Magic Moments: How to Take Great Photos in the National Parks

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Follow a few simple rules to bring home album-worthy images

Posted by: Xanterra on June 15, 2018

Shoot around sunset or sunrise as the angle of light then brings more dramatic definition to landscapes and more color to the sky.

America’s national parks preserve some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the planet, and it’s only natural to want to bring home some of that beauty in photographs. Here are a few tips to consider to take that photo of a lifetime.

Mountain in Death Valley

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Do Your Research

Do some research before you leave home. If there’s a specific shot you’d like to take, say for instance Zabriskie Point at Death Valley National Park, begin by locating it with Google Maps, Google Earth, or other mapping programs to see how far it is from where you’ll be staying and to calculate how much time you’ll need to get there. Is there a hike from the parking area or your hotel that will add time? Determine which direction the scene faces to understand how morning light (from the east) and evening light (light from the west) will affect the image, and decide if you’d like a sunrise or sunset shot. Check out photos online to help you plan your own unique compositions while you learn about the subject.

Inn Pool

Plan for the Time of Day

Shoot around sunset or sunrise as the angle of light then brings more dramatic definition to landscapes and more color to the sky. Called the “golden hour” by photographers, it’s when the sun is low in the sky and the light is indirect, which is much more flattering than the harsh midday sun. This is a good rule of thumb, but isn’t valid for all subjects, such as the slot canyons of Zion National Park when the best light can be at noon.

If you’re photographing people and the light is harsh, position them so that the sun is slightly behind them and their faces are evenly in shadow, as opposed to being a mottled blend of bright light and dark shadow. A lens hood acts like the bill of a hat and reduces glare when the light is harsh. If your camera has a flash, turn it on to remove shadows on faces, even when it’s bright out.

If you’re photographing Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park or other similar features in the afternoon, shooting so that the sun is behind the water can make the geyser look like it’s glowing — and you may even get a rainbow.

Sun set on the mountains

Consider Your Aperture

Cameras, and even cell phones, do a marvelous job on an automatic setting. But for scenic park shots, manually controlling the camera settings can make average shots really pop. The aperture, or f-stops, is the iris of the lens and controls how much light reaches the sensor. A large aperture (2.8, for example) lets in a lot of light, good for low-light situations. A smaller aperture (16, for example) lets in less light.

Smaller apertures increase depth of field, making things both close and far appear sharp in the image. Say you’re at Rocky Mountain National Park and there’s a patch of wildflowers with mountains in the distance, and you want both the flowers and mountains to appear in focus. A smaller aperture will do the trick. Conversely, if you’d like the flowers to be in focus but the background to be blurred, use a large aperture. The downside of using a small aperture is you have to use a longer shutter speed to give light enough time to register a proper exposure on the sensor. Sometimes shutter speeds are so slow that camera movement can make the entire photo blurry. (You could increase the camera’s sensitivity to light by increasing the ISO, but this can reduce the sharpness of the image.) In that case, a tripod may be the way to go.

Use a Tripod

Tripods still have a purpose in the digital age. They do four things: allow for critical sharpness by keeping the camera completely still; allow for smaller apertures for increased depth of field; allow for lower ISO sensitivities to decrease image “noise” for better enlargements; and allow for slower shutter speeds for low-light photography or to blur motion, such as the waterfalls within Yellowstone National Park.

In addition, tripods let you get into the photo yourself by using the self-timer on your camera. A tripod doesn’t have to be big, heavy, or expensive. Small tabletop tripods work great in many situations, especially if there’s a handy rock or log nearby to place it on for increased height.

Buffalo

Capture Animals

From bison and wolves to elk and bears, there are plenty of opportunities to photograph wildlife, even without huge telephoto lenses. The best time to capture animals is around sunrise or sunset, when they come out to find food. Even after they retreat to the woods and scrub brush or the cliffs and crevices during the heat of the day, they’re still around if you know where to look. Ask rangers about recent animal sightings, and check visitor centers, which may have message boards reporting when and where animals were seen.

Cameras today allow for extreme cropping, so consider your composition as you can crop the image later to make the animal look bigger. For the best animal shots, make sure to focus on the eyes. When photographing bison or bears, keep in mind that their dark wool tends to absorb light, so overexpose by a stop to get a proper exposure. When photographing birds in flight, follow the bird with your camera as you take the shot. The background may be blurry, but the bird will often appear sharp.

Always follow the safety rules and keep a safe distance from all wildlife, which are unpredictable and can be dangerous. The National Park Service recommends not approaching bears or wolves on foot within 100 yards and other wildlife within 25 yards.

Know the Rule of Thirds

To apply the rule of thirds, imagine a tick-tack-toe grid divided into thirds over your scene. Place a point of interest where the lines intersect for a more dynamic composition. Try lining up the horizon with one of the horizontal lines as opposed to putting it in the middle of the photo. For instance, at Crater Lake National Park, compose the shot so that the bottom two-thirds of the image is the lake, and the top one-third is sky.

Try a Polarizing Filter

Acting just like polarized sunglasses, polarizing filters can intensify blue skies and clouds, and reveal details and reflections in water. Those professional shots of intense clouds over Grand Canyon National Park or blue sky and clouds reflected in the water at Glacier National Park were probably made using a polarizer.


Written by: Steve Larese

Steve Larese is a travel journalist and photographer based in New Mexico. He specializes in writing about and photographing America’s national parks. See more at stevelarese.com.

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