Not wanting to miss a spectacular photography opportunity, we booked onto Yellowstone National Park’s Photo Safari Tour to get tips from an expert park photographer.
Typically, we don’t do tours, but occasionally, we make an exception. In this case, personal circumstances kept us from doing our own research before heading off to one of the wildest, most breathtaking areas in the US. Leaving without great photos would have haunted us forever.
To help you choose if Yellowstone’s Photo Safari is right for you, here’s our break down on what to expect from this park offered tour.
This post is not sponsored, we are sharing our experience to help others make the most of their time in Yellowstone National Park.
The Basics - Yellowstone Photo Safari
- Operating season: Mornings, daily from late May through the end of September
- Pick up points: Lake Yellowstone Hotel or the Old Faithful Inn (both tour different areas of the park)
- Costs: Around $108 per person, but check the Xanterra website for current rates
- Length of tour: 5 hours
- Tour size: Bus seats up to 13 passengers
- Who is the tour best suited for: All levels of photography and wildlife lovers
Booking a Yellowstone Photo Safari
We heard about the photo safari when booking our three night stay at Lake Yellowstone Hotel. We had the choice of adding on the photo safari, along with a dozen other park activities including, horseback rides, cruises, and other tours.
Staying at one of the Yellowstone hotels is not required to book a tour. Though, the morning safaris start around 6 am to catch the sunrise. Don’t underestimate the distances in Yellowstone and how long it takes to reach the pick up location from outside the park.
Costs of the Yellowstone Photo Safari
We felt the cost was very reasonable at $108 per person.
For a little perspective, we looked into private companies with photography tours in Yellowstone. Most only did larger full day or multi-day tours starting from $650+.
For only two of us, these private photography tours were too expensive. Nonetheless, if you have a large group (6-8 people), some private tours allow you to buy the day for a set fee, which may work out reasonable for you.
For everyone else, we feel the Yellowstone Photo Safari offers great value.
Pick up at Lake Yellowstone Hotel
The hotel was stunningly silent as we made our way to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel lobby just before our 6 am pick up. Our group of eight, still half asleep, listened quietly as Doug, our professional photographer and guide, gave us the crucial details of the day; two bathroom breaks and a snack break with muffins and juice.
With another couple, a trio of friends, and a solo woman, our group made a good representation of different types of travelers in the park.
We also had a good mix of camera ability. The solo woman and I were ready with our tripods, full framed cameras, and changeable lenses. Most of the group had nice point and shoots, but we also had two with only camera phones.
Throughout the tour, Doug gave us lots of insight into the park, tons of photo tips, and even instruction on how to use our camera phones and more advanced cameras. There was something for everyone.
Our hot ride for the day was a bright yellow vintage White Motor Co. bus waiting out front of the hotel. With heavy wooden doors, a tarp roof, and a 1920’s look, it’s definitely a memorable part of the experience. When the weather warmed up, we even got to roll back the top.
What to Bring on the Yellowstone Photo Safari
During the Yellowstone Photo Safari from the Lake Hotel, you’ll photograph a sunrise, lake reflections, and a waterfall at the perfect time of day. To make the most of the opportunity, here are some things you will want.
- Tripod: Tripods help get that steady shot for low light situations and long exposures. Heavy tripods work the best when you’re going for perfection, but they are not always practical to carry around. Most of the time, unless we are in windy conditions, a travel tripod works just fine.
- Polarized filter: Filters go on the front of your lens to help filter out unwanted light. If you’ve ever worn polarized sunglasses, then you know polarizers help reduce glare, especially on the water. Even camera phones have polarized filters, but you may struggle to find them for a point-and-shoot. Oh, and no, you can’t fake a good polarization in post-processing software.
If you have a relatively modern DSLR or mirrorless camera, check your manual for HDR (High Dynamic Range) or bracketing capabilities.
These functions take multiple shots of the same scene very quickly and at different exposures. Combining these photos into one, allows you to pick up all the colors in a scene.
Practice these functions before your trip, so you can use them correctly on the day.
We Started with Sunrise
After piling in our yellow limousine, Doug whisked us off to his favorite sunrise spot in the park. As I respect Doug as a photographer, I won’t give away his trade secret, so you’ll have to take the tour. What I can say, it was a stunning spot that gave me a perfect double sunburst.
As a consolation prize, I can tell you the beach area in front of Yellowstone Lake Lodge was another favorite area for us. First thing in the morning, fog tends to roll over this section of the lake, making lovely, moody photos with beautifully diffused light.
Following sunrise, our guide’s expertise of the park went into overdrive, as he scouted the areas he knew wildlife was recently hanging out.
We tracked down large elk causing a bit of commotion in a campground, a solitary bison wandering the beaches of Lake Yellowstone, and a colony of marmots calling their morning meeting to order.
Disappointingly, the infamous grizzly was too illusive for us. Though our guide knew roughly where a mama grizzly and her cubs were hanging out, we weren’t lucky enough to spot her this time.
More than Just Wildlife
Though the Yellowstone Photo Safari focused on wildlife spotting, the tour also took us to a few easily overlooked, but picture-perfect landscape opportunities.
A little tip, cool mornings turn the air around the hot springs to steam, making it the perfect time for photos.
The last photography tip on the tour is also our favorite. We can share this one with you, as it, along with a lot of other priceless tips can be found in the book Photographing Yellowstone National Park: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them (The Photographer’s Guide).
Some things in nature are a little more predictable than others. Unlike our illusive grizzly, the rainbow at the base of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon Lower Falls shows up on sunny summer days between 9:30 – 10:15 am. Early summer is closer to 10:15, while by September it’s closer to 9:30.
Make your way to Artist Point to photograph the show.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
- We stayed in the park, at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, for our first three nights. Sitting right on Lake Yellowstone, we couldn’t have asked for a better location; Hayden Valley sits right between Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Canyon Lodge.
- The nearest town to the center of the park is West Yellowstone. On our forth night exploring Yellowstone, we stayed at Yellowstone Park Hotel, which we felt was a good choice. The rooms were clean, and the location was excellent for something outside of the park.
- The town of Cody is a good choice for exploring the east side of Yellowstone, but we feel it’s too far out to explore the majority of the park. Before entering Yellowstone, we stayed at the Cody Legacy Inn & Suites. We really enjoyed this hotel as we felt it had a lot of character.
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