Photograph by Michael Melford

Photograph by Michael Melford

Tips for Photographing U.S. National Parks

Michael Melford has covered dozens of National Parks during his career with National Geographic. Here he shares tips for how to make your park pictures memorable and stunning.

National Park Week is this week! Although I have traveled all over the world for National Geographic, my favorite place to shoot is right here at home, in our national parks.

I visited 14 parks while shooting a feature on national parks for the magazine in 2006. I’ve also done separate features on Death Valley, Acadia, Glenn Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. My first published story in National Geographic was on Civil War battlefields, which also come under our National Parks System. The National Historic Parks are some of our most important parks to visit, learn, shoot, and preserve.

Tips for Shooting in Our Parks

  • Get out before sunrise. This is when most people are still sleeping, and the animals are up and out. The morning mist still lingers, and, if lucky, some ground fog may add to the atmosphere. In addition, the wind is usually calm at this time, making for easy macro shooting.
  • Stay out late as well. The best light for photography happens when the sun is low along the horizon. We call this the “golden hour,” when the light is like butter, and everything looks great.
  • Stay until dark for low-light scenes. With the new digital cameras, we can just about shoot in the dark. Animals come out as darkness approaches, and we can get these shots of them by turning our ISO up, making the cameras more sensitive to light.
  • Experiment with wildlife and technique. Try to experiment with panning the animals as they move. They may be walking, running, or flying, but by slowing down the shutter speed and moving the camera, some really nice “action shots” can be achieved. This time, turn your ISO down, making the shutter speed about 1/15th of a second (to start). Experimentation is the name of the game here, and with digital, we can see our results instantly.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy your surroundings. During the middle part of the day, when the light is not so good, leave your camera, and get out and hike. Enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the park. Of course, keep in mind what might make a good image with the right light, but mostly enjoy.
  • Find a subject and try something new. When you find an interesting subject, look at it from different angles. This not only will change your perspective, but also allow you to see how the light changes the image. Don’t always shoot with the sun over your shoulder. Move to get the sun at a right angle, or shoot into the sun, a technique called backlighting.
  • Don’t put your subject in the middle of the frame. OK, shoot it that way if you like, but then try placing the subject in different parts of the frame. Remember, with digital cameras it’s all free—the only thing you’ll spend is your time looking at the images later.
  • Try a polarizing filter. This filter increases contrast, takes haze out of the atmosphere, and takes reflections off water surfaces. The filter needs to be turned while you look through the camera to see the effects, but I use it all the time. Yes, it takes away almost two stops of light, but you can always turn up the ISO to compensate.
  • Respect the wild animals in our parks. Remember that they are wild animals and need their space to stay wild. Maybe more important, your own safety is at stake here. Keep your distance.
  • Hike out on your own. I find that most people in our parks stay near their cars when taking pictures. Find a trail and head out. You may find that you can leave the crowds behind, have a better experience, and make better pictures. Be sure to plan ahead by checking out the park’s safety tips, and always adhere to any rules and guidelines.