If you’re planning a national parks trip and you want to capture outstanding photos, you’ve come to the right place.
I am a national parks photography expert. I am crazy about traveling to – and photographing – parks all over the world. In my view, these parks offer incredible opportunities to create some amazing nature photos and make plenty of memories!
That said, national park photography isn’t always easy. The best shots require a lot of preparation, not to mention know-how. Fortunately, this article will share everything you need to know for gorgeous shots in the national parks, so let’s not dawdle; let’s dive right in!
(Note: This article will focus on the American national parks, but the general advice should apply to photography in any national park system!)
1. Know the rules of the park
Every national park system has its own set of photography rules, and the United States’s NPS is no exception. So before you plan a national parks photography trip, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with the latest rules and regulations.
Here are the basics to bear in mind:
- Drones are banned from national parks, and if caught using one, you can be fined.
- Permits are not needed if you are using basic tools (a tripod, a 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 areas not accessible to the public.
- Backcountry rules may differ from frontcountry rules.
Consider what you might wish to do in advance, and if you’re confused about what is and isn’t allowed, feel free to call the park services directly. The rangers in most of the parks I’ve visited have been very well informed and are very helpful with rules regarding photography.
By the way, if you’re traveling outside the US, check with the local park authorities and/or check travel forums for the relevant rules. The last thing you want is to get to your location only to find that you don’t have the right paperwork and/or permit!
2. Stay away from wildlife
My friend works for Yellowstone National Park, and every spring, she puts up a message on her Facebook page: “Welcome to the season of the crazies. May this season be shorter than the last!”
While it might seem amusing, the problem is quite serious; tourists and some photographers sometimes go to great lengths to get a selfie or an award-winning photograph with bison, bears, and more. Don’t be one of those people.
For one, it’s against the rules. While the rules vary from park to park, you’re usually required to stay 75+ feet away from wildlife (and if the animal is potentially dangerous, even more).
People have lost their lives trying to get the perfect shot; even those who escape unharmed endanger the lives of innocent animals. Not only can your actions destroy its habitat, but if an animal attacks you, it may get put down.
By the way, I’m not just talking about approaching wildlife – I’m also talking about feeding wildlife. I have seen this happen time and time again. Any activity that alters the natural behavior of animals is unacceptable, whether your goal is to get great photos or to simply have fun.
3. Don’t leave the trails
Off-trail hiking affects the land, the soil, and the environment. Trail markings are designed to keep visitors safe and out of harm’s way. In fact, every season, rangers and outdoor crew hike the trails to ensure they are safe and can handle visitor foot traffic.
Yet people still ignore the signs so that they can get the epic shot. They stand on the edge of rocks, dive into ponds at the base of a waterfall, and climb the face of mountains – all for a selfie.
Again, don’t be that person. Stick to the designated areas. And pretty much every national park offers plenty of beautiful subjects on the trail; there’s no need to put the ecosystem (and yourself) at risk!
4. Be respectful of other photographers
This is a big one! Over Christmas break, I traveled with my family to Zion National Park. Sunset by the Watchman tower is an iconic view, one that almost every photographer (amateur and professional) looks to capture.
Well, as I found out, crowds start to gather an hour or more before sunset, and finding a prime spot can get competitive and even ruthless. There’s also a path that leads down from the bridge to the water’s edge, and as we were waiting for the sun to set, cameras ready to fire, a few families decided to walk down to the river – 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, asking them to leave the area. And in my view, this is unacceptable! In fact, I was embarrassed to be on that bridge that day with all those people. The national parks are for everyone to enjoy, and being a photographer does not take precedence over being a visitor. Thankfully, a few others felt the same way and spoke up to let the photographer know we didn’t agree with his approach.
Long story short: Be respectful and aware of your surroundings. National parks are for all to enjoy, and you don’t have special privileges just because you have a camera (however big or small). Most people are aware of photographers, and if they see you all set up, they will try to avoid getting into your shot or quickly move away. If they don’t, just move, or patiently wait it out. I never ask people to move just because they are in my shot, especially not in national parks.
5. Research locations in advance
National parks are big, and each one offers literally thousands of photo opportunities. Unless you plan to live in the park for a decade, you need to narrow down your selections so you can make the most of your trip.
So before heading out, do some research. You might start by looking into the area’s prime attractions. Is it the epic vistas? Is it the magical sunset and sunrise glows? Is it the wildlife? What are some of the famous monuments and landscapes? What are some of the lesser-known photography spots?
Of course, you should also think about your photographic preferences. Don’t ever feel the need to shoot a location simply because it’s popular. Pick the areas that overlap with your interests!
Then, once you know what you want to shoot, plan your time wisely. Look for road closures and construction notices. Plot your routes, study sunrise and sunset charts, and prepare for the big day!
Pro tip: If possible, stay in the park. This eliminates the need to travel in and out of the park each day, which can be a big deal. Some of the popular parks can have major congestion at the entrances, which might cause you to miss that epic sunset (I speak from experience!).
6. Get out before sunrise and stay out after sunset
It’s easy – and often far less painful – to wake up after sunrise and head home when the sun sets. But if you push yourself to wake early and stay late, you’ll have a far better experience.
Get out when it’s still dark, and you can experience a different side of the park. Generally, the only other people out before sunrise are photographers and those who really want to enjoy some quiet and solitude. (Plus, this is when many animals are active!)
Early morning photoshoots can also capitalize on certain weather. Ponds and lakes tend to be very still, which makes reflection shots easy. And morning mist can add plenty of interest and drama to a scene.
As for sunsets: The average person spends a few minutes admiring the sunset before heading back inside. But if you make the effort to stay out past sunset, you’ll have that incredible blue-hour lighting all to yourself!
7. Spend plenty of time with each new subject
When you find an interesting subject, don’t just take the obvious shot and move on. Instead, take a few basic shots – and then ask yourself, “How can I make my photos more original?”
Here are just a few ways to approach a scene creatively:
- Change your angle (see if you can get up high or drop down low)
- Change the lighting quality (wait until the sun goes behind a cloud, or wait until the sun drops lower in the sky)
- Change the lighting direction (walk around the scene until you’re faced with backlight, sidelight, or frontlight)
- Change the position of your subject in the composition (adjust your frame until the subject sits along a rule-of-thirds gridline, smack-dab in the center, or along a diagonal)
You might also try switching lenses, cameras, or accessories to create different effects. A little bit of extra time at each scene can make a huge difference to the final result!
8. Enjoy your surroundings
National parks are beautiful, and while it can be great fun to take photos, sometimes you need to just stop, take your eye away from the camera viewfinder, and appreciate the scene.
On numerous occasions, I’ve failed to look past my camera – and I’ve come home feeling frustrated and irritated. Had I actually taken the time to absorb the beauty around me, I would’ve likely felt far happier!
For me, traveling and appreciating the outdoors are of primary importance. Photography is just icing on the cake. If you feel the same, then on those days when the light isn’t great or things just don’t seem to be working out for you, put the camera in your backpack. Go on a walk. Have fun with your family or friends. Enjoy the moment.
(Plus, if you spend time walking around the park, it might give you ideas for future photos!)
9. Hike into the backcountry
In my experience, most people photographing the national parks stay in or near their cars – and while you can certainly get some great shots using this approach, if you want something a little different, then find a trail and head out.
I find that backcountry hiking helps me leave the crowds behind, have a better experience, and take better pictures. Of course, for long hikes and camping trips, you’ll need to keep your bag as light as possible. Consider leaving behind those extra lenses and backup cameras, and just take your primary body plus a prime lens or two.
Also, be sure to check out park maps for safety tips and any route closures. And – as I emphasized in a previous tip – check the backcountry rules before you leave!
National park photography tips: final words
I hope you found these tips helpful. Photographing in the national parks is an incredible experience, and with the right approach, you can capture plenty of stunning images.
So get out there and enjoy nature! Take some beautiful photos. And have fun!
What national parks do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!