National Parks Photography for Beginners

No matter what park you visit, you're bound to see amazing things you'll want to photograph. From the depths of the Grand Canyon to big horn sheep on a tundra precipice in Rocky Mountain National Park or a sunset glow on Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, we've got a few tips on capturing the moment.


Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park

Identity

The hardest part of beginning your photography hobby or career is discovering your voice. While there are a million photos already available of just about anything beautiful on earth, you'll want to find a new and interesting way to capture and portray the unique moment in time you experienced at this place.


Personally, I come from a digital marketing background. It's been useful for figuring out what elements I want to have in a shot and what the mental focus of an image is that I want a viewer to identify. This naturally lead me to focus primarily on adventure photography. Essentially, this is telling the human experience of some kind of outdoor travel adventure. I also enjoy the utility of perspective when putting a human in a photograph. The most difficult thing to convey in a two-dimensional photograph is scale and perspective. There are certain tricks to manipulating perspective and scale using zoom, tilt shift, focus stacking, and utilizing elements like humans that have a universally understood size.


Most people will focus on wildlife and landscape photography to begin as it seems relatively simple to accomplish. But how do you go from taking snapshots on an iPhone to creating enormous fine art prints?


White Bison in Arizona
White Bison in Arizona

Equipment

The first piece to elevating your game is proper equipment. The plain fact is that while computational photography on phones has greatly improved results of everyday snapshots, the sensor simply is not physically large enough to absorb the amount of photons necessary to create a truly sharp and detailed image with any sense of depth. You could get around this by conceptualizing a single image at a very low ISO in Pro Mode, taking dozens of photos and stitching them together in photoshop to create something more detailed and interesting, but it really isn't worth your time or effort given the price of entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras these days at $500 and under.


Most entry level cameras will have a few basic zoom and prime lenses for very reasonable prices. I began with a Nikon D3300 with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 70-300mm f/5.6-6.3 and 35mm f/1.8. It covered a lot of bases, but the more I learned how the system actually worked in combination with environmental prohibitions at different locations (stay on trails, no climbing on this or that, etc.), the more I realized that I had to purchase specific bits to get things exactly the way I wanted them. A good photographer can make a great image with nearly any camera, but I decided to reach beyond the capabilities of my current camera and raise my own ceiling that I would have to fill with skill to go further. I purchased a Nikon D850 and it took over my life.

Simply put, any camera with interchangeable lenses from Nikon, Canon, Sony, or Fuji will do a great job for still images and offer you years of skill growth before you learn the skills necessary to make investing in a more expensive system worthwhile. And, you'll immediately be able to make large prints of your photos to enjoy in your home or sell to others. Even most APS-C sensor cameras have good enough sensors to create 150 dpi prints (decent print quality) above 36"X24".


Fire Wave - Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Fire Wave - Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Lighting

If you're just starting your photography journey, you might be intimidated by using a speedlight (flash). That's ok, because nature often provides excellent light on its own. While we could expound on the benefits and uses of artificial lighting, many locations prohibit it outright and it should never be used to photograph wildlife. Apart from disturbing the animals, they may attack you if they feel threatened by your strange flashing light.

We'll focus on natural lighting here in an effort to build a functional skillset in any environment.

When choosing how to best shoot a naturally lit scene, your options can be limited. Park rules may dictate where you are allowed to walk and stand, so it's up to you to figure out a way to make something interesting out of a shot that has been taken a million times before. While it may be useful to shoot some run-of-the-mill shots that have been taken before to build your portfolio generally, you won't stand out in the ocean of photos on the internet doing what a million people have already done before.

This is where your personal identity and voice will take over. If you're looking to create art, it can be useful to sort through shooting styles to find a few you like. Learn how they're shooting their content and you'll begin to find things you like individually along the way.


In fact, there can be multiple ways to shoot one subject in one environment inside one style. Once you learn how to create a few shooting styles and you understand some basics of software like Adobe Lightroom, you'll be ready to create a portfolio totally unique to your voice.


Kawuneeche Valley - Rocky Mountain National Park
Kawuneeche Valley - Rocky Mountain National Park

A general tip that most photographers can agree on is that sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to shoot for the most dramatic and interesting lighting. Next to the obviously spectacular color palette of orange, pink, purple, and blue, horizontal light versus vertical light (sunset versus noon) in most circumstances is an easy choice.


This becomes even more obvious as you shoot people in any environment. You may be looking at your portrait shots and not realize that the eye lash shadows casting directly downward is what is making your shot look strange and unnatural.


Though if you're in a slot canyon, you may discover that direct vertical light is actually your best friend. Tossing some dust into the air in direct light may expose some gorgeous linear rays of sunlight that add some mystique and interest to your shot.


There are very few hard and fast rules in any art form, and most may be bent or broken to create new and interesting interpretations of any subject.


Most old school photographers will tell you to never shoot directly into the sun. This stems from a well-founded technical understanding of older camera equipment. With today's modern digital cameras, you're generally free to do so without any real fear of damaging your equipment or wildly overexposing your image. In fact, you might find that it adds a modern atmospheric effect that you really enjoy. The image above of a woman walking through the Kawuneeche Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park is in a traditional and technical sense both over and underexposed at the same time.

But my personal artistic interpretation of the scene meant that I desired the drama of deep shadows and bright sunlight simultaneously. I also added a matte style effect and a dark vignette to the image to create the feeling of a memory or dream. My story inspiration on this shoot was to to create the idea of someone living in a fantasy world or inside of a dream.


While there are a billion ways we could create a lot of artificial things in Photoshop, the image needed to resonate with the one principle I've used in marketing photography for years; aspirational, yet attainable. It's essentially taking a scene as it is naturally given to you or that you can create in a realistic way and showing it in the best possible light for the story you want to tell. It's a simple idea, but sometimes complicated in its execution.


Wanderlust at 12,000 feet
Wanderlust at 12,000 feet

This "wanderlust" look is all the rage with the kids these days, but it can also be a really fun and engaging way to shoot and edit your photos.

I almost never shoot with the sun directly to my back for a variety of reasons. First, I don't want my shadow in the photo. Always be aware of what's in your frame.

Second, angling it to the side can offer you a more interesting profile of highlights and shadows. Shooting directly into the sun with any sort of balanced metering or auto system will always underexpose your shadows. Understanding how your equipment works will afford you the opportunity to shoot what you want whenever you pick up your camera.


I won't go into any extreme detail about it, but consider the "Rembrandt Triangle" technique when shooting with horizontal light. This technique is something you see every single day and may not notice it. Most cinematographers and photographers understand the Rembrandt Triangle to be both an interesting and pleasing method of lighting the human face. Using directional light, you create a triangle of light on the darker side of the face. While this specific application is generally limited to human faces, the same principle can be applied when thinking about highlighting certain features on a subject. When your subject is lit from the side, which features are highlighted? Which are dark? Should you rotate yourself or your subject to achieve a better angle in your finished photo?


Delicate Arch - Arches National Park
Delicate Arch - Arches National Park

With landscape shots, you basically have all day to figure out what you want to do. Here, we have a non-traditional shot of Delicate Arch. A tight aperture (f/16) and the horizon splitting the sun allowed me to get the 'starburst effect' during the last moments of sunlight at Delicate Arch. I walked all the way up and down the bowl and walls all around and found that there were only a few angles that would work with the 28mm and 50mm lenses I brought with me. Nonetheless, I tried to figure out something that would be new and different.

Once you hike up to Delicate Arch, you'll discover the exact same shot that everyone always takes: this one.


Delicate Arch - Arches National Park
Delicate Arch - Arches National Park

They may put it in the right or left third, but this is pretty standard stuff. There's nothing technically wrong with this type of shot. The problem is artistic. It isn't particularly interesting. Everyone has seen this same photo about a million times. What about this shot would be unique? Where is there a new artistic interpretation? Given the terrain here, it is difficult to shoot something that has never been done before. Maybe even impossible now. But that shouldn't stop you from trying. Don't be afraid to be creative and make mistakes.


Focus


Beside the elementary principles of where your focus point should be, you'll find that many landscape and adventure photographers are using focus stacking to achieve a near-3D feel in two dimensional photos. Indeed, this is how your eye sees it. Your brain perceives these focus stacked images in a slightly different way than a typical photograph. Tack sharp focus back to front can be achieved automatically through many mid and high level cameras on the market today by shooting one photo dozens of times at different focus increments. You may have a mode called "focus shift shooting" or something similar. While this won't compile those dozens of images into one for you in-camera, you can find dozens of tutorials online for doing it with Photoshop and other software. Don't be afraid, it's very easy.


Alternatively, you can attempt to cheat this method through small apertures while taking single frame photos. It doesn't work as well and you won't fool anyone, but it's a way to experiment with front to back focal range so you know what to expect.


Framing

When shooting people in environments, make sure you know what's in your frame. Here, my feet are cut off. It ends up looking awkward if you cut someone off at or below the knees. Cut off above the knees, mid-torso or just below the shoulders when attempting to show the landscape with them. Otherwise, include all their toes, hair, and fingers in your frame unless you're doing some kind of extreme close up.

Also be aware of people wandering through your shot. While they can usually be removed with relative ease, you'll have to remember to do so when you get around to editing your photos later. Additionally, you almost never want your own shadow in the shot. When holding a camera, your shadow usually won't cast a distinctive or interesting silhouette. If you wanted to capture an interesting shadow in your foreground, you will probably be better off having someone else stand in while you find an angle that you can shoot without crossing into their shadow or your frame.

The "rule of thirds" is one of those elementary framing techniques that isn't absolutely necessary, but can be a useful guideline for setting up your elements in your frame to make an interesting shot. You'll probably find that most shots that aren't focusing on symmetry don't have their subject element directly in the center of the shot. I won't go into detail about it here, as you can definitely find better literature on Google.

Cheat Codes


Luminar 4 or Luminar AI are probably the best-known cheat codes next to Photoshop. Photoshop is extremely powerful and you can create some really spectacular stuff if you know what you're doing. If you don't, Luminar makes it easy. The trouble that most beginners run into is the same as any politician: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. With great power comes great responsibility.

While it may be tempting to wildly over-edit your shots and make them look completely unrealistic, you will probably find that it will alienate your audience unless you change your title to "digital artist" instead of "photographer".


With the onslaught of free or cheap photo editing software, people really push their photos to the absolute limit. The key here is subtlety. If you add sunrays to your shot, make sure it's a sunrise or sunset shot. Make sure your light and shadow direction is correct. People aren't stupid, and you should never treat your audience this way. Using an extreme HDR software adjustment creates a huge amount of noise in both highlights and shadows and looks terrible.


While you may have every software tool in the world, it won't cover for a lack of technical ability in photography. Work your shutter out and practice. Study your equipment and how to use it. There are thousands, if not millions of videos on YouTube with very clear instructions for learning new techniques.


Finally, no photograph is worth your health or safety. Every year, multiple people get trampled, gored, or otherwise attacked by elk, bison, moose, bears, rattlesnakes, etc. Others fall off of ledges and cliffs or become dehydrated and overexposed in environments with dangerous temperatures or terrain. Your life will go on without that one shot. It may not if you put yourself in danger.


Enjoy our photos? Get your own in our shop. Stay tuned for more blog posts here and at www.thewildernessdiary.com.



2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All