Photographing America’s National Parks

posted July 26, 2016


Photographing America's National Parks

Photographs of America’s National Parks leap off the pages of glossy magazines and travel guides, but nothing quite prepares visitors for what it’s actually like to stand in these majestic landscapes, camera in hand and ready to record their iconic beauty!

As breathtaking as they are vast and varied, National Parks such as Yellowstone and Monument Valley are certainly spectacular natural destinations to celebrate. And this year that’s exactly what the National Park Service will be doing.

Celebrating its centenary year in 2016, the National Park Service has been protecting and promoting America’s stunning National Parks for 100 years. Why not capture the moment on your next USA holiday and take a tour of this world-class scenery?

We asked photography experts and park organisations to share their experience to help you take home the best photos of America’s National Parks.

Picture perfect landscapes in the USA

The National Parks in the USA have inspired several artists throughout time. In particular, you may well be familiar with the striking black and white landscape photographs taken by Ansel Adams. Considered a photographic pioneer and renowned for his work across the American West in National Parks such as Yosemite, these photographs have continued to bring keen photographers to the parks ever since.

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942), Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming  - Ansel AdamsThe Tetons and the Snake River (1942), Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming

“National Parks in the United States are one of the best examples of our American pride for landscapes and geographical treasures,” says photographer Bryan Snider.

In the States, there are several protected areas, such as forests and monuments, and a further 59 official National Parks. Beyond this connection, each one is dramatically different. From their geographical make-up to their scenery, climates and flora and fauna, every factor in each park can be worlds away from one another. No two National Parks will ever be the same, so there’s certainly plenty to explore when you come to America.

Nick Zantop, editor of the popular online photography guide It’s Just Light, explains: “Few other countries on Earth offer the stunning natural diversity of landscapes that the United States does. America’s National Park System protects an amazing array of scenic destinations like spectacular white sandy beaches and coral reefs to towering snow-capped mountains and glaciers, temperate rainforests, cactus filled deserts, colourful Badlands, old-growth forests filled with ancient trees, and incredible archaeological heritage.

Within a span of just a few hours, travellers can pass through radically different climates and landscapes, passing by countless photo opportunities. To get similar photos anywhere else in the world would mean dozens of flights to far-flung continents and countries.”

Nick has explored many landscapes in his time, travelling the world and sharing photography tutorials and tips on It’s Just Light to inspire photography newcomers and enthusiasts.

Acadia National Park, Copyright © Mark Burns - All Rights ReservedAcadia National Park, Copyright © Mark Burns – All Rights Reserved

For the most part, America’s national parks have been protected in their natural state. These vast, expansive vistas of the American West are ideal landscapes for any photographer or painter,” says Mark Burns of The National Parks Photography Project.

Anytime you can combine wilderness vistas, huge rock formations, and story-telling skies you have a good foundation for a good image… add a few waterfalls and it starts to become a landscape artist’s heaven.”

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National ParkYellowstone National Park

Selby Budler of Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, which offers accommodation in Yellowstone National Park, says:

The colours, the wildlife, the ever-changing seasons all play into the magical and unique scenery. Having a camera ready always produces spur of the moment shots that end up being the best ones. You never know what you will see.

“All National Parks are different—Yellowstone specifically has incredible thermal features such as Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful. The wildlife in Yellowstone is also great to photograph.”

Marc from Loaded Landscapes, a blog that focuses on tips and tutorials for getting the most out of your landscape photography, adds: “In terms of the National Parks there is plenty of diversity, so you can choose what interests you the most.

Yellowstone is famous for amazing geological features and wildlife. The Grand Canyon is recognised around the world for its rugged landscape. The Great Smoky Mountains has beautiful mountains and forests. Yosemite has rock cliffs and waterfalls. All are amazing but very different.

Shenandoah National Park, Copyright © Marc at Loaded Landscapes - All Rights ReservedShenandoah National Park, Copyright © Marc at Loaded Landscapes – All Rights Reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Horseshoe Bend in Grand Canyon National ParkHorseshoe Bend in Grand Canyon National Park

Some of the parks are huge, so if you are staying at one end of the park you may be surprised when you find out that it will take you a few hours to get to a certain spot in the park. For example, at the Grand Canyon the South Rim is the most popular part of the park for visitors.

“The North Rim has some great places to visit as well, and there are also things around the Grand Canyon that you may want to see, like Havasu Falls or Horseshoe Bend.

“If you research ahead of time you can prioritize and stay in a location that is most convenient for what you want. The National Park Service website has a good amount of information about the parks.” Marc – Loaded Landscapes

Saguaro National Park

Sonoran Desert Sonoran Desert

Photographer Bryan Snider has photographed some of the USA’s beloved National Parks and he imparts the following wisdom about these experiences:

“The United States, although one country, is a very diverse place to visit.  Each state in a way has its own culture, way of life, and unique beauty.  I’ve been fortunate enough to live in 4 states, and each of them has something special I’ve taken from it.

Having these kind of diverse landscapes allows you to capture several different kinds of climates.  From extremely hot deserts, to bitterly cold mountainous and snowy landscapes.

“Arizona also has a nice diverse population of plant and animal life.  You could drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon and see the landscape change several times.  From the Sonoran Desert with the famous Saguaro Cacti, which is only found in Arizona as well as Northern Mexico and California, you then leave the desert for higher mountain areas and then pass by the red rocks of Sedona into the pine trees and dormant volcanoes near Flagstaff.

“I personally love this, because the drive never really gets boring.  There is so much to see, so much to photograph, that in my almost nine years of living in Arizona, there is still so much I’ve yet to explore.”

Think about photography when planning your holiday

Grand Canyon National Park Grand Canyon National Park

Each park will offer something different in terms of photography and much of it will depend on your holiday and transport options, as Marc explains:

“The experience can vary greatly depending on which park you are at, and which season. Some of the National Parks are very accessible. They may be a relatively short drive from a major airport, and there may be good roads throughout the park that provide great photo opportunities. Some other parks are much more remote, not as easy to get to, and may not have many roads for exploring the park.”

If you want a hassle-free time planning your holiday to America, a fly-drive holiday in the USA might be a good option. Holidays like these, such as the Classic West tour, offer a scenic route passing multiple National Parks on the stunning Californian coast. Stop off at some of the most iconic film backdrops used in the Westerns – including the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Yosemite. With accommodation and transport already organised, all you have to do is concentrate on capturing those perfect shots for the photo album.

Alternatively, and if you want to plan a once-in-a-lifetime road trip, convenient RV hire in America allows you to travel at your own pace across the country. You can pick from all 59 National Parks and create your own motorhome holiday on wheels!

You may choose to take inspiration from a certain state in America, visiting the resident National Park on your travels through the region.

Make use of local experts in the visitor centres

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Copyright © Nick Zantop - All Rights ReservedBryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Copyright © Nick Zantop – All Rights Reserved

America has 59 national parks and more than 353 additional protected areas within the national park system, such as White Sands National Monument and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The amount of land protected within the National Park System is astoundingly large — 338,000 km², larger than all of Italy. Whether you want to visit one of the official National Parks or the many national monuments, historic sites, forests and rivers – you’re never far from fantastic scenery wherever you are in the USA. You can find a site or park by state on the National Park Service website.

Nick Zantop shares his advice for narrowing down your photographic opportunities:

So much land means the opportunities for photography are endless, but your best bet for capturing amazing photos is to consult the guidebooks before you go to make a checklist of the shots you specifically want.

“Once you’re at each National Park, be sure to stop in at the visitor centre — the park rangers are a wealth of information and can provide maps and great advice on the best places in their particular park for photography, including the best spots for sunrise and sunset and where your best chances are that day of seeing wildlife.

“Some of my personal favourite National Park destinations for photography opportunities include night time in the Yosemite Valley with the Milky Way stretched across the dark sky above, Delicate Arch in Arches National Park where eons of wind and rain and winter ice have created amazing natural sandstone arches, and the Grand Canyon or the geyser pools in Yellowstone National Park.”

Tips for capturing the National Parks

Joshua Tree National ParkJoshua Tree National Park

Once you’ve got your list together of must-see National Parks on your USA holiday and set out on the open road, your thoughts will likely turn to photographing these incredible landscapes.

Our photography experts each share their top tip to follow if you want to capture the National Parks in all their glory.

“Most of the iconic photography spots in the parks are well marked… just get a park map when you enter and head toward the overlook and/or trailhead that interests you most.” Mark Burns – The National Parks Photography Project

Photography of any landscape requires planning and patience.  If you just start snapping off photos, many times you’ll come home disappointed.  On the flip side, if you are so focused on taking photos, then you miss out on the beauty of the canyon.” Bryan Snider

“Many of the scenic views in the National Parks get very crowded for sunset, but as soon as the sun dips below the horizon, the crowds vanish. Stick around for another 15 to 20 minutes, and the colours in the sky often continue to increase in vibrancy. Don’t be afraid of overcast days with a bit of rain either — they tend to keep the crowds down and the softer lighting conditions are actually great for many types of photography.” Nick Zantop – It’s Just Light

Image Credit: weesam2010 (visualhunt.com)

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