Land on Fire
Yellowstone’s spectacular geothermal fireworks draw visitors from all over the world. Here’s where and when to see—and photograph—geysers blowing, hot springs bubbling, and the earth itself steaming beneath your feet.
Images and tips by Jeff Vanuga
Take care near this vibrant feature: The 42-foot-deep pool’s violent boiling can toss water 10 feet high.
Location: Upper Geyser Basin
See it: Stroll the boardwalk from Old Faithful to the Castle Group area.
When to go: Summer, when higher temps promote bacterial growth that deepens the pool’s blue hue
Pro tip: Midday is usually the time to put away your camera for landscape photography, but this is the exception. Crested Pool is best when the sun is high and light filters deep into the water, creating this stunning luminescence.
Shot details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 24-105mm lens at 28mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/100 second
West Thumb Geyser Basin
This small basin is too often overlooked, leaving its scenic hot springs, mud pots, and lakeshore geysers to in-the-know visitors.
Location: West side of Yellowstone Lake
See it: Walk the 3/8-mile boardwalk.
When to go: Sunrise in summer and sunset in winter for the best light.
Pro tip: When shooting people, include wider perspectives like this one that provide a sense of place for your trip.
Shot details: Nikon D4 camera, 70-200mm lens at 200mm, ISO 220, f/5.6, 1/500 second
Geyser Photography 101
Use a tripod. Even the steadiest hands tremble on long exposures, yielding blurry images. Add a cable release (or use your camera’s timer function) for even crisper shots.
Get up early. Not only is the light gorgeous and the wildlife more active early in the day, but sunrise is your best bet for shooting in the busy geyser basins without catching dozens of other visitors in your shot.
Shield your lenses. Geyser spray contains silica and calcium carbonate, which can build up on lenses in a hard-to-clean film. Be vigilant about wiping lenses and/or keep your lens cap on until you’re ready to shoot.
Sentinel Meadows – Steep Cone Geyser
The hot springs in this meadow deposit minerals in a ring as they boil, forming distinctive sinter rims.
Location: Lower Geyser Basin
See it: Hike 1.5 miles from the Sentinel Meadows trailhead on Fountain Flat Drive.
When to go: June through fall for snow-free trails
Pro tip: When using a wide-angle lens, include something interesting in the foreground (like these bacterial mats) to add depth and dimension to your shot.
Shot details: Canon 1Ds camera, 17-35mm lens at 22mm, ISO 125, f/16, 1/60 second
Grand Prismatic Spring & Excelsior Geyser
Grand Prismatic measures 370 feet across, making it the world’s largest hot spring. Despite its name, adjacent Excelsior is considered more like a hot spring, too, as it last erupted in 1901.
Location: Midway Geyser Basin
See it: On the .5-mile loop trail off Grand Loop Road or from the 5-mile (round-trip) Fairy Falls Trail
When to go: Summer for the brightest colors
Pro tip: This stunning perspective required a flight in a fixed-wing aircraft. Most visitors won’t be flying over the basin, but you can still get a higher view from the Fairy Falls Trail south of Midway.
Shot details: Canon EOS 7D camera, 18-200mm lens at 75mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/600 second
When to Use a Tripod
Anytime you are shooting in low light, a tripod can help ensure crisp images. A good rule of thumb is to use a tripod when your shutter speed is lower than 1/60 of a second or when the shutter speed is slower than the focal length. For optimal results from your digital equipment, set your camera at a low ISO and a mid-range aperture of f/8 or f/11. As you’ll have to carry your tripod into the backcountry, invest in the lightest tripod you can afford (and that can support your camera with its heaviest lens). Even point-and-shoot users can benefit from a small tripod, like the flexible GorillaPod models (joby.com).
Great Fountain Geyser
Great Fountain shoots water 150 feet in the air (and superbursts up to 220 feet have been recorded) from its 16-foot-wide crater, making it one of Yellowstone’s most dramatic geysers. Check visitor centers for predicted eruption times (every 9 to 16 hours).
Location: Firehole Lake Drive near Lower Geyser Basin
See it: Pick up the 2-mile, one-way drive just south of Lower Geyser Basin.
When to go: Firehole Lake Drive is typically open April through October.
Pro tip: Vary how you approach a subject. Generally, front-lit subjects are boring and lack depth, so change your position to include side or back lighting. Here, the setting sun backlights the geyser for much better color, depth, and illumination.
Shot details: Nikon D4 camera, 24-70mm lens at 48mm, ISO 160, f/16 + .33 exposure compensation, 1/100 seconds
This 160°F hot spring may look placid, but beware: The pool was named after a Belgian visitor slipped into it in 1929, suffering fatal burns. The crust in the geyser basins can be dangerously thin, so always stick to the boardwalks.
Location: Upper Geyser Basin
See it: Head for the Grand Group, north of the Castle Group, on the boardwalk.
When to go: Late spring through fall for the best weather
Pro tip: Experiment with angles. In this shot, the camera was tilted about 20 degrees to create a more interesting diagonal line leading into the image. High-angle sun also intensifies the color.
Shot details: Nikon D4 camera, 24-70mm lens at 52mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/60 second
This river got its name from early trappers in the area, who mistook the steam rising from the valley’s abundant geothermal features for campfire smoke. A major tributary to the Madison, both rivers beckon anglers with plentiful—if challenging to catch—brook, rainbow, and brown trout. Vanuga created this shot in the early morning, when the valley’s steam plumes are most visible.
Location: Yellowstone NP, WY
See It: Midway Geyser Basin bridge, Grand Prismatic Spring
When to go: May through early July and September through October are best for fly-fishing.
Pro tip: A slow shutter speed lends the river and thermal streams a smooth look and enhances the movement of the scene. Using a neutral density filter allows you slow the shutter enough to create silky effects even in bright light.
Tools: Canon 1Ds Mark III camera and tripod, 70-200mm L lens, ISO 100, f/29, 4 seconds
White Dome Geyser at Night
This 30-foot plume usually erupts every 15 to 30 minutes, though the interval can be as long as two hours. The 12-foot-high cone is one of the oldest geothermal features in the park.
Location: Yellowstone NP, WY
See it: Firehole Lake Drive, Lower Geyser Basin
When to go: Summer has warmer nights, but you’ll find more solitude in the busy geyser basins in September and October.
Pro tip: Night photos require long exposure times; use a tripod and your camera’s two-second timer delay to eliminate shake.
Tools: Canon 5D Mark II camera with tripod and cable release, 24-105mm lens, ISO 1250, f/4, 20 seconds