National Geographic Traveler Director of Photography, Dan Westergren, recently was On Assignment in Montana, photographing the local culture and stunning landscapes of the scenic state. Dan’s travels brought him to Yellowstone National Park and of course, the famous Old Faithful geyser. So, how do you make interesting photographs of a famous site? Dan sat down with us and shared his tips.
Nat Geo Travel: Old Faithful is photographed by thousands of photographers each year. How do you make a photo that stands out?
Dan Westergren: Some of the most difficult things to photograph are well known travel icons. People often think that if you want your picture to be recognizable, you should take a picture from the spot that everyone else does, right? Well, no, though it’s very hard to resist that temptation. Think differently.
I arrived at Old Faithful just a few minutes before it was scheduled to erupt. Without time to plan, I went to the expected spot. As the geyser erupted, I was disappointed because I couldn’t see the water shooting into the air. The boiling water instantly turned into a cloud of vapor, hiding the actual eruption. Then I recognized the huge cloud in front of me, and without even trying, just by paying attention, I made an unusual picture of Old Faithful from the ordinary photo spot.
N.G.T.: Within one day, you photographed very different lighting conditions. Walk us through the different scenes and how you decided to frame and make your pictures.
D.W.: After my first encounter with the famous photo op, I started walking around the Upper Geyser Basin, keeping in mind that Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes. I was photographing other park features, but also looking for something interesting to put in the foreground. As I wandered the basin, the weather drastically changed and a low contrast gloom descended over the whole area. Everything was white and I wondered if that was a color palette I could use to my advantage. When I happened upon a small clump of frost-encrusted trees, I knew I had my photo.
The next morning I went out into the sub-zero weather well before sunrise, hoping to get a sweet light photo of some bison. The sun was not cooperating, but did make a very brief appearance. As the horizon started to glow and Old Faithful began erupting, I frantically looked around for something interesting to put between my camera and the bright spot on the horizon. I love the way this picture looks like some type of bomb has gone off in the eerie scene.
Finally, while waiting for my snow coach ride out of the park, people started to gather once again around the famous sight. Thinking it would be a shame to waste another opportunity to photograph the geyser, I walked away from the crowd, looking for something a little less common. When I saw this skier waiting to see the spectacle, I knew I had another unique photograph of Old Faithful.
N.G.T.: Spring or summer, which provides better opportunities to make unique photographs in Montana?
D.W.: I prefer difficult photographic situations, so I love shooting Yellowstone in winter. But, spring is probably better — it’s nice to be there without all the summer crowds.
N.G.T.: What’s the most surprising thing about photographing this famous geyser?
D.W.: I was surprised at how regimented the experience of viewing Old Faithful is, even in the winter. I would guess that 80% of the people who visit Yellowstone in the winter have the same exact experience. They ride a snowcoach in from West Yellowstone, watch Old Faithful erupt, eat lunch, then head out of the park. I would recommend spending the night there if possible. The crowds leave every afternoon, making for a very pleasant evening or early morning experience.
See more of Dan’s photography and get more photo tips on Nat Geo Travel’s On Assignment blog.