Recreating National Geographic’s Famous Sun Pillar Shot at Yellowstone Canyon

Written by America’s National Parks: Yellowstone filmmakers Alain Lusignan, Oliver Goetzl and Ivo Nörenberg

One of the biggest challenges of wildlife filming is capturing spectacular animal behavior that only happens at certain times of the year, under particular conditions. Wildlife documentaries, though, are also about showcasing rare and spectacular events that occur in an animal’s environment. And much like filming animal behavior, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and have a good bit of luck to capture it on camera.

One phenomenon that we wanted to film occurs only during the coldest time of year at Yellowstone Canyon. Sometimes called a “sun pillar,” it’s a brilliant beam of light that appears in the canyon just after sunrise, created by light reflecting off ice crystals in the air. It’s a beautiful sight, made famous by a photo on the 1997 cover of National Geographic’s Yellowstone Country Park Profile. The challenge for us was to try to recreate this shot, but instead of a still image, to use new techniques like super slow-motion video.

Recreating the famous sun pillar cover shot.
Recreation of the famous sun pillar cover shot.

The major challenge in filming the sun pillar was getting the right window of weather. It has to be very cold and dry, and it also has to be clear enough in the morning for the sunlight to hit the canyon. In recent winters, there haven’t been as many days of really cold weather, so seeing this phenomenon isn’t always a sure thing.

We got up before sunrise, and jumped in our snow coach to head down to the canyon. It was -25°C that morning, with a clear sky – just the right conditions to see the sun beam. We were hopeful, because we had been waiting a week for the weather to cooperate.

Arriving at the canyon, we realized, that we have a problem. We couldn’t find the tree that had been used for the Yellowstone Country cover photo. In the dim light before sunrise, all the trees looked similar, but not quite the one we wanted to film. But we had to find it quickly, as the sun was starting to come up.

After some tense moments, and a bit of running around, we finally found the tree, realizing that part of the cliff near the tree had fallen away. We set up the camera, and waited for the sun beam to appear. It was not very bright at first, and it would even disappear and reappear unpredictably. To get a really bright and brilliant sun beam, the wind has to carry ice crystals from the Lower Falls down the canyon. And if the breeze isn’t blowing in the right direction, then the beam wouldn’t appear.

To make matters more complicated, the beam was constantly moving as the sun was rising. To get the beam perfectly lined up with the tree, we had to be constantly moving as well. That’s easy to do with a hand-held camera, but it is much harder in deep snow with a heavy tripod and a super slow-motion camera.

We finally had to position ourselves ahead of the beam, and hope that the wind would blow ice crystals from the falls towards us at just the right moment, when the beam was perfectly lined up with the tree. Needless to say, this didn’t always work out. It finally took two full mornings of trying to get the shots just right, but that’s what you need to do if you want to capture spectacular natural phenomena such as this!

Watch: Behind the Scenes: Filming in Yellowstone’s Winter

Watch as camera crews brave the elements of Yellowstone’s brutal winter to capture images of the park’s beauty.

Don’t miss America’s National Parks: Yellowstone this Sunday at 8/7c.