Yellowstone is one of the premier destinations for nature and wildlife photographers. This is part 4 of a multi-part blog focused photographing Yellowstone. My goal is to pass along the lessons that I learned and tips for photographing these wonderful parks. This blog post will focus on equipment and navigating the parks. There is one post left in the series that will cover photographing geothermal activity. Also, take a look at prior blog posts on wildlife photography, landscape photography, travel, and lodging. You can also view my photos at www.martinbelan.com.
I would recommend a DSLR camera with a small assortment of lenses. If you can afford it, I would bring two camera bodies – one with a landscape lens and one with a telephoto for wildlife. This will avoid frequent lens swapping and the potential for getting dust on your sensor. Another reason for two bodies is that you will always want to keep a camera with your wildlife lens handy. Wildlife can be seen throughout the parks and normally when you least expect it. I brought a Sigma 150-500 mm, Tokina 12-24mm, and a Sigma 18-200mm. My wife did most of her photography with a Nikkor 70-300mm. She also used the Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens with a Nikon d60. She took some beautiful photos with this less expensive set up. Of course, the longer the lens the better for wildlife photography. However, this will cause some restrictions in travel. See my blog post #3 in this series.
Also, bring plenty of storage cards (CF or SD, depending on your camera) and a method to back them up. An external hard drive with a card reader or laptop with a portable hard drive will do fine. These could be once in a lifetime photos. I strongly recommend a redundant back up strategy. One of my wife's SD cards malfunctioned prior to me backing it up. It had photos of a grizzly and a badger family. Fortunately, I was able to recover most of the photos. More on recovering data from storage cards in a future blog post.
I also strongly recommend bringing a tripod or monopod on the trip. These are very convenient when you encounter a bear or coyote jam. You may be standing at roadside for an hour or more taking photos of a mother grizzly and her cubs. Carbon fiber tripods are lightweight, yet sturdy. I fit a carbon fiber tripod, a ball head, and a heavy Manfroto wildlife head in my checked bagged with clothes and other gear without exceeding the 50 pound luggage weight limit.
Navigating the park
Navigating Yellowstone National Park is fairly easy. There are two main loops around the park, plus main roads leading to each of the 5 gates. A 4 wheel drive vehicle with some height clearance is recommended, especially if you travel the back roads and also for roadside parking for the various animal jams. A companion in the car is a good idea. Not so much for navigation, but for spotting wildlife and other photo opportunities.
There is almost no cell phone coverage in the park. We have AT&T and we had no service the majority of the time we were in the park. Check your cell phone provider's coverage map before you leave on your trip. A pair of FRS / GMRS radios (walkie talkies) are useful for communicating with other members of your party.
Food is available in the main villages in the park (Canyon, Mammoth, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful). Other areas have gas stations with pre-made sandwiches. We packed a cooler with sandwiches and drinks. We also kept snacks in the car. Rest rooms are fairly available in the park, look for restrooms at camping and picnic areas, as well as in the villages.
See more of my Yellowstone photos including new photos from the June 2012 trip at my website. Visit my photo destinations page for more great photography locations