6 Tips for Photographing National Parks

Wow, life with newborn twins and a three-year-old is constant!  :)  I've definitely had to prioritize my life a bit more than usual, which has unfortunately meant that my blog has seen better days.  However, I'm going to blow off the digital dust that it's been collecting to cover a topic that's very near and dear to me...photographing our National Parks.  You see, even though our lives are super busy at the moment, an important photography related event occurred last week:  I booked my flight to Zion for my annual fall trip!

To say I have an awesome wife would be an understatement.  In fact, when we first learned we were pregnant, she could tell I was doing some mental math to determine how close the due date was to that first-of-November sweet spot in Zion.  Her exact words were, "Don't worry, you can still go on your trip."  I've got a keeper for sure you guys!

And man, am I ever looking forward to this trip!  I believe my excitement to travel to Zion has only grown over the years.  People often ask me when I'm going to go somewhere else or if I ever get bored going back to the same place over and over again.  And while I do have plans to branch out to other locations, these trips will be IN ADDITION to my Zion trip each year...because I will never tire of that place.

My excitement at booking the flight took me back to my first trip there almost 2 years ago.  Whereas now I don't even need a map or GPS to make the 45 minute drive from the airport to my hotel in Springdale, back then I didn't have the first clue about anything.  For instance, I thought that the Narrows and Subway were part of the same river.  They aren't...and it's not even close.  However, I did learn quite a bit in that first trip, and I would like to share some of that with you today...in case you are planning any photography trips to new locations in the future.  Here are my 6 tips to get the most out of a photography trip to our National Parks.

1)  Research, research, research

This step will take the longest, but will be well worth the effort in the end.  Information these days is almost laughably easy to come by, and if you spend enough time researching a place, you can often feel like you've already been there.  I recommend gaining a broad perspective before narrowing down your focus.  What I mean by that is study maps of the park to get a feel for its overall layout.   National Geographic makes excellent foldout maps of all the National Parks as well as many wilderness areas.  These maps are waterproof, tear resistant, and contain all of the popular hiking trails a park has to offer.  You can find them on Amazon, at most outdoor retailers, or as always on eBay.  By having an overall idea of how a park fits together, you can start to plan out your trip because you'll know how far apart different locations are.

Now that you know where things are, it's time to find out what to shoot.  Again if you go to Amazon and type in "Photographing -insert-your-park-here-" more than likely you'll find a plethora of books offering photography advice.  Going back to Zion, because it's what I'm most familiar with, I picked up a book titled "Photographing the Southwest: Volume 1 Southern Utah."  (Incidentally there are Volumes 2 & 3 in this series covering Arizona and Colorado/New Mexico respectively.  From what I've read in Volume 1, these are excellent books.  I highly recommend them if you're planning a trip to the American Southwest.)  These books are going to offer you tips on how to photograph all the popular locations as well as some lesser known areas.  They'll give you advice on trails, which season is best, and even some gear recommendations regarding focal lengths.

Don't limit yourself to only photo books though.  I've bought several hiking guides for these areas, and have been able to get a surprising amount of photography tips from them.  One of the larger hiking guide books that I've found helpful are the Falcon Guide series of books (easily recognizable by their yellow and black color schemes).  These books are all by different authors but the ones I've read have all been worthwhile.  These books will get into more specific details regarding trail information, especially useful for accessing some of the more obscure trailheads.  They are a useful tool for planning your days as they often include average hiking time and difficulty.

As a final bit of written literature goes, always be on the lookout for brochures at local retailers or outdoor outfitters.  Odds are that you're not going to find much new in these, but every little bit of information helps.

Of course Google will get you TONS of info, and it's often only a matter of filtering through the search results and finding what's useful.  Not much to say here really, other than if you're going to Zion, you simply must check out Joe Braun's guides at citrusmilo.com.  I don't know Joe, but his website was an invaluable tool for planning my first trip.  I've never come across a more complete hiking guide to a National Park.  Also, if anyone going to Zion wants to join me on a backpacking trip one year to the South Guardian Angel or up the East Fork of the Virgin River let me know.  I discovered these more obscure locations on Joe's site and I'm dying to photograph them!  They're just a bit more off the beaten path and I would prefer company if possible.

Finally, YouTube is an invaluable resource.  The same advice here goes as did with the books.  I recommend not limiting yourself only to photography channels.  In fact, the only photographer that I follow on YouTube who travels to National Parks is Ben Horne.  Most other channels I follow are guys who hike and backpack;  a few examples are Sintax77, Jamal Green, and The Adventure Hiker.  For me, these channels are equal parts entertainment and information gathering.  I like to follow along on their adventures and kind of live vicariously through their videos.  However, I do gain a lot of valuable info from their hikes.  Of course, I also HIGHLY recommend my own channel (link)...;)

2) Make a shot list

Now I realize that some my find making a shot list too rigid or limiting, and to some extent I agree.  You definitely should NOT shoot only the shots you envision beforehand.  However, I find that when I visit a new place for the first time, I am often overwhelmed at what I see.  If I don't have a shot list on hand, I find myself forgetting things that I wanted to shoot.  Also, now that you've done your research and know how the park is laid out, a shot list will help you plan your days and string together shots that are in proximity.

Obviously you shouldn't only shoot what is on the list.  If you come across something you like, fire away!  By the same token, if you don't take every shot on your list that's fine too.  I still make shot lists for my trips to Zion but have yet to get every shot on them.  It gives me a reason to come back! :) I always, and I mean ALWAYS, have my cell phone with me while I'm out shooting, so all I do is open a note on my iPhone and write down everything I hope to get.  Simple and very effective.

3) Lenses...bring 'em if you got 'em

Bit of a gear tip here...bring lenses that will cover the broadest range of focal lengths possible.  Will this make your pack a bit heavy?  Yup.  However, I'm of the mindset that I would rather have too much and make sure I get a shot as opposed to too little and miss something.  For example, my first year to Zion I was shooting mainly digital.  I brought a 16-35mm, 50mm, and 100mm macro.  Normally we consider landscape photography to be the land of the super wides.  However, the longer lengths can prove valuable too.  One day on my 2013 trip I was exploring the Kolob Terrace section of the park when a snowstorm started coming in.  As the sun was setting, a final sliver of light poked through the clouds and illuminated the West Temple.  It was one of those shots that will never be recreated because the atmospheric conditions played such an important roll in creating the light.  As I was miles away, I grabbed that macro lens, and FROM MY CAR, took one of my favorite images from the trip...and it wouldn't have been possible if I had stuck with the usual landscape lenses.

Also, if you've never been to a place, you'll have no idea of the scale of some of these objects.  The first time I saw the Moulton Barn, I was blown away by just how far away it was from the base of the Tetons.  This is a location that works well with wide angle lenses, but I also found that you could achieve a somewhat unique perspective by hiking farther away and using a longer lens to compress the barn and the mountains.

As you become familiar with these locations, you can pare down your lens selection to make your pack more manageable.

4) Go for at least a week

...and longer if possible!  The more time at a location the better.  This is a good idea for several reasons.  First, Mother Nature is unpredictable.  If the weather is uncooperative, you'll have several days to make up for it.  Also, the longer you are there, the more you can immerse yourself in a location.  You will start to learn things like where the sun rises and sets.  Of course you can use apps, like The Photographer's Ephemeris, for this, but it becomes more real when you are there to experience it.

National Parks are BIG too!  Death Valley is larger than several states.  It's going to take some time to travel between areas.  Also, the last time I checked I believe there is only one sunrise and one sunset per day.  Unless this changes, you'll only have a set number of days to get certain locations in the magic hour.

Finally, unless you are lucky enough to do this as a full time job, these shooting trips are supposed to be 100% fun.  Personally, I find that it stresses me out if I constantly worried about getting a shot.  Spreading the trip out across as many days as possible allows me to take a more laid back approach, and I find that I'm a better photographer this way.

5) Shoot the icons

OK, some of you might disagree with this one, but I firmly believe that on your first trip to a location you should absolutely shoot the iconic locations.  Again, these photography trips are supposed to be fun, and part of the fun of photography is, you know, producing good images.  :)  The easiest way to do this is to visit the icons.  They are iconic for a reason...they're absolutely gorgeous!  And often easily accessible.  Now, there are some downsides to this approach.  You're not going to come away with anything that hasn't been done before.  Also, you're going to have to put up with people...not always the most pleasant thing for us landscape guys.  However, in my opinion it's worth it, because the odds are that you'll come away with a stunning image!  And who cares if it's been shot before?  This will be your image of it.

Now, to be honest, I have no interest in shooting the bridge shot at Zion.  (Google "Zion Watchman Tower" if you don't know what I'm talking about.)  Too many BH videos I guess.  However, I've stood at the base of the Towers of the Virgin, ten feet away from the Zion Museum, and photographed sunrise there.  With many other photographers I might add.  I believe this is equally iconic; it's also an image I really enjoy.  I've literally stood in the parking lot at Clingman's Dome in the Smoky Mountains and photographed the sunrise...standing right beside my car.  I've also hiked through the snow to get the Moulton Barn at sunrise, and I'll do it again on large format one day.  I've never really found Zabriskie Point that interesting, but you can believe when I go to Death Valley I'll photograph the dunes and Racetrack.  These are all stunning locations, and I've enjoyed experiencing them.  Even if they don't exactly challenge me as a photographer...

6) Most importantly...GO BACK!!!

Now that you've been, experienced a location, and photographed the icons, I cannot stress how important it is to return.  Return next year, next season, or next month...just return!  For my second trip to Zion, I started to envision shots that I had seen on my first trip there...not something I had seen in a book.  This made my second time there exponentially more satisfying, and it's also a reason why I'm even more excited about my third trip back.

Yes, it's exciting to visit new places, and I'm already looking forward to something new I've got planned for 2016.  But there is also a lot to be said for familiarity.  It's like visiting an old friend. There's is a feeling of comfort seeing the same locations, eating at the same places, and seeing the same faces year after year.  This year in particular for me will be like a reunion of sorts as I've made plans to see some friends that I haven't run across in several years.  All of that adds to the experience and mystique of a location.  Also, it allows you to create traditions.  Maybe I'm just sentimental, but my tradition of hiking to some remote part of Zion on my last day of the trip and just soaking it all in isn't something I would trade for anything.  I can guarantee you that this wouldn't be as special to me if I had only made the trip once.  So if you take nothing else from this blog post, please take away the advice to make a return trip.  You will absolutely not regret it!

With fall color already starting in some parts of the country, I hope you are all planning a photography trip.  If it's to a new location, hopefully these tips can be of some use.  And if you see me in Zion the first week in November, stop and say hi!