A Night Photographing the Milky Way in Yellowstone

Against the vast expanse of the starlit sky, the Milky Way provided an enticing focal point for the National Park Night Skies Photography Workshop in Yellowstone

Against the vast expanse of the starlit sky, the Milky Way provided an enticing focal point for the National Park Night Skies Photography Workshop in Yellowstone National Park. With a group of 25 photography enthusiasts, two park rangers and a team of Tamron professional photographers, we were set to experience the nighttime sky of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.

Participants from all over the country and even Switzerland had made their way to the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone Tuesday, June 7, 2016. The 25-person workshop was filled with a variety of people whose skill levels varied from having just purchased their first camera to those who had been taking photos for more than 40 years. With eager eyes, people introduced themselves to one another and chatted about the night to come. As a summer intern for National Park Trips Media, I was there to learn more about photography and cover the event.

Photo workshop participants shoot the dramatic skies developing over a geyser in Yellowstone. Photo by Carly Everett
Photo workshop participants shoot the dramatic skies developing over a geyser in Yellowstone. Photo by Carly Everett

“Stacie and I first started talking about a national park photo workshop series back in 2011 and the focus then was wildlife, specifically wolves,” says Rob Wood, Publisher and Director of Sales and Marketing for National Park Trips Media. “With 2016 being the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, it was the perfect time to revisit launching a series in the parks.”

“We tried to come up with something that was a little bit different than just a regular travel workshop to the National Parks by focusing on the night skies,” says Stacie Errera, Vice President of Marketing of Tamron who helped put together the workshop with Rob Wood. “It’s a really exciting and unique opportunity for a lot of people.”

The word of the night seemed to be excitement, as everyone exclaimed that they were eager to get out to Yellowstone National Park and learn how to take pictures of the stars.

“I’m most looking forward to the star trails and learning how to take photos of them,” said Anita Metzgr, 32-year-old from Zurich, Switzerland, during the workshop that took place just beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone.

Nancy Layden, 23-year-old from Houston, Texas, was new to photography. She’s interning at the Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone and when she heard about the workshop she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I’m still a beginner,” she stated, “but I really want to learn how to take night shots.”

For most of the participants, like myself, night photography wasn’t something they’d ever done before. April O’Neal, 43-year-old from Whitefish, Mont., explained how she was hoping to turn photography from a hobby into something more serious. She stated she was looking forward to “learning some techniques,” since she hadn’t done any night photography.

The evening started with dinner and a seminar taught by Tamron professional photographers Kevin Gilligan, Ken Hubbard and Andre Costantini. They provided the group with insight and basic information on how to capture the best photo. With help from Constantini and Hubbard, participants were given the opportunity to borrow a variety of Tamron camera lenses to use throughout the workshop. After preparing for the night, we headed to our first location, the Lower Geyser Basin.

Wary of the weather, we quickly made our way to the Fountain Paint Pots Nature Trail off Firehole Lake Drive, less than an hour drive from our West Yellowstone base. Storm clouds began to roll in once we arrived, but the varying cloud formations provided a dramatic sky for our pictures. The sky was continually evolving, providing participants with a wide-variety of picture opportunities.

“Having the storm come through at sunset really helped create some beautiful light and very dramatic images for the attendees,” said Kevin Gilligan who is a member of the Professional Photographers Association of America and whose work has appeared in museums, photography shows, and published in magazines and newspapers across the United States.

Stormy night skies at sunset over Spasm Geyser in Yellowstone. Photo by Rob Wood Photography
Stormy night skies at sunset over Spasm Geyser in Yellowstone. Photo by Rob Wood PhotographyRob Wood Photography

Once the impending storm arrived and rain began to trickle in, we loaded up the vans and made our way to the next location. Our timing was perfect, as Old Faithful was set to erupt within minutes of our arrival. Everyone stared in awe at both the geyser’s eruption, which can reach up to 184 feet, and their photographs. However, the highlight of the evening was yet to come.

We relocated to Great Fountain Geyser, the only predictable geyser in Lower Geyser Basin, and within a few minutes the first stars began to appear. The excitement was palpable as everyone began to realize the sky was clearing. As the stars continued to gradually illuminate the night, participants shared their captured moments with each other. Before heading to Grand Prismatic Spring, our next location, we practiced light painting, which is using a light source to illuminate various foreground features. The light painting portion of the night allowed us to get shots that highlighted both the geyser and the starry night.

“I think my favorite part was the light painting portion at the geyser on Firehole Lake Drive,” said Ken Hubbard who takes photographs for Tamron and also serves as the company’s Field Services Manager. “It was very rewarding to get everyone set up to all fire their cameras at once and then hear the happy reactions of the people as the image appeared on their screens.”

My eagerness to capture the Milky Way grew tremendously once the stars began to appear; watching as they doubled themselves in their reflection in Great Fountain Geyser was inspiring. With spirits high, we got coffee reinforcements provided by National Park Trips Media hosts Rob Wood and Sales Manager Dave Krause and then made our way to Grand Prismatic Spring.

A park visitor stands in awe of the stars on the Grand Prismatic boardwalk in Yellowstone.
A park visitor stands in awe of the stars on the Grand Prismatic boardwalk in Yellowstone. Photo by Breanna Keller PhotographyBreanna Keller Photography

The sound of quick feet reverberated off the boardwalk, as the group hastily made its way to Midway Geyser Basin to get a starry-night shot of Grand Prismatic Spring. Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest spring in the world-it’s larger than a football field. Eager to capture the full beauty of the Milky Way, we lined up along the boardwalk and got our tri-pods and cameras set. The “oohs” and “ahs” were testament to the Milky Ways grandeur as it appeared in the sky as well as a reflection in the spring.

“By the time we got to the last stop, the clouds parted and we were able to photograph the Milky Way,” Gilligan said. “It amazes me that we could have such an incredible diversity of weather in such a short time.”

Staring up at the Milky Way, an arc through the middle of the infinite night sky, was a moment I will never forget. Every time I look at the photos from the workshop, I’ll relive that breathtaking moment. With help from the Tamron professionals, everyone was able to generate a photo of the Milky Way-infused sky.

Starry skies over Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone.
Starry skies over Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone. Photo by Rob Wood PhotographyRob Wood Photography

“The instructors were so nice and generous with their time and knowledge,” exclaimed Linda Davenport, 61-year-old from San Antonio, Texas. “They were also very patient.”

At 2 a.m., the group headed back the hotel for a quick 45-minute-break before departing for Artist Point in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone at 4 a.m.. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was created by the Yellowstone River, which is the longest undammed river in the Continental United States. The morning was coated with a thick fog, so the cascading waterfall and river were partially obscured. With a dense fog surrounding the pine trees, the colors were rich and deep. This final scene added to the variety of weather we were able to photograph throughout the workshop.

The workshop finished with a briefing on post-editing and some well deserved bacon and eggs at the hotel. Standing in line to get breakfast, I could hear participants discussing the excitement of the night.

“I would recommend this workshop to anyone,” Davenport exclaimed of her experience with the workshop. “It was the best experience I have had with photography classes and workshops. This was the best money I ever spent! If all Tamron instructors are this much fun and knowledgeable, you can’t miss!”

Gilligan said that one of his favorite parts of the workshop was seeing the look on the participants faces when they capture an image they are really happy with.

“Their face lights up and as an instructor, that’s what you want to see,” he said.

For Davenport, it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

“I have taken other workshops and read books, taken a college course, and this workshop was far and away the best one I have attended,” said Davenport

Tamron Professionals Recommended Photography Applications

SnapSeed – This is a great app for those looking to make quick adjustments to their images on-the-go. You can easily optimize selected parts of your photographs with tuning tools and pre-set filters. It’s an easy-to-use program that helps you add a little more zest to your photos. (cost: free)

SkyGuide – This app is very useful to those interested in night sky photography. It allows you to see where the stars are at any time of day wherever you are. The display screen is a 3D overlay of stars and constellations that help you plan your night photography shoots. It even identifies the stars and planets you’re viewing. (cost: $2.99)

PhotoPills – This is an in-depth app that allows you to track the sun, moon, Galactic Center of visibility, golden hour, blue hour and much more. It also helps you calculate the exposure setting when using ISO, aperture or shutter speed. The app is a necessity for those new to night sky photography and looking to capture star trails or spot stars; it explains how long of an exposure is needed to achieve various effects. The app contains how-to videos and articles to help along the way. (cost: $9.99)