National Park Photography Tips for Beginners

No matter what park you visit, you're bound to see amazing things you'll want to photograph. From the depths of the Grand Canyon to big horn sheep on a tundra precipice in Rocky Mountain National Park or a sunset glow on Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, we've got a few tips on capturing the moment.


Clouds form below the north rim of the Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - National Park Guided Tours
Clouds form below the north rim of the Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - National Park Guided Tours

Identity


The hardest part of beginning your photography hobby or career is discovering your voice. While there are a million photos already available of just about anything beautiful on earth, you'll want to find a new and interesting way to capture and portray the unique moment in time you experienced at this place.


Personally, I come from a digital marketing background. It's been useful for figuring out what elements I want to have in a shot and what the mental focus of an image is that I want a viewer to identify. This naturally lead me to focus primarily on adventure photography. Essentially, this is telling the human experience of some kind of outdoor travel adventure. I also enjoy the utility of perspective when putting a human in a photograph. The most difficult thing to convey in a two-dimensional photograph is scale and perspective. There are certain tricks to manipulating perspective and scale using zoom, tilt shift, focus stacking, and utilizing elements like humans that have a universally understood size.


Most people will focus on wildlife and landscape photography to begin as it seems relatively simple to accomplish. But how do you go from taking snapshots on an iPhone to creating enormous fine art prints?


White Bison in Arizona - National Park Guided Tours
White Bison in Arizona - National Park Guided Tours

Equipment


The first piece to elevating your game is proper equipment. The plain fact is that while computational photography on phones has greatly improved results of everyday snapshots, the sensor simply is not physically large enough to absorb the amount of photons necessary to create a truly sharp and detailed image with any sense of depth. You could get around this by conceptualizing a single image at a very low ISO in Pro Mode, taking dozens of photos and stitching them together in photoshop to create something more detailed and interesting, but it really isn't worth your time or effort given the price of entry-level DSLR and mirrorless cameras these days at $500 and under.


Most entry level cameras will have a few basic zoom and prime lenses for very reasonable prices. I began with a Nikon D3300 with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 70-300mm f/5.6-6.3 and 35mm f/1.8. It covered a lot of bases, but the more I learned how the system actually worked in combination with environmental prohibitions at different locations (stay on trails, no climbing on this or that, etc.), the more I realized that I had to purchase specific bits to get things exactly the way I wanted them. A good photographer can make a great image with nearly any camera, but I decided to reach beyond the capabilities of my current camera and raise my own ceiling that I would have to fill with skill to go further. I purchased a Nikon D850 and it took over my life.


Simply put, any camera with interchangeable lenses from Nikon, Canon, Sony, or Fuji will do a great job for still images and offer you years of skill growth before you learn the skills necessary to make investing in a more expensive system worthwhile. And, you'll immediately be able to make large prints of your photos to enjoy in your home or sell to others. Even most APS-C sensor cameras have good enough sensors to create 150 dpi prints (decent print quality) above 36"X24".


Fire Wave - Valley of Fire State Park - National Park Guided Tours
Fire Wave - Valley of Fire State Park

Lighting


If you're just starting your photography journey, you might be intimidated by using a speedlight (flash). That's ok, because nature often provides excellent light on its own. While we could expound on the benefits and uses of artificial lighting, many locations prohibit it outright and it should never be used to photograph wildlife. Apart from disturbing the animals, they may attack you if they feel threatened by your strange flashing light.


We'll focus on natural lighting here in an effort to build a functional skillset in any environment.


When choosing how to best shoot a naturally lit scene, your options can be limited. Park rules may dictate where you are allowed to walk and stand, so it's up to you to figure out a way to make something interesting out of a shot that has been taken a million times before. While it may be useful to shoot some run-of-the-mill shots that have been taken before to build your portfolio generally, you won't stand out in the ocean of photos on the internet doing what a million people have already done before.


This is where your personal identity and voice will take over. If you're looking to create art, it can be useful to sort through shooting styles to find a few you like. Learn how they're shooting their content and you'll begin to find things you like individually along the way.


In fact, there can be multiple ways to shoot one subject in one environment inside one style. Once you learn how to create a few shooting styles and you understand some basics of software like Adobe Lightroom, you'll be ready to create a portfolio totally unique to your voice.


Kawuneeche Valley - Rocky Mountain National Park
Kawuneeche Valley - Rocky Mountain National Park

A general tip that most photographers can agree on is that sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to shoot for the most dramatic and interesting lighting. Next to the obviously spectacular color palette of orange, pink, purple, and blue, horizontal light versus vertical light (sunset versus noon) in most circumstances is an easy choice.