I am a national parks buff – I mean I am really crazy about traveling to national parks all over the world. As a family, we have been known to pack our bags at the drop of a hat, load up the car and head out for a visit to our fabulous national parks. National parks provide some of the best landscapes and vistas you can find.
Because much of the land and natural resources are protected, you really get to see nature at its very best. There is so much to see, do, explore, and of course, photograph. Photography in national parks offers incredible opportunities to create some amazing photos and memories!
Additionally, there are a huge number of photographers who make a living photographing landscapes, animals, and vistas in these national parks – talk about it being a dream job.
But photography in the national parks is not an easy slam-dunk. There is a lot of preparing to do before and during a photography trip to a national park. Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning a trip to photograph your favorite national park.
#1 Preparation for a national park photography trip
Let’s just start from the very basics on how to prepare for a trip to photograph national parks. First and foremost, the National Park Service in the United States has a certain set of rules and guidelines for photography in the national parks. Before you plan a trip specifically for photography, make sure you have familiarized yourself with the latest rules and regulations.
This article in Backpacker Magazine is quite informative, but if you are confused on what is allowed and not allowed, feel free to call the park services directly. The rangers in almost all the parks we have visited have been very well informed and are very helpful with rules around photography. In a nutshell:
- Drones essentially are banned from National Parks and if caught, you can be fined.
- Permits are not needed if you are using basic tools (tripod, camera, and a lens) to photograph vistas that are accessible to the public.
- Permits are needed for commercial filming (still and video) and sets that involve props and/or models.
- You will likely need a permit to enter an area not accessible to the public.
- Backcountry rules may differ from front country rules, so definitely call the park to confirm.
Keep in mind that these rules are applicable for parks here in the US. If you are traveling outside the US, check with the local park authorities and/or check in other travel forums. Being prepared is an added bonus that will really pay off in the long run. The last thing you want is to get to your location only to find out that you don’t have the right paperwork and/or permit.
For example, parks and historic monuments in India that require an entrance fee have specific fees for Indians versus foreign tourists and an additional fee per camera (still and video). Some places don’t even allow camera bags and tripods – you have to check your camera bag pack into a locker prior to entry to the park.
#2 Rules and Regulations – Dos and Don’ts
Along the lines of rules and regulations, there are some basic dos and don’ts when it comes to visiting and photographing inside national parks. Most parks are very good about letting you know what is allowed and what is not allowed. Signs, posters, and even handouts are available in plain sight. Playing ignorance is not an option and isn’t going to let you off the hook.
Stay away from wildlife and help them remain wild
My friend works for the Yellowstone National park and every spring she puts up this message on her Facebook page, “Welcome to the season of the crazies. May this season be shorter than the last!”
While it might be amusing and make you smile, this is quite serious to the men and women who work at Yellowstone. People (a.k.a visitors and some photographers) seem to want to go to any lengths to get a selfie or award-winning photograph with bison, bears, and the hot thermal features that Yellowstone is so famous for.
People have lost their lives trying to get the perfect shot! Nothing is worth losing your life over and endangering the lives of innocent animals whose habitats we are encroaching upon. (Note: if an animal attacks you, it may get put down, so by not following the rules you’re endangering their lives as well as your own.)
Never feed wildlife just for the sake of a photo
I have seen this happen time and time again. One time, my daughter was so angry to see a group of people who were feeding a bunch of squirrels lettuce and nuts, that she went up and chastised them and reported them to a ranger! Any activity that alters the natural behavior of animals is unacceptable no matter what the reason.
Never jump the fence and get off the trail
Getting off trail affects the land, the soil, and the environment. Trail markings are there to keep visitors safe and out of harm’s way. Every season rangers and outdoor crew hike the trails to ensure they are safe and can handle visitor foot traffic.
Yet people seem to ignore the signs to stay away so that they can get the epic shot – standing on the edge of a rock, diving into a pond at the base of a waterfall, or climbing the face of a mountain and take a selfie.
#3 Playing fair and playing well with others
I really love reiterating this one time and time again. Over Christmas break, we traveled as a family to Zion National Park. If you have been to Zion you know that capturing the sunset against the Watchmen tower formations are iconic and almost every photographer (amateur or professional) is looking to capture that epic sunset.
Crowds start to gather almost an hour or more before sunset and getting a prime spot can get competitive and sometimes ruthless! There is also a path that leads down from the bridge to the water’s edge for tourists and anyone looking to hike along the river. One evening we were waiting for the sun to set, cameras ready to fire, when a few families decided to walk down to the river essentially getting into the frame of each and every photographer waiting on the bridge above.
Suddenly someone in the group decided to shout at the visitors – essentially asking them to leave the area. I was so mortified and embarrassed about being on that bridge that day with all those people. The National Parks and all its beauty is for everyone to enjoy – being a photographer does not take precedence over being a visitor taking in all of Mother Nature’s beauty. Thankfully a few others felt the same way and spoke up to let the photographer know we didn’t agree with his sentiments.
Long story short, be respectful and aware of your surroundings. These special areas are for all to enjoy – you don’t have special privileges just because you have a camera (however big or small). Most people are well aware of photographers and if they see you all set up, will try and avoid getting into your shot or quickly move away. If this doesn’t happen, just move or patiently wait it out. I never ask people to move just because they are in my shot, especially in national parks.
#4 Making the most out of the trip
Before heading out, do some research on what the areas are famous for. Is it the epic vistas? Is it the magical sunset and sunrise glows? Or maybe it’s the wildlife? What are some of the famous monuments and landscapes to photograph and what are some of the lesser known areas?
Just because an area is not on the “must photograph list” does not mean it is not spectacular in its own right. Once you know what all YOU want to photograph, plan your time wisely. Look for road closures and construction notices. If possible stay in the park. This eliminates the need to travel into and out of the park daily – some of the popular parks have major clogs at the entrances especially during popular times. This can cause a lot of traffic delays and you might just miss that epic sunset (and I speak from experience!).
#5 Getting the shot
Now that you have planned your trip, figured out what and where you want to photograph, you understand the rules and know what to do and what not to do, here are some ways you can actually get those epic photographs.
Get out before sunrise and stay out after sunset
Get out when it is still dark outside and experience a different side of the park. Chances are the only other people out at this time of the day are photographers and people who really want to enjoy some quiet and solitude. This is a time when the park is quiet and animals tend to be out and about.
Morning mist, if present, adds so much interest and drama to a photo. In addition, the wind is usually calm at this time of day, making for easy reflection shots. The same holds true for sunset shots. The average person will spend a few minutes admiring the sunset and get back inside. Stay out past sunset and you have some incredible lighting all to yourself!
Find your primary subject and then try something new
When you find an interesting subject, try to look at it from different angles. This not only will change your perspective, but also allow you to see how the light affects and changes the image. Try it with the sun on the side, at the back, and in front by simply moving your feet.
Enjoy your surroundings beyond your viewfinder
I am very very particular about this! There have been numerous occasions where I have not looked past the viewfinder and come home feeling frustrated and irritated. Travel and the outdoors mean the world to me, photography is just icing on the cake. If I don’t get to enjoy my cake, just filling up on the icing, it is a moot point, don’t you agree?
So during the day when the light is not that great, I try to put the camera in my backpack and enjoy time with my family hiking the park. Plus this gives me a chance to scout locations to visit later in the trip, specifically for photography.
Hike into the backcountry – away from the crowds
I find that most people in the parks stay in or near their cars when taking pictures. To get a different picture (literally) find a trail and head out. You may find that you can leave the crowds behind, have a better experience, and make better pictures.
Be sure to plan ahead by checking out the park’s map for safety tips and any route closures. And of course, follow all safety rules of hiking in the trails and in the backcountry.
I hope these tips were helpful. One of the most important events in history was the establishment of the world’s first national park on March 1st, 1872. Since then, thousands of national parks, national monuments, and preservation areas have been set aside for the enjoyment and pleasure of the common person.
So get out there and enjoy nature while creating some amazing photos and share your images of national parks near you in the comments section below.
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