The Reality Of Shooting In National Parks

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 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.

Some Older Comments

  • Valerie Hayken December 11, 2012 08:00 am

    Funny and true. Great article! Great tips!

  • marius2die4 November 9, 2012 07:20 pm

    Is true, "you" are't the only one photographer.

  • Paul November 9, 2012 07:41 am

    So true! I like the second camera idea.

  • blaize November 9, 2012 05:31 am

    Personally, if everyone else is doing it, I am probably not going to shoot it...I really don't want to take the same thing that everyone elsr is doing... I'm prone to look for shots that aren't in every other travel magazine....

  • Deepak Thomas November 9, 2012 05:00 am

    To ami's point, perhaps a long exposure stacking nd filters and a small aperture? That should erase the tourists out of the picture, though perhaps not the worst of them i.e. photographers with tripods ;)

  • Annette Gendler November 9, 2012 04:42 am

    Thank you for so nicely capturing the reality of taking these great shots - the photos are great but transmit a serenity that is rarely the reality of taking the shot. Although I must say I was lucky to get to Mesa Arch at sunrise and no one else was there. Those kinds of shots of popular sites are more for myself but it's still nice to actually see the cliche in reality, and to perhaps put one's own spin on it.

  • Christina November 9, 2012 03:54 am

    This is a great article with lots of advice, thank you so much! I hope to be able to visit such parks and see those great things (with/out the crowds) and my camera :). I'm going to share this wonderful advice on my blog, please visit!

  • Ami November 7, 2012 05:16 am

    Maybe a long exposure shot that includes the people could be interesting too - if they're moving around, might get some interesting blur/ghosts and contrast the timeless object against the temporary tourists...(?)

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 6, 2012 08:57 pm

    Great Pics Peter and great points about what to do before and while shooting. I have already seen some of these pics on your blog. I always love reading your writing.

  • Michelle November 6, 2012 05:23 am

    Love this reminder that hard work and the early bird gets the good shot post!

  • Wilhelm November 5, 2012 09:32 pm

    Nice article an excellent tips! :)

  • Satesh R November 5, 2012 03:01 pm

  • satesh r November 5, 2012 03:48 am

    Places like this are always full of portrait photographers.

  • Karen November 4, 2012 08:17 am

    Good advice! I would also add not to be completely discouraged from going to a site because it might be crowded. While I wouldn't fill my entire vacation with crowded photography icons, shooting Delicate Arch at sunset with a couple hundred of my new friends was a blast. We had Corona Arch and Picture Frame Arch entirely to ourselves on other days.

  • Rex November 3, 2012 11:15 pm

    Thanks, a very useful tip.

  • Steve November 3, 2012 08:27 pm

    In National Parks in Africa it is being able to take shots of the iconic wildlife without crowds of tourists jostling for position

  • Craig A. Mullenbach November 3, 2012 12:48 pm

    Reminds of the "bear jams" at Yellowstone.

  • Scottc November 3, 2012 09:37 am

    Great advice, early is always better no matter the circumstances.

  • Dan Cassat November 3, 2012 05:08 am

    Thanks for this as it really opened my eyes to the reality of shooting important place of interest. And, the pictures really drive the point home. I've not had this experience before but have yet to attempt such as outing at a significant location at sunrise. Now I'll know what to expect, thanks!

  • timgray November 3, 2012 04:51 am

    I refuse to shoot things that are "popular" why do I want to have a photo that everyone else has. That arch is neat, but there are other things to shoot that also would have resulted in a fantastic photograph. And one thing I learned by going to a popular photography spot.... Most of my "fellow" photographers are prima-donna jerks. Yelling at people to get out of the shot or other reasons is completely unprofessional and why those of us that are nice and polite have an up hill battle.

    My suggestion, if there are a lot of photographers there, go elsewhere. Why do you want the exact same photo that another 30 people are taking?

  • Derek L November 3, 2012 04:18 am

    I've always loved this shot of tourists taking photographs of a classic view... (not mine though).

  • Luke November 3, 2012 04:00 am

    Really great insight, love these kind of articles once in a while.

  • Shobhit November 3, 2012 03:56 am

    NICE one....and good pictures of those cameras there at those epic locations.

  • Jai Catalano November 3, 2012 03:24 am

    Excellent tips. Arrive early is the challenge and the fun of it.