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The Reality Of Shooting In National Parks

You’ve seen them.

The beautiful pictures, often repeats of other beautiful pictures. Here, let me give you an example.


This is Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. You may have seen this type of shot before or one much like it. Some people wait until the sun is blocked by the arch and the underside of the arch is glowing red, as in this picture.

Calm. Serene. You can almost hear the light breeze and the whisper of time held still.

Now let me show you what is missing in this frame on that day.




This is the reality behind the lens and something not often mentioned.

For this shoot, I was meeting up with fellow photographer Michael Riffle who has been to this location before. He said we needed to meet early….real early. “How early?” I asked. With a sunrise at 7:30, he guessed about 5:30am. That should get us to the park and in position around 6:30am.

Evidently that was not early enough.

We were bested by two workshop groups who had arrived even earlier. I took up a position to the far right while Michael managed to use his charm to gain front row access, but not as close as he had planned. In all, there were over 17 people shooting the arch that day, the crowd getting ruckus when one gentleman decided to walk on top and pose for his workshop group. This brought yells to get off and threats that his act was illegal (for reference sake, we asked a park ranger at the trailhead and were told it is not illegal to walk the arch. “It’s not a very smart thing to do, though.” Were his words).

The atmosphere is not what the illusion of the first image portrays, but that’s ok, because that’s photography. An illusion of what really was, malleable any way we, as artists, please.

Now, let’s contrast that experience with our shoot the next morning in neighboring Arches National Park. It was my idea to head to Delicate Arch for sunrise. This icon is so popular, it even adorns most license plates in Utah.

First, a shot of the classic arch.


You may notice this is not the normal shot people take. That shot is near sunset when the face is lit up. We decided to go early for a different view of the classic and it paid off as this is the crowd we faced:


No one. For an hour and a half we set up, tested, shot and waited. After an hour and a half, one person showed up for about 20 minutes and then left.

In my book, it doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve been to this location at sunset and so had Michael. We exchanged horror stories of tourists being tourists and exploring the arch, much to the consternation of the multiple photographers lined up (to the right in the image above) to get their copy of a classic. I didn’t want to spend half a day trying to edit out tourists (yes, I am one of them too) who, “got in my shot!”

This is a shot of such crowds by Matt Leher on Flickr.


The valley view just off the road in Yosemite Valley. Old Faithful. Mt. Rushmore.

The list goes on and on. Classic shots that leave behind the reality of a crowded scene to get a classic shot.

Crowds are not bad nor evil. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get those classic shots. They are beautiful and help people gain interest in our National Parks.

I want you to be aware; when you plan that ultimate shoot to capture a well worn icon for your own portfolio, realize you may have company.

On the other hand, we spoke with a local Utah photographer who visits Mesa Arch often and he pointed out winter is a great time to shoot and crowds are usually less. But he also said it can’t be predicted as he has been there in bad weather, expecting to have the place to himself, only to find a crowd. The flipside also being true.

What can you do?

  • Scout first, during the day or day before. Look for a spot when the light is harsh and there are less visitors to contend with. You can do some of this online before leaving to see what others have shot and figure out angles you might want to try.
  • Arrive super early. Not early; super early.
  • Be patient. All the others are wanting what you want and it’s not because they hate you. It’s because you all likely appreciate the same beauty.
  • Be friendly. With the crowd at Mesa Arch, I joked around with a couple of people near me who were lighthearted enough to enjoy the morning even with the crowd.
  • Bring a second camera. This will allow you to stake a claim to a spot and still take other images.
  • Enjoy what you came to enjoy.

Despite the crowds I have found at popular shooting locations, I have always enjoyed the experience. Sure, my expectations of a deserted vista were dashed, but once I dropped that expectation and the disappointment that came with it, my mood and shooting improved.

Good luck! And good shooting!

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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