Brrrriiing! Like a hammer shattering glass, the alarm broke the silence of our West Yellowstone motel room. It was 3 a.m. We needed to get up and out to meet a small group of fellow photographers for our first-ever photo tour.
We're no strangers to sunrises, but June temperatures in the low 30s made it more painful than we expected.
We rallied and joined Don Mammoser, who was about to take us on a 90-minute drive to the West Thumb area of Yellowstone National Park to shoot the sunrise — if there was one.
FOR THE RECORD:
Yellowstone photo tour: In the Aug. 3 Travel section, an article about a photo tour in Yellowstone National Park referred to waterfalls on the Yosemite River. The falls were on the Yellowstone River. —
Mammoser, a former Kodak photographer in Yellowstone National Park, has been guiding tours for 19 years and had invited us to join this Yellowstone tour just as my partner, Gloria Cortes, and I were thinking about visiting the nation's first national park. Timing, as always, is everything.
Navigating a new place — for anyone but especially for a photographer — can be tough, and Yellowstone, at 3,472 square miles, may add a degree of difficulty. But Mammoser knows the area, which was key to our decision.
Mammoser and his wife, Anya, took us first to West Thumb Geyser Basin, where a series of thermal pools provide the foreground for the light of the morning sun through clouds and steam, some of the best photo opportunities of the tour.
Then, it was off to the Old Faithful geyser area, home of multiple geysers. If skies are gray, the challenge of capturing a geyser is even greater because steaming water tends to meld into the background. Some of our group nailed a rainbow in the middle of a geyser when the sun broke through.
Mammoser huddled with our group at every stop, offering suggestions, checking equipment and making sure everyone was content.
His goal, he said, is to "get the photos the clients want to get."
And some they never dreamed of. At one point, we were engulfed in a herd of at least 100 bison, which were indifferent to our presence as they surged around our cars and reduced traffic to a standstill. The sound of camera shutters added to the soundtrack of the moment.
We spent part of another day with varying views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Inspiration Point is a popular viewing area for the canyon, but you really need to move around to get views of the lower and upper falls of the Yosemite River. (The lower is taller, but the upper is more dramatic.) We were guided to good locations for both. Down canyon, we also spotted the nest of a family of ospreys.
How do you choose the trip that will afford you the best chances for great pictures? George Lepp, one of the most respected outdoor photographers and one of its most published, offers these suggestions:
--Do your homework. "Look up the guide/leader, try to talk to someone that has been on a previous trip, look closely at the itinerary, and try to gauge at what level the photography will be," he said. "The higher qualifications of the guide/leader, usually the better the program."
--Consider the destination. "Are the subjects the kind of photography you like?" he said. "If you don't like wildlife, Africa isn't for you. It should be a location you have wanted to go to."
See what others say. "It's important to talk to previous participants," he said. "The tour company should be able to give you a couple of persons to talk to, not just one."
To his suggestions I would add: Make sure the destination is on your photographic bucket list.
Next stop: Mt. Rainier and the world's best wildflower display.
For info, check out the websites of these photo industry leaders:
--Don Mammoser, who will lead fall tours to Canada and Colorado, starting at $995 and $895, respectively, which includes the cost of instruction but not transportation or lodging
--Gary Hart, whose destinations include Hawaii and fall and winter tours in Yosemite
--George Lepp, who is offering late summer and early fall workshops in Des Moines, Erie, Pa., and at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.