Our tour of Yellowstone included a visit to Mammoth Springs. I had thought that all the geyser basins and hot springs in Yellowstone were similar [see Jeff’s post, “Old Faithful“], just with different shapes and some color variations.

How wrong I was!

Beautiful color and texture on the main wall, but under harsh midday light.

As we drove into the town of Mammoth Springs, I saw a mountain side of cascading white stone castles glistening with rhinestones in the sun. It was unlike anything I’ve seen before. I was instantly captivated, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the car to capture the best photo possible.

I see liquid gold dripping off the stalactites, then running down the hillside in a gold river. [Photo by Jeff]

A perfect combination of sun position, craggy trees, and hillside provides for a scene like this. [photo by Jeff]

As you may have guessed from our previous posts, shooting this area is not as simple as pointing the camera and shooting. We had three things working against us.

Tiers of a sand castle with reflective pools of water.

First, we arrived at midday, so the light and shadows were harsh, too harsh. We walked around and shot what we could while scouting out the area for the next morning’s shoot. Our second shoot was just after sunrise the next day. We wanted to have light on our subject to ignite the colors, but not too much as to wash out the colors and create too much shadowing. Just after dawn was the perfect time.

Tiered castle walls or frozen waterfalls?

Second, the limestone tiers are intensely white, almost like snow. The camera wants to use the white as a neutral grey, adjusting the color so that the photos look dim and dirty. To compensate, I actually ended up over exposing the images to get the whites –“white”.

Glistening rocks under early morning light and a bit of leftover moonlight

Third, with the water cascading down the hillside glistening like rhinestones in the sunlight, I have all sorts of white or hot spots. For this, I added a polarized filter. This filter also helped with the bright whites of the limestone deposits, cutting down the reflectiveness and hot spots while adding detail to the image. The polarized filter also enhances the color, but in doing so it cuts the amount of light onto the sensor. So at times, I also had to increase the ISO to let more light in without sacrificing the depth of field. Increasing the ISO introduces noise into the photo. So much to think about and worry about!

More reflective pools, amongst the terraces, with  mountains for perspective.

The white limestone looks like a patch of snow, doesn’t it?

The other option I tried, was converting the high contrast images to black and white. This worked a bit, but since the colors are so unique here, I thought it best to keep the colors.

Shooting into the sun to capture the steam and highlights. This high contrast scene works okay in black and white.

At the end of the day, what is important for me is to be able to capture what I see, the way I see it. Do you see castles?

It’s all about the light, polarized filters and beautiful scenery.