Angels Landing after sunset

Photographing America’s National Parks: What to know

I’ve noticed a lot of changes in the national parks in the last few years, what were once remote pockets of America’s beauty have become incredibly busy tourist destinations. I mean it was busy a decade ago but the last 3 years have grown exponentially. Plus everybody is a photographer now, even if you make a living taking picturesthe parks are owned by us all. The giant family lining up for a group picture in your frame has as much right to take a picture as you do.

So how do you navigate these crowded meccas of nature?

Angels Landing after sunset
Angels Landing after sunset

1. Know the park.

6 months to a year before your trip you need to read up on the park to learn what is accessible and what is not. Some parks like Zion don’t allow cars into popular areas and have shuttle service instead; this can have a huge impact on where you go and what gear you bring with you. And some of the most popular places to photograph like The Subway require permits to visit. Other parks have large sections that are closed depending on the seasons. The majority of Rocky Mountain NP is basically closed 7 months of the year due to weather.

Also photography for personal use is free but commercial photography/videography and workshops often require a permit. Make sure your shoot is legal if you’re doing more than your own personal shots. It may seem unfair to pay to lead a photo tour but the park needs reimbursement for the burden supporting you. Since you’re making money on the trip throw some money the park’s way. If it wasn’t there you wouldn’t have a commercial shoot in the first place.

2. Plan Ahead, and I mean WAY ahead!

The National Parks are more popular than ever before, due to their size not everybody can fit. Campgrounds, high traffic locations, and ranger tours need reservations and getting a slot for these fills up months in advance. Luckily the NPS is getting with the times and reservations can be done online however this means everybody else booking up the park too. Make sure you check for availability and book your reservations as soon as you can to guarantee you won’t be disappointed when you arrive.

Once you’re in the park head to the visitor center and speak with a ranger about what limits there may be to your photography and use them as a resource to find new shots and hidden areas people may not know about. Also a good time to see if you can get permits and special permissions to head into otherwise off limit areas. As mentioned above Zion Canyon is off limit to cars, that is unless you have a special photography permit from the ranger that lets you up the canyon during the off hours for some night and sunrise pictures. 😉

3. Stay in park

Besides being a magical experience you can see much more of the park when you’re sleeping just down the canyon and not 30-45 minutes outside of it in a nearby town. As mentioned above, check if you can reserve a spot online. Back in the day you had to be waiting in line when they opened the gates to try to get a first come first serve site. These days many of the campgrounds can be booked 6 months in advance, with traffic as high as it is now some fill up within a week of reservations opening. Some campgrounds are still first come first serve so do your research, always have a backup plan in case you can’t get a spot.

Balanced Rock
100ft down a dirt road makes the tourists disappear.

4. Scout less traveled areas

It’s great getting that postcard shot of sunrise hitting Mesa Arch, but be aware you will be there with 20-40 other photographers getting the identical shot. The Parks are massive and have a lot to see, try to find the places that most people don’t visit and get something unique in your photo-trip. Just because a rock spire or a narrow valley isn’t named by the park doesn’t mean it isn’t spectacular in its own right. And besides being unique you won’t have to jostle for elbow room to get a picture of it.

5. Go on “Off Days”

Everybody loves to use their free weekends to vacation, so go on a weekday when most people are at work. Or visit the park during the off season, less people to complete with and the added benefit of seeing what is usually common in and uncommon way. The deserts of Arches are beautiful but seen covered in snow is a way few people imagine a desert.

6. Be patient

No matter how much you plan and how remote you are there will be crowds, plan for lots of extra time getting to where you want to go. And when you get there be aware that you won’t be alone, you’ll be sharing this with people who have just as much right as you to be there. You may feel that as a photographer you can just tell everybody to “clear your shot” so you can best represent the parks in your camera but you’re not special, and they own the park as much as you do. Learn how to take multiple images and layer them in post-production to remove other tourists. While others are frustrated they can’t get a clean shot you’ll be able to use some post production magic to eliminate the blight of tourists from you work.

7. Remember you represent all photographers

Next to poorly led scout groups, people with cameras are the worst behaved of all tourist groups. Many “Photographers” believe that the rules don’t apply to them because the camera around their neck gives them special powers in the pursuit to capture the perfect image. Nobody is more important than the park itself; it’s a shared resource that’s already beyond its capacity and only likely to get worse. The reason I put the word Photographers in quotes above is that anybody who damages the very beauty they are trying to capture isn’t worthy of the title. Make sure you follow all rules, and are a paragon of the photographer community. Even the rangers should look up to you. When you’re done there shouldn’t even be a footprint to show you were there (seriously, footprints in Arches last years, stay on the trail and research in the visitor center beforehand).

At Delicate Arch.
The crowds on a slow day.
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