My family and I have had the good fortune to walk with beauty and stand amazed in the midst of natural splendor in some of America’s National Parks. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I wish to pass on some tips for enjoying and photographing nature in our parks.
12 Tips for Taking Photos in Our Amazing National Parks
Know the park policies.At the risk of sounding “duh”, the very first thing you should know is the basic rules regarding photography in the parks. This article from Backpacker breaks it down pretty simply. And here are the rules direct from NPS: Commercial Film & Photo Permits
Also at the risk of sounding “duh” … Know the rules of the park regarding everything else (ie dogs and where they’re allowed, don’t feed the wildlife, don’t pet the bison!, etc). Check each park’s website for the lowdown. Take the in-park caution signs seriously.
Most National Parks and Recreational Areas are HUGE - as in, too large to explore completely in a day. Know how much time you will have and prioritize which parts you want to visit. Check best time of day to visit each site. Even research best time of year to go (sometimes access roads are closed – like the Tioga Pass into Yosemite. Sometimes roads that are only open to shuttle buses in the summer are open to all cars in the winter like Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in Zion NP). Research the park’s website. Search sites like Flickr for images of potential destinations. Google reviews. Have a plan. You can always deviate, but it’s nice to have a starting point.
National Parks are BIG EPIC LANDSCAPES. I think the best way to try to capture or mimic this epic-ness is to embrace wide angle and small aperture. I’m usually shooting at a focal length between 15mm & 35mm. My aperture is often between f/8 & f/11.
Neglect not to put people in your landscapes – they lend a sense of scope.
Rangers are a treasure trove of information. Don’t hesitate to ask them which is the not-to-be-missed hike, or where and when the wildlife hangs out, or how they would choose to spend their time if they were visiting. The rangers in Bryce Canyon didn’t hesitate to tell us that Navajo to Peekaboo was the ultimate way to explore.
Speaking of hiking … don’t overburden yourself with heavy gear. And, if summer, TAKE LOTS OF WATER. We Kellers are sadly infamous for underestimating water supplies.
Expect the unexpected. Dispense with disappointment. Roll with it. The very first time we were taking our boys to experience the sheer grandeur of the appropriately named Grand Canyon, after a very loooong drive, we arrived to find this:
Funny, yes? Ironic? Totally! But, as you can see, it certainly didn’t stop anyone from lining up to take pictures, as evidenced by the rainbow brigade of rainjacket-wearing photogs.
Don’t necessarily let weather deter you. Be prepared (proper clothing for hot or cold or wet or windy). Here’s the silver lining: Big weather usually equals really cool imagery. Dramatic clouds make me very happy.
Consider taking the less traveled road … of course, do your research and know the risks. We took this unpaved service road from Bryce Canyon to Lake Powell. It wound through the National Monument Staircase Escalante. I totally want return here and explore more; such an epic landscape that was way more rewarding than the ordinary highway.
I know I’m speaking to the chorus here, and saying something that’s generally well-known, but, I’ll go ahead and beat the drum again: Yes, the lighting before/at and just-after sunrise is stunning!!!! (note: this is Mono Lake, not a National Park, but one of the few destinations where I pestered my kids to GET OUT OF BED and accompany me to sunrise.
Of course, beautiful light also at Sunset!!! (note: way fewer people at sunrise). AND here’s a lesser known time that many people neglect: the 40 minutes after sunset sometimes provide a tremendous light and color show: http://shortonwords.blogspot.com/2011/11/simple-sunset-photo-tip.html (consider having your tripod handy for the slower shutter speeds)
And speaking of Tripods ----do you take it or leave it? Honestly, on Keller roadtrips, we’ve already maxed out the car with people, Dog Dude, food & ice chest, and luggage. My tripod usually stays behind, unless I have a really compelling reason to bring it. I never bring mine on a hike (because I run out of steam pretty easily and my tripod is HEAVY). So, when do I consider bringing it? If I know I will need a slow shutter speed (for long exposure water shots, or low light – before sunrise or after sunset, or for night sky-star imagery), I bring it. In the Yosemite image below, there was a whole line of photographers with tripods to capture the moonrise. Since the moon was rising before the sun was set, I handheld. No problemo. The milky way over Joshua Tree, however, happened long after sunset and just after the moon dropped below the hill-horizon and thus required a 15 second shutter speed. Tripod all the way!
And lastly, if you see a golden field reflecting light all over everything, do not hesitate to throw your baby wearing oversized hand-me-down jeans from Big Bro out in that very same field to take his portrait. Because 6 years down the road when you rediscover the picture, your heart will melt and puddle all over the floor beneath you.