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.


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?

Healing time in the desert

Prickly Pear cactus flowers, Yucca blooms, clouds over red rock buttes and mesas, my chez lounge, a few dear friends, good food, art supplies and camera gear; what else could a woman ask for.

I had hip replacement surgery two weeks ago. And I’m walking with and without a cane these days, waking up pain free.  I have a wonderful home, a warm, comfortable place to heal and take it easy.  I have been fed and taxied by my friends.  Now it’s time for a change of scenery.  Where else? Utah.

Tow vehicle and travel trailer with Buttes and Mesas of Utah in the background

My friend will drive my rig and get us to a sweet location for a few nights of camping. Here’s the recent cover image for RV West Magazine. ©Kit Frost

If clouds like this roll in, I will be in heaven.

Late Winter Photography in Utah

Colorful Skies, Canyons and Viewpoints

I spent the long Presidents’ Day weekend based in Bluff, Utah.  I camped at Cadillac Ranch RV Park.  I love the desert southwest at any time of year, especially winter, as Bluff and the surrounding canyons are in a bit of a warm, banana belt.  I experienced 70 degree days and warm 30 degree nights.

The drive from Durango to Bluff hugs the San Juan River.  I found a location to photograph the sky reflected in the river. ©Kit Frost

The drive from Durango to Bluff hugs the San Juan River. I found a location to photograph the sky reflected in the river. ©Kit Frost

While camping in Bluff, the access to locations nearby is wonderful.  A short bike ride or drive from the campground leads to Comb Ridge and the big views of the Cedar Mesa Canyons.

No 4wd is necessary to get to the trails along the comb, which are unmarked.  When you see the huge “snakelike” formation rising just west of Bluff, that’s Comb Ridge. Trailheads are all along Butler Wash Road, as well as by pulling over off Highway 163, and walking uphill to the summit.

Exploring the comb ridge is a lifetime mission.  75 miles long, the “comb” was home to Ancient Puebloan people, and they left behind ruins, evidence of their homes, and their lives.

Take only photographs, Leave only footprints.

I am always on the lookout for sweet afternoon light adding warmth to Comb Ridge.  Those are the Abajo Mountains in the background. ©Kit Frost

I am always on the lookout for sweet afternoon light adding warmth to Comb Ridge. Those are the Abajo Mountains in the background. ©Kit Frost

The wind was blowing, spring-like conditions, at the summit ridge.  I made a few images and got back from the edge quickly.  My mission was to spend a few hours hiking the ridge, but didn’t feel comfortable being blown off.

A drive up the awesome Moqui Dugway leads to fabulous overlooks, Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, Muley Point.

A drive up the awesome Moqui Dugway leads to fabulous overlooks, that’s Monument Valley in the distance.Valley of the Gods , and  Muley Point are favorite viewpoints for photography.

And no visit to Bluff, and Southern Utah is complete without a drive up the Moqui Dugway, stopping along the way for spectacular views.  Bring along your polarizer to absorb some of the distant haze.

Monument Valley Photography Workshop • March 2017

Students take a break to pose for the camera at Monument Valley Photography Workshop, 2013

Students take a break to pose for the camera at Monument Valley Photography Workshop, 2013

2017 promises to be a great year for Canyon Country Photography Lessons.  We’ll be heading out to Utah for our 12th Annual Chase the Light, Monument Valley, Photography Adventure.   Learn to Photograph Grand and Intimate landscapes, Monument Valley, desert wildflowers, Anasazi ruins, at locations such as Valley of the Gods, Comb Ridge, Butler Wash and Mule Canyons.  We scout the weeks before the workshop to insure that we pick great locations for your lessons.

Meet us in Bluff, Utah or fly into Phoenix or  Durango La Plata County Airport.  All participants will receive a travel package upon registration and receipt of your deposit, complete with suggestions for gear, and additional information.  Early reservations help us to hold rooms for you at Gouldings Trading Post in Monument Valley and to confirm our stay in Bluff, Utah.  We can arrange for a full hook-up campsite in Bluff if you prefer.

Meet and Greet:  Let us know when you’re flying into Durango, we’ll pick you up at the airport so you can join us for a meet and greet at Chase the Light Studios, Durango.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February. ©James Parsons

Goosenecks of the San Juan River. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February.
©James Parson

Valley of the Gods. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February. ©James Parsons

Valley of the Gods. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February. ©James Parson

Castle Rock, Valley of the Gods. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February. ©James Parsons

Castle Rock, Valley of the Gods. At Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts through 28 February. ©James Parson

Participants will spend three nights in Bluff, Utah and Monument Valley, Arizona! Register NOW to guarantee a space in this workshop.  Space is limited!

Looking north from Valley of the Gods, the storm is beginning to form, at sunset ©Kit Frost

Learn how to improve your photographic skills, or to begin your journey in digital photography, all skill levels are welcome.   We will be based in Monument Valley, and Bluff, Utah on the Arizona/Utah borders.   We’ll enjoy the night sky with lessons in capturing subjects in the dark in the Valley of the Gods.  The new moon on April 28th gives us the luxury of the dark sky for some experimentation and dark sky lessons; star trails and static star images are so challenging and fun!  Learn time lapse sequencing too.

There are many accessible ruins in the Cedar Mesa area of Utah. But don’t ask, don’t tell please ©Kit Frost

In addition to learning how to use your digital camera, proper compositional skills, and to expose properly in-camera, we teach ISO, white balance and manual and auto focus and add a touch of “leave no trace” skills and respect for the Ancient Ones and Heritage sites.  Join us in 2014 for four days of devotion to your passion for Photography.

Kit Frost has been teaching this Utah canyon country adventure for more than 18 years and will take you to the right locations for each photography lesson.  Bring your enthusiasm, your favorite camera gear, and your partner if you’d like.

Tuition: $1599. Early Bird (before March 1) $1899. includes instructional fees, accommodations, lunch and beverages
Register early to hold your space in this sure to sell out workshop!  ONLY 3 spaces left!
$500. deposit per person.
Balance due 30 days prior to first day of workshop.

Suggested gear:

  • Your favorite Digital camera gear.  Or new gear and Kit will teach you how to use it.
  • Your lens kit: wide angle such as a 12-24 lens or 18-55 lens, telephoto such as 55-200, or 75-300, A fast lens like the 24mm or 35mm 1.8 is sweet for the night sky.
  • Tripod,  Kit will look at your compositions while your camera is mounted on your tripod.  This helps to improve your composition.
  • Plenty of CF or SD cards
  • Fully charged batteries each day.  And a spare.
  • Battery chargers
  • Laptop or iPad for review.
  • Click here to see a suggested gear list 

Suggested Reading List:
Land of Room Enough and Time Enough, Richard Klinck
Scenes of the Plateau Lands and How they came to be, Wm. Lee Stokes

The Challenges and Joys of Photographing Hot Air Balloons

Balloons are Eye-Candy

One Colorful Hot Air Balloon on the ground, being filled with air, while others are nearby in the sky.

When making photos that tell a story, I think it’s important to show a sense of place. ©Kit Frost

This image shows a beautiful red striped hot air balloon and a background of spires and mesas in Valley of the Gods, red rocks of Utah

By showing a hot air balloon being filled for launch, as well as the spires of Valley of the Gods, we give the viewer a sense of place and story. ©Kit Frost

Two Patterns of color in Hot Air Balloons with blue sky,  Valley of the Gods, Utah Red Rocks

In this third image, the balloon is almost ready for lift-off, and we can see another balloon in the blue sky.

When I think of Hot Air Balloons, the first thing that comes to my mind is color.  The multi-colored balloons are fun to watch, the sound of the gas heating up the balloons is seductive and enjoyable. What comes to mind for you?

What to see and do at the Bluff Balloon Festival

A hot air balloon casts a heart shaped shadow on the cliff walls below.  Twin Buttes, Bluff, Utah

As a hot air balloon floats overhead I waited until the cast shadow fell on Twin Rocks in Bluff, Utah. Broken Heart? Love on the Rocks? “Right Place,Right Time” ©Kit Frost

This past weekend (January 17-19, 2014) marked the Annual Bluff, Utah, Balloon Festival.  The schedule was full of fun things to do, good eats, great chili, Navajo children’s music and dance performances, an arts & crafts bazaar, and, of course, balloons everywhere.

I taught a group of Photographers how to capture these subjects, and to learn a few simple techniques for photographing moving subjects. In addition, while the balloons were grounded (they fly early and late each day), we explored Anasazi Petroglyphs, Grand Landscape, Sunrise, and Sunset.


At the campsite, Cadillac Ranch RV Park, watching the early “risers’ launch their hot air balloons. At the Bluff Balloon Festival, Bluff Utah.  that’s my rig on the far left.  The balloon festival is a sell-out in the small town of Bluff.

A Great place to camp: Cadillac Ranch RV Park, Bluff Utah.  Tim and Diana are wonderful hosts, and I served breakfast each morning to the photo workshop participants, at the dinette in my camper.  And later each day, coffee at Cafe Chase the Light:  my camper.

Right Place, Right Time, Right Moment to Click the Shutter

A favorite lesson for my students: learning to be at the right place, at the right time can be easy, but pressing the Shutter Release to make the photo can be challenging.

Here are a few examples of being precise, and anticipating your compositions when subjects are moving.

As a Hot Air Balloon approaches Red Rock in Utah, the sun casts a shadow on the cliff walls.

As this balloon was floating closer and closer to the Twin Rocks, I anticipated a cool photograph with the basket at the right moment. ©Kit FrostBy being prepared for anything, it’s possible to anticipate, and cheer as your subject falls into place.

A hot air balloon looks like it's going to land on the Twin Rocks in Bluff. Learn to anticipate and be open for surprises too.

A hot air balloon looks like it’s going to land on the Twin Rocks in Bluff. Learn to anticipate and be open for surprises too.

But the real gem, was when the balloon cast a shadow on the Twin Rocks, is this heartbreak or love?

A hot air balloon casts its shadow on Red Rock Buttes in Utah, creating a broken heart or love on the rocks.

Heartbreak or Love on the Rocks? What do you think? Only two balloons cast their fast-moving shadows. ©Kit Frost

Just added: Location Photography Lessons

Hi Folks, The weather forecast for the weekend photo excursion to Bluff, Utah looks great, a mix of sun and clouds.

I’ve added three more locations to the photography lessons.

Moqui Dugway is an awesome drive up from the Valley of the Gods to Cedar Mesa.  With big views of the San Juan River Canyon and Monument Valley too

We will head out to Muley Point by driving up the Moqui Dugway on Saturday afternoon, the weather forecast is for clouds!  Yeah, No sky, no sky.  But with SKY< add sky.  I’ll be teaching the following hints for grand landscape:

  • Pay attention to your grand composition, watch for centering your “horizon line”
  • Create drama in the big scene by focusing on near, middle and far in the frame.
  • Actual focus point is important, choose a deep depth of field (f16-22) and focus about 1/3 of the way into your composition.
  • Use a graduated ND filter or underexpose the lower part of the frame to hold detail in clouds.
Cumulous Clouds, rain hitting the ground, deep San Juan River Canyon, and Monument Valley in the Distant landscape.

Passing rainstorm visibly hitting the ground, deep San Juan River Canyon, and Monument Valley in the Distant landscape. Just one of the amazing views from Muley Point, looking west. By NOT centering the storm, the viewer is led through the photo. ©Kit Frost

Kokopelli and other ancient puebloan (Anasazi) figures carved into canyon walls

Kokopelli and other ancient puebloan (Anasazi) figures carved into canyon walls. Photo courtesy of BLM, Monticello, Utah

Image showing the winding road of the Moqui Dugway in Utah with Mesas and Buttes in the Background

A favorite location, near Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley too.