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?

Use your smart phone for video

Why Video?

Over the years I have used 35mm, medium and large format film and digital gear to express my vision. Upon returning from an adventure, I spent days in the darkroom, developing and printing in color and black and while. And as the digital revolution began I scanned negatives, large format transparencies and slides. I now work with digital files in the lightroom, my studio.

My goal is to create images that speak to the moments I experience.  I like the slow process of becoming familiar with the subject, letting it speak to me, and then capturing the photograph, or a series of photographs.

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Expressing my vision with video

On locations, I often find that I want to capture a sense of place beyond the single still image.  Today’s smart phones and digital cameras include the function to record video clips. I use my smart phone (iPhone 5s) and my Nikon gear (D5300, D5200 and varied Nikon lenses) to record short video clips when the muse speaks to me. I record a series of 30-45 second clips. Essential gear is a tripod to hold the camera steady, but a monopod will do too.  And there are really small tripods available for smart phones and they work quite well when set up on a rock or boulder.

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I usually collect about 10-20 video clips at the scene, and audio, I edit the clips and decide during post-production whether to keep the sound for the final video presentation.

In National Parks, it’s rare to have a location to yourself, so I often explore out of the way places to make my video recordings.  The audio can be edited if folks nearby are chatting.

I upload all my photos to Lightroom, rate and reject, then develop the RAW files.  I aim to reproduce the light, color and essence of the moments I photographed the scene.  In Lightroom, it’s possible to develop a single captured image and apply those changes across the entire group of photos.  This saves tons of time in front of the computer (because I’d rather be in front of the creek!)

Video clips can also be developed for better saturation and contrast than the original.  Lightroom has the tools for that.

What do you like to use your iPhone video capabilities for?  Family gatherings? Vacation? The Auntie Show?

Do you serve popcorn at your laptop presentations?

Links to Video Samples

Capitol Reef Video Sequence: Fremont River Song

Crater Lake National Park: As the Water Speaks (created during my recent Artist Residency in the Park)

And in Zion National Park, a series of still images combined with video clips for my YouTube channel. 

Inspired by Artists in Zion National Park

In early November of each year, Zion National Park hosts a plein air festival.  This year, 24 invited painters, using watercolor, pastels, acrylics and oils set up their pochade boxes and french easels.  What a treat to see these artists working en plein air to capture the intimate and the grand of Zion.  Here’s a link to the Zion Natural History Association with many examples of artists at work.

This year I scheduled my Chase the Light Photography Workshop in Zion the week before the plein air festival.  This allowed me to hang out, camp, make art and attend the many free demonstrations by the Invitational artists. And I painted a bit too.

I have a list of favorite, inspiring painters.  Here are a few.

Suze Woolf has been drawing all her life. After an undergraduate degree at McGill University, she pursued fifth-year studies in art at the University of Washington.

An early adopter of computer graphics, her professional career included graphic design of printed materials and interface designs for commercial and prototype software.

In the last few years she has devoted herself to the watercolor medium. From traditional landscape sketches –she calls them her love letters to the planet — to large scale industrial subjects and the numbering systems on utility poles; she loves to bring attention to what people don’t usually notice.

She finds intense visual experience to capture everywhere she looks. Much of her subject matter shares a theme of human impact on the environment.

Suze says, “I’ve met my goal when I’ve transported the viewer into the world of the painting but that viewer remains aware my hand wielded the brush. The painting walks a line between invoking reality and a collection of brush strokes.”

More of her work can be seen at http://suzewoolf-fineart.com/

©Suze Woolf

©Suze Woolf

I really enjoy learning about art and artists, their inspiration and thoughts in the field and in the studio.  Here’s a blog entry by Suze Woolf, who was the 2013 Artist in Residence at North Cascades National Park (Stehekin). In the linked blog post she discusses and shows the reference photo and the painting.  It’s often about personal interpretation of the scene.  Not literal. Check it OUT.  And here is a link to Suze’s slide presentation while the Artist in Residence at Zion National Park in September of 2012.

Links to the Artists who participated in the Zion Invitational Plein Air Festival.

Roland Lee

Cody DeLong, also participated in the September 2014 Grand Canyon Plein Air Festival. 

Rachel Pettit, she did an inspiring demonstration of painting on-site in Zion.

Colors of Big Bend 18x24. Winner of a Purchase Award from Zion Lodge.

Colors of Big Bend 18×24. Winner of a Purchase Award from Zion Lodge.

Below the Narrows (Zion) 18x24. Cody DeLong

Below the Narrows (Zion) 18×24. Cody DeLong

Rachel Pettit is a favorite of mine.  She set up her canvas and demonstrated painting at the plein air festival in Zion National Park.

Rachel Pettit is a favorite of mine. She set up her canvas and demonstrated painting at the plein air festival in Zion National Park.

Rachel Pettit paints at Zion, November 2014.

Rachel Pettit paints at Zion, November 2014.

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Photography locations in the Southwest USA

This year I retired from my day job.  Don’t get me wrong, I work, it’s just no longer for “da man”.  Instead I continue to be the Director of Chase the Light Photography in Durango. I teach private and group photography lessons in my studio as well as on location. In the studio I teach digital camera instruction as well as Adobe Lightroom post production and digital video.  In the field, we have been out to photograph Fall Colors, Grand and Intimate Landscapes, Zion National Park.  I have made some personal excursions to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico and to the Valley of the Gods, Utah.

Inspiration is everywhere. Locations in the Southwest USA

Every fall I get the internal tug to “get out and stay out”.  During September you can find me teaching Aspen Photography lessons in the Mountains of Colorado. Here are a few examples of location photography near Ouray and Ridgway.

We stayed at Silver Jack Reservoir long enough for the storm to clear.  As the sun began to get lower in the sky it revealed moments of fall loved across the lake. ©Kit Frost

We stayed at Silver Jack Reservoir long enough for the storm to clear. As the sun began to get lower in the sky it revealed moments of fall loved across the lake. ©Kit Frost

Telluride. We all photographed while lunch was being prepared on our Fall Photography Workshop.  This image was taken while protecting the camera gear from the drizzle. ©Kit Frost

Telluride. We all photographed while lunch was being prepared on our Fall Photography Workshop. This image was taken while protecting the camera gear from the drizzle. ©Kit Frost

It rained so hard during the night that waterfalls I've never seen were flowing in Ouray.  Slow Shutter speeds and an umbrella make these images possible. ©Kit Frost

It rained so hard during the night that waterfalls I’ve never seen were flowing in Ouray. Slow Shutter speeds and an umbrella make these images possible. ©Kit Frost

In this lesson, students practiced looking through the warm aspen leaves into the cool landscape of the distant ridge. ©Kit Frost

In this lesson, students practiced looking through the warm aspen leaves into the cool landscape of the distant ridge. ©Kit Frost

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The assignment here is to experiment with including the forest floor for texture and color. ©Kit Frost

 

Location: Ghost Ranch

Abiquiu, New Mexico is home to amazing landscape, and known as the location for many of Georgia O’keeffe paintings and her home at Ghost Ranch.  While at

Ghost Ranch I felt like I was in an O’Keeffe painting.  I was gifted with a week of oil painting lessons, and while I explored the genre of painting, I also hiked, biked, and photographed.  Inspired by the land, seduced by the color and light, I can see why artists flock to New Mexico.

I was obsessed with making an image of these trees high up on the base of this sandstone cliff. ©Kit Frost

I was obsessed with making an image of these trees high up on the base of this sandstone cliff. ©Kit Frost

Pedernal dominates the background while cottonwoods reflect in a pond. ©Kit Frost

Pedernal dominates the background while cottonwoods reflect in a pond. ©Kit Frost

Juicy Cottonwood in Bloom along the Box Canyon Trail. ©Kit Frost

Juicy Cottonwood in Bloom along the Box Canyon Trail. ©Kit Frost

Another version of my passion for this light, subject and composition.  Along the Box Canyon Trail, Ghost Ranch. ©Kit Frost

Another version of my passion for this light, subject and composition. Along the Box Canyon Trail, Ghost Ranch. ©Kit Frost

Location: Zion National Park

From October 26 through November 8, I was in Zion National Park.  I love Zion.  Artistically as muse for me, the park is accessible, stunning and grand.  There are opportunities for easy, moderate and strenuous hikes.  The shuttle system is wonderful and as a tourist as well as artist, being able to hop off and on at will is great.  My only complaint is that during my visit I had to change campsites three times.  Their online reservation system is used by lots of folks and it takes time and effort to move that many times in one visit.  I will try to book my fall Zion travel early and get a single campground (there’s a 6 month reservation window).

As I was headed back to camp on the shuttle, I spied this clearing storm over the Patriarchs.  I underexposed dramatically to hold cloud detail and opened up the shadows in Lightroom

As I was headed back to camp on the shuttle, I spied this clearing storm over the Patriarchs. I jumped off the shuttle and made a bunch of images. I underexposed dramatically to hold cloud detail and opened up the shadows in Lightroom ©Kit Frost

Some of my favorite locations were challenging to photograph this year.  I prefer stormy skies to boring bluebird skies.  Changeable light is my favorite as is the intimacy of hiking and biking along the trails, stopping for image making.

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

While hiking in a off the beaten road location at Zion, we walked along a creek that had some "stuck" tree trunks.  Wow, what storms must have brought those through this wash. ©Kit Frost

While hiking off the beaten path at Zion, we walked along a creek that had some “stuck” tree trunks. Wow, what big storms must have brought those through this wash. ©Kit Frost

I like to work with quiet subjects like fall trees and leaves against sandstone. ©Kit Frost

I like to work with quiet subjects like fall trees and leaves against sandstone. While many of the trees in Zion did not display peak fall colors, a few had finished dropping their leaves. ©Kit Frost

Here’s a video sequence of some of my photos from Zion National Park, 2014.

Our Zion Photography Workshop Images

This YouTube Video is a stellar view of the kind of imagery, landscapes and lessons we worked on while in Zion.  Tom Fulton, one of our Chase the Light Workshop participants and the creator of Memory Minder Productions posted this video.  WOW Tom, well done.

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A lone cloud captured at just the right moment. ©Tom Fulton

A lone cloud captured at just the right moment. ©Tom Fulton

Our Chase the Light Photography Workshop in Zion produced some really powerful images.  Participants practiced their skills in composition, exposure, and camera skills while photographing the Virgin River, the Towers of the Virgin, along the River Trail and reflections too.

I love the quiet moment of this image.  We working working with shutter speed priority and magical light on the Virgin River. ©Tom Fulton

I love the quiet moment of this image. We working working with shutter speed priority and magical light on the Virgin River. ©Tom Fulton

Using a panoramic setting, automatically pieces together this image taken along the Virgin River. ©Bob Rhea

Using a panoramic setting, automatically pieces together this image taken along the Virgin River. ©Bob Rhea

One of the lessons along the river was to choose the proper shutter speed and exposure to hold in the highlights in the scene.  In some cases it’s best to limit the amount of sky so the light meter in the camera doesn’t make the scene too dark.  I like to teach participants to under expose (-+) for the highlights and open up the shadows in post-production software like Adobe Lightroom.

Isolating the subject.  By selecting a few important elements of the scene for inclusion, clutter is limited, and the photo feels "painterly". ©Bob Rhea

Isolating the subject. By selecting a few important elements of the scene for inclusion, clutter is limited, and the photo feels “painterly”. ©Bob Rhea

As we walked along the Riverwalk, we were able to enjoy some quiet moments.  Here, the composition and color is stunning.  I like to teach to eliminate parts of the composition as a painter would do while composing on the canvas.

The day we drove up to the Kolob Terrace, the sky was hazy, so we stopped and made some images along the road.

Using a vertical panoramic setting allows us to follow the sharp turn in the road. ©Bob Rhea

Using a vertical panoramic setting allows us to follow the sharp turn in the road. ©Bob Rhea

Join us next year, late October 2015, for another round of Grand, Intimate and Colorful Zion Landscape Photography lessons.  Stay tuned.

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National Parks Photo Contest Winner

National Parks Photo Contest Winner

And the winner is:

This image was taken last year, while visiting Zion National Park in the Fall. The color display there is stunning. I camped near this location and went on a hike in the morning with camera, tripod and coffee. The color in the background is the early morning sun hitting a red rock wall. The slow shutter speed enhances (IMHO) the water flowing over the rocks.

YIPPEE, I won the National Parks Best of contest. Thank you all so much for voting for my photo.
Wow.
We’re happy to let you know you’re a winner in the Summer Scrapbook! You’ve won a “best of” prize package, which includes: two (2) Leki® Trail Hiking Poles; one (1) pair of Nikon® Trailblazer ATB Binoculars, 10×25; one (1) Trailblazer® 4-LED Headlamp; one (1) Coleman six-person instant tent; one (1) stainless steel pint glass; one (1) America the Beautiful, The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass; Fodor’s The Official Guide to America’s National Parks; A National Park Foundation tote, hat, water bottle, and bandana; one (1) Yosemite Hiker’s Kit (which includes a Yosemite backpack, hat, water bottle, carabineer, hiking map, book about Yosemite, and sunscreen); a Mesa Verde National Park baseball cap and T-shirt set; and a gift bag collection of Olympic National Park 75th anniversary gear, including a T-shirt and wine glass. This prize package has an approximate retail value of $750. Congratulations!

Virgin River Flow, Zion National Park