Thermal areas in Yellowstone are often quite colorful. Bacteria form extensive mats in shades of orange, red, yellow, and green, while deep pools become vivid blue, or blue-green.
Viewed from the distance on a sunny day, the steam rising from these pools can look blue, or blue-green, as sunlight hits the water and bounces up into the mist. Sometimes the mist along the edge of a pool turns orange, reflecting the color from one of those bacterial mats.
The grandaddy of these pools is Grand Prismatic Spring. Driving past Grand Prismatic Spring on a sunny day you can see vivid blue and orange mist rising from the pool – an amazing, surreal sight.
One day during our recent trip to Yellowstone we climbed a hillside overlooking Grand Prismatic Spring, and found some wonderful colors and patterns in the surrounding terraces (I’ve included some photos below). Then we descended the hill, and looking across the pool I could sometimes see people appear through the blue mist as they traveled the boardwalk on the other side of the spring. I rarely photograph people, but this was a striking sight, and an irresistible photo subject. I made a number of images, but one stood out, with a man near the center of the frame holding up his phone to take a selfie. Perfect.
I didn’t plan this image. It wasn’t on my mental checklist of things I wanted to photograph in Yellowstone. But a big part of photography is recognizing opportunities. That includes, of course, noticing beautiful light, or a spectacular sunset. But also – and, perhaps, more importantly – it means recognizing opportunities to make a photograph that captures a mood, or tells a story.
When I saw this scene, I realized that the people would provide a visual focal point to anchor an otherwise abstract composition. But better yet, I knew that this juxtaposition of people with the amazing patterns and colors of Grand Prismatic Spring would tell a story. That story is open to interpretation, and everyone who views the image might have a different one. But to me it says something about the popularity of our national parks, and the difficulty of balancing the preservation of such wondrous natural beauty with the desire of so many people to see and experience that beauty.
Like so many national parks during the pandemic, Yellowstone was very busy during our visit, and traffic was bad at certain places and times. I overheard one man telling another that it took him three hours to drive from Old Faithful to West Yellowstone one evening. (It normally takes 45 minutes.)
Luckily our photographer’s schedule kept us out of the fray – for the most part. We got up early to capture the morning light, and by the time most people started arriving around nine or ten o’clock, we were headed back to our campsite for a late breakfast and naps. The campground was almost empty during the middle of the day. Then we would head back into the park in the late afternoon, while everyone else was heading out. And even during the middle of the day it was easy to get away from the crowds by making a short hike.
But still, we were there, adding to the crowds. We wanted to experience the same things as everyone else – the beauty and wonder of this amazing national park.
And for what it’s worth, the man I overheard talking about the three-hour drive from Old Faithful to West Yellowstone also waxed on about the amazing things he and his family had seen, including geysers, bison, elk, and a grizzly bear. He was having a great time, despite the crowds. We did too.
When it comes to dealing with overcrowding at national parks, there are no easy answers. But a photograph can sometimes portray the dilemma more vividly than words.
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.