2023 Winter Photography Workshop Trip Report
Rob Harwood – Workshop Instructor
Day 1 Winter storms, howling wind, beautiful light, and snowy bison….this year’s multi-day winter photo workshop had it all! We set out from Bozeman on the first day with forecasts of heavy snow and wind in the coming week, which a normal person might be nervous about. But we’re not normal people, we’re photographers, and we know that bad weather often makes for great photographs. Our workshop got off to a great start with some bighorn sheep at close range north of the Park. After spending some quality time with them, we grabbed lunch in Gardiner and finished the afternoon exploring the beautiful Mammoth Hot Spring terraces.
Day 2 dawned cold and snowy. As we headed into Yellowstone for our first full day on the Northern Range, we were encouraged by the steadily falling snow, which we knew would make for some great bison photos with their snow-covered fur. One of our first good photo opportunities consisted of a couple big bull bison on a short hike across Soda Butte Creek. Happy for the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs, we set off through the snow, our big prime lenses and tripods making us post-hole a bit more than normal in the crusty snow. But hey, sometimes you have to work for that classic bison photo!
We set up a safe distance from the bison and started waiting for that perfect pose, when suddenly the blizzard to end all blizzards rolled in. Within the span of a minute or two, the wind kicked up and the snow started falling heavily, blowing so hard we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. On the one hand we were bummed that our bison opportunity was cut short, but on the other hand, we were feeling like giddy kids having a snow day. We made a beeline back to the van, howling and laughing at the absurdity of the storm that was now upon us. As we piled back into the van, we all counted our fingers and toes to make sure everything was accounted for, and gulped in some wonderfully heated, snow-free air. We also gained a new appreciation for the bison and other critters who deal with those conditions regularly and don’t have a warm van to retreat to!
Shortly after our blizzard excursion, we came upon a massive bull bison with a ton of snow on his fur, and he was very cooperative. We spent quite a while with him, observing him as he dug through the snow in search of grass. Photographing bison is largely a waiting game, since they are chiefly concerned with eating and often don’t pay much attention to people as long as we stay a respectful distance away. So we would sit and wait, chatting and cracking jokes, and then everyone would shoot like mad for a few seconds when he would lift his head up. After half an hour of playing this game, the bison decided to move on to a new patch of earth, and we were fortunate to capture some amazing images as he headed up out of the ravine and paused to put on a commanding stance.
We had a few more bison opportunities throughout the day before finally heading back to Gardiner for dinner at Wonderland Café. But my mantra in Yellowstone is never put the camera away until you are pulling in your driveway, because something can always happen. As we were heading back down the hill to Gardiner, our minds turning toward dinner and a warm shower, we encountered a gorgeous bull elk who gave us quite a show for a few minutes right next to the road. What a way to finish a great day in Yellowstone!
Day 3 Our second full Northern Range day was a bit slower, mostly due to a howling wind that kept a lot of wildlife huddled in the trees to stay warm. We once again found some fun snowy bison opportunities, as well as pronghorn out on the old road through the northernmost chunk of the park. The wind made it challenging to stand outside for more than a couple minutes at a time, even with all of our warm winter layers. But part of the fun with photographing wildlife in Yellowstone is that they are truly wild and we have the opportunity to photograph them on their terms in a natural setting. Despite the challenging conditions throughout that day, we were still able to get some interesting photos showing these animals dealing with the realities of a harsh winter day.
Day 4 Our last full day consisted of a rare opportunity to take a private snow coach charter down into the heart of Yellowstone, including a beautiful winter viewing of Old Faithful. The interior of the Park in winter is a truly magical experience, with silent snow-covered landscapes unbroken by any traffic or human presence other than the occasional snowmobile group or another snow coach.
Our intention was to make it down to Old Faithful in time to catch an eruption and spend an hour or two exploring the geyser basin, but we had such a productive morning on the way down there that we decided it would be better to take our time with the wildlife opportunities as they arose even if it meant sacrificing some geyser time (we still saw an eruption of Old Faithful, though!). And what good opportunities we had on the way down! Otters in the Gibbon River, an eagle eating a swan carcass, epic frosty trees, and bison moving through a landscape of thermal steam and “bobby sock” trees. As much as I love the Northern Range, there are some photographic opportunities that are simply impossible without venturing into the interior. We had such a fantastic adventure down there that we all unanimously decided that next year’s workshop needs to include TWO interior snow coach days (and indeed, it does….check out https://www.yellowstonewildtours.com/tours/multi-day-photography-workshop/ for more info on the 2024 workshop that includes a second snow coach day!). It was hard to believe that the next day would already be our last together.
Day 5 We packed so much into the week, but it still flew by in a flash. We shared some of our favorite photos and memories over breakfast that morning, and chatted about what was next for everyone. And of course, we exchanged contact info so we could share some of our favorite edited photos from the week with each other! And then we were off to Bozeman for final farewells at the airport. It was such an honor and pleasure to get to spend the week with some amazing people and amazing photographers. I am already eagerly looking forward to the camaraderie and adventures that next year’s workshop will bring!