Photographing Yellowstone

The First Camera in Yellowstone
Following Jackson's Lead
Capturing Your Own Photos

Point. Zoom. Click. Basic camera functions are synonymous with Yellowstone and tourist season, and few people would dream of leaving this American treasure without some record of their visit preserved on film. The introduction of digital cameras has further heightened the Yellowstone photo craze, allowing visitors to make sure they capture just the right shot. Think photographing Yellowstone is just a recent obsession? Think again. The tradition of preserving Yellowstone on film dates back to the nineteenth century.

The First Camera in Yellowstone
Sponsored by Congress and directed to verify early regional reports, Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden led a group of cartographers, scientists, and explorers to Yellowstone in 1871. To ensure that Congress believed the fantastic tales of boiling mud pots, spouting geysers, and breathtaking scenery, Hayden hired notable photographer, William Henry Jackson, to accompany the group and record the magnificent sites.

Jackson took his assignment seriously, lugging along a 6.5 by 8.5 inch camera and an 8 by 10 inch camera to complete his work. He utilized pack mules to carry heavy loads of glass plates, photo developing chemicals, and an array of tripods that were necessary in steadying the cameras and their slow five to fifteen second shutter speeds. As most individuals would guess, taking a picture in the late nineteenth century required much more than the point, zoom, and click mentality of today’s amateur photographers. Once Jackson located his subject, he covered a piece of glass the same size as the camera with a light-sensitive emulsion coating. Jackson then took his picture, exposing the emulsion layer. Since the photograph would be ruined if the emulsion coating dried, Jackson was forced to develop his photos on a print-by-print basis. Unlike today’s split-second process, Jackson’s photography method averaged forty-five minutes for a single shot!

Despite the grueling task of capturing Yellowstone’s many wonders, Jackson’s work was instrumental in convincing Congress to designate Yellowstone a National Park. His photographs were circulated across the US as the first published pictures of Yellowstone, and they helped him establish a flourishing career as a landscape photographer. 

Following Jackson’s Lead
The work of William Henry Jackson inspired a new generation of photographers to capture Yellowstone on film. Frank J. Haynes was one of these photographers, and his works played an essential role in showcasing Yellowstone’s natural wonders to individuals across the globe.

Initially employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1875 to record the train route leading from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast, Haynes abandoned his position and landed in Yellowstone in 1881. Yellowstone’s beauty stunned Haynes, and he set out to capture pictures of all that the area offered. Just three years later, his passion for photography earned him the first official photographer position for Yellowstone National Park.

As the official photographer, Haynes immediately set to work documenting Yellowstone’s natural features and the changes the park underwent as more tourists arrived for a first-hand glimpse. Among Haynes’ many photos are Yellowstone’s natural landscapes, thermal features, stagecoaches, park roads and bridges, Yellowstone Lake steamships, hotels, lodges, campgrounds, and train stations in the gateway towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner. His photo credits also include the first pictures of Yellowstone during winter, which he attained as a member of the 1887 Schwatka Expedition.

Haynes, however, did much more than simply take pictures. In 1897, Haynes developed his first professional photo finishing lab and print shop near Old Faithful Geyser. In 1900, he produced his first set of picture postcards. The hand-tinted postcards and stereocards were wildly popular with park visitors, as were the black and white reproductions of Haynes’ park photos. Within no time, the Northern Pacific Railroad, US government, and transcontinental railroad promoters were distributing Haynes’ work across the country. As a result, Haynes was directly responsible for introducing thousands to Yellowstone and played a significant role in driving tourists to the region. By the time he retired in 1916, Haynes’ postcards, pictorial souvenirs, and photo prints had become the most widely distributed works of any American West photographer.

Upon Frank Haynes’ 1916 retirement, his son Jack E. Haynes took over the family business. Jack further bolstered the family photographic reputation. In 1930, he garnered exclusive rights to sell Yellowstone photos within the park. Soon, Jack became “Mr. Yellowstone,” carrying on the family reputation for fine photos with numerous “Haynes Photo Shops” operating throughout the park. Together with his father, Jack revolutionized the way the world saw Yellowstone and documented the gradual changes in Yellowstone’s natural landscape.

Capturing Your Own Photos

Although most Yellowstone visitors are anything but professional photographers, it is still possible to capture all of Yellowstone’s noteworthy sites with high-quality images. Occasionally during the summer season, professional photographers are stationed throughout Yellowstone to provide tourists with free hands-on instruction. The programs, which last approximately two hours, are offered several times each day to accommodate visitor schedules. For those unable to attend a free session or during seasons where the opportunity is not available, the following tips will ensure that visitors preserve their Yellowstone memories with the finest pictures possible.

  • Mastering the Basics
    • Lighting is to photography as geysers are to Yellowstone; they simply go hand in hand. Photos can easily be ruined without proper lighting, so always pay attention to your scene’s lighting. When the sun is shining brightly or your subject includes a bright background, use your camera’s flash to balance the photo’s light.
    • If possible, refrain from taking pictures during the brightest part of the day. Yellowstone photos captured during early morning, late afternoon, and early evening frequently show the highest quality; animals are more prevalent during these times, lighter crowds create less congested backgrounds, and people are not forced to squint against Yellowstone’s bright sunny skies.
    • Never assume that photos are only worth taking on sunny days. Oftentimes, colors are actually more vivid on cloudy days. Pictures are for all seasons and should thus be taken in all kinds of weather.
    • When metering your pictures either manually or automatically, be aware that inaccurate readings can arise from bright backgrounds (like thermal basins) and reflective surfaces such as snow.
  • Home Video Tips
    • If your trip’s videographer does not possess a steady hand, consider filming at a lower magnification or utilizing a tripod and image stabilizer.
    • Many Yellowstone home videos are nothing more than zoomed-in clips of the park’s famous wildlife. Refrain from making such video errors, and include the environment surrounding the wildlife. Your viewers back home will appreciate it.
  • Filming or Taking Pictures in Thermal Areas
    • Geyser spray and mist from other thermal features can be damaging to cameras and video recorders. Immediately remove any overspray from your camera; otherwise, it may leave a permanent deposit.
    • The best pictures of Yellowstone’s thermal features are generally captured during early morning, and polarizing filters may help photographers capture the colorful brilliance of thermal sites.
    • To capture the true size of Yellowstone’s geysers, include park boardwalks and people for easy size comparisons.
  •  Understanding the Effects of Cold Weather
    • Cold weather is especially hard on cameras, and care should be taken to keep cameras, batteries, and film as warm as possible. When not in use, store your camera inside your jacket, and try to avoid sudden temperature changes that can affect your camera’s performance.
    • Protect your lens and viewfinder from fog, spray, rain, and snow.
    • Keep in mind that cold weather is hard on batteries; to make sure your camera has enough life to capture all your cold weather Yellowstone memories, start with new batteries, and pack along extras.

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