One of the most undervalued aspects of creative nature photography is connecting with your subject. Yes, most of us enjoy being out in nature, but how often do we really slow down to connect with our surroundings? In today's high-paced society, we rarely have time to slow down and smell the flowers. This is especially true for Americans; most only have 1-2 weeks of vacation per year. With such a limited amount of time, most of us want to hit as many locations as possible in that window; why would we spend days exploring one location repeatedly?
Learning to Love Yellowstone
I've been there, done that. I recall my first trip to Yellowstone National Park; it was a pit stop on the way to the Pacific Northwest. I literally spent a few hours in the park before heading to my next destination in the Palouse. I had not seen many grand landscapes from Yellowstone at this time, and that's all I was interested in back then. I already had low expectations for the park. This trip only reinforced the idea that Yellowstone was a place for wildlife photographers, not landscape photographers. I hit a couple spots and didn't see anything inspiring on my drive through the park.
Fast forward a few years. I returned to Yellowstone and was more experienced, but my attitude towards spending time at a location and getting to know it intimately had not changed. I visited some icons and got tired of the long drives and hoards of tourists. I tried to fit Yellowstone into the grand landscape, wide-angle, foreground/midground/background template and failed miserably. I didn't want to go back to Yellowstone!
Fast forward again to 2017. My vision was beginning to change; I was more focused on the intimate landscape and had mostly retired my wide-angle lens. I had also begun traveling full-time with my life partner Jennifer Renwick, and she was/is obsessed with Yellowstone. Naturally, as we began our travel plans for the year she wanted to visit Yellowstone for an extended period, I cringed. I was uninspired by Yellowstone, and it created so much failure and disappointment; why in the world would I want to go back there? I reluctantly agreed to go, but my attitude was terrible. I didn't want to be there, and I was a total curmudgeon. Somehow I was still focused on the grand landscape and had expectations of what Yellowstone should be. I, of course, came away with no images of note.
The following year Jennifer once again insisted we return to Yellowstone. At first, I was unpleased again, and I decided to shift my focus, slow down, and start noticing the small details while ignoring the tourists simultaneously. It was no easy task for me, but day after day, I started seeing the landscape around me with new eyes. We went out early in the morning to avoid the crowds, which created a better environment for my creativity. I have a tough time being creative when surrounded by tourists. With these subtle changes in planning and mindset, I began to view Yellowstone differently.
The following year we spent several weeks in Yellowstone, and I started to get more comfortable with the layout of the enormous park and all it has to offer. Yellowstone can be challenging to photograph due to the size and the different types of landscapes; it is a vast, overwhelming park. Over time I began to learn her nuances, and I now know what time of day works best for specific locations and where to go with certain types of weather.
By spending so much time in Yellowstone, I began to appreciate it. I know this sounds crazy to most people who find it fascinating. For some reason, it didn't connect with me. I was hyper-focused on getting 'the shot' rather than enjoying the place and the experience of being there. I started to learn more about the thermal features and history of Yellowstone. I learned how the color in the thermal features is created by different types of bacteria based on the temperature of the water. It gave me a greater appreciation of what I was photographing; rather than being some pretty colors, it was another fascinating world.
Jennifer and I studied the eruption schedules of the geysers. We learned cues of when they will erupt, which takes great patience and time to ponder the incredible landscape in front of you, and the magma chamber just below you. We have since become very amateur geyser gazers, befriended a few other gazers, and submitted reports on geysertimes.org.
I am forever grateful that Jennifer dragged me kicking and screaming to Yellowstone and got me out of my comfort zone. I can now appreciate Yellowstone and actually enjoy my time there. However, the tourists and bison jams still drive me crazy!
I have created a portfolio of images that I am exceptionally proud of. There are not many grand landscapes in my portfolio of Yellowstone, and I think that says a lot about this incredible place. It requires extended exploration, slowing down, and paying attention to details. It's not a place that will reward you without effort; it takes a lot of hard work and time to fully appreciate.
This philosophy of getting to know a location intimately does not just apply to Yellowstone. It can apply to the park in your neighborhood or your backyard. We tend to ignore the details and take for granted the beauty in the small details that surround us if only we take the time to listen to what it has to say.