Capturing The Rapids of Yellowstone River

A few years ago, I snapped an intimate, abstract landscape photograph that I was pleased with. A few people have inquired about what I did to create it. It’s not an easy image to understand, so today I decided to explore the process behind it and share how I created the picture.

The Rapids of the Yellowstone River
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 210mm, ISO 64, 1/500, f/6.3

The image I’m referring to as the Rapids of the Yellowstone River. It could give you a clue about the nature of the image in case you’re trying determine the size of the scene, and precisely what’s happening there.

What brought me to this image? What was my position in order to gain this view? Let me go to my earlier article on how refining works and look through some of the photos which led to this.

Photo 1

Yellowstone Falls in the Sunlight
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 100mm, ISO 64, 1/400, f/6.3

This was one of the very first images I snapped from an viewpoint located in Yellowstone National Park. If you’ve been to Yellowstone it’s a fair possibility that you’ve visited Yellowstone Falls which is a beautiful waterfall located in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. Photographing Yellowstone Falls is hardly an unusual activity and I’m not sure my image here is particularly striking due to the boilerplate composition and the midday sun.

Photo 2

Photo 2 Yellowstone Falls Base
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 300mm, ISO 64, 1/100, f/6.3

In the realization that photographs of the waterfall would not suffice to satisfy me, I began looking for details to capture instead. The entire park – referred to by the name of”the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is filled with beautiful colors in the trees and rocks. But I’m not sure the image above is particularly fascinating. The blow-out of the rapids on the left of the photo is distracting. And all of the bottom-right part of the image is a boring mess. Then there’s the absence of a clear topic.

Photo 3

Photo 3 Abstract Pine Trees Yellowstone River
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 64, 1/160, f/6.3

While I was looking for better compositions the thing that caught my attention was the hues in the riverbed. They were among the most gorgeous earthy hues I’ve seen in the riverbed (and it was with no polarizer also). I believe this image is an improvement over the two I’ve seen. It doesn’t offer the most crystal clear image, however it’s dark and the pine that leans on the water is pretty close. It’s not as cluttered within the composition either. There are, however, better compositions available.

An Aside – Some Context

If you’re curious about how the landscape appears in a photo taken by a smartphone that isn’t edited it’s similar to this:

Yellowstone River Context
iPhone 11 Pro

I hope this gives you an idea of the location I was when I took these pictures specifically, at the edge of an edifice! (Although it was safely behind the fence.) The thing that makes this photo somewhat unique among my portfolio pictures is that I snapped it on a bright day from an overlook that is popular situated in an National Park. This illustrates that you should never rule out a spot regardless of whether you’re looking for something special.

Photo 4

After looking for better images, I spotted the trees appear in the iPhone image above. Here’s a small crop to illustrate the trees I’m talking about:

Yellowstone River Context Circled
Similar iPhone photo, but cropped

From the wide-angle iPhone image, you can easily see that these spindly trees stand out nicely against the swifts that flow through the Yellowstone River. I was ecstatic when I saw them and began to work on different compositions. The first thing I did was move myself towards the right side, so that there was a rock that was not blocking some trees, and also there was an improved view of the rapids.

Because I carried a long zoom with me (the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6) My first thought was that I could zoom it all up to 400mm:

Photo 4 Silhouetted Trees Yellowstone River 400mm Almost Final
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 64, 1/500, f/6.3203

While I was enthralled by the direction things were going, this photograph did not have the swirls of rapids that drew my attention to this scene initially. However, the colors, subject and overall arrangement were all better than my previous attempts. I also noticed that the rapids, which were constantly changing, were merging with the trees on the right side of this photo. I had hoped for more separation of the subject.

Final Photo

After zooming out I took around two dozen photographs of the scene, with slight variations in composition. My primary goal was to take a picture in which the rapids appeared glowing in contrast to the surrounding trees. Overall, I was the most happy with this picture from the group. Click it to view a larger dimension:

The Rapids of the Yellowstone River51

It is reminiscent of classical landscape paintings due to hues as well as evenness in the image, mostly due to the color within the riverbed. Also, I’d like to add that it is due to the bright, midday sun beginning around 11 am. This isn’t the ideal most ideal light for landscape photography however, in this case, it provides fantastic shadows for the riverbanks and the rapids.

The post-processing I did on this image was only minimal. I did a little moving at the rapids that surround the rightmost tree and some burning to the sun-lit rocks in the foreground, which distracted the eye. I also cropped this composition from a bigger scene to fit my favourite composition (it’s but 24 megapixels) but don’t worry about pixels are pixel-peepers .

The cropping process obviously reduces resolution, so I try to stay clear of it as much as I can. Even though I did take certain photos that would not require cropping, I decided to use this photo due to a reason that is simple that is subject separation. From all the pictures I’ve taken at this point it was the trees that had the best separation from the swifts in this photo. For me, the silhouetted trees form the basis of the entire picture therefore it was an easy choice. It’s always about composition!


I hope that you find this tour behind the scenes informative. This stunning picture along the Yellowstone River reminded me not to be concerned about the midday sun as a landscape photographer and to look for interesting abstract scenes wherever I go, particularly at places that are popular.