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Visiting a National Park

with your camera

Some animals are easily spotted in a national park, and others are rarely seen. Having your camera handy will help to capture the more elusive wildlife if you are fortunate to see it.
Some animals are easily spotted in a national park, and others are rarely seen. Having your camera handy will help to capture the more elusive wildlife if you are fortunate to see it.

You can never photograph everything there is to see in a national park. The organisms existing there are too numerous and diverse to find them all, let alone capture them on film or digital media. Most park visitors consider themselves lucky just to come across a hard-to-find animal, a rare and beautiful flower, or a park denizen doing something unusual and interesting, but to capture such objects in photographs can provide an unmatched thrill. Pictures you take in a national park can be among your most-prized possessions, especially knowing that the subjects you photographed are often elusive, frequently fleet of foot, alert, great at concealment and naturally camouflaged. And they are at home, not in a zoo where they can't easily avoid being seen.

A photographer must be observant and quick-to-respond when travelling in a park so as not to miss an opportunity for a good photograph. A cougar on the prowl may be in your viewfinder for little more than a split-second before it slips stealthily and quickly into the shadows. A high meadow blossom may be around for only a few days, when conditions are right. Then, it is gone until next year. Spawning salmon may clog a stream so much so that you may feel you could walk across it on their backs, then suddenly, in a matter of days, the spawn is over and there is not a fish to be seen. Migrating species may be around for only moments before they flit off to continue their journies.

Odds are, if you visit a national park or wildlife preserve, whether in the United States, Costa Rica, Canada, some nations in Africa or other countries, that you will cross paths with some form of unusual wildlife, insects and plants, especially if you make the effort to do so. This means going on a jungle excursion, taking a boat up river, waiting patiently by a path frequented by animals, using your binoculars to scan a vista for activity, and asking rangers and guides for their advice on finding subjects to photograph. Your self-appointed task is to capture memorable pictures of those creatures when you come upon them - pictures that show them in their natural surroundings, doing natural things that demonstrate the reasons why we have national parks in the first place.

Of course, there are other things that national parks are well-known for besides wildlife and plants, and most of these are well worthy of being photographed - the mood and stillness of the rain forest, seemingly-endless desert terrains, the grandeur of magnificent rock formations, thundering waterfalls and tumbling rivers, violent geysers, mountains that scrape the skies, glaciers that barely move a few feet per year; hot springs and mineral formations, erosion that sculpts the landscape, broad valleys that seem to go on forever, caverns of immense size that hide creatures that have never seen light, and lakes that mirror the sky and forests.

Some national park features are world-famous and immediately recognizable. Should you photograph these landmarks when you may be the millionth photographer to have taken their picture? The answer is, of course, yes. Because your photo will be unique. No one else will have taken its picture at that moment, under the same climatic conditions, with your camera and its settings, and your particular perspective. Besides, the picture will serve as a reminder of your visit to that particular park, particularly so if you photograph family members or friends posed in front of the landmark scene.

You can always buy a postcard if you feel your own picture of a famous scene won't be satisfactory, or you can set out to make your picture really unique. This means studying the well-photographed scene from the point of view of capturing it in a way that others haven't perhaps considered. You may find a camera angle that is different, or wait for lighting that is unusual and creates drama that others may have missed, or show up with your camera when the weather has dramatically changed, or use a photo technique (time-exposure, multi-flash, infrared film, etc.) that makes it look different.

For example, we have all seen postcards and other pictures of Niagara Falls, but we say "Wow!" when we see a dramatic photograph taken from a helicopter just over the precipice of the falls. The photographer who took that shot planned it for its drama and unusual angle. That is the kind of thinking that you can put into your photography when faced with the challenge of shooting a well-photographed national park scene.

You are limited only by your own sense of creativity and your imagination. (Well... and by your pocketbook, too. You aren't actually expected to hire a helicopter to fulfill your dream photo.)

Your telephoto and your wide-angle lenses will get a good workout in a national park. If you have a zoom lens, expect to run it through its full range.

Many creatures you will spot will be far off, making it impossible to take a decent picture without a telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the better.

Sometimes, even a 200-mm lens just won't do the job, and the photographer with the expensive, fast 600-mm or bigger lens is the one who gets the best shot. But, if you have a sharp lens and are shooting at high resolution with a digital camera or employing a fine-grained film, you can perhaps crop the photo afterwards on computer to enlarge the area containing your distant subject to make a good picture of it.

The expansive vistas in national parks are generally best photographed with a wide-angle lens. Often, a mountain or valley scene can have so much breadth, or a waterfall can be so high that only the widest of fish-eye lenses or panoramic cameras can capture it all.

But, if you wish to have one picture that takes it all in, you can digitally "stitch" several contiguous photos together to make a panoramic photograph. You can also crop a wide-angled picture for a similar panorama effect.

You may photograph a vista that overwhelms you with its size and beauty, only to discover later, when you view the finished picture, that it doesn't convey that same strong feeling for the place that you felt when you were there. The problem may be that, although the scene was grand, it didn't have a center of interest - somewhere for the eye to go to. The picture may contain physical similarities from one side to the other, making it appear less interesting than when seen in real life, but lacks an object of cohesion. That object can be something as simple as a rocky outcrop or an ancient tree in the foreground, a rowboat in one quadrant, spectators at an overlook or a colorful bunch of flowers in a key location.

Think of the overall composition when you are about to photograph a wilderness scene, and keep the Rule of Thirds in mind. Having an object in the picture in accordance with the Rule of Thirds will draw the viewer's eye to it, and therefore into the picture. Once involved in the scene, the viewer will then be content to look over the entire photograph and to appreciate it as a good picture.

Landmark features of national parks, such as the famous
Landmark features of national parks, such as the famous "Old Faithful" geyser (above top), should be on your photography list. If you can capture them in a unique way, you will have made a truly memorable picture.

No picture is worth the risk this foolish photographer is taking. The bison could quickly charge and slam into him before he could get turn and get away.
No picture is worth the risk this foolish photographer is taking. The bison could quickly charge and slam into him before he could get turn and get away.

If you take photos with family or friends in the picture, you should brush up on the use of fill flash, if your camera has that option. Many times, the scene you are photographing will be backlit or your family may be in shadow in the foreground while the main scene is full-illuminated by the sun. Fill flash will generally ensure that both they and the scene behind them are properly exposed.

People in national park pictures can serve another purpose besides having a picture proving they were there. They can add scale to a scene where an object may appear to be much larger or smaller than it is in real life.

Don't forget to include yourself in family or group photos, which you can do by having someone else take the picture or by using your camera's self-timer and a tripod or steady camera support.

One type of picture should never have any people in it, including you with your camera. An example is shown on the left. Only a fool would place himself within charging distance in front of a wild animal. The animal may appear to be placid, but wild creatures are not pets and their behavior is not always predictable. Every year, people are injured and even killed by wild animals in preserves and parks. Don't be one of them.

Be prepared for photography in a national park, where you may not easily be able to find replacement batteries when you need them, or where the weather can turn quickly. Carry spare batteries, spare film or extra memory cards for your digital camera, and a large zippered bag to protect your equipment from a sudden downpour or a humid environment such as you might encounter in a cave. An umbrella when it is raining or snowing can permit you to continue taking photographs without getting your camera wet, although it works best when someone else is holding it for you.


National parks are world-heritage sites, where nature is protected and preserved, allowing photographers such as you to capture remarkable, natural photographs you often couldn't get anywhere else. Do your part. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

The beauty of our natural parks should not be marred by anything you do or leave behind. Take only pictures; leave only footprints.
The beauty of our natural parks should not be marred by anything you do or leave behind. Take only pictures; leave only footprints.

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