National Park Photography

The Challenges of Photographing in National Parks

Capturing the grandness of the canyon from Grandview Point. ©Kit Frost

Capturing the grandness of the canyon from Grandview Point. ©Kit Frost

These images were all taken in our National Parks.  As a frequent visitor to our Parks, I see an increase in visitation, especially this past year.  If you went to a National Park during the summer months of May, June, July and August, you could expect crowds.  But this year I retired, so I could travel whenever I pleased.  I choose May for Crater Lake, June for Acadia, September for the Grand Canyon, October for Capitol Reef, and November for Zion.

I don’t know whether it’s because the #FindYourPark campaign is driving more folks to our parks, or the economy is truly in recovery (Average entrance fee: $30.) but I do know this: unless you get away  from the rim, away from the favorite hiking trails, or find an off the beaten path location in the parks, there are crowds, big crowds. Add to that the tripod I carry and before you know it, I’ve got a crowd setting up their selfie sticks and cameras nearby (sometimes kicking my tripod). In Zion this year, it’s estimated that there were over 1 million more visitors in 2015 than 2014.

2014 Visitors
Great Smoky Mountains     10,099,276

Grand Canyon                          4,756,771
Yosemite                                    3,882,642
Yellowstone                              3,513,484

Zion National Park                 3,189,696

I’m not suggesting that we lock the park door behind us, but I am saying that as someone who enjoys our National Parks, a good hike, some photography, and backpacking and camping in our Parks I’m concerned.

I made this "sketch" with my iPhone.

I made this “sketch” with my iPhone.

Crater Lake is a stunner in the winter. As the resident artist in May, I had the opportunity to explore the park during all kinds of weather. Very few crowds along the rim trail. The Lodge was closed for the season, so there were no accommodations.

What I do to mitigate the crowds

Number One, I remember that the parks are for all of us.  In order to have my experience and to honor others, I find the quieter, less crowded times of the day to explore.; that means I can enjoy pre-dawn photography, and get to an off beat location for sunrise.  Oftentimes the shuttle driver is the person suggesting where to photograph sunrise and sunset (I scout my preferred location away from those suggestions). The other joy: I stay at camp later and explore the park later in the day, when the tour buses are less likely to be dumping visitors at the most popular trails.  Here are some ideas:

  • Explore the parks during “off season”.
  • Get out and stay out, exploring the park while others are having breakfast/dinner
  • Scout locations before setting up for new images
  • Steep hikes and long trails (get going early, stay late)
  • Tripod: bring it along, but avoid setting it up in an exposed area.  It’s like a magnet
  • Go off the beaten path (Angels Landing, Emerald Pools, Bright Angel Trail are filled with hikers)
  • Take advantage of storms (great photo ops, rarely crowded locations). But be safe.
  • I like to go find a tree to sit under, have a snack, and get away from the trail and the noise.  It’s never wise to go too far off-trail, but as long as I feel safe and know my way back, I’m golden.

Soundscapes

The Parks Service is introducing a series of programs aimed at showing visitors the importance of listening. I prefer long, quiet hikes and  look forward to the “soundscapes” focus in the next few years. 

Sound Level

Sound levels in national parks can vary greatly, ranging from among the quietest ever monitored, to extremely loud. While, for example, the din of a typical suburban area fluctuates between 50 and 60 dBA, the crater of Haleakala National Park is intensely quiet, with levels hovering around 10 dBA. Along some remote trails in Grand Canyon National Park, sound levels, at 20 dBA, are softer than a whisper ( Bell, Mace, & Benfield, 2009). The noise levels standing near a snowcoach in Yellowstone National Park, however, can be compared to standing three feet from a churning garbage disposal (California Department of Transportation, 1982).

Our world is getting noisier. With dramatic increases in traffic, the explosion of digital gadgets (think of your buddy’s constantly chirping Smartphone) and our increasing capacity to reach once-remote areas, quiet solitude is a diminishing commodity. Not surprisingly then, the American public comes to parks with natural quiet in mind. They come for the soothing effect of a gurgling stream, a delicate bird song, or the rustle of leaves on a fall day. From the awe-inspiring thunder of a waterfall to the gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze, natural sounds have a subtle but profound impact on visitors. In fact, 72% of Americans say one of the most important reasons for preserving national parks is to provide opportunities to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature (Haas & Wakefield, 1998).

However, natural quiet in parks is increasingly at risk. To study the effects of human-caused noise on visitors, volunteers at Muir Woods National Monument cataloged all sounds they heard, day and night, for a year. What they found was surprising. It was rarely quiet (Monroe, Newman, Pilcher, Manning, & Stack, 2007). Parks are experiencing an on-going acoustic assault by everything from air tours to maintenance equipment. Such noise affects visitors’ perceptions of solitude and tranquility. In a related study at Muir Woods, visitors found increasing levels of human-caused sounds to be unacceptable and even annoying (Monroe et al., 2007). Noisy visitors, loud talking, and other related sounds were found to substantially detract from the quality of the visitor experience. In other studies, noise has been shown to be more disturbing to visitors if it is loud, occurs in bursts, is unpredictable, or if it interferes with quiet activities such as bird watching.

Isolated areas are not exempt. In Grand Canyon, no single location is totally free of aircraft noise, and in some areas it can be heard up to 43 times in a 20-minute period. Backcountry hikers, after September 11, 2001, reported knowing that something was very wrong because there were no sounds from commercial aircraft (Bell, Mace, & Benfield, 2009). Tranquility, it turns out, even in the most remote areas of our national parks, is at stake.

Natural and cultural sounds awaken the sense of awe that connects us to the splendor of national parks and have a powerful effect on our emotions, attitudes, and memories. The National Park Service regards these sounds as part of a web of natural and cultural resources that must be protected.

You can make a difference.

Click this link to the National Parks, Natural Sounds site.

  • Speak softly when having conversations, especially on hiking trails and at campsites.
  • Be aware that the noise you make could affect other visitors, and encourage friends and family to do the same.
  • Be considerate of campground quiet hours.
  • Look for mute options on electronic equipment such as cell phones, watches, or cameras.
  • Turn off cell phones / avoid using speakerphones.
  • Consider leaving iPods and or personal radios in the car or at home.
  • Avoid using external speakers that others can hear.
  • Participate in non-motorized recreational activites (i.e., hiking, birdwatching, snowshoeing, canoeing)

The great thing about soundscapes is that with just one small change, you can make a dramatic difference. Imagine just talking a little quieter the next time you visit a national park. That alone can help to greatly improve a soundscape.

The rim of the grand is a great location to work with warm/cool light. ©Kit Frost

Along the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon is the most crowded of all the places I visited.

I anticipate that we will see some changes in the parks over the next few years.  The parking lots are packed, sometimes with no place to park by 11am, and with or without the shuttle bus, the lines are long.  At the Grand Canyon, privately owned buses are allowed to “dump” groups of tourists at each of the overlooks, so for about 1/2 hour the noise level is high and the locations crowded.

I would not want to return to the days of cars in the parks, because the lack of parking and the unsafe conditions are really awful.  I think the shuttle service in the Grand Canyon and Zion, Yosemite, are a MUST do.  Not only does the driver tell stories, but the convenience is amazing; lines and all.  I’ve never waited longer than 10 minutes for a shuttle ride, and after a sweet, long hike, it’s kinda nice to sit and let the driver take me to my next location.

How wonderful to be at the Court of the Patriarchs during a somewhat clearing storm. ©Kit Frost

How wonderful to be at the Court of the Patriarchs during a somewhat clearing storm.  ©Kit Frost

What’s your experience?  When did you visit one of our National Parks? Did you experience crowds?  Did you love it anyway?

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Artist in Residence: Acadia National Park

Screenshot 2015-06-02 09.40.30

The Adventure begins

I don’t like to fly.  It’s inconvenient, stressful, boring, frustrating and leaves me feeling powerless. But, since surgery in March, hip replacement, I’ve driven 3700 miles round trip from Durango to Crater Lake National Park for my first Artist Residency.  I advise against driving long distances one month after surgery!  Even with cruise control, driving was painful, and camping even more challenging.

It’s not that I didn’t prep for the journey.  In fact, I was devoted to physical therapy after surgery.  But choosing to drive with my right hip recovering is what I call self-will to the max.  Although my surgeon (who rocks) gave me the go ahead, in retrospect I could have made a different decision.  I rested after every 75-100 miles and took 8 days to get to Oregon, and I don’t regret a minute of the trip, but learned from it.

Artist in Residence: Crater Lake National Park, May 2015

There's nothing quite like seeing the sky reflected in Crater Lake.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the sky reflected in Crater Lake.

My original plan was to drive up to Crater Lake National Park for the two week Artist in Residence program at the Park and then drive across country to my next gig at Acadia National Park.  The idea was to have my own car, with all my art and photography gear packed, my bike aboard, and camping along the way, resting when needed, really appealed to me.  But then there’s that hip replacement. As a result of a consultation with my mother, all that changed.  Yesterday I flew to Maine.

Air Travel with Camera Gear and Art Supplies

I shipped most of my art supplies, and my carry-on consisted of my camera gear and electronic equipment: macbook pro, battery chargers.  Although I have a carry-on sized for the airlines, the new procedure of checking carry-on at the plane if the overhead bins are small or full is frustrating.  I didn’t want to risk having my camera gear broken, so I stuffed my camera bag and laptop inside my rolling baggage while in the airports: Durango, Denver, Chicago, Portland, and then carried on just the camera bag and laptop, and curbside checked the empty luggage.

In years past, whenever I travelled by air with my camera gear, it wasn’t a big hassle.  I would carry on my camera gear, and check my tripod and luggage, but at $25 per bag it can add up. So I bought a new tripod, and had it shipped to Acadia, instead of adding that to my carry on. My checked luggage also had art supplies, pochade box, oil pastels, tripod head and clothing and shoes.  It was a hassle, the shipping cost me plenty, the final leg of travel was delayed for two hours, but now I am sitting in a motel in Brunswick, Maine.  And the rental car is outside of my room.  I will re-pack today, and head out to Rockport, Maine where I’ll stay with friends for a few days before driving up (down) east to Winter Harbor.

The Interpretive Ranger at Acadia may be able to lend me a bike.  That’s the one thing I was unable to stuff in my carry-on.  And I’ll be at Schoodic Institute from June 5-25 making art, hiking, biking and exploring the secrets of Acadia.  I’m thrilled, excited, honored and ready to roll.

This is what it’s all about

I’ve spent time at the Bar Harbor area of Acadia, brought students to Otter Cliffs and Thunder Hole for photography lessons, but this is the first time I will be at the Schoodic Institute with access to the Winter Harbor (said with a Maine accent) section of the Park.  I will be housed in a fully equipped, apartment at Schoodic.  I look forward to the inspiration of the land, sea, weather, and sky.

Follow along on this excellent art adventure.  I’ll post photos and time lapse videos and tell the stories as I join a long line of artists who practiced their craft in recognition and support of our National Parks.

Here’s a link to my recent series of blog posts

And some current images, created during June 2015, Artist Residency, Acadia National Park

An article about the Artist in Residence Program at Acadia.

Crater Lake: Photographing the Moods of a Landscape

Photographing the Moods of a Landscape

While here at Crater Lake National Park I’ve been blessed with a wide range of light, clouds, weather and the luxury of photographing whenever the spirit moves me (and the muse strikes). Last week, the first week of my residency, the sky was what I normally call “boring blue sky”. But my experience here is that the lake is stunning when the sky is blue, with lots of deep, clear water and the sky reflected. It was great to open my eyes to the idea of photographing a big blue lake with a big blue sky.

There's nothing quite like seeing the sky reflected in Crater Lake.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the sky reflected in Crater Lake.

I made this

I made this “sketch” with my iPhone.

As the days flew by, the weather became more interesting for me.  Artistically I am inspired by clouds and cloud shadows, cast shadows on the snow, incoming and clearing storms, and the mountain hemlock, and whitebark pine.

I enjoy incoming and clearing storms. I photographed a series of images and created a time lapse sequence too.

I enjoy incoming and clearing storms. I photographed a series of images and created a time lapse sequence too.

Each visit to the rim, I was able to capture the changing color of the lake, and the clouds pouring white over the surrounding cliffs.

Each visit to the rim of Crater Lake inspired me, as the lake and landscape was ever changing.

The cliffs surrounding Crater Lake inspired me, as the lake and landscape was ever changing.

Hillman and Lookout Peaks, with Wizard Island.

Hillman and Lookout Peaks, with Wizard Island. I was hoping to know the land forms, trees and rocks by name during this residency.

I knew there was a possibility the sun would light up below the snow and fog.

I knew there was a possibility the sun would light up below the snow and fog.

I photographed while protecting my camera lens under my umbrella during this dusting of snow.

I photographed while protecting my camera lens under my umbrella during this dusting of snow.

And throughout the two week residency, I have been created time lapse sequences of each of the compositions that inspire me.  I set up my tripod, compose, and use the intervalometer of my Nikon gear.

Honored to be chosen as one of the May 2015 Artist’s in Residence, I have been given the opportunity, time and access to photograph at Crater Lake National Park. This video is a collection of time lapse photographs put together to show the Changing Moods of Crater Lake.

In most cases, the images were created at 5 second intervals, sometimes up to 300 photos at a time.

Crater Lake: When the Water Speaks

When I drive an overpass, I often get out and scout what's under it.  In this case, it is Annie Spring.  Two hours later, it was "in the can". ©Kit Frost

When I drive an overpass, I often get out and scout what’s under it. In this case, it is Annie Spring. Two hours later, it was “in the can”. ©Kit Frost


Art Making in Crater Lake National Park

One of my missions while in residence at Crater Lake is to photograph the Lake while chasing the light.  My accommodations are three miles from the rim of the caldera.  So it’s easy to drive up there every few hours to see the color of the light, reflections and to talk to the park visitors.  I brought my bike for a daily workout and to access the park without the windshield in my way. But the healing process on my new hip is slower than I hoped, so I’ll be gentle.

What are the voices of the flowing water telling me.

What is the silence of the local stream telling me?

Today, as I stepped back away from the Lake, I explored a few of the creeks in the park, I connected with a beautiful stream adjacent to the Goodbye Creek.  After scouting, I plan to photograph at that location in morning or late afternoon light.  I prefer very little light on creek falls, as contrast can be a real challenge. It’s not impossible to photograph, but when faced with bright light of water against the darkness of the stream it helps to use a graduated neutral density filter in the field and underexpose.  Later, using Lightroom, I adjust the dark shadows to reveal their texture and beauty.  In this case, I am exposing for the highlights of the water and “developing” for the shadows.

Annie Spring

Annie Spring leads to one of the biggest creeks in the Park, Annie Creek, flowing along Highway 62 and the entrance to the Park. It’s very seductive to hear the creek and to follow it’s flow along the pullouts on the road.

“Take only photographs, leave only footprints”


Annie Spring is a trailhead leading up to the Pacific Crest Trail. I will hike up to the PCT before I leave.  Cheryl Strayed’s book, and movie “Wild” is about her thru hike of the PCT and I’ve hiked a bit of it in Lassen Volcano National Park and want to add a bit of my own footprints to it.

Stay tuned.

Crater Lake: Time Lapse at the Lake

Crater Lake: A Time Lapse.  

This video was created by photographing 300 digital images with a Nikon D5300.  The camera was set to record one image every nine seconds.  I choose the interval based on watching the subject, in this case the clouds, move across the sky.

I enjoy time lapse photography as it allows me to set up my camera and then enjoy the view, talk to visitors on the rim at Crater Lake and other locations.

The Process

  1. Set up a sweet location for photography
  2. Focus
  3. Choose the proper shutter speed and aperture, consider depth of field
  4. Set camera to manual
  5. Shut off auto everything
  6. Set up Intervalometer, it helps to have a minimum of 200 images for a good time lapse
  7. Upload to Lightroom
  8. Edit and export images as jpegs – I photograph RAW files (Nikon NEF)
  9. Place images in a timeline in iMovie
  10. Set duration of each photo to .1 or .2 seconds
  11. Add transitions, titles and audio
  12. Export .mov and share