Around 10:15pm we entered America’s first National Park: Yellowstone. At about 10:30pm we were warmly welcomed by the park’s largest wildlife: an American Bison. Down the road, dimly lit by the cars’ headlights, we saw what looked like a large fuzzy brown car in the opposite lane. I slowed down and soon we recognized it as a Bison. He let us pass without any trouble, but immediately behind him was another, one who was not so complacent, probably because he was partially blinded by the headlights. Suddenly the 2,000 pound beast charged us, headed for straight my door. Ali screamed (somehow not breaking the glass windows), and I gunned the engine and almost managed to clear the impending doom. But these animals can sprint at 30 mph, so he had no trouble catching us before we got away, ramming his head into the drivers side rear quarter panel, right between the break lights and the fuel access. Fortunately he only had about 8 feet to build up speed, so he probably didn’t quite reach maximum speed! Nevertheless the car shook like we’d just been hit by another car, and after getting to our campsite we discovered he’d done quite some damage.

Imagine what would happen if one of these animals hit you, and not just the car. And yes, it happens to stupid tourists more often than you’d think.

“American Bison” ~ Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500mm f/4 IS, monopod
Exposure: iso 400, f/11, 1/400th

“American Bison” ~ Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 20D, 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x teleconverter, monopod
Exposure: iso 400, f/11, 1/1600th

The following morning we set out to explore the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone. Since I generally try to frequent places where I’m free to roam to my hearts content with hardly anyone else around, it took me a little while to adjust to being constrained to the wooden boardwalks among the throngs of European tourists (most of the Americans being back at their jobs or in school). Maybe that’s why I’ve hardly seen any exciting photographs from here – other photographers leave it to the realm of the tourists (but are happy to line up with 10 other photographers to shoot the same scene Ansel Adams and others have made ‘classics’). But there are more than enough strange abstract and simply weird landscapes here that it’s unlikely you’ll be putting your tripod in the same ‘holes’ as hundreds before you. Plus the geothermal features change significantly every year, so you’re always destined to find something new and unique. With my passion for strange and abstract landscapes, combined with the fantastically cooperative skies we had, I was like a kid in a candy store (except the candy like colors here are generally rather toxic… so no tasting!).

“Witches Brew” ~ Punch Bowl Spring, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 2.0 sec
Processing: Blended in a high iso shot with a faster shutter speed to bring back some of the structure to the steam.

Yellowstone has the highest concentration of geothermal features in the world (Iceland, New Zealand, and Siberia being the other major hotspots). The basin is actually an active volcano, one which would cause inconceivable amounts of damage if it were to erupt anytime soon (last time was 640,000 years ago). The molten rock, or magma, can be as close as 3-8 miles from the surface. This provides the heat necessary for forming the plentiful geysers and hot springs, which get their water from rain and snowmelt. The water seeps down into the Earth, where it is heated by the magma. Then the boiling water bubbles to the surface through complex ‘plumbing systems’. A number of different geothermal phenomenon can be found within the park, the most famous being the geysers. In a geyser, constrictions in the underground plumbing prevent the water from circulating freely as it does in a hot spring (like “Witches Brew” above). The kinks cause the water to become extremely pressurized, superheating the water above it’s normal boiling point (93 deg C at the surface in Yellowstone, which is at around 6-7,000 feet elevation). Due to the extreme underground pressure the water cannot vaporize, and instead small bubbles of steam form (like the ones that form on the bottom of a pot when you boil water on the stove). Eventually these bubbles get bigger, and get stuck in tight spots. As the pressure increases the bubbles suddenly make it through the cracks, lifting the water above them and pushing it all the way to the surface, exploding as a fantastic fountain of boiling smelly water. Over time this water, high in mineral content, can form interesting structures around the geyser’s vent, such as in the Castle Geyser below.

“Propulsion” ~ Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 28mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 50, f/16, 1/6th sec

Some geysers may erupt as often as every 15 min, or may take up 5-12 hours between exploding. These are the predictable geysers, the most famous in Yellowstone being Old Faithful, which scientists (and rangers) can predict to within 10-20 min – it erupts every 51-120 minutes, and can expel 4-9,000 gallons of boiling water to heights of 180 feet. Castle geyser on the other hand only goes off once every 13 hours, and the eruption can last as long as 20 min, followed by over half an hour of spewing steam. We were fortunate enough to be there at the right time to see this one go off (though it did require waiting for 2 hours), and we were even more fortunate that it occurred in the ‘golden hour’ of light (the hour before sunset or after sunrise). Other geysers are entirely unpredictable, and might not erupt for years, and then suddenly explode, expelling water up to 200-300 feet in the air. And other geysers can just keep spewing water for hours upon hours, such as the Grotto Geyser (below), which is believed to have formed in the midst of a stand of trees, which are now preserved as strange sinter covered shapes of the unfortunate plants.

“Hydraulic Fireworks” ~ Grotto Geyser, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 84mm, polarizer, 3-stop hard ND filter, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/6th sec
Processing: Cropped to 4:5 aspect ratio for composition, duo-toned blue/yellow with a curves adjustment.

These natural, periodic, and somewhat predictable explosions are of course among the parks favorite features. But the hot springs, which form in a similar way to geysers, but without a constriction in the plumbing, make for spectacular scenes as well. In the springs water is constantly bubbling and boiling, forming strange mineral formations along the edges, as seen in the Doublet Pool.

“Thermal Lace” ~ Doublet Pool, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 93mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/50th sec

While the hot springs are way too hot (and toxic) for you and me to relax in (despite the beautiful hot tub shaped forms they come in), thermophyllic (heat loving) bacteria have had no problems colonizing these inhospitable places… inside the pools, outside the pools, along the streams runoff, on the side of geyser vents, anywhere you can imagine. It is in fact in this park that the enzymes used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) were discovered (well, extracted from various thermophyllic bacteria). So without these ‘creatures’ we wouldn’t be able to put the right criminals in jail, engineer our own bacteria, and sequence the human genome. Beyond being useful, the bacteria are truly beautiful (at the grand scale that is, though I suppose you could argue they’re exquisite at the micro scale as well). Different bacteria come in different colors, resulting in strange abstract paintings of color.

“Toxic Art” ~ Thermal Bacterial Mat, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm @ 50mm, polarizer
Exposure: iso 400, f/14, 1/50th sec

Having colonized these places for sometimes thousands of years, the bacteria form complex interconnected networks, bacterial mats, where various bacteria live a symbiotic existence with one another. These bacterial mats make for some exciting abstract structures, which only get better with a lovely sunset!

“Primordial Wasteland” ~ Black Sand Basin, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 22mm, polarizer, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 3.2 sec

So far all these images have been from the Old Faithful Area. In other parts of the park (like the Norris geyser basin) the toxins reach points where even bacteria aren’t as willing to colonize the pools. Even still, some crazy microbes have figured out how to eat sulfur, and spit out sulphuric acid to keep themselves running. These pools look like radioactive wastelands, and weren’t quite as photogenic. At a nearby area, however, we found a rather strange creamy blue toxic pool that interested my photographic eye. The creamy blue colors are due to a high concentration of silica, the reds and oranges come from iron and arsenic deposits. If only an animal carcass had been lying next to it, then the picture would have been complete! But I suppose most of the wildlife avoid these truly nasty pools of death. In the winter they will frequent the more hospitable hot springs and geysers in the Old Faithful area in massive herds, however. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see much wildlife in the park on our visit (other than the too-close encounter with a Bison). One of these winters I’ll put on my arctic parka and ski out into the frigid landscape of Yellowstone’s winter (and then return to the lodge to heat up my feet and drink hot cocoa).

“Toxic Swimming Pool” ~ Artists Paintpots, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 40mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/25th sec

Further north is Mammoth Hot Springs, which rests on a limestone base rather than the rhyolite, which most of the rest of the park’s geothermal features live on. As the boiling water rises through cracks in the limestone it dissolves calcium carbonate, which is then deposited in the form of travertine as the water cools down and flows out of the springs, forming white and multicolored (bacterially colored) terraces. While the bacteria love this place, the trees aren’t too keen on it. In fact the trees will soak up the mineral water, which essentially fossilizes the trees from the inside out, leaving them strong and standing (usually), but most certainly dead.

“Travertine Death” ~ Canary Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 36mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 1/20th sec
Processing: Reduced sky exposure using curves adjustments (not nearly 2-stops, thus I didn’t use the filter). Duo-toned blue/yellow using curves adjustment.

And for those of you who prefer colors over black and white, we stuck around for sunset for the same bizarre scene.

“Hopeful Hellscape I” ~ Canary Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 33mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 0.6 sec
Processing: Reduced sky exposure using curves adjustments (not nearly 2-stops, thus I didn’t use the filter).

“Hopeful Hellscape II” ~ Canary Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 40mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/14, 0.6 sec
Processing: Reduced sky exposure using curves adjustments (not nearly 2-stops, thus I didn’t use the filter).

Seeing as I managed to pull together this collection of work in just over 48 hours (largely due to the incredibly cooperative weather), I’m truly baffled as to why I haven’t seen more work from here… usually Yellowstone photos are all of the Bison, Elk, Bears, Wolves, etc etc. But not these weird primordial pools of slime. Oh well, I’m not complaining. Especially seeing as I’m about to sit in a hot tub myself at Ali’s house near Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes my avid readers, the summer appears to be ending, and with it my summer adventures. But have no fear, I will continue to take as much time as I can to explore the wonders that abound, and share my interpretation of them with you. I’ve got one last trip planned before my life at Caltech as an Engineering (Control and Dynamical Systems) PhD student starts: a week long backpacking adventure in the Sierras with some other new students. Once I settle myself in Pasadena I’ll start doing some more bird photography again, which I’ve been sorely missing for the last 3 months. And I’ll start processing all these images ‘for real’ – that is, on my real computer – followed by printing them… so if your walls are barren, and you’re interested in having them decorated with large format limited edition prints of my work (and by doing so, funding future expeditions to faraway places like India, Patagonia, Alaska, etc etc), please let me know!

With that I’ll end with the devil’s hot tub, which looks lot more interesting, but also a little more scary, compared to the one I’m about to enjoy!

“Devil’s Hot Tub” ~ Turquoise Pool, Yellowstone National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 20mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/8, 1.3 sec
Processing: Reduced sky exposure using curves adjustments (not nearly 2-stops, thus I didn’t use the filter).

I should also note that all the information here comes from the park handouts, and a few things I remember from my Cornell (and other) education. In general all the information I’ve shared in my posts comes from similar handouts, or trailside info signs, books on the area, and occasionally the magical Internet. If you’re curious as to where I found something, or would like to add or correct to what I’ve said, please let me know!

4 Comments to “Exquisite Primordial Wastelands: Yellowstone National Park”

  1. Curtis says:

    “Witches Brew” is just fantastic. Is this a raw unprocessed photo from your camera, or what was done to it. I think my photography has reached a point where i need to learn to use photoshop to combine images and such to get great colors like you have. Also about when was this shot taken? 10 minutes after sunset?

    It’s nice to see another photographer/engineering student out there. I’ll be checking this blog regularly now.


  2. Nathan says:

    Beautiful photography on your website here. Keep up the great work!
    Ive passed bison many times, and heard of others being hit by them, you got lucky considering he hit a portion of the car that doesnt do much. I have seen a few trucks in the yellowstone area with disabled doors and taped windows from the beasts.

  3. Robin says:

    Hi Floris,

    been reading your blog from the first day on and just wanted to thank you for the insights, tips and stunning images you share with us. Your photography is very inspiring to me. Sad to see that your trip is over now, but what an enrichment for your portfolio! Keep up the great work.

    Greets from Germany

  4. […] happen. And it did happen to me, two years ago, and you can see the damage in that post from 2008: bison attack! I’ll continue on with the wildlife we saw on my next post. I hope you all have a wonderful […]