’s what I went off to do. And in 2009 my diabetes was diagnosed and is now well controlled, and despite my knees falling apart, my overall health today is better than it’s been in 15 years — although it’s still a long path to where I want to get.

But almost as soon as I got home from that trip, I knew I had to go back, just me and my camera. I had to prove to myself that I could do justice to that place, shoot quality images, and be proud of them. I also needed to go back with all of my physical issues under control, and prove to myself that the altitude couldn’t kick my butt again.

In many ways, this is closure I needed to put those parts of my life to rest. I’ve been working to schedule this trip for about 2 and a half years, but life (and work) simply didn’t cooperate. This year, it did.

When I finally hit downtown West Yellowstone (such as it is), I felt that rush of excitement because I had finally done it and gotten back to Yellowstone — followed quickly by that cold grip of anxiety where that evil voice that used to control me crawled out of its dungeon to whisper threats of failure to me. One day, that would have stopped me cold. Instead, I hauled out my camera and went to find something to shoot.

And it was glorious. And the photography did not suck.

Logistics, Lodging, and Travel

I don’t fly any more (Why? might make a fun blog post some other time). My last trip on a plane was back when I was starting up my final project at Apple. That means if I’m going to go somewhere, I sit down in the Escape and I drive there. That can be limiting in terms of some destinations, but mostly, it means planning and logistics.

In general, if the destination is within two days drive, it’s no big deal. Two days gets me lots of places — I can put in 500 miles a day in decent weather without turning a trip into a death march, and that opens up an area from Vancouver to Salt Lake to the western edge of Texas. Yellowstone is right at the edge of that. My trip out was 1,050 miles, up I80 through Reno, and then east until you wonder if you’re going to fall off the edge of the world (but it’s only the State of Nevada).

The logical stopping point is Elko, the center of the mining activity in Northern Nevada. Much of that mining is centered around Gold; Nevada would be the fifth largest gold producing country and almost all of that flows out of the Elko area. It’s a working town but it’s big enough to have a Starbucks and a good-sized Casino.

For me it’s the end of about 9 hours of driving, and all I want is a room, a meal and to sleep. I found a place that did, of all things, chicago hot dogs and I was headed there for an Italian Beef sandwich, and missed closing by 20 minutes. Instead, I ended up grabbing a sandwich at Port O’ Subs next door.

On the road, I tend to use Best Western hotels; I find they are generally a good value for the location, generally well kept up (there is the occasional exception), and they are not generic cookie cutters like a Holiday Inn Express, most Best Westerns have some personality to them. The Best Western in Elko did not disappoint, a newer facility it was a little more generic than some but it was comfortable, it was quiet, and it had a comfortable bed. That’s pretty much what I’m looking for.

Morning starts early, because I’m only halfway there. When I’m road-tripping, I typically want to get on the road; I’ve got my bag packing to a system where I can go from sleeping to driving in about 45 minutes, and breakfast is typically something grab and go; Starbucks, Jack in the Box, or McDonalds, depending on what’s there.  I’m more interested in mileage than home cooking, assuming I’m awake enough to care.

The trip, once you leave Fernley, is quite empty and desolate. There are areas, like Elko, that if you stop and look have what I call a stark beauty to them — the Elko area, in fact, would make an interesting place to photograph for a day or two, but not this trip. Once past Elko, you keep heading East, and at Wells you turn North, pass through beautiful downtown Jackpot (which mostly looks scary to me), and onward — Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, and on into Montana, and finally West Yellowstone.

Since my rooms were in-park, West Yellowstone was just a drive-by, but it’s your typical tourist-oriented small town on the edge of a National Park; lots of motels, some food places of varying quality, and enough infrastructure to support them and the area around it. Reminds me a lot of Oakhurst near Yosemite.

My room for the first two nights were at Grant Village, in the southern area of the park. Grant Village is a lot like Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, except the Lodge has just finished a refurbishment that in my trip before I started at Cisco, impressed the hell out of me (and I’m the person who used to describe the Lodge as “like staying at a 70’s Travelodge stuck in time”). My room at Grant Village was exactly what I was expecting: small but comfortable, and it had a bed. The staff was sharp and friendly (everyone I ran into on the trip was like that), the location is well-maintained, but ultimately it’s a bit like staying in a dorm room. On the other hand, I’m not there to stay in my room much. Don’t take this as a complaint — but don’t expect the Ahwahnee. Or Wawona. It was a good value, and that’s what I wanted. I do wish I could have gotten into the Lake Lodge, but everyone else in the universe got to it first, and in fact by the time I started looking at reservations, everything in-park was booked solid.

The trick I’ve found if you want to stay INSIDE National Parks is to be flexible. I made my initial reservations out of the park, splitting time between W. Yellowstone, Gardiner and Jackson, but I kept checking back to the reservation sites every so often. When two nights at Grant Village opened up, I grabbed them. A couple of weeks before the trip, the lodges in the Tetons opened up blocks of rooms (it looks like early season rooms aren’t made available until they’re sure the plowing will be done), and so I was able to shift the rest of my days there. I ended up choosing Flagg Ranch over Colter Bay mostly because it was closer to Yellowstone.

Flagg Ranch rocks

The Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch is three miles south of the southern Yellowstone Entrance, on the Rockefeller Parkway in the Tetons. My previous trip in 2008, my time spent in the Tetons totaled about 3 hours, so I knew I wanted to do some more exploring. Flagg Ranch consists of a Lodge building, which includes a restaurant, a gift shop, a convenience store and a couple of gas pumps. there’s an RV park and it has a set of cabins. I ended up in a four-plex cabin (one building, four units) that was huge, right on the parking lot, had a pair of rocking chairs on the veranda, and was incredibly comfy and beautiful. Other cabins there were single-unit but all of them seemed good-sized, and the furnishings were top-notch.

Note that Flagg Ranch is just outside of the Yellowstone park proper, but it’s 30 miles south of the intersection with Grand Loop. One of the realities of Yellowstone is there’s a lot of driving involved. Lots of driving. I drove 1,000 miles to get there. I drove 1,000 miles the week I was in the parks (325 on day one when I covered pretty much the entire park scouting and shooting in a 13 hour session), and 1,000 miles back home. Fortunately, I enjoy driving.

I’ll be honest — I really fell in love with Flagg Ranch. The location is about as well-placed for exploring both parks as any location is; most locations in Yellowstone would be about the same driving time from there as from West Yellowstone, and the room price was the same as I was going to pay for the Best Western’s out of park. I wasn’t sure what I was getting when I books (I booked on location), but I can’t recommend the place highly enough.

The negatives? No cell phone service there, at all. The WIFI was pretty much broken the entire visit (but they were working on it, it wasn’t neglect), and other than the restaurant there, any other food is a fair drive. Fortunately, the restaurant was pretty darn good; I had the Elk and Bison meatloaf the first night, and that convinced me to eat there the rest of the trip, especially given the state of food in Yellowstone.

Food in a National Park

I have found food in a National Park to be a challenge. Most park lodges now have put in higher-end restaurants where the food is good (and expensive) — for instance, I like eating at the Mountain House at Yosemite Lodge — but when you get away from that, it can go downhill fast. The cafeteria at Yosemite Lodge is both expensive and quite forgettable. I found the same to be true at Yellowstone. I had one lunch at Canyon that was literally a generic hamburger bun with the bison ground meat out of a freezer covered by sloppy joe sauce out of a can with potato chips out of a bag. It was perfectly edible, but also exactly the kind of plate that makes you want to make fun of cafeterias. And it’s expensive. I was early enough in the season that most of the grills weren’t open yet, so the options were limited.

My answer is to grab and go out of the stores; perfectly nice (and moderately healthy) turkey sandwiches. Still a bit on the pricey side, but it won’t kill you and it’s convenient. I carry a cooler in the car (and this trip, tried a powered cooler, more on that some other time) and always carry lots of water and liquids, so it’s not hard to pick up stuff on the way out for the day for a couple of meals. It can be a challenge to eat well — as a diabetic, I’m trying to limit total carbs, and food allergies complicate that even more — but it can be done.

So it all worked out. I had some really nice meals at Flagg Ranch, I filled in the rest, mostly with turkey or ham sandwiches, and I ended up not eating in the high end Yellowstone Restaurants and I tried to avoid the institutional spots in the park. The one time I decided to try one, it just reinforced that as the right way to do this.

The staff at Flagg Ranch was awesome. The restaurant team quickly got use to me showing up with a laptop and either editing my shots, or reviewing

For future trips, my goal will be to stay at Flagg Ranch if I can; if not, I’m going to explore further into Tetons at Coulter Bay or Jenny Lake. The only downside to this is the distance to the northern parts of Yellowstone; Lamar Valley was almost a 2 hour drive over Dunraven, and Mammoth is even further — it probably makes sense to do a day or two in West Yellowstone or Gardiner to cover those areas, then relocate to Flagg Ranch for the rest.

Oh, yeah. I’m going back. Don’t know when, but one week barely scratches the surface of that park.

On the Way Out

At the end of the trip, since I was already in the southern part of the parks, I checked out of the room, loaded up the SUV, and headed out through the Tetons and off to Jackson.  I have vague memories of Jackson from an ancient trip through the area decades ago, and remembered it as touristy and not very interesting. I didn’t stop, but the drive through showed me bits of a town that is definitely a tourist-driven town, but which looked rather interesting to me. If I’d had two (or three) weeks on this trip, I would have scheduled some time down there, and just driving through has raised my interest in getting back and visiting it again.

The trip out took me down to Jackson, and then west where I reconnected with my inbound route at Idaho Falls. There’s an area along the 26 in the Swan Valley where you travel along the Snake river were I thought the region was stunningly beautiful; I had no time to stop to shoot, but it’s on my list to visit again some day. It probably needs multiple days to figure out how to shoot well, but it was gorgeous.

I made it back to Elko about 5PM, just in time to grab some food and turn the TV onto the 2nd period of a hockey game, and then collapse into a puddle of goo. Again, the Best Western came through just fine, and in the morning, it was an early start west. I finally reconnected with a Starbucks in Fernley for lunch, and I was home in time (barely) for dinner. Slept well, and off to work on Monday morning.

Logistically, the trip worked almost exactly as planned. The rooms were good values, there were no unpleasant food surprises, and some nice surprises when I tried the restaurant at Flagg Ranch. Things worked; the gear I took worked. The car cooperated. The only unpleasant surprise on the road was hitting an accident where a couple of motorcycles had gone down in Swan Valley and the rest of the group was managing traffic and the injuries while the ambulances arrived.

I did a lot of planning getting ready for this trip, figuring out mileage. I’ve been doing driving trips for a few decades now so I have a good sense of my preferences and limits, and so this one was pretty straightforward. Still, it’s important to do your homework so you end up in a place like Elko (with decent rooms and infrastructure) instead of Winnemucca or Wells (holes in the wall with limited options). Or (shudder) jackpot.

If I’d had more time, it would have been nice to spend some time in Jackson. If I had to do this again, I probably would shift the two nights from Grant Village to Gardiner to better cover the northern half of the park. The amount of driving I might save is fairly small, though, in a trip of this scope.

It’s a lot of mileage, but man, was it worth it…

Shot List and Shot Planning

When I go out on a photo shoot, especially an extended one like the Yellowstone trip, I try to have an idea of what I want to accomplish and what shots I want to try to get. With nature/wildlife the shot list is always more of a wish list because Nature is fickle and you get on the ground and see what she gives you, and if you’re good, you take advantage of it and get some good images.

The shot list for this kind of trip is always thrown out almost immediately, but it is a useful way to focus your research and planning to help you understand where to focus your time, and to know what to expect as well as to try to make sure you get a good diversity of images. No sense going to Yellowstone for a week and coming back with 200 images of elk — and nothing else.

In my case, my planning was fairly simple: I knew I wanted to shoot some landscapes and really put the Fuji XT-1 to the test. I knew I was going to shoot wildlife, depending on how cooperative they were. I decided my goal was to come back from the shoot with material for one (or more) portfolios, although the subject and structure of those I didn’t define.

What I didn’t know going in was how much shooting of thermal features I’d do, partially because I wasn’t sure how well my knees would hold up, and the thermals require more walking. Also, I didn’t know how I’d react to the altitude and how much stamina I’d have at altitude, so I was playing all of that by ear, but I figured I’d be staying closer to the car and not doing a lot of hiking; backcountry work was off the chart this trip. I also decided up front not to shoot a set of “travel” shots, because I didn’t want to put the time into doing a travel portfolio well at this time.

I also decided to simplify my gear; I set up the Fuji with the 18-55 and a Circular Polarizer. I set up my Canon 7D with the 70-200+2.x combo I use as my critter lens. I carried my full field set in case something came up, but my goal was to shoot wide epic landscape and critters first, and explore other stuff if I saw opportunity.

My shot list also was species defined: Moose, Elk, Coyote, Beaver, River Otter, Antelope, Bighorn Sheep. Noticeably missing from that list are bears, because it’s very difficult to get good images of bears without going backcountry and I knew I wasn’t going there, and because bears along the roadways cause mosh pits of chaos and paparazzi that would rival those you see surrounding Lady Gaga, and I had no interest in wading into those. The one I did get caught in (in traffic) was insane, including a family in a rented RV that literally just stopped it mid-road and abandoned it to go get a better look, on a two-lane hilly section with traffic going both ways. Fortunately, some folks there got a bit organized and started single-tracking cars through around it until the rangers arrived, and I do hope they read them a riot act. But for about ten minutes, it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to not be in at a place like Yellowstone.  So no bears.

Also, wolves are tough — but not impossible — without going backcountry, without a lot of patience and luck. As it turned out I never did get close to any, although there is a strong group of regular wolf watchers up in Lamar Valley who are happy to help if they’re around.

Once I got into the area and started scouting, I quickly latched on to the wildlife and decided to leave thermal work to the end if I had time. This were hopping (and jumping and trudging and …) in every corner of the park. Not all of them were cooperative — I saw a pair of River Otters at far distance in the Madison area driving in, and never found them again (or any other pair anywhere else), much less close enough to be photographed. There were elk literally in my hotel parking lot, but it took me some time to find a couple that were in a good photography situation — but once I did, they were everywhere. I never did find beavers, although I got a pointer to some on the last day when I had no time to chase them down.

Bison, of course, were easy to find and photograph. The bigger challenge was doing so safely, and avoiding the people who seem able to forget that things the size of small cars could turn them into a puddle of goo and laugh. All in all, people were rather well-behaved with occasional exceptions. None of the exceptions were darwin-award candidates, but I’m amazed people can be that oblivious to the fact that they’re 10 feet from something huge and grumpy and staring at them. The bigger problem was watching people get so focused on the animal they forget everything around them — people were more at risk from the traffic than the animals most of the time.

Another thing not on my shot list was birds; this wasn’t a birding trip. As I ran into them, I’d photograph, but I didn’t want to distract myself from the other features of the park. The one exception was the Trumpeter Swans, which you’ll notice I have zero photos of in my final shots. As it turns out, they also hid from me — until the day I was literally driving out south out of Grand Tetons where I ran into a flock of over a dozen. With my camera gear put away and ready to travel, with a long drive to Elko in front of me. I ended up not stopping, not wanting to hit Elko at 10PM. And now, I regret that decision. But sometimes, life throws these things at you.

When I arrived, I got to my room, dropped off my stuff, grabbed my gear, and went and rustled a sandwich and headed off to start scouting. I immediately ran into the afternoon thunderstorm, nasty light, rain, dark looming clouds, wind — and over Yellowstone Lake, a rainbow. That afternoon storm pattern would continue through the trip.

The first full day in the park was a major scouting and shooting day. I drove 1,000 miles to get to the park. I ended up putting in 350 miles and a 13 hour day, covering the entire park except for the far pieces of Lamar Valley. It was the only time I got up to Mammoth, and I’d thought about Mammoth for lunch, and left quickly because that was the only place in the park I ever felt like it was crowded with people. I just didn’t want to deal with the crowd.

I did stop and spend a couple of hours at a place between Mammoth and Norris that was on my list. You might recognize it from this shot from my 2008 trip.

I love that shot, but I long ago decided to try it again when I could with modern equipment and my improved skills, because it was shot with a Canon 30d when I thought I was a lot better shooter than I was, and over time, I’ve come to see it for opportunity lost as much as a lovely shot.

And so I did. Much to my amusement, the location even came with bison.

What do you think? I find the spring green colors interesting, but a fascinating side discussion about Yellowstone and even more about the Tetons is how much the fall colors make that place an interesting photography location.

At the end of day 1, I’m exhausted — 13 hours shooting, 1400 miles driven in three days, and I’m eating out of the cooler and grabbing stuff as I think of it. Start going over images, collapse in a heap, sleep the sleep of the dead. Life is good.

I wake up for day 2 feeling like crap. it’s relocation day to Flagg Ranch, so I pack up the car, grab some food and head out. I had a headache, but not a dehydration headache (I worked hard at hydration and mostly stayed ahead of it. I know far too well the fun of dehydration and my tendency to go there and I didn’t want to add that to the trip list. But I was off, and my day 2 results show it. Or lack of them. That first full day of shooting added 64 images to my collection, the 2nd day 5. I called it early, had a really nice dinner and a beer at Flagg Ranch, got back to my room, and called it a night. That evening my body made it clear it wasn’t happy with how hard I was pushing it, so I gave up early and slept it off.

Ten hours later, I woke up feeling much better, but realizing that I needed to push it a bit less and eat on more of a rational schedule. Being a diabetic part of managing that is managing the diet, and I wasn’t eating badly, but I was eating fairly randomly, and I think that was part of what led to the Day 2 problems — that, and I think I ran into some undocumented mustard which triggered my allergies. So I decided it made sense to grab a solid breakfast in the mornings and plan for a real dinner, and that bookended the day and put a bit more structure on it. It didn’t hurt that the restaurant at Flagg Ranch was quite good and rather amused to have me drag the laptop in every morning to review my shoots and edits of the previous day.

That did imply that I was ruling out the crack of dawn patrol, but in talking to other photographers I wasn’t missing that much; the big attraction there is the Tetons and I was told they were either clouded out or absolutely cloud free, and in both cases they are, honestly, rather boring.

The standard weather pattern when I was there was waking up to completely clear skies, blue and boring. As the
morning rolled on, you’d see the clouds build up, and in the afternoon, we had thunderstorms into the evening. If things worked well, they were in the distance and made for some absolutely stunning cloud formations. If you weren’t so lucky, they made for really damp, dark and windy locations that maybe you could drive out from, and maybe not.

So the bookends of the day, the times when some photographers will tell you are the only times you can shoot and get decent images, were beyond crapshoots; I went out after dinner a couple of times for sunset and in both cases didn’t find anything worth shooting. Instead I shot during times when the “common wisdom” will tell you not to shoot and tried to create shots with interesting lighting and clouds. I think in a number of cases it worked, too. Maybe its just me, but I’m rather tired of photos where the only attraction to the image is an abundance of alpenglow, especially when it’s clearly been hit with the “more saturation is better” button. That, probably, is an argument for another day.

Having relocated to the Tetons for my room, Day 3 was my scouting/shooting day in that park. My previous stop in the Tetons in 2008 lasted about three hours and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or how much time to spend. As it turned out, I added another 25 images to the collection that day, a split between critter and landscape.

I spent some time at Oxbow Bend, of course, and spent most of it trying to figure out how to shoot it — and getting sidetracked by a mountain bluebird nest, some yellow warblers, and a raven that really wanted part of my energy bar — and my final feeling, to be honest, is that shooting the Grand Tetons in the spring with the aspens in that glorious green just doesn’t do the location justice. This place screams for fall colors and foliage. I described it to a photographer later as shooting a supermodel wearing no makeup and a bathrobe — still quite pretty, but not what it could be. I tried a number of things, and as the afternoon thunderstorms built I got some nice cloud buildup, but still…

It just wasn’t the shot I wanted. That made me decide to focus more on wildlife and not on trying for that epic Tetons shot. I talked to some other photographers about that later and they mostly agreed. The local told me if there are no clouds to back up the mountains, he doesn’t bother leaving the house. You look at the shot above, and I think you’ll agree completely. That shot, by the way, was taken at 1PM. The time of day doesn’t make or break an image — but it does create challenges and opportunities.

Still, there were some landscape shots I loved finding in the park….

Again, I think, the clouds make or break a shot like this.

The tetons were, like Yellowstone, full of wildlife. Lots of elk, lots of pronghorn antelope wandering around. the pronghorn were either moving in small packs of mostly young males, or in pairs like this.

The one in front is an adult female and incredibly pregnant, close to giving birth; next to here is a young female. I saw a number of pairs like this and wondered about it, but later realized what we have here is mom and last year’s calf still traveling with her as mom is getting ready to give birth to the next one. As the youngster matures she’ll split off on her own, and mom will focus on raising the new calf. For now, they hang together and protect each other.

Next day at breakfast, with two days of shooting left in my trip, I had a decision. My gut was telling me I needed to head to Lamar valley and give it an intensive shoot, probably the entire day. From where I was, Lamar valley was about 2 hours of driving over Dunraven pass, so I was committing to a lot of time just to get to my shooting ground (this was another reason I had little interest in the crack of dawn patrol, because the logistics were beyond painful. so were, honestly, my knees). I tried to convince myself to head out to Madison for the bison and cranes and take another shot there at running into the Tundra Swans. Ultimately I trusted my gut and made the drive.

Oh, baby, was I right. I’d spent some time in the areas of Lamar Valley near the rest of the park, but this was when I finally pushed out deep towards the park exit and back (twice). In the main part of the park, bison were plentiful but bison with calves were keeping them quite distant from the people. Getting shots of the bison and calves were a one of my goals — and Lamar valley delivered.

I found Lamar valley in general stunningly beautiful, and I spent some time experimenting with panoramas

which still doesn’t do it justice. That shot, by the way, was the fuji using it’s built-in panorama taker, hand-held.

And as the day was winding down and I was starting to think about heading back for dinner… A coyote ran by. Literally.

It was followed over the next five minutes by about half a dozen chase cars trying to catch up and get a good look at it. and here I was, parked by the side of the road enjoying the scenery… Then back over the pass, an evening spent editing my shots for the day, a long good sleep, and next morning, breakfast while reviewing and fixing my edits. One of the nice side effects of building a schedule like this was that when I got home, my entire shoot was edited and ready for publication. Another was I could use the evening to review and critique my work of the day and try to plan to try again if I did something that failed and I wanted to reshoot.

I, for the record, hate having a backlog of images to process. I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, but I’ll push hard through my raw images to get things sorted out and at least through a first edit. Having zero internet definitely helped that.

And then it was the final day of the shoot. After a full day in Lamar valley, for the first time I felt like I had good coverage of wildlife. I felt I’d had a successful shoot, and so the pressure was coming off and I relaxed and realized I felt very, very tired. I decided my final day would be low-key and I’d explore and see what I could find, but not push too hard. I ended up down at Old Faithful to do some shopping and grab some grub, then off to the Firehole river area.

Firehole spring, my one and only thermal location shoot of the entire trip. To shoot the thermal areas well at all, when you stop and think about it, would take a week or more on their own, especially if you start planning geyser eruptions into the schedule to be there when the action happens. That would be a trip in itself, which, well, gee, guess what my next trip to Yellowstone will focus on?

All in all, I went, having made some noise about the trip online, hoping not to faceplant myself and return with crap. After a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons, I came back having added 136 shots to my collection (having taken about 2,500 images total), and 39 of those images I felt were portfolio quality. 13 images were, in my rating vernacular, “best of breed” or 5 star images, the ones that end up on my wall or as key images portfolios or writing like this. For me, those are really good numbers. they’ll change a bit over time, because I’ll go back and review everything a couple of times over the next six months, and I can guarantee some images will get downgraded and I’ll probably find a missed gem or two. But overall — that was a very successful trip.

I ticked most of the boxes on the shot list: nursing bison calf, bison dust bath, pronghorn antelopes. I got some nice bonuses like the coyote. I have a lot of nice material for writing and portfolio use, and I’m just starting to figure out what the portfolio will be for these.

And I got to spend some quality time with Mr. Grumpy (note he’s missing part of a horn. That can’t have been fun)

When I went to Yellowstone in 2008, I came back sick (but wouldn’t know for over a year that I was sicker than I knew), and feeling very much like the park had kicked my butt as a photographer. This trip was about proving to myself that I could go to a place like this and come back with images that held up to my standards and expectations, and which I could use to tell the story of the place.

Did I meet my goals? I think so. I’m going to be curious what I hear back from all of you, but I to me, this was finally proving to myself that I can do the kind of photography I expect out of myself. I’m happy with the results.

It was also an opportunity to push myself and find out what’s holding me back and where I need to put the time and energy to push my craft forward. This trip was an amazing learning opportunity on that as well. And that’s under the next rock in this series on the trip…..

What Worked, What Didn’t

Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons is a huge place, and it is many things — beautiful landscapes demanding to be imaged, diverse and large numbers of fascinating wildlife, a large and fascinating bird population, there is the major thermal activity and features,  and attached to all that they are significant tourist destinations. Each one of those would be a significant time and resource commitment to photograph well and you start to realize it could take a month to cover all of it in a single trip without feeling like you barely scratched the surface.

All of that is ignoring seasons, because Yellowstone and the Tetons are a massively different place in the spring than in the fall, and in the winter they transform once again. All of which is a way of trying to frame just how difficult something that sounds simple like “I’m going to Yellowstone for a week and I will do it justice with my camera” can turn into a trap. If you aren’t careful, you can set an expectation you can’t meet, or you can try to do too many things and end up doing none of them well, or spend too much time thrashing around that you don’t have enough time left for the photography. And since this is nature and not Disney, there’s always the risk you’ll show up to a week of rain or sleet and photographing the inside of your hotel room.

You can minimize some of these risks with good research and planning, you can make decisions on what to focus on and what to defer, and if you do that well and nature and the weather cooperates a bit, you can come back with good images.

This is a bit of a post-mortem on the trip, some thoughts on what worked, what didn’t, what I could have done differently or avoided to make the trip more successful. Overall, there are few complaints. It took me about two years from “I should do this” to actually taking the trip, and I spent some amount of that delay planning and researching, making choices and considering options, and overall, I’m happy with the logistics and end results.

But it’s never perfect. So how could  have improved this trip?

There’s never enough time.

If I could change anything about the trip, it’d be trip length. As tired as I was at the end, extending the trip would have given me the opportunity to start exploring the thermal features more, and that would have given me a more diverse set of photos to work with that showed off more of the park instead of a focus on the wildlife. With 1000 driving miles between me and the park, it’s not a weekend trip like Yosemite can be and there’s a considerable investment in time and money just getting there. Adding a second week, or even 3-4 days, would have been nice. On the flip side, that is more days away from home, paying for a hotel room and food, and in general in that isolated bubble of an intensive shoot. At the end, as I was driving back to Elko, I was more than ready to be home and take a break. That said, I’m now thinking how much fun it’d be to plan out a thermal trip and go back and fill out the dance card — but I know it’s going to be some time before I go back. And this isn’t even getting going on the winter trip, which I won’t consider until I get a chunk of weight off.

You start to see why a place like Yellowstone or Yosemite can become a lifelong exploration or obsession, and you still never really master it. That’s part of the challenge and the joy of those places.

Weight and Conditioning

By far the biggest limitation I placed on myself is my weight and conditioning. This is not a surprise to me, and one side goal of the trip was to get a sense just how limiting it was to me. Add in the knees, and the answer is — a lot, but I actually did about what I’d expected out of myself. But at altitude, I got winded easily and I was worried about my stamina so I shifted more towards staying with the car and away from doing much hiking. At some point I’m going to have to get both knees replaced, but both myself and my orthopedic surgeon want to delay that as long as feasible. For now the cortisone shots are helping and the time between shots is fairly steady around four months. And the weight is… well, that’s an entire discussion for some other time. But I’ve felt for a while that the biggest thing holding back my photography is not gear, or expertise, or time, or opportunity, but my own physical limitations, and I think this trip proved that out.

That said, every time I want to feel bad about the state of my knees (which, since I’m due for shots in the next week or two is about at its least fun) I run into folks who remind me that limitations are as much about your state of mind as about your physical situation. At Yellowstone I walked out of my hotel room and almost ran into a woman in the lobby — about 65-70, with crutch supports on both arms, heading out for her day hike. And I’ve gotten to know a couple of really good photographers who are paraplegic and shoot from their chairs, and can kick my photographic butt most days easily. So yeah, it’s more about recognizing where the limits are and working to push them further back, not about giving in to them and whining about it. But this trip proved it pretty clearly to me, though: the biggest thing holding me back now is the physical limitations, and I need to keep grinding away at those and doing what I can. (and that is, in itself a long, complicated topic for some other time, which I mostly don’t talk about because neither I nor you much care about hearing me whine about it…)

Are you going to do….

When getting ready for the trip and talking to people about options and opportunities, a lot of things came up. I was asked a number of times if I was going to shoot

  • video
  • timelapses
  • fly a drone
  • night photography
  • dawn patrol for the alpen glow
  • dude! you gotta shoot in the golden hour
  • the golden hour is passe, it’s the blue hour!

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Photography is a very diverse set of skills and crafts, and a lot of really good photographers are off doing a lot of really interesting stuff in many of these technically challenging (and time consuming) disciplines. Some of them are fascinating and I think add an interesting flavor to your photography when done well. Others are, I think, fads that are popular right now but I see them more as fads that will end up more of a niche discipline within photography (timelapses and night photography are two of them). And they take ever more complicated gear setups, and in many cases, require huge time commits both for creation and for processing.

When time if your biggest budget limitation, you have to decide how best to budget that time. Think about night photography — that one epic night shot might be hugely popular on 500px, but what does it imply about all of the other photography you’re not doing while making that image happen? Because if you’re up all night shooting, you’re not shooting when you’re asleep other times.

Ditto timelapsing. Not only the fact that the gear to do it well is expensive and bulky, but if you ask me, 90% of timelapses I see are b-roll material and don’t really hold up well as the star of the show. Is it a good use of time to spend four or five hours creating 120 seconds of video that’s ultimately a spear carrier for the rest of your work?

Every photographer has to decide which tools belong in their toolbox and can be used to to tell the stories they tell. I’ve seen people get on a lot of these bandwagons — many folks currently playing with their Phantom drones were doing night photography a year ago and timelapses two years ago, and may still be doing them. Or maybe off to the new toy and fad. I’ve seen the articles telling photographers to integrate video into their businesses, too. As I was starting the process of shifting from taking photos to trying to use photography to tell stories, I studied and experimented with a lot of this as well.

And I ended up circling back to the still image. That’s what speaks to me, that’s what I want the focus of my craft to be. I found the process of trying to integrate other things like video into my work flow disruptive to the core thing I was there to do. I found the cost of things like timelapsing rigs prohibitive for the value to me.

But more than that, the one resource that’s most precious to me is time. With a job and a family, photography doesn’t always (often) take priority over other commitments, and so my time with a camera is both limited and precious. For a trip like Yellowstone, where I get a full week with just me and the camera (thanks, Laurie!) I want to take full advantage of it, but also use that resource efficiently.

So many of the things people think I should add to the list for a trip like this suck up time, either directly (like timelapsing) or indirectly (night photography means sleeping during otherwise profitable shooting daylight hours). I really needed another week in Yellowstone to start to cover what I wanted to cover, not just the wildlife — how much worse would that have been if I’d shoved time into these other disciplines? Would it have been worth it?

Not to me. Your mileage may vary. They’re all useful tools for the toolbox, but for specific tasks or projects. And for what I wanted to accomplish, they didn’t fit into the time profile of the trip. Maybe some other time. Or maybe not.

The ubiquitous tripod

As I was leaving the Tetons for the drive home, I realized a fascinating fact.

I never once cracked the trunk and hauled out the tripod. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but I was fascinated that a trip of this length with this subject matter I went a week without hauling it out. My first reaction was to think I’d screwed up somewhere along the way, because who can shoot landscapes for a week without one?

The fact is, though, that with the increasing ability of modern cameras to go to higher ISOs without noise, combined with ever improving in-camera stabilization (IS in Canon terms, OIS in Fuji terminology), camera stability is increasingly a solved problem. You simply can handhold many more shots than you could even three or four years ago. I never found myself in a situation where I needed my ND filters — I wasn’t shooting running water, I wasn’t shooting waterfalls or other features that needed smoothing) and barring that or the wish to lock out a shot to repeat it over time, there just wasn’t much need for a tripod.

I find this a fascinating thought, and one I’ll circle back to some other time. But the tripod seems to be becoming more of a niche player and a task specific item and not an assumed, general-use tool for the landscape photographer. (and I expect this statement ought to start a fun discussion from everyone disagreeing with me…).

I did use a polarizer on the Fuji, in fact, it was on the camera 100% of the time. but with Fuji’s higher ISO capabilities, I never once welt I needed to put it on a tripod to get a shot, and I like the ability to hold the camera and try different compositions. And since I never tried for pre-dawn or post-sunset long exposure shooting, the tripod never needed to come into play.

That said, don’t expect me to stop carrying one any time soon… Like an ND filter, when you need it, there’s no way to do it in post…

 Learning limits and paying the piper

Most things I did worked well. One area I learned the hard way was understanding my limits and how hard I could push myself. Day 3 was a bit of a washout because I had pushed so hard to get there and pushed myself hard enough that my body pushed back. Unfortunately, you don’t always know where the “that’s far enough” line is until you cross it. It’s important to listen to your body and know when to back off and I think I did that fairly well.  I could have pushed on and kept pushing the limits hard, but I might well have just paid for it in lost time later, or more serious problems.

That said, it did give me some ideas of how to schedule future trips as well as better understanding what I need to do to change those limits to my advantage.

Setting plans in place

The last piece in my series on this trip is going to talk about some of the lessons learned. Part of this trip was about taking photos. Part was about figuring out what I’m good at and doing it. Finally, part of it was about learning limits and figuring out what I’m not so good at in the craft of photography, so I can put plans in place and put the time and effort into improving myself in those areas.

And yes, I found lots of things I can do better, and work I have to do. As do we all, no matter how much time we’ve put in, how many images we’ve made, there are still new skills to lean, new techniques to master, and new ideas to consider.

And that’s all part of the process.

Lessons Learned and Future Plans

The only question left to ask is a simple one…

Now what?

A question fraught with possibility and risk.

I made some specific choices for the trip — shooting landscape wide at 18-55. Shooting wildlife with the 150-400 rig.

In practice, though, I used narrower ranges than that; my best wide shots were in the 25-45mm range on the Fuji (about 40mm-75mm in 43mm equivalent). I did end up with some really nice images going wider down to 18mm (25mm equiv) but also fought the lens at that range. I had to really think through the compositions, where in my comfort zone the compositions were fairly easy.

On the critter rig, I know the gear well enough that it’s pretty straight-forward. Few surprises, pleasant or negative. A positive side effect of working with the gear long enough to know what to expect and how to make it happen. Wide angle isn’t nearly that automatic.

Notably missing out of this is the mid range — from about 70mm to 150mm in 35mm equivalents. Some of that was by choice, because I wanted to stick to some specific lens setups and really work them rather than get sidetracked into playing with the gear and changing lenses out. Part of that is that when I did shift gears and work towards the mid range, it wasn’t very good. My thinking was wired one way, and if I rambled out of those comfort zones, the results were at best inconsistent.

That’s a weakness in my landscape work that I’ve known about and I need to work on; in the middle of an important trip isn’t the best time to experiment on gear, unless you’re willing to risk the trip on the experiments. I chose not to. But this is a hole in my shooting I need to fix.

The answer — I need to lock on my mid-range lens (on the fuji, a 55-200) and go out and shoot. I have a deadline for this, too, since we’re going to the eastern sierra in October for fall foliage, and this gap needs to be closed for that.

So, I have a homework assignment. I need to start shooting with the 55-200, and I need to do it by leaving the rest of the gear at home so I’m not tempted to go lazy and wander back into my comfort zones. I’ll be starting that soon, and you may or may not see the results, depending on how badly they suck while I learn to see in these ranges.

Do I need gear?

One thing to evaluate after a trip like this is your gear. Did you have the right gear? Did it work reliably? Did you carry extra crap you don’t really need? Or gear that couldn’t get the job done? Is it the right mix?

In my case, my gear bag has gone through about three rounds of “I haven’t touched this in months, it’s off to retirement” so I’ve gotten to a fairly lean, simple gear set. I think this is an aspect of maturation as a photographer. I was carrying stuff in case I needed it. In fact, I was often carrying stuff because I hoped if I got into a situation a piece of gear would solve the problem for me, not because I had any real plan how that piece of gear would solve my problems. As I’ve gotten more confident about myself I found myself realizing more and more I had stuff I didn’t need and wouldn’t use, and pulled it out of the kit.

I did have two serious questions leading up to the Yellowstone trip: should I gear up on the critter side and rent something big (500mm or 600mm) or would 400mm suffice? In practice, I can’t think of a single shot the bigger lens would have gotten the 400mm couldn’t handle for me. At some point heat shimmer beats out lens magnification, anyway, but I go back to the idea that a good higher megapixel sensor that allows some cropping is a much better value than a bigger lens that’s brutally expensive and heavy and of limited utility. So in reality, I didn’t miss not having the super-big-glass at all.

The other lens I considered renting was ultra wide and/or fisheye — something like an XF 10-24mm, or a 12mm fisheye. I ultimately decided the trip wasn’t for experimenting and left it unrented. right decision, but this is another area I need to work with and figure out, so it’s on my homework list as well.

Another question was whether to rent or borrow backup bodies, just in case. I ended up not, my gear worked fine. In an emergency, I could have probably had something overnighted in, in practice, I trusted my gear would work and I knew my shooting plans were low-risk in terms of gear damage. But it never hurts to have some redundancy. In my case, I had no need.

The bottom line for me is that my gear bag is good. At some point I’ll look for a replacement for the 7D; if I were to buy it today it’d be the 70D. the mirrorless line isn’t ready to replace my Canon gear for critter work, but I expect in a couple of years that’ll change. Lenses? My current setup works fine. If I were to make an addition, it’d be the Fuji 10-24mm, but there’s no strong need for it right now.

 Presentation, publishing and sales

A goal I set this year was to start getting serious about that shift from creating images to presentation and sales. I wanted to start doing quarterly portfolio displays, although the shift to Cisco put a wrench in that for a bit. The Yellowstone trip is a big focus of that and I’m working on ideas now; it’s all new to me and so I’m working on figuring out what I want to do. I’ve also started looking at making prints a bigger presence, although I have no intention of trying to “go pro”, but a bit of revenue wouldn’t hurt. I’m also working on some other concepts — ebooks, making the before/after series into a video series as well as text, and a few other things that may or may not be projects at some point. I definitely have plenty to do, once I sort out the pieces to do next.

I’m also thinking through some rebranding online to go with some of these things — time to update the watermarks and some of the looks in minor ways.

Overall, I feel like I’m in a good place and I know how to move forward and take the next steps. Just about execution and tending to details.

And pulling out that 55-200 and using it until I’m comfortable with it. That’s going to be an interesting thing for a bit.

But definitely worth it…