This place has teeth. The thermometer is reading -25° Fahrenheit. For the rest of the world, that’s -31° Celsius. Let it suffice to say that it’s cold. The kind of cold that makes you aware of the exact spot of every broken bone you have ever had. The kind of cold that freezes the contents of your nose instantly. But this is also the kind of cold that freezes what little bit of moisture that is in the air, filling the sky with tiny ice crystals glittering in the sun. Fairy dust sparkles with a rainbow of colors all around you. Given that I’m the kind of guy who takes life very seriously, I throw my mug of coffee into the air and watch it explode. A cloud of coffee flavored fairy dust drifts down as I try to catch some on my tongue. The original iced coffee. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. Do try this at home.
My partner in crime this morning laughs. I look at him with a face speckled with coffee crystals, grinning from ear to ear. There is cause to celebrate. Cause to do the absurd. We found a fresh set of tracks in the snow this morning before dawn. Following them for about 30 minutes with binoculars from the opposite side of the river, we traced their twists and turns, contemplated their pauses, disappearances, and then filled with quiet excitement when they reappeared again. Those tracks led us to a bobcat that we followed and photographed for nearly two hours until she bedded down in a tree well, free from snow.
The Ojibwe people once crafted dream-catchers to be secured above their heads while they slept at night. They believed that these dream-catchers captured all of a person’s dreams before they owed into their minds. Bad dreams were snared in a web where they would sit until the sun burned them off in the morning, while good dreams slipped out, filtering down feathers that dangled over the heads of those sleeping below. Yellowstone is kind of like that. A dream-catcher. Reaching upwards, this plateau that sits some 2,000 feet higher than the surrounding landscape captures the winter storms rolling in off the Pacific Ocean after famously drenching the temperate rainforests of Washington’s coast. Like the spider web of the dream-catcher, the storm becomes entrapped by the plateau and surrounding mountains, forcing those storms to dump an average of 13 feet of snow on top of us in the winter. That’s nearly four metres – and sometimes it’s twice that amount. For a nature photographer, this is where dreams come true.
Survival of the Fittest
As the snow piles up in the mountains, the wildlife descends into the lower elevations of the park. Lower, of course, being a relative concept. For vegetarians of the ecosystem, food becomes trapped beneath deep snow. As winter marches on food becomes less available, fat supplies begin to diminish, animals begin to slowly starve. This battle for survival makes easy pickings for the long list of carnivores that this landscape is so well known for. Survival of the fittest, the blind watchmaker at work. Robinson Jeffers, in his poem The Bloody Sire, once asked, ‘What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine/ The fleet limbs of the antelope?’ Relationships between predator and prey obviously took their toll on all parties involved here - but it was Jack Frost, the mass murderer of winter, that has shaped and sculpted every aspect of this ecosystem. And as wildlife photographers the world over already know, snow makes everything more dramatic.
But photographing in this snow does not come without its challenges. When you enter Yellowstone in the winter, you enter a landscape of monotonous white, a perpetual blank canvas. And a landscape blanketed in a substance that reflects light and colors like only water can do. These are very big things to think about. In a craft where notions of white balance and clipping of highlights can dominate technical considerations, snow can offer up a unique hurdle to the uninitiated.
Spot metering solutions
In the spirit of William of Ockham’s philosophy on logic (a.k.a. Occam’s Razor), I opt for the simplest solution with the least number of uncontrollable variables. Say goodbye to aperture priority and matrix metering, and hello to photography like its 1967. Spot metering off the brightest area in my composition, and setting the exposure manually produces predictable results every single time despite the extraordinary amount of contrast that these conditions can create. The key is to just remember that whatever tone of white snow you spot meter off of, it will be reduced to 18% grey unless you add light via your exposure. And the last time I checked, snow was white – not grey. Now there is a term you may not have heard in a while – 18% grey. Did you think that concept died with the film? No way. Our metering systems are all still based off of this concept.
But why not just spot meter off of an object that is 18% grey to begin with, you might ask? To some degree it’s a personal choice given the situation. In overcast light, the flank of a Rocky Mountain elk is an 18% tonality. But just add light and the reflective property of the snow on its back, or all around it, can easily confound your ability to discern what is, and what is not, a true ‘mid tone’. The other caveat here is that the dynamic range of a snowy scene will often times far surpass the capabilities of your camera. So when it comes down to photographing in high contrast situations like this, where lighting is uneven, and the reflectivity of the snow can make everything fall apart, it’s just simpler to focus attention on exposing for the highlights instead of leaving things up to chance.
Bobcat meets coyote
What happens when you find yourself buried waist deep in snow and a bobcat comes climbing up the riverbank right in front of you, just 10 feet outside of the minimum focusing distance of your lens, in gorgeous light, walking right towards you, with fresh powder kicking up around her feet, and you have only seconds to get your shot? Me, if I even so much as think that this is getting ready to happen, I am going to have spot metered off the brightest part of the snow where I am predicting her to come into view, dial in my exposure, take a single test shot to ensure my histogram is on the money, and wait for the magic to happen – knowing that in a game where literally everything can fall apart at the last second, at least my exposure will be precise.
My carefree, iced coffee encrusted celebration is short lived. Some one hundred yards away, two coyotes are working their way along the riverbank, noses to the snow, following the bobcat’s scent trail. They’re moving fast. They have purpose. Closing in, the cat catches wind of the coyotes and bolts up the hill. The canines give chase and the drama of life in Yellowstone moves up into the thick timber on the hillside above. The show was over before it began for us. Lounging around, not paying attention, our gear was too far out of reach and we could do little more than hypothesize as to why our bobcat chose to run instead of climb a tree where the coyotes could not have followed? But as we work our way through the deep snow back to retrieve our camera gear, I spot something else - another set of tracks in the snow near the base of the tree that she had been resting. This other set is distinctly feline, but much smaller than hers. Cubs.
Published in issue 28 of Wild Planet Photo Magazine