The Rock Star of Yosemite

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a very sheer, 3000′ tall granite rock), you’ve heard about the landmark free solo ascent of El Capitan that climber Alex Honnold made this week.  Free soloing is exactly as it sounds – climbing by yourself, without any safety gear to secure you to the rock except your own two hands and feet.  It’s about as risky as it gets, and when you combine free soloing with a granite face higher than the world’s tallest skyscraper…well, we just summited a whole new level of crazy.

Without any warning, without any fanfare, the internet suddenly went ablaze this week with stories of this amazing feat of physical and mental dominance.  I mean SERIOUSLY – who does this??!!  I can’t even shimmy within 5 feet of a 30 foot vertical drop without a jolt of leg-liquifying adrenaline pulsing through my vertiginous joints.  How does someone have the power and nerve to climb the incredibly flat, notoriously fragile face of a cliff that is over a half mile high?  Without ropes?  Without a safety harness?  Without a parachute or wing suit or paraglider or God knows what to ensure a pleasant glide to the bottom should one of your 3,000 steps fall short?  Can someone please explain to me….HOW DOES SOMEONE DO THIS?????

The point is, we can’t explain it.  That’s why Honnold’s story has captivated us so much.  He has single- (or, more appropriately, double-) handedly thrown not just the climbing world, but the world of rational thought into an existential tailspin.  Because it’s not just his awesome athleticism that is inspiring – climbing El Cap in under 4 hours is insane enough to make him the stuff of legends – it’s the mental muscle it took to overcome the very real, very human fear of falling/dying and will himself to do something humans (or really, any animal) aren’t supposed to do.  Didn’t he ever look down and think, “man, that’s pretty far, I kind of wish I had my ropes with me today?”

In the short snippets of interviews with Honnold that have already been released, he mentions that mental preparedness is just as important to his free solo ascents as physical fitness.  That’s why we didn’t hear anything about this landmark climb until after it was all said and done.  Heck, his MOM didn’t even know he was doing it, which in retrospect, was a fair call there, Honnold.  For him to believe, truly believe that he could do the incredible, he needed to only be surrounded by others who believed he could do it.  Too much worrying, too much hype, too high of expectations and his whole chi could go haywire.  Which pretty much meant Honnold’s circle of trust centered around himself (and a handful of National Geographic photographers, videographers, and journalists that may or may not have believed he could do it, but wisely thought it best to keep those thoughts to themselves).

In celebration of what is either the craziest or most inspiring thing to happen in Yosemite this year, I thought I’d share some rock-centric images from my April trip to the park.  Congratulations to Honnold for proving that what was once impossible can become incredible – if only we look within, and then UP.

Cheers!

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In the early morning, warm sunshine bathes the east face of El Capitan.  Look closely and you’ll see the cables for a climbing route.
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“El Cap,” as it is affectionately called, is on the west end of Yosemite Valley.  Here it is silhouetted against a sunset view of Half Dome, giving some perspective on just how tall and sheer it is.
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The abstract beauty of Yosemite’s granite walls is something I never tire of.
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Coffee, anyone?  Climbers waking up 1500′ above Yosemite Valley, preparing for another day of climbing the face of El Capitan.
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A tributary fall spills over the east edge of El Capitan, catching the dawn light as it cascades to the rocks below.

 

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Adriana & Jeffery’s Yosemite Adventure Session

Some adventures are just waiting to happen.  It’s just…some adventures have to wait longer to happen than others!

Adriana and Jeffery’s Yosemite adventure had to be rescheduled twice on account of some pretty epic weather.  When it’s winter in the Sierra’s you have to roll with the punches, and Mother Nature was certainly throwing them – first with a white-out storm that crippled the park with icy roads and pea soup visibility, and second with a deluge that flooded the Valley Floor and triggered a total park closure.  So it was with elation and anticipation that we looked at the forecast for their late January session and saw nothing but white snow and blue skies.  And those thundering waterfalls, of course.

Little did I know how special of a place Yosemite is to Adriana and Jeffery!  As we roamed around the Valley they filled me in on several fun facts: that first date hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls (oy!), their wedding at the Ahwahnee (majestic), Jeffery’s solo winter ascent of Half Dome (wow), and many other fantastic moments that they have experienced in this beautiful place.  Without a doubt, this is a special setting for many of their memories.  I was so excited to be with them to document one more!

From waterfalls to rivers, rock walls to granite bridges, we made quite the circuit in our two hours together.  I could have photographed them all day.  Thank you Adriana and Jeffery for choosing this fabulous place for your portrait session!  Here’s to many more Yosemite moments for you two.

Your Wild(erness) Photographer,

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Yosemite Winter in Black and White

No matter how advanced digital photography gets in color capturing and printing technology, there will always be a special place for black and white photography in Yosemite.

John Muir was spot-on when he christened this natural gem the “Range of Light.”  The rugged 2,000+ foot granite walls sheltering the narrow Yosemite Valley, with its northeast-southwest orientation, make for spectacular plays of reflected light and deep shadow all through the year.  Anyone who photographs in Yosemite is aware of the challenges that such hard contrasts in light can bring to a full color image.  But when viewed in black and white, these hard stops reveal texture, form, gravity, and emotion that aren’t immediately obvious in the full color scene.  There is a sensitivity and richness that comes through when the color is stripped away and the landscape laid bare.

Ansel Adams was, of course, the king of black and white Yosemite photography.  If he were alive today and had the option to record his vision in color, I wonder if he would see things differently?  I’m secretly glad he didn’t have a palette of technicolor tools at his disposal.  There’s a reason why, despite having access to advanced technology, millions of photographers continue to emulate his style.  Adams’ images are so clear, so honest, so strong yet delicate in their handling of light and darkness.  It’s like watching a ballet unfold frame by frame.  Without the beautiful distraction of color, a whole new world opens up that invites a new kind of contemplation.

This January was my first winter camping trip to Yosemite.  Although I did not approach every scene with the intent of capturing it in black and white, I found that I was often pulled that direction in my editing.  White snow, black shadows, bare tree branches outstretched against a pale gray sky…all lent themselves perfectly to the black and white approach.

What do you notice first in each of these images?  Would you see something different if they were in color?

Cheers,

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Janet & Mark’s Yosemite Adventure Session

I’ve been lucky to know Janet and Mark for several years.  Having cycled on many a bike ride with them through the backroads of Oakdale, I knew that they were the outdoorsy and athletic type.  (If I can manage, I sometimes get to snag an easy ride by drafting off of their super-fast tandem!)  So it was no surprise to me when they wanted to have their anniversary photo session in one of my favorite places in the world: Yosemite National Park.

The attraction to Yosemite was natural: Janet and Mark were married there in the little red chapel on Southside Drive, just a stone’s throw from the Merced River.  Making the chapel our first stop was no question, as we wanted to begin the session by returning to the very spot where it all began.  It was so special to share this moment with my good friends and see how much happiness it gave them to relive the memories of their wedding day.

An afternoon snow storm was building, giving us an amazing couple hours of dynamic, yet atmospheric light.  Believe it or not, sunny clear days can make capturing the beauty of the Yosemite Valley AND your subject very difficult.  Those bright granite surfaces are like big sun reflectors!  A light cloud cover can work wonders to reveal the many waterfalls, cracks, and crannies that line the rugged rock walls while at the same time capturing the beautiful smiles of the happy couple in front of the camera.  I was so excited to have these moments of quiet winter weather to capture Janet and Mark celebrating their special milestone.

Thank you Janet and Mark for inviting me to celebrate with you in Yosemite!  And thank you Steve Tallman for your most excellent assistance with gear and lighting.  Here’s to many more years of love, happiness, and ADVENTURE for us all!

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Fall in Love with Yosemite

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Pssst…I’l let you in on a local’s secret: Yosemite National Park is horrible in the summer.  When the waterfalls are raging and the days are long and warm, there is no place I’d rather NOT be than Yosemite.  During this extremely popular time of the year, there are throngs of people and cars clogging every walkway and road, dirty air fed by forest fires and Central Valley smog, and a dry, sweltering heat that leaves me pining for air conditioning and a freezer full of Mint Oreo ice cream.

Pretty much every month outside of June, July, and September is better for visiting, although I think Fall is the best. There’s a cool crispness to the air…mmmm, that pristine mountain kind filled with the fresh, lung-scrubbing fragrance of damp pine needles and joyously littered with a colorful confetti of falling leaves.

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There’s also that glowing, golden sunshine that bathes the Valley Floor during the day, a luscious light that only comes at this time of year.  It’s warm and beautiful, especially as it illuminates the face of Half Dome in the mid-afternoon.

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A face I never tire of.
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I always say “I won’t photograph Half Dome this time!!”  But that’s lazy-talk.  All it takes is challenging myself to look at this classic image from a new perspective.  There are a million ways to “see” Half Dome, and I intend to capture them all!

This past weekend Steve, Mila, and I went “glamping” (i.e. tent camping, but with enough kitchenware and bedding to stock a Macy’s Home Store) in the shadow of the world’s most famous monolith.  What ensued were several days of peace and rejuvenation in this idyllic park.  Although I said I’d go easy on the photography  this trip (really, how many pictures of Yosemite Falls do I need??), I scrapped that idea once I immersed myself in the splendid beauty of Yosemite.

A recent rain storm had erased the memory of summer, wetting the soil and refilling the High Sierra watershed, bringing the famed waterfalls to life again.  The fall colors were peaking, the light was amazing, and I just couldn’t help myself!!  Scroll down to see more of my photos from our Yosemite Fall “Glamping” Trip.

Have you been to Yosemite?  If so, when is your favorite time of year to visit?  Litter my my blog with comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers,

Jessica

P.S. – One of these days I’ll post on the finer points of “glamping.”  Mila still doesn’t understand it – like why would you take all the comforts of home to someplace that’s NOT home – but believe me, it’s kind of a thing these days!

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There is a certain moment at dusk when the warmth of sunset blends into the coolness of twilight.  It only lasts a minute, but it’s worth every second!
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Three of the best things in life: My two favorite traveling buddies and a hot thermos of coffee.
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You’re my best friend.
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I was taking a picture of the berries on the dogwood tree when this little robin hopped in front of my lens – a much more interesting subject!

 

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Curious things happen at the intersection of darkness and light.
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Sooooo refreshing to see Yosemite Falls flowing again.  It always breaks my heart when the water runs dry.
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When your humans take you camping, and you’re like “meh”.
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The secret forest.
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Camping is fun, no?
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You know how hard it is to take a handheld macro shot of a patch of mushrooms in the shade?  Next time, I’m bringing a tripod. :-p
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Mirror Lake…aptly named.
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Serenity at Valley View.  It’s easy to miss this gorgeous vista on your drive out of the park – but trust me, it’s well worth the stop.

 

 

 

Beel Family Portrait Session

There’s nothing like photographing people in one of their favorite places.  Last week’s family session in Yosemite Valley with the Beels was certainly a prime example of that.  Brett and Lindsay Beel share a love for Yosemite, born of their passion for rock climbing, so it was only natural that they introduce their new little man to the mountains as soon as possible!

Nolan made his first national park visit at the tender age of 1 month and 1 day.  Yes!!!  You heard that right.  For a newborn, he weathered the outdoors unbelievably well and was quite content to be held by Mom and Dad as we played around in Cook’s Meadow.   Judging by how comfortable and relaxed he was, I’m thinking this is just the first trip of many!  Babies everywhere: the bar has been set, and it is HIGH.  🙂

Congratulations Brett and Lindsay on the new addition to your family.  I know you’ll miss Yosemite when you move to Pennsylvania, but here’s hoping that these photos remind you of your special time in California.  Thank you for inviting me to share in these memories with you.

Cheers!

Jessica

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Katie & Brent’s Maternity Session

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Katie and Brent’s shared love of nature inspired them to pick Point Reyes National Seashore for their maternity session, which was just about as perfect as you can get.  It may have been 100 degrees in Modesto but it was a balmy 72 on the seashore – something that any woman at 38 weeks can be thankful for!

Katie was an absolutely glowing mama, a natural beauty surrounded by the beauty of the sea.  I had so much fun capturing her and Brent’s love – both for Baby B, and for each other – in some very special places within this national park.  There’s nothing like the calm serenity of a quiet oak grove or the gentle lapping of the ocean waves to center us and bring out all those happy smiles!  Nature is central to my photography, so I love it when I get to work with people like Katie and Brent who share the same love for the outdoors that I do.

Congratulations Katie and Brent on the upcoming arrival of your little one!  I can’t wait to see him in all his cuteness.  Thank you so much for inviting me to document this special event in your lives.  And thank you Steve for being my assistant – you did an excellent job of keeping my gear sands-free!

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Santa, all I want for Christmas is a 400mm lens…

Last month’s trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park already feels like last year!  I edited some images and then shuttered the gallery for awhile as I focused on other photography jobs.  Today I dusted off the cover and dived in to my wildlife photographs – and boy, was I amazed.  Not necessarily amazed at myself, even though it took some definite skill to compose and take the shots, but amazed at the lens I used to capture them.  And that is why I am telling Santa…

All I want for Christmas is a 400mm lens.

A Canon 400mm f/4.0 DO IS ii, to be exact, although I know that if my accountant has anything to do with it I’ll be settling for a gently used copy of the version i lens, which I hear is just as good.  And that $4K in price difference between the two (yes, we are talking G’s here) will take me on many a wildlife safari, so I think it’s a fair bargain.  Ahhh, but I had to go ahead and rent the EXPENSIVE one, and many of the images you see here would not have been possible without it.

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Baby pronghorn and mama (400mm)

It’s true, renting lenses is the way to go if you a) can’t afford the investment yet, b) want to try before you buy, or c) both.  I have rented through BorrowLenses.com many times and have always had a great experience.  Renting a lens has helped me decide on which ones I need to add to my arsenal and which ones I can pass or hold off on.  BorrowLenses.com even shipped the 400mm lens directly to Yellowstone, so I avoided having to pay for the rental during our travel days.  Other than a slight hiccup on the part of the lodge I shipped it to (which nearly cost me my composure…oh, just nearly…), it was smooth as silk and I enjoyed all 10 days of my “vacation” with this beautiful Canon lens.

Why a 400mm lens?

There are several reasons why a 400mm lens – at least – is a MUST for wildlife photography.  Probably most importantly is that it allows you to get close to the animals without disturbing them or endangering yourself.  At least 25 yards is recommended, which is a distance that even a lens this long can barely cover.  Another reason – and this is for THIS Canon lens in particular – is that it is incredibly lightweight for its size and has image stabilization to cancel vibration.  These two things enable you to handhold your camera and still get razor sharp pictures.  I was just blown away.  I’m very much a “shoot when I see it” kind of wildlife photographer, and the thought that I could miss a great shot because I was setting up a tripod to hold a heavy lens pains me to my core.  With this lens, a monopod or tripod might help, but it isn’t always necessary.  In fact, most of the photographs here were taken without one!

Lastly, and most importantly, this 400mm lens is just a supreme piece of glass.  Sharp.  Saturated colors.  Beautiful bokeh (blurry background).  Everything you could want in a quality piece of glass, and then some.

To be honest, not all of these images were captured with the 400mm lens.  Some were taken with my trusty Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS ii.  Also an amazing piece of glass!  I wanted to include all my wildlife images in this post.  However, if you’re wondering, most of the close-up shots of birds and large game were taken with the 400mm lens.

So, should I get a 400mm lens?

You tell me.  Or petition Santa.  I promise I’ve been very good this year! 😀

Wishing on a star,

Jessica

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P.S. – If you see something you like, all images are available for purchase, starting at $15 for an 8″x10″.  Message me to find out how to buy.

 

Bison

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Birds

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Bears

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Pronghorn

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Mountain Goats

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Marmots & Ground Squirrels

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Deer, Elk, & Moose

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Insects

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Yellowstone & Grand Tetons: A Different Perspective

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Showing a different perspective of a popular travel destination is not without its rewards and challenges.  The Reward: we have the opportunity to show people a piece of the world that they may not have had – or might NEVER have – the chance to see.  The Challenge: we are more often than not photographing a site or scene that has been captured tens of thousands of times before (Half Dome?  Check.  Eiffel Tower?  Double-no, Triple-Check!).  There may be two dozen photographers standing next to us at any given time, capturing the same scene at the same time as we are!  Not to mention all those great images that have been taken before, and that no doubt will be taken after ours.  All this begs the question: “How will MY image stand out?”

Whether it is travel, wedding, portrait, fashion, commercial, or any other field of photography, the challenge to stand out remains the same.  An image needs to simultaneously communicate and resonate for it to have power and impact.

To increase my chances of taking memorable photographs, the two questions I try to ask myself are:

  1. How do I take a picture of X that provides a new and fresh perspective?
  2. How do I take a picture of X that communicates a feeling – either my own, that of the subject, or how I want the viewer to feel?

Both are important, and I honestly can’t tell you which comes first to me – it’s kind of a chicken and egg sort of thing.  Sometimes in the rush to capture the moment one question doesn’t get addressed, and I go back and look at my image and say, “gee whiz, I wish I would have framed my subject differently, or changed the exposure just a touch, or had a more narrow depth of field, or…”  *shaking head*  Photographers never stop living and learning through the lens!

I have been traveling through the National Parks a lot this year, primarily because I love exploring nature and have always made national parks part of my life.  But this year is the centennial, which has driven me to visit more parks and be more focused in my travel photography of these places.  Most recently I was camping through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

We all know how heavily trafficked these parks are, especially during the time of year when I was traveling (summer).  We also know how iconic many of the features of these parks have become, from wildlife to rock formations to mountain vistas to geothermal features.  There’s not a whole lot of photography that hasn’t already been done in these parks – so my challenge was to approach each classic photo op with a fresh eye and the all-consuming goal to show things differently.

Below are a few images of iconic subjects/scenes in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and the artistic decisions I made to show things differently.  Do you think I found a new perspective?  Did the image communicate feeling?  Yay, our nay, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

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Everyone knows the Tetons are tall – but did you know the sky is higher?  In this image, I chose to make the wispy clouds the subject by moving the mountains to the bottom quarter of the scene.  This emphasizes the connection between weather and the mountains, telling the story of how each shapes the other.  I also took a vertical approach to this landscape, which gives extra height and scale to the photo and encourages the viewer to “look up.”
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Here is another image where I took a vertical approach to a classic landscape.  Making something that is usually big (mountains) into a focal, yet small part of the scene provides visual interest and gives this landscape from Yellowstone a unique perspective.
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The geothermal  features at Yellowstone are well-documented, from pictures of gushing geysers to aerial images of the Grand Prismatic Spring.  By crouching down and framing the vibrant orange patterns of this spring against the cool blue of the lake water and sky, I was able to create an abstract image that also tells the story of “fire and ice”, which is vital to the geology of this geyser basin.
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Speaking of geysers, how do you take an image of Old Faithful that’s hard to replicate?  Sometimes you get lucky.  Old Faithful erupted minutes before this spectacular sunset, enabling me to backlight it’s last hisses of steam with golden light from the horizon.
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Another take on Old Faithful, this time with the tourists as the subject.  By framing them at the bottom of the image, with Old Faithful at full eruption in the center, I was able to capture the simultaneous energy of both the geyser and the people watching it.

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Wildlife photography opportunities are plentiful in Yellowstone, especially when it comes to pronghorns.  Yes, I’ll admit, I took plenty of pictures of these animals grazing and chewing their cud!  But with a lot of patience, and some good fortune, I was able to capture the three images above which show natural emotions (love/security), features (eyes), and activities (grooming) of these amazing animals.

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I love love LOVE color, so naturally I wanted to focus on the amazing color palette at the geysers and thermal pools in Yellowstone.  Picking an interesting feature as the subject (first picture), having my husband pose against a vibrant thermal backdrop (second picture), and using the unique picoted crust of the pool to frame the waters within (third picture) are three different techniques I used to bring a different perspective to these iconic pools.

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The lovely old barns at the Mormon Homestead at Grand Teton National Park are some of its most photographed features.  Most photographers will show up before dawn to capture the first rays of light hitting the barns, with the Tetons softly illuminated in the background.  Few would attempt a midday shoot because balancing the exposure of the structures with the mountains proves to be darn-near impossible.  But with some creative black and white editing (first picture), focusing on barn details that are more evenly illuminated (second and third pictures), and moving the structures to the background to tell a different story (fourth picture), I was able to make good use of “bad” light – and was forced to come up with new ways of photographing this landmark in the process!

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Yellowstone may be the biggest national park in the United States, but it’s the small wonders that make it it truly special.  While photographing bison and big geysers is an obvious must-do for any nature or travel photographer, I also chose to focus on the tiny details to show that this park really is the sum of its parts.  With help from some backlighting (first picture), selective focus (second picture), and creative composition (second picture) I attempted to show the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

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Stories of struggle are very real in nature, but are often glossed over by stunning photographs of snow-capped mountains or ocean sunsets.  In these two pictures, I try to show a different side of two nature icons: a bison and a forest.  By shooting in the middle of the day and editing in black and white, the bison’s rough winter coat and weary stance become the focus and tell a story of strength gained through hardship.  The bottom image of a stand of dead trees tells the story of the devastating Yellowstone fires.  This story is strengthened by an overcast sky that gives the illusion of smoke when edited in black and white.

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Finally, a national park trip is not complete without a trip to towns that surround it to get a taste of the local flavor (ok, and I’ll admit, maybe an ice cold beer or ice cream cone, too). The four images above all evoke a sense of place that is indigenous to the towns, yet is also shared with the neighboring national park.