Photographing Yellowstone’s thermal basins is an adventure on the hot side. The land beneath your feet bubbles up, boiling water shoots 100’s of feet into the sky, the air smells of strange gases and one careless step can be deadly. Yet amid all this heat and danger resides incredible landscapes and features beckoning photographers by the droves.
The key to photographing the wild landscapes of Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin is to know which geysers and thermal features to photograph, when to photograph them and how. So let’s begin by taking at look at the Upper Geyser Basin, where Yellowstone is, as well as a few of it’s best thermal features.
But First, Where is Yellowstone?
Yellowstone is in the northwest corner of Wyoming with portions of the park extending into Montana and Idaho.
Upper Geyser Basin/ Old Faithful Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone is the crown jewel of Yellowstone’s thermal basins. It is home to the largest collection of geysers in the world including Old Faithful.
Photo Stops in the Upper Geyser Basin:
Old Faithful may be the most predictable and well known geyser in the park, but it is definitely not the tallest or most photogenic geyser. For photographers visiting the park for the first time, I encourage you to capture that obligatory shot of Old Faithful then head out to explore the multitude of other photographic wonders in this Upper Basin. If possible spend at least a full day photographing this basin.
- Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes shooting water an average of 130 feet high with eruptions lasting about 1 1/2 to 5 minutes.
- The viewing area contains a massive number of benches partially circling Old Faithful.
- Factors to consider when deciding on a location from which to photograph Old Faithful include:
- Sun position- time of day and time of year.
- Type of desired background such as view of Old Faithful Inn or view of surrounding landscapes
- Lens length and camera orientation.
- Unless photographing at sunrise or sunset, remember to avoid photographing geyser eruptions with your camera facing into the sun.
Morning – shot from the east side of the boardwalk
Evening- shot from the west side of the boardwalk
The challenge photographing Old Faithful is to find a composition that includes part of the landscape yet eliminates the crowds of people. For this reason, I tend to compose tighter than I would prefer and mostly in a vertical format. Also vertical compositions are less likely to cut off the tops of an eruption.
Castle Geyser, located on the Upper Basin boardwalk, shoots water to heights of about 90 feet. Although this geyser is not that tall, it’s eruptions are amazing and should not be missed.
Eruptions occur about every 10-12 hours with two different types of eruption; a major and a minor eruption. They remain on schedule as long as the previous eruption was a major eruption. However, once a minor eruption occurs, the eruption frequency is no longer predictable until there is another major eruption.
- A major eruption shoots water for about 20 minutes followed by steam for about 30 minutes and,
- A minor eruption shoots only water with no steam and lasts for about 11 minutes and then abruptly stops.
When planning a photo shoot of Castle Geyser there are two important factors to consider:
When to go: You should always check Geyser Times to determine when it is scheduled to erupt again as well as what type of eruption previously occurred. I like predictability and recommend scheduling photo shoots of Castle to follow a major eruption.
Paying attention to the size of Castle’s cone versus the eruption height: In particular, the width of Castle Geyser’s cone is massive and can require a wide angle lens to capture it. However, the eruption height is not that tall and can easily be dwarfed by the width of the cone. Careful attention to lens choices and compositions is required to produce images that properly convey the force of Castle’s eruptions.
Examples of minor versus major eruptions: In the first image below, Castle erupted on schedule but as a minor eruption, not a major. To say I was disappointed was an understatement as I loved the dark stormy skies. In the end, I took what nature gave me and enjoyed the moment.
For comparison, here is an image of a major eruption
Examples of cone size to eruption height- Look at the image above then compare it to the image below that was photographed in a vertical orientation. I think you will agree the eruption below takes on a greater dynamic in a vertical format.
Grand Geyser is the tallest predictable geyser in the world, shooting water about 200 feet in the air and has quite a distinct pattern to its eruption. It will erupt at the same time as adjacent Turban Geyser erupts. However it is important to know that Turban Geyser erupts about every 20 minutes regardless of whether Grand erupts. If Turban starts to erupt and Grand does not erupt, you can plan on it being about 20 minutes before there is another chance for Grand to erupt.
The benches around Grand get very busy. To obtain the best position for photography, arrive at the earliest possible window for an eruption, pay attention to wind and sun directions, and position yourself with the sun and wind to your back if possible. When I was there in 2019, Grand was erupting about every 5-7 hours but it’s frequency changes so be sure to check Geyser Times for it’s latest schedule.
The little geyser in the image below to the left of Grand is Turban.
Remember that once Grand is in the window for an eruption, start watching this little geyser.
Morning Glory Pool is located at the end of a 1.5 mile boardwalk in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin and is referred to as a hot spring but has been known to turn into a geyser and erupt. This pool was named for the beautiful morning glory flower since it once had a beautiful blue core.
The pool is best photographed in the morning light with a wide angle lens in the range of 17-35mm. Even in the morning, be conscience of deep shadows from the boardwalk and modify compositions to eliminate the shadows. Photograph the pool from a variety of different angles and be sure to include both a wide expanse view of the pool and a close up image deep into the actual pool.
Daisy Geyser is located off the path between Castle Geyser and Morning Glory heading to the left. It is one of the more predictable geysers in the park erupting between 110 and 240 minutes intervals. Water shoots up at an angle to heights of about 75 feet for 3 minutes or more. Because of it’s predictability, unique eruption angle and setting, I encourage you to not miss an opportunity to photograph this geyser.
Lion Geyser Group
This group is comprised of four geysers: Lion, Lioness, Little Cub and Big Cub, with Lion being the biggest. It’s eruptions occur daily and last for about 1 to 7 minutes. When possible try photographing Lion during a morning eruption for best lighting.
This is a strangely shaped geyser worth photographing regardless if it is erupting or not. Despite many trips to this basin, I have yet to photograph this geyser erupting in “photo” worthy light but still love the capture it’s bizarre cone in the surrounding landscapes.
In addition to the few features I have mentioned, the upper geyser basin is filled with geysers, hot springs and bacterial mats as well as many spectacular geysers that do not erupt on any predictable schedule.
Other Features to Photograph.
Well the list is too long to properly cover here since the entire basin can keep a photographer busy for weeks. Instead here are a few small but interesting thermal features:
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And don’t forget to have a little abstract fun
General Geyser Photography Tips:
- Focusing – When photographing areas of steam from an eruption, autofocus and compose on a particular area before the eruption, then turn the lens to manual focus. I have not found any lens that can properly focus when an eruption begins.
- Silica Danger-The mist and steam from Yellowstone thermal basins contain silica which attaches to glasses, camera lens, car windows, etc as tiny sharp glass like particles. Needless to say, these particles can do serious damage to camera equipment
- Freeze and Blur Action – Photograph geysers with both fast and slow shutter speeds at each location when appropriate. It’s fun to have different perspectives of the same scene.
- Polarizer -Use a polarizer to reduce glare. This is in addition to the protective UV filter.
- When photographing at slow shutter speeds be sure to attach a cable release to minimize camera shake.
- Visit the visitor center at Old Faithful or go online for the latest geyser schedules and try and plan visits around eruption times if possible.
- Geyser Times is a great website for monitoring eruption times. Before I head out, I save a screen shot of the latest eruption info to my phone since internet access is limited in most of Yellowstone.
This post has focused on photographing Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin which is only one of Yellowstone’s amazing thermal basins.
Where are most of the thermal features located in Yellowstone?
The majority of Yellowstone’s thermal features are located off the main loop road from Norris Junction south to Old Faithful. Here you will find Fountain Paint Pots, Midway Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, Black Sands Geyser Basin, Biscuit Basin, Old Faithful Upper Geyser Basin and Firehole Lake Drive.
In addition to these basins, other thermal basins are scattered throughout the park including Mammoth Hot Springs, West Thumb, Artist Paint Pots, and Mud Volcano.
Even though the Upper Basin is one of Yellowstone’s top stops, there are several other stunning geysers and thermal features photographers should not overlook including those covered in my other Yellowstone posts:
Give yourself enough time at each location. The photographic opportunities are endless in these basins. But most importantly, take time to appreciate the landscape and experience the awe of this amazing place. I am a firm believer that a photographer can’t convey the essence of a place until they take the time to feel a place.
I have only scratched the surface of Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. Please let me know if any of these tips are helpful.
Thanks for joining me on another Road Trip Friday adventure and I hope to see you next week.