National Park Photography Workshop Permits: Are They Really Necessary?


Sunrise on the West Side Road at Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Back in February of 2014, I led two back-to-back photography workshops in Death Valley National Park with my friend and fellow photographer Mike Mezeul. Planning workshops is a lot of work and takes a lot of love and dedication to do right. Before the process of getting everything set up (making sure the students had all booked their flights, hotels, rental cars, etc.) we needed to apply for a workshop permit. This is sort of a tough thing to do timeline wise. You can apply for it ahead of time before you even announce the workshop; but then you run the risk of paying the $210 (average cost) and the workshop falling through or something like that. Or you can wait until you book spots for the workshop and then apply for the permit; but then you run the risk of not getting the permit in time for the workshop. We opted for the latter because we had plenty of time to get the application in and get the permit back. We got our workshop permit in time and had nothing to worry about. We weren’t going to risk getting in trouble with the park in an effort to save a few hundred bucks.

Now fast forward to the second workshop. We had just wrapped up a beautiful sunrise shoot at Badwater Basin on the West Side Road (Death Valley. The patterns at the main part of Badwater (by the parking lot) were in pretty terrible shape but we decided to take the group there after the sunrise shoot so they could see all the educational signs, walk around for a bit and get a picture of the “280 Feet Below Sea Level” sign. While we were there, a man came up to me and asked if we had found any good patterns. I’ve never been one to withhold secrets so I told him about the spot we found over on West Side Road. I noticed he had a van full of people and shortly after, they were on their way.

Workshop students set up for sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Workshop students set up for sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Our group stayed at the Badwater parking lot for another 30 minutes or so before heading back into Furnace Creek for breakfast. When we got to the Forty Niner Cafe we saw a large table of around 20 people (all with their photography gear) sitting in silence. It was really strange. Nobody was really talking and everyone looked stressed out and upset. I went to use the restroom and that’s when I saw the same guy who I’d spoken to at the Badwater Basin parking lot.

He told me that he was a workshop instructor and they were on day two (the first full day) of their photography workshop. He had taken my advice and driven his group down to the West Side Road but when he got there, a Park Ranger was waiting for him. As it turns out, the instructor and his partner had decided to forgo the workshop permit because they had applied for one the year before and never got asked about it at during that workshop. He figured, “Why not save the $210?” It’s not like Death Valley has much staff left after all the government cutbacks, right? Wrong.

The Ranger asked for his permit and when the instructor said he didn’t have one, he was told to leave the park immediately. He was instantly given a $2,000 fine for conducting a workshop inside a National Park without a permit. He had to leave his group of around 20 students inside the park–students who had paid the tuition for the workshop, bought plane tickets into Vegas, rental cars to drive into the park and $200/night hotels within the park. On top of that, he had to appear before a judge in federal court in California three months later. That meant another flight to book, a couple nights in a hotel, a rental car and living expenses for the trip. Based on the outcome of the court appearance, he was facing upwards of $10,000 in fines and a lifetime ban from the park. I’m not sure what the outcome was with his group of students but I’m assuming they got their money back for the workshop.

A mysterious sailing rock during sunset at the Racetrack Playa

A mysterious sailing rock during sunset at the Racetrack Playa

The Lesson to be Learned

The takeaway here is not to cut corners. If you are conducting a workshop inside of a national park, a national monument or even some state parks; get a permit. It’s not worth taking the risk and there are Park Rangers out there doing research. I talked to another photographer who was holding a workshop out in Zion National Park a while back. He had applied for a permit (and got one) to take his group into the Subway. When he got to the parking lot to start the hike, a Ranger was waiting there for him to check his permit. I’ve heard other stories of the Rangers looking up workshops on Google and then keeping track of the instructors on social media. They then try and pinpoint where the group will be and see if they can track them down to make sure they have the permit. All it takes is a tweet saying, “Beautiful sunrise at the Mesquite Dunes this morning.” To be honest, $210 is a very small fee to pay for holding a workshop inside of a national park. On top of that, you are supporting the park by paying the fee much in the same way you support it by purchasing park passes and entry fees.

If you are a student and will be attending a workshop inside a park, make sure that your instructor has the right permits. In my opinion, an instructor that cuts corners to save their bottom line isn’t an instructor worth paying tuition for a workshop.

For more information on choosing a photography workshop or tour, read these:

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • STPhotography

    It was just a few years ago that photographers were blamed for a falling arch out at Valley of Fire (in some attempt to get a shot, it was reported), and yet it turned out to be hikers intent on climbing out to a very thin section that was not meant to support the weight of even a small child.
    I have no problem paying a workshop fee to a park for use of the area because I want them to know that our group is there to not only preserve the park in our images, but that we are doing so in the most responsible manner. Should anything happen, such as intentional damage caused by others, we know the rangers will have checked the area before and after our visit and know it wasn’t us who harmed the area.

  • Then impart your knowledge over your office trash can and see how many students you attract.

  • Stephen431

    Just a wild guess here, but you haven’t been to Death Valley NP, right?

    If you have been there, then you’ll understand what likely happens when a van full of 20 photographers paying for a workshop get stuck a 2 hour drive away from the nearest water source when said van breaks down on the way to Racetrack Playa… and the temperature breaks 114 degrees at 9am.

    Someone is walking back to the ranger station.

    If someone is leading a group and making money off of it using public lands, there should be a use permit, and usually a fee. Commercial permits & fees are there to make sure commercial, for-profit, companies can offer services in the parks without increasing costs for regular users, or monopolizing certain areas of parks. Those things have happened in the past.

  • The websites of all the Parks have a section on photo permits. Commercial photography is actually ok too. The line is drawn leading a class, using models, props, or set and lighting gear.

    Take a pic of the landscape with your huge lens and giant camera, on a hefty tripod and sell it for profit. No permit required,

  • You can read the regulations on their website. There isn’t anything against professional photographers per se.
    And I’ve never read anything that bans tripods; just classes, lighting gear, and models (and big commercial equipment that is beyond the scope of 99.9% of us).

  • Bill Gillooly

    When tax money is cut, parks will do anything to get financed.

  • Dan Bowen

    I don’t have any objection to the permitting process in national or state parks. What I do object to is all the land that the Federal Government owns in total. But that is another discussion.

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