The Heart of Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring is arguably the most impressive thermal feature in Yellowstone. It’s the third largest hot spring in the world (the other two are in New Zealand, if you’re wondering). Its rainbow of colors are created by the microbes that grow in hot water. The yellow microbes’ color blends with the natural blue of the water to create the greens, and then in the overflow channel, as the water cools, they change to orange and brown. Here’s the story behind the click of the shutter.

I first noticed the heart shape years ago when it was still ok to hike up the hillside above the spring and before the construction of the official trail and viewing platform. I wondered then if there would be an angle from a plane that would hold that heart shape. It didn’t seem that photographers had gotten it from the air. So, when I started getting shots from the plane, that was a goal. It took multiple flights to get the image I truly envisioned.

As photographers do – you always wonder if that’s the best photo of that subject you could get. Is there another angle, or atmosphere change that would better enhance the capture? Because of this, the first version of this image that was taken too high and too directly overhead has been retired.

When a customer asked me if I could get the same shot, but without steam and no people on the boardwalk, I told him no. That was a pipe dream. You need a hot, dry day to get that, and those happen when the park is full. But then came the pandemic. And I wondered if I could actually get that image. On a long shot, I booked my survey flight a day or two before the park opened (16 May 2020) and hoped for the best. I was thrilled to get this shot. Not completely free of steam, but not bad. My goal was basically met. I was satisfied.

Then came the floods this year, and the park again was closed during a warmer part of the summer season. Could I get even a better shot? Again, I decided to try it (and I wanted to document many things on this survey flight). This time, as Midway Geyser Basin came into view, there wasn’t much steam, and I found myself grinning widely. It was worth the investment into the flight.

I noticed Grand Prismatic Spring has heated up slightly, giving a bright turquoise blue band that shows more clearly. And the yellow rim is now nearly white. Not much of a shift is needed to create this, and I fully expect it to cool down again as thermal features are known to do. I would love to blend the colors of the 2020 image with the lack of steam with the 2022 image. So perhaps a third version will come at some point as I have that perfect shot in my mind that keeps pestering me.

But for now, I have two versions of “The Heart of Yellowstone” to offer without people on the boardwalks. We’ll see which one becomes more popular, the 2020 or the 2022 version. You decide…and let me know what you think.

SnowMoon Photography

Be Outside • Take Notes