Yellowstone’s Winter Wonder

Professional tips on how to photograph the magic of winter wildlife in an iconic national park

  • Text and photographs by Cindy Goeddel
  • PhotoZone
  • Nov 30, 2017

Sun, shadow and gleaming snow lend magic to the graceful leap of a red fox hunting mice under snow in Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley. Elsewhere in the valley, a bison cow (below) plows a path through deep powder, easing the way for her herd.

WINTER IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK is, to put it mildly, extreme—for both wildlife and photographers. But by learning a few survival skills, each can reach their goal, whether it’s capturing prey or a memorable image.

Bison cow plows a path in deep snowFor most wild inhabitants of Yellowstone, surviving the long, harsh winter is a tale of endurance and adaptation. Elk, bison and other herbivores can become weak from the punishing snow, bitter temperatures and scarce food, granting wolves and other predators an advantage.

Like wolves, I thrive on winter in the park and the opportunities it gives as human presence thins and snow yields an uncluttered and mystical backdrop for stunning wildlife images. I’ve been privileged to witness foxes chase their shadows, bison carve paths through shoulder-high snow, bobcats swim icy rivers, otters frolic like children in snow slides, coyotes stalk their prey and wolves howl in the pale light of sunrise. Such encounters are the moments wildlife photographers live for.

As a permitted Yellowstone photography instructor and guide, I love to share my passion for winter wildlife photography with others. But before heading out with a new group, I share the following tips on how to make powerful wildlife images in the most frigid winter conditions.

Ethics. In Yellowstone, you must stay at least 25 yards away from wildlife—and 100 yards from wolves and bears. This is especially important in winter, as it’s vital not to disturb an animal when its reserves are at their lowest. Study your subjects ahead of time to learn their signs of stress. In bison, for example, these signs include licking their noses or raising their tails. Stressed birds may issue alarm calls. If you see any animal stop feeding or change its behavior in any way because of your presence, you are too close. Move back slowly and quietly, then wait for the animal to settle. If it doesn’t settle, leave. No photograph is worth jeopardizing the well-being of wildlife.

Travel. Winter travel in Yellowstone can be more than challenging. The only road that stays open to regular travel in winter is between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance. Fortunately, that road goes to the famous Lamar Valley, a great spot for photographing winter wildlife. For other locations, however, you’ll need to travel via guided snowmobile or snowcoach. I recommend going with guides that use chartered snowcoaches, as these allow time for instruction during travel, provide room for gear and offer a place to warm up between shoots. Yellowstone wildlife seem relatively habituated to snow vehicles, and you can use the vehicle as a blind while you set up your tripod and camera.

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Alpha Male Wolf after feeding on elk, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

In the Lamar Valley, an alpha male wolf—his face bloody after feeding on an elk—howls to draw the rest of the pack to the meal. With its eyes on a winter prize, a bobcat (below) crouches patiently on the icy banks of Yellowstone’s Madison River waiting to pounce on a passing duck.

Best viewing spots. In the Lamar Valley, you’ll find many of Yellowstone’s most iconic species, including wolves, elk, moose, bison and bighorn sheep. For pronghorn, head to the Gardiner Basin. Eagles, trumpeter swans and ducks frequent both the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. Bobcats and coyotes often hunt along the Madison River, and you’ll likely find otters, beavers and foxes along the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. Hayden is also a prime spot to photograph bison in deep snow.

Locating animals. Winter tracks tell tales. Learn to identify the snow tracks of species you wish to photograph, then follow the tracks with a scope or binoculars. In 2016, I was lucky enough to spot fresh otter slides in Hayden Valley. There, my group was able to document three otters that romped though nearly 5 miles of fresh powder, fishing along the way and eventually sliding down the steep bank of Upper Yellowstone Falls.

Bobcat crouches patiently on icy bank of Yellowstone's Madison RiverCamera and lenses. Moving gear from extreme cold into a warm vehicle causes condensation. To prevent this, keep lenses and camera bodies in plastic bags in the vehicle, remove the bags to shoot, then replace them immediately before re-entering so moisture does not form on your lens or inside your camera. If dust or snow gets on your lens, don’t blow: Your breath will make a messy frozen layer.

Batteries. Cold reduces battery life, so always have spare batteries and extra memory cards. Carry them in an interior pocket so they stay warm.

Tripod. Leave a bit of slack in the legs of your tripod before pushing it into snow so the force of the snow doesn’t overextend the legs. And leave an inch or so of each leg exposed to give you something to grab if ice freezes around them.

Metering. Your camera’s metering system assumes everything should reflect 18 percent of the light (middle gray). Snow reflects much more light, so when you are photographing a white background, your camera will try to meter it as if it is gray, not white. The result is an underexposed image that renders pristine white snow as dirty gray. Compensate by adding additional stops of exposure.

Composition. Select a background that will best showcase your subject, such as untracked snow or a steaming creek. Then wait patiently for the animal to enter your frame—and for the magic to begin.

Photographer Cindy Goeddel is based in Big Timber, Montana.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Keeping the Wild in Wildlife Photography »
Natures Witnesses »
Seven Wildlife Photo Tips to Never Forget »
Living Legacy »
Learn About National Wildlife's Photo Contest »

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