I’ve had many occasions for photographing US National Parks, and I intend to do much more of it in my lifetime. Last year I traveled west to visit Badlands, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks; you can check out a photo essay I created for Parks and Points, or read the post I wrote about this trip on my blog, Travel Stories and Images. I’ve distilled some important, easy to apply photography tips and tricks for capturing stunning photos of the extraordinary landscapes and beautiful nature that exists in our national parks.
1. Plan ahead and research in advance
In-depth research, beyond a Google search or travel guidebook, will inform a photographer’s options. Nature photographers will need to consider the conditions of the season in which they’re visiting, along with the best time of day to capture certain animal behavior or light conditions. Here are some resources that have been especially helpful for me for photography in nati0nal parks:
- The National Parks Service website provides detailed guides to each of their parks that not only include the trails and landmarks in the parks, but that also show what birds, wildlife, and flowers are in season at any given time.
- Websites like 500px and Flickr are also inspiring and can give you some great ideas on subjects that you should capture. Flickr has groups dedicated to most, if not all, of the national parks – these groups are invaluable for seeing others’ work, gathering information, and bouncing questions off of other photographers about a specific park.
- Facebook has many groups dedicated to general photography advice as well as nature and landscape photography. Feel free to ask questions of these groups, but also contribute back to them!
2. Enjoy spontaneity
This tip might sound like it’s in conflict with the one above, but they really do go hand in hand. I’ve been on trips before that are scripted almost down to the minute. Those can be great, but they don’t usually allow for going off script – which is not always the best bet for photography in national parks.
One of my favorite photographs from Yellowstone was taken in the early morning just after sunrise. I was headed south to Grand Teton National Park for the day, but caught this scene out of the corner of my eye and decided I had to capture it. I was a few minutes late to my ultimate destination, but that didn’t really make a difference. My willingness to stop spontaneously gave me a really great photo. Follow those impromptu impulses, and be ready to capitalize on them. This is probably one of my favorite photography tips and tricks.
Another handy tip – if you see lots of cars pulled over to the side of a road, be prepared to stop and get your camera out. Not surprisingly, wild animals in the US National Parks don’t follow the rules of the road, and sometimes they pop up in unexpected places. Having your camera turned on and at the ready can allow you to capture a great image.
3. Know your equipment
Many photographers know the frustration of losing a shot because they didn’t know how to do make the camera do what it needed to do. Especially when shooting wildlife, it’s crucial to know how to change aperture, shutter speed, shooting mode, ISO, etc., instantaneously. I read a good tip a few years ago from a pro photographer: after purchasing a new camera, practice working the dials and buttons and options until you can do everything you need to do without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. This helps ensure that the shot is always properly framed and that the focus is on what’s being captured and not on switching around options.
4. Travel light
I had to learn this the hard way. This means not only going light on clothes and accessories but more importantly on cameras and gear. For my recent trip to Yellowstone I chose to drive instead of fly, so I figured I had enough room to bring all my equipment. I took five cameras and a plethora of lenses and filters. I learned that I spent more time trying to decide what camera to use, or what type of lens to use for a certain shot than I did actually taking the shot itself. Having too many choices actually induced some creative blocks on a few occasions.
Since that trip, I’ve moved to a Micro Four Thirds system, and I pack a camera body plus a short lens (like a 12-45mm lens, which equals a 24-90mm lens on a full frame body) and a long lens (like a 100-300mm lens, which would be a 200-600mm on a full frame body). Having fewer choices of equipment helps me think through the right lens to use for the situation, and it helps me be more creative with my shots. For more specific travel tips you can check out this guide.
5. Take good notes
Also, one I learned the hard way…more than once I’ve photographed an animal or a bird and then thought to myself, “I’ll definitely remember that name when I get home,” only to draw a complete blank when I’m doing my post-processing. I recommend taking a small lined notebook and a pencil with you, preferably something small enough to fit into your back pocket. If you have a non-photographer friend with you on the trip, ask for their help in recording names and details while you shoot.
After taking a shot, record a quick note with the name of the area, or the animal, or any sort of information you have on hand at the time. The National Audobon Society produces detailed field guides that can help you identify animals, insects, and flowers you see on a trip. Falcon Guides also produces detailed field and hiking guides for the parks. National Geographic park maps are perfect for figuring out the names of trails and landmarks. Additionally, there are many apps available for smartphones that allow you to do research on the go. Recording as much detail as possible at the time of the shot makes your work of post-processing and publishing photos after a trip so much easier.
Hope your next photography excursion is your best yet! Please chime in with your tips in the comments section!