A Comprehensive Look at Photographing America's National Parks
The United States of America's National Parks are a treasure of historic, geologic and geographic beauty. Stretching from shore to shore and into the Pacific and Arctic oceans, the park system has been established to preserve and make available the uniqueness contained therein to citizens and visitors alike.
Presented here are some tips on getting the most from your visit to the National Parks system followed by some advice specific to a few of the more popular parks.
Consider The Pass Options
The most beautiful and pristine of America's National Parks often come with a fee. This entry fee is typically charged by the carload (for non-commercial vehicles) and only one person in the car needs to have a pass. In recent years, the National Parks Service has gone to great lengths to simplify the passes available for National Parks and other lands by introducing the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. This annual pass, at a cost of $80 USD, will allow entry for the card holder and up to three other passengers into all National Parks (as well as various other federal lands). The pass will not cover certain costs, such as camp fees, hookup fees and other individual park fees.
The Parks Service offer these passes in four different varieties:
- Standard Annual Pass
- Senior Pass ($10 for those age 62 and over)
- Access Pass (Free for those with permanent disabilities)
- Volunteer Pass (Free for those volunteering 500 cumulative hours)
Camp If You Can
Once inside the park of your choice, it is best to find a campsite within easy access to your desired photographic objective. In some parks, such as Bryce Canyon, the campground is right across the road from phenomenal sunrise vistas. In other parks, some driving or hiking will be required.
Most campgrounds are "first come, first serve," thus arriving early is encouraged. Arriving close to the mandated departure time (often 11am) is a good idea as well.
Many National Parks also have lodges or hotels inside the park boundaries and these can be a great option if camping is not your preferred method. Often accommodations are gathered just outside of the park boundary on entry roads and these options can work well if driving distances are not far. As a note, most entry passes purchased at toll booths are good for a week of reentry making exits and re-entries no problem. Accommodations outside of the parks are typically less expensive than inside the parks.
Take The Maps
When paying to enter a National Park, grab the maps. They are typically handed over when passing through a toll booth and are also available at visitor centers or often at trailheads. Most maps are quite good. While they may not be the best for taking a backcountry hike, they will quickly orient visitors to key features, facilities and landmarks.
Get Up Early
This is a tried and true method of capturing great light whether in a National Park or walking your streets at home. You've heard it here before and you'll hear it again; the "golden hour" during (and just after) sunrise, as well as before sunset, offers stunning light in the US National Parks. Raising early will also help you avoid the crowds (although you will likely find other photographers at the popular hotspots like Tunnel View in Yosemite with the classic setting seen in the famous Ansel Adams photo) and get a prime parking spot, which can be a hassle in the middle of the day or for evening shots.
Scout By Day
Especially when traveling during the better weather of the summer months, scout locations for shooting during the day when the sun is harsh and the beautiful colored landscape is low in saturation. If you want help finding good locations before you leave home, the Photographer's Ephemeris is a wonderful tool to learn sun and moon rise and set to maximize lighting angles and time on site.
Bring A Tripod And Patience
Shooting in America's National Parks is a chance to capture some of the best natural features the U.S. has to offer. As such, lighting is the key to bringing back spellbinding photos that do the parks justice. Some of the most inspirational photos from award-winning photographers, as seen on the cover of countless magazines over the years, come about from a mixture of patience and good timing. Timing can be helped with the suggestion above: scouting by day. Patience is something you're going to have to pack with you.
Having the patience to wait out a rainstorm after three days of being trapped in a tent or having the courage to peel away the warm sleeping bag for a pre-sunrise start to a frosty morning is what will put you in a position for stellar photos. That patience can be aided with the use of a sturdy tripod. A tripod is highly practical to most landscape photography and will aid in capturing sharp photographs as well as easing the burden of holding your camera weight while you wait for the right light.
What follows is a sampling of photographs from American National Parks and some shooting information to help get you started when planning a trip. The links to each park will take you to more information on the best times of year to visit, the regulations and even specific advice for photographic exploration.
Being America's oldest national park, Yellowstone tends to be a pilgrimage for many photographers. It contains a wide variety of subject matter; from wildlife (elk, moose, wolf, bear, bison, birds of prey, etc...) to waterfalls, geysers and multicolored paint pots. It also looks gorgeous when covered in snow.
Classic shots like the Old Faithful geyser and Yellowstone Falls require a bit of planning to get the lighting right. A number of the paint pots and pools can be shot close to midday, especially if there are broken clouds to add shadows to the landscape. Image like these can be produced easier by using a polarizing filter.
In summer, expect travel times to increase from what you might assume. Road will often become blocked with people pulling over to photograph or observe wildlife. Patience is indeed needed in this well-loved park. Winter travel can offer a bit more freedom, but then road closures due to weather need to be kept in mind. Fall is a great time to visit as the crowds have abated and the tricky weather can often deliver some dramatic results.
Joshua Tree National Park is named after the spindly, scrub-looking trees which cover the lowlands between numerous outcroppings of rock throughout the park. While the trees cover the park, scouting a good location can be vital to capturing the essence of the landscape. There are a number of rock mounds which allow for excellent panoramic sunrise shots throughout the park and specifically at places like Ryan Campground. There are also many rock formations (as well as people climbing them) that provide excellent studies of pattern, form and texture.
Yosemite National Park is within easy driving distance from San Francisco (4 hours) or Fresno (2 hours), both in California. Yosemite Valley is the large draw for the majority of visitors. It houses the towering monolith of El Capitan greeting visitors much the same as it has since the days when Ansel Adams created his historic photographs in the park. But there are may places to explore outside the valley during the summer months.
The valleys can be quite deep in Yosemite which will push the limits of your dynamic range during the day; from deep forest shadows at the base of cliffs to the sun-baked rocks up high. Consider practicing and employing High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques to capture the beauty. And if you can time your visit properly, be sure to attempt to capture Horsetail Falls as it appears to catch fire in the second half of February.
Arches National Park has over 2000 natural sandstone arches. Needless to say, the possibilities can be daunting. Certain arches like the classic Delicate Arch, which adorns many license plates in the state, are best shot at sunset with the La Sal Mountains in the background. The Sentential, a wall of pillars stuck tight together, catches morning sun best and offer a break from arches. Camping in the park will give the best opportunity to walk the Devil's Garden trail where over a dozen arches are available along the loops for easy shooting. Bring plenty of water and start before the sun comes up as the temperatures reach over 100F in the summer.
Crater Lake National Park is open year round and is a wonderful winter destination. The crowds are smaller, the snow contrasts the sky and the light can be softer. Crater Lake's obvious draw is the huge caldera left from the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. That caldera has filled in with some of the most dazzling blue waters seen outside of the tropics.
There is a road that rings the caldera giving photographers many view points from which to shoot. In the summer, the sun can rise quite high to the North and will bleach out most of the deep blue in the lake at midday, even with the use of a polarizing filter. The Photographer's Ephemeris is a great tool to use for this trip as it will let you know which angle on the rim will be the best for sunrise and sunset, allowing you to scout a prime location.
Beyond the crater itself is the forest surrounding the caldera. Take time to explore the many hiking trails leading to a number of waterfalls and through dense and light pine forest. Wildlife is found inside the park when time is taken to hike away from the congested roads in the summer.
Haleakala National Park is about the only reason you will need to bring a sweater or fleece jacket to Maui, Hawaii. The mountain towers 10,000+ feet above the ocean surface laying at its base and that altitude can make for some chilly mornings (and by morning I mean rising at around 3am to catch a sunrise from the mountain's peak). An average morning will see 60-100 people huddled in towels and blankets borrowed from hotel rooms, waiting for the sun to crest over the ocean. Park Rangers are often on hand to lend flavor, history and geology information while you patiently wait for the rise.
The viewing area for the sunrise is small and often crowded and that is why an early start is needed. Bringing a tripod is highly encouraged, which means you'll need more space. From personal experience, I arrived early when only one other car was in the parking lot, scouted a location and went back to the car to warm up. By the time I woke from a short nap and went to the observation area, all the prime spots were taken. Be prepared to wait out the cold: a tip you don't often hear when planning for Hawaii!