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Timing is everything: a rare instance of waterfalls at the Emerald Pools in Zion National Park. (Photograph by Michael Just, Alamy)

Chasing Photographs in America’s National Parks

It’s summer at the Grand Canyon. You arrive in the middle of the day, road weary but eager to see the legendary wonder. The air is hot. The roads are crowded, and you’re cranky after hours in the car. Find a parking space. Hike out to an overlook. And there it lies, the awesome gulf in its full glory.

Well, not quite full. Although the Grand Canyon is an impressive sight at any time, you might feel a bit let down, squinting in the glare of midday light.

Where are the bright colors, the deep shadows, the luminous voids, not to mention rainbows and billowing storm clouds? It sure doesn’t look like the pictures in travel magazines.

But the canyon often does look that way. The pictures are not exaggerations; they were not manipulated with the latest computer software. Rather, they hold out a promise that applies to all the national parks and all their magnificent sights.

If you think like the people who made those pictures–that is, if you approach the national parks like a nature photographer–not only will you get memorable images, but also you’ll experience the parks at their inspiring best.

Jeff Foott knows this as well as anyone. Filmmaker, photographer, and naturalist, he has spent his life making sure he is in the right place at the right time. His work for the likes of National Geographic, BBC, Discovery, and the International League of Conservation Photographers represents a parade of natural wonders, animate and inanimate, all of which he has experienced in person.

He has no option. By definition, a photographer has to be in the thick of things. Foott can’t conjure events from imagination. The pod of orcas launching themselves from the sea in a graceful ballet, the bald eagle snatching a fish from a grizzly bear, the double rainbow spanning the canyon rim to rim: He has to be there while it’s happening before he can capture the first image.

The lesson for the rest of us, whether or not we chase photographs, is that knowing what to look for and being there at the right time can lead to enrichment beyond our expectation.

Foott says it take effort. “Sometimes you find a place that’s inherently beautiful, but the light is wrong. You get an idea of what it could look like, so you keep going back. It might not work out, but the chances increase the more you know and the more you plan.”

> Improve Your Odds

There are ways to improve the odds of getting a fabulous photograph.

Consider spring in the Mojave Desert, where very specific weather conditions can lead to extravagant eruptions of wildflowers. Blooms might last only a few days. Catching them at their peak requires more than luck. It requires networking.

“On the Internet you can find what the flowers are doing almost anywhere in the country. Websites predict months in advance, and there are also reports from people who have just been there. You can wait for the reports, then jump in the car,” he says. “This goes for autumn colors and wildlife sightings, too.”

Among Foott’s most important tools are a compass and astronomical charts. Suppose you want to see Delicate Arch, the iconic symbol of Utah’s red-rock country, as thousands of photos show it–glowing in warm sunlight against a deep blue sky framing a snowy view of the La Sal Mountains.

“To get it right, you need to know that the arch faces northwest, and where the sun will be at different times of the year.” He says the arch catches good light at sunset, not sunrise, in June but not October. Solar calculators available on the Internet provide all the needed details, even to the extent of indicating when the full moon will rise perfectly positioned behind the arch.

Of course, clouds could spoil the view, or improve it.

“Landscape people look for weather,” Foott says. “For drama, weather is key. Sometimes when it looks like it’s going to be worst it’s the best time to go out. There might be lightning, cloud formations, other interesting atmospheric things happening.”

He mentions Zion Canyon as an example, where rainstorms create ephemeral waterfalls. One minute the walls are dry. The next, they come alive with cascading water. The storms pass, the waterfalls disappear, “and if you weren’t out in the rain, you wouldn’t know that you missed something special.”

> Know Your Ecology:

In general, nature photographers avoid midday, preferring what they call “God’s light” or “golden hour,” the rich tones of early morning and late evening. The same applies to season and animal movements.

“Go to Yellowstone for the elk rut in September, or Point Reyes for whales in mid-February, which also happens to be a good time for wildflowers.” He recommends going to Yosemite in spring for the dogwood blooms, and Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, and Wind Cave in May to see new bison calves.

“During early summer, bighorn sheep are common along the Highline Trail in Glacier. There’s a famous steelhead run in Olympic National Park where they jump the falls in spring. Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the place for seeing pikas at close range.

“It helps to know your ecology,” Foott says, “where the animals are, what they’re doing.” This leads to a deeper understanding of the natural world and our place in it. That gift, he believes “is the best reward of all for visiting national parks.”

This article was excerpted from the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.