Photographing Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic: A Tale of Slowing Down and Taking a Closer Look

Mark McKnight
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The lens sat idle in our office for weeks, its potential locked away like a riddle. Lensbaby sent a sample for us to try out, and several of us had used it briefly, but no one had truly accepted the challenge until I picked it up and took it with me on a trip to Yellowstone National Park. What I ultimately discovered surprised me; the Lensbaby Velvet 56 forced me to slow down and experience the scenery of our nation’s first national park–and the process of photography itself–in a new way.

Mark McKnight

I drove down to Yellowstone from Bozeman with only two lenses, the aforementioned as well as my favorite Fuji lens for landscapes, the superb XF 16mm 1.4 R WR. While I had committed to giving the Lensbaby a go, I honestly expected to spend more time with the 16mm. That didn’t turn out to be the case, however, as the Velvet 56 completely took over both of my two full-day shooting sessions. I’ll get to why in a minute.

Both lenses were coupled with my current favorite body: the nearly-perfect retro-styled rangefinder Fujifilm X-Pro2. All in, my kit was only a few pounds, a truly exceptional feat made possible by the mirrorless revolution. A story for another day perhaps, but my previous kit with a Canon DSLR setup weighed in at a multiple of at least three times the current. That’s part of what kept the Velvet 56 sitting around the office; it’s a heavy lens. It also has a learning curve. But if you put the time in, the lens yields fantastic results, and you may find that it stays on your camera more than you ever anticipated.

Mark McKnight

Having never visited the park before, I had to go check out the big attractions: Mammoth Springs, Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful. But I also cover the business of travel and tourism for RootsRated Labs, and I was prepping for a podcast about places being "loved to death," so I was as fascinated by the other tourists as I was by the geothermal oddities of the park. Even in the shoulder season, this park experiences massive visitation. I ended up with a couple nice but volatile weather days with warm sunshine in the lower areas of the caldera and snow flurries up in the higher mountain passes.

In the lead image for this article, I had followed a group around the boardwalk at Grand Prismatic and watched as they took selfies, jabbered on in a language I didn’t understand, and acted generally disappointed by the lack of color in this magnificent pool. Likely expecting the brilliantly-colored spring you see in the aerial photos, they certainly seemed disappointed. But as a photographer, I was thrilled.

Mark McKnight

The largest of the park’s hot springs was holding back on us, at least in terms of the eponymous prismatic effect, mostly due to the angle and harshness of the winter sun. In fact, the images almost look monochromatic, but that’s exactly how the scene appeared to the eye as well. The sun created dramatic shadows and silhouettes, and the lens’ manual focus forced me to slow down and wait for the perfect capture.

I didn’t immediately peg this lens as a good one for street photography (in this case "boardwalk photography" might be a better term), but it makes sense. Many of the best street photographers suggest finding focus first and then waiting for the perfect moment as people walk into the scene–a technique called “zone focus”.

I ended up using this method quite a bit with the Velvet 56. It was a meditative style of shooting that ended up being one of the most enjoyable parts of using the lens. I would find a nice composition with boardwalk, sky, sun glare, and hot springs, and then I’d wait for the perfect groupings and varieties of body shapes as they walked across the boardwalks. The shape-shifting steam added to the challenge, constantly changing the overall composition.

Mark McKnight

I probably spent thirty minutes or more per shot, waiting in an almost meditative state and just enjoying the time outside. I was immediately more interested in capturing the tourists interacting with the features than I was with shooting the features themselves. I think of the front country of our nation’s national parks as somewhat sacrificial offerings to masses. As if the original designers were saying: "Here, you can have a few of these beautiful places and we’ll make them easy to get to. That way, we get to keep our backcountry in better shape."

A bit more about the lens. Based in Portland, Oregon, Lensbaby makes creative effect lenses. I bought the Lensbaby 2.0 years ago for my Canon, and enjoyed shooting dreamy, almost psychedelic video and stills. But this one’s different. Rather than selective focus, you have a sharp center with a blurring toward the corners of the frame, and changing the aperture creates increasingly dreamy edges around the subject. It’s difficult to describe, but shooting for a while with the lens gives you a good feel for it; Lensbaby also has a few sample images on their site.

I ended up preferring the middle apertures, which gave me just a touch of that dreamy effect toward the edges of the frame. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the aperture as I shot, so I have no idea exactly what aperture I ended up choosing on any individual shot. Like the lens converters that allow you to use your old DSLR lenses with a Fuji, the Lensbaby doesn’t connect with the camera’s electronics, so you’ll see f/0 on every shot’s metadata.

Mark McKnight

The tyranny of social media made itself obvious throughout my trip, with tourists wielding selfie sticks and outsized egos, snapping their status symbols to be uploaded and tagged and liked at the first available moment. Of course, I also spotted a few families soaking in the joy of a sunny afternoon on vacation, smartphones nowhere in sight.

Alone and without any pressing deadlines, I was free to linger and enjoy the sights, which only made the contrast more apparent: it became clear that most of the visitors, especially the ones delivered to the trailheads by charter bus, were there to check off an item from a list. They hurried up to the famous feature, snapped a couple photos, and rushed back to the bus. Many of them spent more time looking at their smartphones than they did looking at the actual sights.

What did they miss? Countless small details, but also the grand and somewhat perverse dance that is sightseeing.

And can I really blame them, when my own experience is just mediated by a slightly different technology?

Mark McKnight

Photography for me has always been a way to process what I’m experiencing. You can ask my friends and family; I almost never actually do anything with the photos (big thanks to my photo editor, Perry Smyre, for the work on these). For me, fulfillment comes exclusively from the experience of shooting, the thrill of capturing a moment. The Lensbaby Velvet 56 forced me to shoot in a new way, but ultimately made me fall in love with photography again. While clearly not for everyone, what more can you hope for in a piece of kit, really?

There’s a lot to be said for being forced to see from a new perspective. In fact, I take that to be the key social benefit of travel and tourism. We see the Other; we humanize and demystify it. Those people aren’t that different from my people. "It" becomes “them,” and we might even make a personal connection that spans time and transcends place.

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