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Get Great Pictures in Yellowstone's Backcountry
Backpacking with a Heavy Load - and Liking IT!

by Theresa A. Husarik

There are as many reasons for venturing into the backcountry as there are destinations (one of my favorite backpacking areas is Yellowstone because of the abundant and accessible wildlife). Some people just like to be close to nature, while others enjoy the feeling of roughing it and living by their own means. Some like the health benefits of the vigorous hiking, and others like to go slowly and smell each flower. But one thing backpackers generally agree on is that it is better to scale down one's load to the absolute bare essentials.

Some tricks for lightening the load are the obvious such as taking only dried foods, bringing smaller versions of items (such as a 3/4 length sleeping pad), and using zip-lock baggies as containers. Even the not so obvious, like cutting the handle off one's toothbrush, are practiced in order to have a pack that weighs as little as possible. Most people wouldn't deliberately add 15 pounds to their load, but I wouldn't think of NOT doing it. Since a big part of my backcountry experience is bringing back fantastic pictures, my "essential" gear includes about 15 pounds of camera equipment. The rewards for trekking several miles with photo gear on your back are images of these amazing natural features without traffic jams blocking your enjoyment and causing undue stress on you or your intended subject.

Deciding how much and what camera equipment you take with you will depend on how far you're going and for how long. You can only carry so much, so you probably won't want to take your entire inventory of camera gear. I usually pack a photo fanny pack that I wear in front along with my backpack on my back. In the fanny pack goes a 20-35 zoom, extension tube, small flash, cable release, film, filters (warming, soft focus, polarizer, colored polarizer, and star), small flashlight (for making notes or seeing your camera controls in the dark), pad of paper and pen.

The camera with 35-135 lens goes around my neck for immediate accessibility and also to allow ready availability of more gear packed into the fanny pack. Especially with wildlife, all too often the photo opportunity lasts only a few seconds, and if you have to take off your backpack to get to your camera, the moment has passed before you're ready. I wrap the camera in a plastic grocery bag to protect it from moisture and blowing sand.

I also bring a small tripod (the Ultrapod II - available at stores that sell camping equipment). This is useful for the macro shots or dramatic weather or night shots, and is very lightweight and compact (ties on the handle of the fanny pack). A small bean bag or rolled up sweatshirt can also be used in lieu of a heavy tripod. Place the padding on a rock and position the camera on it so that it is supported. I prefer the Ultrapod, though, because I often want to get a shot from right in the middle of a shallow stream, and the Ultrapod keeps the camera out of the water.

I don't usually carry the long telephoto lens on a backpack trip because it is too heavy and bulky. I sometimes wish I had it, but typically, if you're careful and quiet, you can get close enough to get pictures without disturbing the animals or endangering your own life. Photographing wildlife is so much easier when there are no noisy tourists to disturb the critters or to become part of your composition.

At night, keep your camera and accessories in the tent with you (not outside in your backpack) - this protects it from the elements and also keeps it handy for late night moonscapes or early morning sunrise shots.

The key to enjoying the trip with a heavy pack is to change your attitude to one of "taking a journey" rather than "reaching a destination". Carrying more forces one to go a little slower and see more. You'll notice the little things like dew on an opening flower, new spring shoots, or a spider web glistening with new-fallen raindrop. You'll see color contrasts like a single red leaf against the dark floor of the forest, white mushrooms growing from beneath a burned log, or a bunch of wildflowers growing amid a patch of burned trees.The wide expanses of meadow or the towering mountain are the obvious beauty that attracts your eye, but there are also tiny things right by your feet that are often taken for granted. A lot of people don't even notice the patch of pasque flowers hiding behind a big sage bush, or the little pika basking in the sun. I like to take my time and see all that I can see. I can run in the rat race when I get home.

Although I typically exclude signs of civilization such as trail signs, well worn paths, and manmade structures from the picture, sometimes, this human intervention in the wilderness can be photogenic. Pictures such as that of my friend crossing the stream on the swing bridge, or the food and packs covered with snow and hanging from a tree, or the tent amid a forest of burned trees can tell a story of what backpacking in Yellowstone is really like.

Keep on the lookout and be ready for opportunities that happen along the way. Animals move quickly, lighting changes, and the spurting of geysers lasts only a few moments, but if you are watching, and are prepared, you increase your chances of getting the shot. Sometimes it is worthwhile to sit and wait for something to happen. On one hike I saw a congregation of pelicans "fishing". Most of them settled on an island while a few of them swam down stream. A few minutes later they flew in low to the water and landed 20-30 feet from the island with the others and swam the rest of the way to the island. It looked like they were having landing practice. They kept doing this - they'd swim downstream, fly in and land, swim to the island then float downstream again. About every 10 minutes they were flying in for a landing. So I set up the little tripod, turned on the motor drive and got some landing shots. What fun that was!

Look at a subject from many different angles and with different compositions. If the moose is too far away to get a good closeup, make it a landscape shot with a moose in it. If the sky is overcast and you can't get a striking landscape image of the thermal area, close in on a small portion of the scene, such as a dead tree encrusted with mineral deposits from the surrounding thermal waters. If you don't have a wide enough lens to get the whole waterfall, shoot it close up and with a slow shutter speed to make the boiling water look like electrified cotton candy.

If fires are permitted (they are at most of the campsites), set up your camera for fire shots. Or try moonscapes. Just set up your tripod right outside the tent and relax in the comfort of your warm bag while you are making some incredible time exposures of this magic place at night. The steam from the geysers takes on an eerie ambience at night, with star-trails streaking the sky and the soft blur of the bursting geyser.

As many backpacking trips go, it is not always easy getting back to the really isolated places, but there has always been a pleasant surprise waiting somewhere along the way. There will likely be stumbling blocks such as swollen streams, wet, muddy trails, or trees down across the path. But if you persist, you will be rewarded with sights such as Mount Sheridan perfectly mirrored in Heart Lake, or the company of a young bull elk just outside camp in the early morning. Being snowed on can make everything wet and cold, but also beautiful, with the fall colors poking up from the fresh blanket of snow.

I need to stress that you should always exercise caution and show respect to the animals. You are, after all, a visitor in their home. Don't get too close. If you cause them to move you are too close. Even if they appear not to be bothered, do not approach them. They are unpredictable and can charge without warning. They may seem docile, but they can very easily cause serious harm. Use common sense and be considerate and you will be rewarded with a wonderful feeling, some special memories, and some great photos.

And finally, learn from your mistakes. Don't just throw away the bad pictures, study them. Pay attention to the lighting, composition and the exposures you use (it is useful to keep track of this with a notebook), and think about what you would do differently to improve the image. If at first you don't get acceptable results, you'll just have to go back to paradise and try again.

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