March 2022 marks Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary as America’s first national park. Like many others, I associate Yellowstone with gorgeous scenery, otherworldly geologic features, and abundant wildlife. Although it is a beautiful place any time of year, Yellowstone becomes truly magical in winter. I recently returned for a short visit to the park and took a few toys along with me. Here is what I learned on my Yellowstone winter adventure with toys, and some of the images I created.

Midnight and Bastian on a winter walk

Making a plan

I admit that I generally prefer order to chaos. So before the trip I created a detailed shot list. I hoped to create photos that were distinctly Yellowstone, not just winter scenes that could be found anywhere. I needed structure to decide which toys and accessories to pack. Also, I thought a list would help me not be totally without ideas when I got there. It was a good plan.

Yellowstone in winter can be harsh with its sub-zero temperatures, but it makes for amazing winter photography. Frost and ice cover the trees and bushes, the morning sun makes everything sparkly, and pillows of fluffy fresh snow cover the landscape. But not this time. We were treated to some snow showers on the first day, but otherwise the weather was uncharacteristically sunny and warm. It was still beautiful, but I chose to pretty much abandon my list and embrace spontaneity instead.

Yeti on the (quickly melting) ice at Pebble Creek

A change in process

I went on this trip as part of a photography workshop group. The goal of the workshop was wildlife and winter landscape photography. And that was my primary goal as well. I wasn’t actually even sure I would have the chance to create any toy photos. Most importantly, I did not want to hold up the group or interfere with the workshop experience for the others.

I found early on that being successful as both a workshop attendee and a toy photographer required a change in my process. I typically shoot alone. Normally I can take as much time as I want experimenting with positioning and compositions. And I am usually free to photograph wherever and whenever I want. During this adventure I had to create setups fast and keep them simple, using just the figures and a few accessories. I also had to work within the locations, time of day, and lighting presented to me during the workshop.

This change in process meant it was not the time to be a perfectionist. Looking at the images once I got home, I spotted many things I would have (and should have) fixed or done differently if I had more time to work with each setup. Photographing toys quickly, especially being able to identify potential issues in-camera, is a skill I definitely need more practice with. I guess that gives me a reason for a return trip, right? I did feel a little better remembering a similar experience Tom shared where things did not go as planned.

Sunrise in the Lamar Valley

An unexpected encounter

One morning we were fortunate to be in an area of the park where there were wolves hunting. Two of them ran across the road right in front of our vehicle. It was dark and the wolves vanished in an instant, so obviously we did not get any photographs of them. But we did enjoy a serenade of howling while we were photographing sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs. And a bit later, we got to hang out with the wolf watchers and view the wolves through spotting scopes.

On the way out, we walked past some wolf tracks and I couldn’t resist a toy photo opportunity. I would not consider this image (created very quickly with my phone) an epic photo by any means. And obviously I didn’t have this photo idea in my shot list. But seeing the image here makes me smile and reminds me again of that awesome morning. 

An up-close wolf track made a fun impromptu toy photo opportunity.

Success at the hot springs

As I mentioned, I had mostly given up on my shot list early in the trip. But there was one particular idea I really wanted to make happen — minifigures relaxing in the hot springs (a definite no-no for human visitors). I knew it would be difficult because if you travel to the park in winter, Mammoth Hot Springs is basically the only photographic geothermal feature accessible by car. To protect the fragile terrain, the “trails” through the area are boardwalks, limiting access to the water. It was highly unlikely for there to be many places where any water runs close enough to the trail to set up a photo. Finally, the springs are constantly changing and the place I had in mind (from previous visits) was completely dry this time.

I nearly gave up, but close to the end of the last day we made a final stop at the lower Mammoth terraces, and the universe surprised me with a small runoff right next to the trail that would work for what I had in mind. 

Behind the scenes at the hot springs. Photo credit: Kevin Lisota

At the time, compared to the surrounding scenery, the background behind the runoff seemed quite unremarkable. So after I photographed the characters in the water, I walked down the trail and took a few photos of the main features to use for a composite image. But when I got home and created some draft composites, I kept coming back to the original composition with its sparkly water and just enough snow to show that it was actually winter, so that’s what I chose to use. It was a really good lesson in keeping things simple.

The ranger was not amused about the ice bears’ decision to enjoy a dip in the hot springs. Or maybe he’s just mad that I missed the gap between his shirt and pants that would have easily been fixed in-camera (ugg!).

In conclusion

Even though things didn’t quite go as planned, I absolutely consider my Yellowstone winter adventure with toys successful. I had a great time photographing the toys when I could. While I created fewer toy images than I envisioned, I am very happy with the resulting photos (and yes, I got some landscape and wildlife images, too). It was also definitely a great learning experience in dealing with the unexpected.

I won’t hesitate to take toys along with me on more destination “non-toy” photo adventures (including two epic locations later this year that the toy team and I are super excited about). And I definitely will return to Yellowstone, maybe during summer or fall, where I can spend time on my own creating more toy photos in this iconic park. In the meantime, I’m super excited about spending an upcoming Toy Photographers meet-up weekend in California where it will be all toys all the time! If hanging out with toy photographers among the majestic redwoods and stunning coast sounds like fun to you, too, check out the details and join us!