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Tips: Photographing in National Parks

Updated on August 26, 2013
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring | Source

You've got a lot riding on these photos!

Let's face it - a once in a lifetime trip to one of our nation's spectacular national parks can be stressful. Especially for the photographer in the group. When you come back from vacation everyone is going to be looking for your photographs to capture the stunning beauty, eye popping vistas and awe-inspiring wildlife. The logistics of the trip, juggling transportation, lodging and meals plus time constraints will further stress your photographic skills. Plus learning how to use that new equipment you bought for the trip. As a successful stock photographer who has just came back from a trip to Yellowstone National Park, let me share some of these thoughts and tips about photographing in our beautiful national parks.

Relax and enjoy!

My first tip about photographing in the national parks is to simply relax and enjoy. No doubt your primary reason for going on vacation in the first place is to de-stress and relax. Breath in the fresh air, put the electronic devices aside and simply clear your mind of all the clutter and worry from our stress full lives.

I guarantee that if you relax a bit your photographs will be better for it. I know myself I'm typically chomping at the bit to take some photograph right away. Its like the tourists that get so excited when they see their first animal in the parks and then later in the week they are cursing the elk that are holding up traffic.

I recommend shooting like crazy your first day. Get it out of your system and then take a breather. Take some time to look around before putting the camera to your eye.

Be unique!

My next tip about photographing while on vacation in our national parks is to be unique. This is really, really hard when it comes to places where boardwalks direct the traffic flow around landmark features and everyone has a camera. Just think how many times Old Faithful geyser has been photographed from the same row of benches. Kodak probably had accountants just standing there tabulating the money from all of those clicks!

There is no way you are going to get a unique view or vantage point by standing where all of the other tourists are. Then again you might want to get one of the iconic photographs that everyone else gets. Nothing wrong with that.

What really made me think about this was when a friend of mine updated their Facebook page with a bunch of shots from Yellowstone a few days before my trip. I have been to Yellowstone many times over the years and I swear I had shot the exact same shots before. You know the bison in the road shot, Monmouth Hot Spring, Old Faithful etc.

I swore I'd get something different this year and I did. I hiked up a steep hill to get a different vantage point on Grand Prismatic Spring, I shot cars dealing with heavy smoke from forest fires and I traveled to lesser known areas of the park, away from the crowds.

Learn how to use your equipment, BEFORE the trip

In our national parks you can see an amazing array of camera equipment. Everything from people taking video with their iPads to the Japanese tourists with the latest technology. The important thing to understand is how to use your equipment.

Vacations always spur interest in buying that new lens or new camera but its best if you try it out before you the Grizzly Bear decides to dart out of the woods. You'll have a less stressful time if you know how to use your equipment.

Chase the light!

Get up early and stay out late to get the most beautiful shots. Mid-day means harsh shadows and overexposed shots. Great photographers know the golden hours occur around sunrise and sunset but most tourist are up and about mid-day.

Put off that early morning coffee and make a late dinner reservation so you can be free to capture the beautiful light. If you want to linger at a meal, make it lunch when the light is at its worst.

Now I know this can be difficult when traveling with groups. Just set your alarm and volunteer to be the last one in the shower so you can sneak out to capture Old Faithful at sunrise.

Now one strategy here is to stay close to your subject. One of the best vacation photo shoots I ever had was when we rented a cottage right on the beach and ate our meals at the cottage. Sunrises and sunsets were easy because they were right there. Plan your accommodations and activities so you'll be right where you want to be when the light hits just right.

In Yellowstone a great opportunity is the chuckwagon dinners at Roosevelt. They put you right there at sunset, just watch out for wildlife in the road on the way back to the hotel or campsite.

Make a list! But don't be a slave to it.

I'm a professional stock photographer so for me its helpful to make a list of shots I want to capture. Usually this is just in my head but at least I've gone through the thought process to think of the type of shots I want to bring back. Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don't.

Think of the list as a wish list but don't miss out other opportunities to be spontaneous. This is the fun part of capturing images in national parks.

For example on my recent trips there was a lot of smoke from forest fires which kind of ruined the idea of capturing sweeping vistas along the Beartooth Highway. But I adapted and capture some unique shots of forest fires and the effect on tourism in the national parks.

When all else fails...

When all else fails supplement your photos with stock images from stock suppliers such as Dogford Studios who can provide missing images for your slideshow or photo album. No shame in using professionally shot images to enhance your trips photographs.

Buy a book of photographs and/or history of the park. Buy postcards for the scrapbook. If you get back to your hotel and find that you left the lens cap on when Old Faithful went off and didn't realize, no doubt you can find an professional image of the same thing.

Back in the days of slideshows, gift shops would be full of professional slide for tourist to purchase. No shame in supplementing your images with a few stock shots.


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