Photographing the Northern Lights Through Yellowstone’s Thermal Pools
I had never seen the Northern Lights until this past April 23rd when some serious luck was on my side: I was at Yellowstone National Park with Geoff Coalter, from Nikon, the night before a shoot I was producing for PetaPixel.
I was super excited but a little bit nervous, as I had never produced a press shoot for Nikon and this one was big — the Nikon Z8. On the shoot was Jaron Schneider, the Editor in Chief of PetaPixel as well as Chris Niccolls and Jordan Drake, two YouTubers that I had seen only virtually for years. My husband told me before my trip, that he had been watching Chris and Jordan on YouTube for longer than he had known me.
I was stocking up on water and huckleberry candy at the gift shop when I got a text from our guide Eric Stout who wrote “give me a call” with screen shots of the KP-indices from NOAA.
The KP-Index describes the disturbances of Earth’s magnetic field due to solar wind and is a major indicator of aurora activity. There was lots of red on the charts indicating a very active period and I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement. I was at an iconic North American landscape (in the lower 48 which rarely sees the Northern Lights) and I had a pre-production Nikon Z8 with me as well.
Evan picked me and Geoff up right after the sun went down and we headed into the park. Recently, there had been lots of clouds, but on that night, they seemed to part at the right time to let the light show in.
Evan took us to the Crystal Springs so we could get shots of Yellowstone’s iconic thermal pools in the foreground with the Aurora overhead. Our walk consisted of singing in the dark and occasionally saying “hey bear.” With my gear in hand and with my horrible balance, I kept slipping and sliding in the dark. Evan told us that the bears had been active, and we needed to make sure we didn’t startle them.
There was a moment in which a very quiet photographer in a big black jacket came up quickly and quietly behind us. Even moved fast and had his bear spray pointed and ready, until we got a “hello” — disaster adverted.
I had to quickly get the Z8 set up in the darkness. I had just been handed the camera and none of the settings were mine. Thank goodness for the illuminated buttons and the starlight view mode! The lights danced above springs, bringing out different colors not only in the sky, but in the hydrothermal pools.
I pushed the camera to high ISOs (up to and beyond ISO 8000) which typically can be very unforgiving especially when photographing the night sky. The Z8 didn’t disappoint though and produced with sharp lines, intense colors, and very little noise (I did use Nikon’s native editing software NX studios and the Astro Noise Reduction feature).
After putting the Z8 on my Benro Carbon Fiber Tripod, I asked Geoff to borrow his Nikkor Z 24-70 f/2.8. I actually didn’t bring my wide lenses, opting for more room in my bag for my super telephoto lenses with the hopes of photographing wolves and bears on the trip and this is a mistake I will not make again. I thought of my Nikkor Z 20 1.8 that I had left on the shelf at home and was so grateful to Geoff that he had something for me to use in lieu of it.
I put my camera on vivid mode and shot some long exposure of around eight seconds. I had heard that the Northern lights come out more brilliant when seen through a camera, and wow, I now was experiencing just that. Even looking at the LCD screen on the back of the Z8, the greens were so intense. With a long exposure, even more colors came out.
I got back to my room late, and couldn’t stop smiling and even laughing. I couldn’t believe what we just seen. I had to keep this all a secret too, as I couldn’t share anything until the launch of the camera on May 10.
Our super early call came quickly. I walked to our sprinter van, which was named Van Morrison by our rental company, and was greeted by the crew. Chris, Jaron, Jordan, Geoff, and Even were all grabbing coffees getting ready for our adventure to begin. They asked how my night was, and I said it was great and smiled from ear to ear — a smile so big that I thought it may have been quite scary to see at 4:45 AM after only a few hours of sleep.
I was still on cloud nine from the amazing light show that mother nature had given a few hours before.
About the Author: Kristi Odom is an internationally awarded photographer, a Nikon Ambassador, an associate fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a motivational speaker. A photographer and filmmaker, her work focuses on connecting people emotionally to animals and celebrating those who have a connection to the natural world. When she is not at home in Longmont Colorado, she travels the world photographing and teaching. Kristi teaches photographers to improve their work through advanced camera skills and how to create more impact and emotions in photography.
Her accolades include over 60 international photography awards including 2 Nature’s Best Photography awards, which exhibited her images at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. She also was included in National Geographic’s 2021 collection for Best Animal Photos. Her work has appeared either online and/or in print for the following clients: National Geographic, Nikon, Forbes, Rollingstone, Microsoft and Outside Mag. To find out more about Kristi and her workshops visit kristiodom.com or her Instagram @kristiodom