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Stars Below Zero

Asking for advice can save the scene and your toes.

February 4, 2016 Landscapes

Chances are when someone mentions our national parks, the place that comes to mind is Yellowstone. It's the first and most iconic park in the parks system. From its signature geysers to its abundant wildlife to its landmark lodges, it is what President Teddy Roosevelt called "something absolutely unique in the world... a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors."*

I've been to Yellowstone National Park many times, but this is my first winter trip to the park. I've joined George Theodore of the American Nature Photography Workshops since his regular co-leader Tom Bol has family plans. George and I have been friends since we crossed paths at a workshop in the mid-90s. And I've known Tom about that long, too, so I was glad to step in and share the trail with George again.

Stars over Old Faithful
A Starry Sky Over Old Faithful

Every cold, sunny day in the park is magical. A foot of fresh snow on top of the deep snowpack, clear-blue skies, calm winds and temperatures that climb to 15 degrees F during the day and dip to -15 degrees F at night make it a deep-freeze dream. Each day we set off for first light on the landscape, cruise the park roads in search of wildlife and winter scenery in the comfort of a new snow coach, eat boxed lunches on the road, and return to the Snow Lodge near the Old Faithful geyser for last light and dinner.

Tonight at dinner, a handful of us decide to photograph Old Faithful when it's predicted to erupt at about 10:00 pm. I bundle up in every layer I can manage from topknot to toes. We walk out of the lodge, into the night toward the geyser basin. Once we're there, the cold reminds us to keep bundled up. Regardless of my many high-tech layers, cold is cold when you're not moving around much. It's clear, calm and 10 below zero.

George has done this before, so we take his advice on camera settings and exposure choices. He tells us what to expect when he illuminates Old Faithful's steam spout with a giant flashlight. When the geyser starts fuming, we start clicking. The eruption lasts about a minute and a half with another minute of a dense vapor cloud before and after. When it's done, we all take a deep breath and chatter about it as our teeth chatter, too. It was worth every cold second.

The other photographers pack up and hike back to the lodge. I hear their voices trailing off as they walk into the dark. I'll stay a bit longer to take in the night sky and the quiet. The stars go on forever here. The longer I look, the more my eyes adjust to the darkness above me and the more stars I see.

Over my shoulder, the Milky Way glows. I turn to look at it and I laugh because I realize I squinted a bit at its brightness. This is the sky of shepherds and sailors of old. I look for the constellations I know, but with so many stars, it's hard to find them. At home, the background stars are too dim to disguise the familiar configurations. Here, all the stars stand out.

As I stare straight up, I sense my smaller and smaller place among the stars. I feel how I'm spinning with them. My warm breath drifts up into the night like the vapor of a slumbering geyser. With cold air filling my lungs and my head tipped back, I teeter on my heels. The starry sky has intoxicated me.

I snap out of my dizziness when a coyote barks a half mile away. It's answered by another one that howls from somewhere behind me. The two call to each other a few more times as they travel through the starlit landscape. I imagine their dark forms slipping along paths only they know among the tall trees.

For the first time on the trip, my toes are cold. Felt-pack winter boots, wool socks and polypro sock liners can fend it off for just so long. It's time to move around, get my blood flowing and make some photographs. But even after I warm up in the lodge later tonight or when I'm standing in a prairie next summer, this night will be frozen in my memory of a paradise below zero.

*from President T. Roosevelt's speech at the laying of the cornerstone of Yellowstone's gateway at Gardiner, MT, April 24, 1903.

See more Yellowstone in Winter photographs in my LANDSCAPES gallery.

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Stars and Night Skies)

SUBJECT: Starry sky at Old Faithful geyser basin, Yellowstone Natl Park, Wyoming

CONDITIONS: Very cold, -10 degrees F, clear, calm

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D4S, 24-120mm f/4 at 24mm, tripod, ball head, cable release, a watch for counting down the manual exposure, lots of warm clothing

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 30 sec at f/4, ISO 3200; Manual mode, Matrix meter, Manual focus

TECHNIQUE: Last fall when George Theodore asked me to lead a winter trip with him to Yellowstone, I started packing. Maybe not that fast, but I took an inventory of my cold-weather wardrobe from hats and gloves down to my winter boots. I needed warm, weatherproof clothing for this adventure.

I laid out the winter wear I knew served me well on my own outings close to home and on tours to more-northerly locations. A check of the park's website for possible weather conditions at Yellowstone reminded me of a January tour to Banff and Jasper a few years back. The coldest nights there hovered around -30 degrees F. Yellowstone could get that cold, but I hoped not this year.

I asked George and Tom Bol -- the American Nature Photography Workshops leaders -- for their lists of preferred clothing for the trip. It looked like I was on the same wave length with them. Except for a new pair of snow pants and a few more wool socks, I was set.

Next I gathered the most practical gear for photographing wildlife and scenery, and I kept it to one carry-on-sized backpack. George and Tom also gave me their lists of the lenses they'd used most for their ten years of winter trips to Yellowstone. They told me what worked best on which subjects. And George said he'd loan me the 24-120mm zoom he was planning to sell and I was lusting after. It was a lens he had relied on the last few times in the park. Their tips confirmed my selections. Now I would travel light and smart knowing I could cover the most-likely scenes and subjects from wide angle to telephoto perspectives.

Asking for advice from trip leaders or friends who've been where you're going is a wise practice whenever and to wherever you're planning a photo trip. If you're well prepared with clothing and equipment and when you know what kinds of subjects and scenes to expect, you can focus on making good photographs, not worrying about if you brought the right stuff.

Once you're on location, it's just as smart to ask advice about each situation. A good leader will offer it without you asking. The advice saves your time for creativity rather than fumbling through your bag for the proper focal length. This isn't to say that you should make compositions with just the lenses your leaders suggest. But their knowledge is one of the reasons you've joined them and their advice comes from their own experiences at the location.

So after dinner when it was a good night to photograph an eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, George gave us his best suggestions for making a successful image of it. He told us what to expect once we got to geyser, how he'd shine a powerful flashlight on it. And he recommended the focal lengths and camera settings to use. Like I said, a good leader will do this without you asking.

The eruption would last only a few minutes. Once we were out there in the cold and dark, we wouldn't want to miss it because we're trying to figure out the settings for ourselves. George's experience was our fail safe.

We met in the lobby and walked to the boardwalk around the geyser. We came out early just to be sure. Since Old Faithful's eruption is an act of nature, it could happen 15 or 20 minutes earlier or later than the predicted hour. And since it goes off about every 90 minutes, if we missed it because we were late, it was unlikely we'd stay up for the next one.

We set up our tripods, then roughly framed and focused on the geyser by using its small steam plume as a reference point when George shined his light on it. We had already placed our cameras to the settings listed above. With our fingers on the cable releases and me with an eye on my watch, I would call out the 30-second increments for our open shutters. Since not all camera shutters in our group could automatically stay open for a half-minute, we all chose to go Manual with a Bulb setting and open them at the same time. This way George could light up the geyser's spout for all of us at once.

We waited until the geyser came to life. When the super-heated water shot up, we clicked as many exposures as we could in the event's short life. In the cold and dark, we wouldn't know how good the photographs were. And there were no do-overs tonight, if they didn't work out. We did make many good images that we shared the next day. Each long exposure was different as the geyser's plume curled and drifted in the calm air. Most of us were happy with the maybe once-in-a-lifetime photos.

After Old Faithful went quiet, I stayed to photograph the night sky full of stars above dimly-lighted Lodgepole pines. I used the same settings George suggested for Old Faithful's show. It was simple point-and-shoot photography from there. I framed the trees by taking advantage of the subtle light from distant buildings. If it had been pitch dark, my composition would have required a flashlight to check the framing. Otherwise it would have been a guess about what was in or out of the frame until I clicked the shutter and checked the camera back.

A successful photograph tells its story without explanation. No matter how cold the air was, how much I was entranced by the Milky Way, how moved I was by howling coyotes or how the quiet filled my soul, a photo couldn't convey it. All of that stuff is for our memories, but not our galleries. The photograph's story has to stand on its own.

So I carefully framed, focused and photographed several compositions along the boardwalk and trails around Old Faithful. In some of the images I made, you can see the resting geyser's small plume rising above trees. My favorite photo didn't include the geyser. The real stars of the scene were the sentinel pines and the sparkling heavens above them.

P.S. I bought the Nikon 24-120mm lens from George. He brought it for me to try. After the first photograph I framed with it, I had to have it -- just as he knew I would. Again, I benefited from his advice -- and so did he.

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