Yellowstone in Winter 2014 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Feb 11, 2014

I just returned after leading two winter tours in Yellowstone National Park.  Even after more than 30 years of photographing in Yellowstone, the park still moves me both emotionally and photographically.  Each season has its own unique photographic opportunities, but Yellowstone in the wintertime is particularly special.  First, there is just a fraction of visitation numbers compared with the summer season—most of the 3 million visitors annually tour the park from June through September.  Second, winter transforms the Yellowstone Plateau into a glittering white desert of beautifully-sculpted snow dotted with over 10,000 thermal features.  As fire and ice conflict, the combination turns the landscape into a visual display of atmospherics.  In the eye of the photographer, it’s simply magic.

For photographers, Yellowstone in the winter offers something for everyone, from the magnificent landscapes to animals large and small, along with opportunities for the macro enthusiast.  I consider a large portion of the photography to be either landscapes by themselves or what I describe as “animal landscapes,” which are not the head shots we often see but images of animals in their environment, interacting with other animals or perhaps contrasted against the many thermal features of the park.

On both trips, we had an ongoing joke.  Each day before setting out folks would ask me which lens to bring and my response was always the same—from 8mm to 800mm!  They always looked rather puzzled and I would reply with the same explanation:  If you have it, bring it, because it serves no purpose sitting at home or in your motel room.  We have the option of leaving equipment in one of the two private snowcoaches we take throughout the park, so better to have it and use it as opposed to needing it and not having it available.

Our trips are considered “tours” because the photographer/leader takes clients to key locations at key times, but I always prefer to add an element of teaching whenever possible.  On these two trips my groups were very receptive so quite a bit of time was dedicated to providing tips for techniques, composition and gear.  One of the more popular suggestions was using a function called Auto ISO which I have found to be invaluable when on the move.  On a Nikon, for example, one can go into the Menu and set the lowest to highest ISO range and set a shutter speed that remains constant regardless of changing light conditions.  After setting these functions, the only variable is the ISO, which goes up and down depending on the intensity of the light.  Shutter speed and aperture remain as set.  Daily, as we traveled in our snowcoaches, I reminded everyone to have their long lenses at the ready and place their cameras on Auto ISO.  This technique came in handy when a coyote, fox or wolf suddenly appeared.  With limited shooting time, fiddling with settings = missed opportunities!  My personal camera was set to 1/500th second and, no matter what the light or f/stop setting, the only thing that changed was the ISO.   This made for more time for shooting and less time lost playing with the buttons—especially when time was critical.

Another popular subject was adjusting exposures for different brightness levels.  On overcast days we overexposed images up to +1-2/3 stops to bring out the details in a snow scene and on bright sunny days that might amount to a normal or +1/3 adjustment on the exposure.  One absolute method is taking an exposure and evaluating it on the histogram.  By the end of each trip, everyone had a thorough understanding of reading histograms and making adjustments where necessary to obtain more compelling images.  That was just the tip of the iceberg of some of the many points we covered on the tour.

On the long drive back to my home in Wyoming I really had to think about what a lucky person I am to lead photographic adventures to the most desirable places on the planet and bring home the memories and visions through the eye of my camera.   Perhaps some images may be published and another may get national attention, but that is not what is important or the real prize.  What is of more value to me as a person is the fact that I get to share the experience with people who share the same passions—photography and adventure.  That is the thread that ties us all together and the common denominator in adventure travel photography.  On tours, after a few days of being together, everyone becomes a friend as we all share stories about life, families, jobs, travel, photography, skills, hobbies, service to our country, etc.  After a short time we are no longer strangers who have come together by circumstance but a cohesive group of individuals brought together by one main common interest—photography.  These shared experiences are, in my opinion. the most rewarding part about being a tour leader and educator.  I am richer for them.

I could ramble on about winter trips to Yellowstone, but since most of us are visually-oriented just check out some of my visions and the imagery that I shared with my recent tour groups.  If you are interested in joining one of the 2015 Yellowstone in Winter groups—or another trip I may be leading—you can get the most up-to-date information at  I hope to see some new and old friends and share some more adventure photography.  Adios!