Frank Lee Ruggles

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

Do a little research on Canyonlands National Park in Utah and you’ll learn that Mesa Arch is one of the park’s most photographed places. It’s easy to see why.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

When the sun is lower in the sky like it is in this photo of Montana's Glacier National Park, colors become more vibrant.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

By including more foreground in the frame — like I did in this photo of Zion National Park in Utah — your viewers feel like they are in the scene.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

A polarizing filter will help you capture the rich blues of the sky like you see in this photo of White Sand Dunes National Monument, New Mexico.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

The rule of thirds gave this photo of a sleeping grizzly bear in Katmai National Park, Alaska, more visual appeal.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

A tripod helped keep the camera still enough to clearly capture this cliff-side scene in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

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. 

Frank Lee Ruggles

Many people prefer to photograph this statue of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln head-on. But using the photographer’s circle allowed for a more unique view from inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

It may seem logical to hold your camera horizontally when taking a photo of a landscape, but give yourself plenty of options and you may end up with gems like these photos of Devils Tower in Wyoming and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

By looking at these photos, you wouldn’t necessarily know they were taken in Olympic National Park in Washington state (left) and on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (right). Keeping notes will help.

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.

Frank Lee Ruggles

Make sure to put down the camera every once in awhile to enjoy views like this one of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

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.