While serving as an official photographer for the United States National Park Service, I was able to visit more than 100 different National Parks across the country. Along the way, I learned a lot about what it takes to photograph the parks. Below are my 10 tips for photographing in the great outdoors:
Planning a trip to the U.S. National Parks? Here’s what you can expect.
1. Research the best locations before you arrive.
OK, you've arrived at Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains. Now what? Researching exactly what scenes you want to photograph before you arrive at the park will save you time. You'll find out where other photographers captured beautiful vistas — and you might even discover some off-the-beaten-path gems. Be prepared with a list of places and a map so you can spend more time shooting and less time walking around aimlessly.
2. The prettiest light is when the sun is low in the sky.
Whether it's at dawn or dusk, photographing when the sun is low in the sky shows off the deep texture of the earth. Photographers call the half hour before and after sunrise and sunset the "golden hour." Midday light seems rather flat by comparison.
3. Include the foreground.
I don't want to simply show people what a scene looked like; rather, I want to take a photograph to show people how it felt to be there at that moment. Capturing some foreground in your photo allows the viewer to feel like they are in the scene, rather than just looking at a scene. To create this effect, get low — stoop or kneel and hold your camera less than a meter from the ground.
4. Use a polarizing filter on sunny days.
Photos of blue skies are often less vibrant than what we see with our naked eye. A polarizing filter can make a big difference. Screw the filter onto your lens (or hold it in front of your point-and-shoot camera) and rotate it until you see the sky in the viewfinder turn a deep, dark, rich blue color.
5. Use the rule of thirds.
When you frame a photograph with the main subject in the middle of the image, viewers’ eyes tend to focus on the center of the photo, ignoring everything else in the frame. Imagine a tic-tac-toe pattern on your camera viewfinder and align your subject off to the side. That encourages your viewers to look around the photograph.
6. Tripods make for better pictures.
Messing with focus, exposure settings and shutter speeds while trying to hold your camera steady and frame your photo can be a lot to manage at once. The simple solution is to use a tripod. Not only will your pictures stay tack-sharp, the little bit of extra set-up time will give you a moment to study the composition to make sure it's exactly what you want.
7. Use the “photographer’s circle.”
When they happen upon a scene they'd like to photograph, most folks simply stop right there and take a picture. The best photographers use the "photographer's circle," which is the practice of walking around the scene to find the very best angle. The chance of finding yourself in exactly the right spot at the moment you discover a beautiful scene is almost zero.
8. Turn that camera!
When I do find the shot, I'll take the image both in a horizontal and vertical camera orientation. Digital cameras with more storage space allow you to take more photos, and it’s always better to have options! When I’m sorting through my photos at home, I often realize that my second choice was actually the better shot.
9. Take notes.
When traveling around the U.S., it's really easy to forget the exact location you were at when you captured that beautiful sunset photo. Carry a notebook and pen to record notes about the places you visit and shoot. This makes for better photo sharing when you get back home.
10. Put the camera down.
Exploring the National Parks is supposed to be a relaxing, wondrous experience, but photographers often spend most of the time with a camera pressed against their faces. You owe it to yourself to always leave a little time to enjoy the landscape. Breathe deep, feel the sun on your face and listen to the wind every once in a while.
National Geographic Travel Director of Photography Dan Westergren shares his tips for photographing wildlife in the USA.