Photographing The Parks: Tips for Getting Incredible Photos
Over the last seven years I’v spent a good deal of time vanishing on short notice for trips which involve endless driving, early morning get ups, hiking and a good deal of sitting around. If you want to get the best shots of the USA’s national parks then you’ll need to do all this and more, but don’t worry, if you enjoy photography you’ll no doubt love every second. Here are my top tips for getting the shots that you can’t stop looking at.
- The Right Gear
If you’re serious about getting some nice national park shots to remember, you’ll need to make sure you pack basic landscape photography equipment:
A Wide Angle Lens, mostly you’ll be finding yourself staring at epic landscapes that are vast and difficult to capture. A good wide angle lens will let you grab most of the landscape and if you succeed, catch an inspiring scene. Pack a telephoto and a mid range too, you never know what situations will bring, but you may well encounter animals and you’ll be upset without that big zoom if you do.
A Polarizer (click here) is useful to get the full blue sky effect and to reduce the glare off any water features you may be shooting, you can never quite achieve the same effect in post edit so pack a few.
Neutral Density Filters (click here) are a must for sun set or sunrise shots, 0.6 is a good place to start, learning how to us this simple instrument will change your landscape shots forever.
A Good Tripod (click here) might sound obvious, but look into it. I used to carry a very lightweight model out on hikes, it was just easier to carry or strap onto a pack, but a nice weighted tripod with a solid build is worth the effort. If the wind gets up, you’ll wish you had something steady. Invest in this bit of kit and it will stick by you for years.
A Thermos, (click here) no seriously. It may not technically be photography equipment but it’s still an essential. Trust me on this, if you’re up a mountain awaiting the sun at 4.30am, nothing feels better than pouring a steaming hot coffee.
A Decent Pack. My preference is the Lo-Pro backpacker series (click here). If you’re photographing the parks, you’ll be hiking long distances and your shoulders will feel it. Get a pack which can hold the camera gear but leave space for food and drinks.
- Go it Alone
It may seem daunting, but if you really want to get those shots, you’ll find it easier if you’re solo. Now before I go into the reasons why solo travel will get you better photos, lets just note some reasons why you should take a solo trip in general. If you’ve never traveled alone then the thought of leaving without company can seem scary, but there’s a reason everyone who takes their first solo trip takes a second. The positives of solo travel are huge, increased self confidence, more time to reflect on your experiences and complete control over what you do.
In terms of a photo trip, the control of your itinerary is key. You’re going to want to drive to out of the way places for a photo, you’re going to want to sit for hours waiting for conditions to be right for your shots. No mater what you think, the freedom of movement and time you have from solo trips is priceless.
2. Chose The Right Park
It’s difficult to say which park is right or wrong for you, I don’t know you! Only you know what kind of shots you have in mind and what experience you’re looking have. Here are some things to consider though.
Yellowstone and Yosemite are popular for good reason. They may be crowded on your way in and out but the scenes and wildlife in these two are perhaps unrivaled in the lower 48. Both have a good road system to take you to the action, after that it’s down to your feet.
Zion is amazing. No doubt about it, this must be the most underrated of the big parks, its an oasis in the desert and a photography dream.
The Smokey Mountains have a lot to offer. You’ll have nothing but that park to work with, nothing else around for a good way, but what a park, plus that mountain range holds a million secrets and its waiting for you to discover them with your trusty camera.
Back country permits are usually available the day before in most parks, but the best ones go earlier, again, do your research. If you need more info on the parks and you haven’t had too much experience, take a read of our ‘Top 5 Parks for Beginners’ article.
3. Wheels & Boots
You’re not going to get anywhere if you fly. The best chance for you getting your shots is to have full freedom of movement, that means jumping behind a wheel, and packing your tent and hiking gear. A car hire from any reputable rental company (I tent to find Hertz the best value for money) will set you back around $130 a week. If you’re touring longer the money drops, a month long rental will be around the $900 mark. Don’t take the insurance, your credit card will cover it, the Chase Sapphire is excellent in the insurance department. I tend to take mid range or economy cars, they’re cheap and in the lower 48 it’s all you’ll need to get you to the heart of the action. Most of the best national parks have excellent roads that will take you to ideal hiking routes. If you’re heading to Alaska, well that’s another deal all together, see the coming ‘Road Trip Alaska’ article for more on that.
Hiking in the parks system is one of the most enjoyable things in the world. You meet fresh air, true darkness and wilderness and if you’re lucky, encounter animals in their own environment. You’ll need basic gear here, good hiking boots, water resistant if possible, and merino wool socks will all but change your life. Designed to keep warm even if wet, they are any real hikers go to. Flexible hiking shorts with attachable legs can be handy if mosquitoes come and say hello.
Grab your tent from REI, you’ll get 10% back on any purchase if you become a shareholder which is well worth it. The REI tent range is superb, I like the Half Dome model, but this is all about preference, do your research.
4. Go the Extra Mile
When you visit the more popular parks, you’ll find hoards of Asian tourists pouring off tour buses at every stop, plenty of plump visitors emerging from their cars for a two minute look at a waterfall through the screen of their iPhone, endless teenagers wielding selfie sticks stoutly believing their faces are improving the view of El Capitan rather than obscuring it. You can escape all this! What these hapless folks are seemingly unaware of, is if they just took off their flip flops and got into a pair of hiking shoes, they would see something worth the drive. All of the best photos I’ve captured have been from hikes. Go past the ring roads and get walking. Whether its a two hour hike around a canyon rim or three days in the woods you’ll find endless gems that a only seen by a privileged few, and put the views obtained from the park vista pullouts to shame.
5. Wait for the Light
Any photographer worth his salt knows that light is what its all about. Don’t even unpack your camera between 11am and 3pm. Use the day time to scout out your shots, use local knowledge and guides, consult maps and photography blogs and then head out to look for yourself. Use the mornings and evenings to get to work. The magic light as that sun rises and falls will transform even the most mundane sights into stunning scenes. If you find a great scene to begin with, then you might be in for a magic shot. If a storm is coming, don’t panic, use it! Some of the most epic light comes as a storm hits or just after it finishes. Either way, keep light at the front of your mind and you’ll be just fine.
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