Headed to a Park with Your Camera? Read These Tips!

The Washington Monument at night.

The Washington Monument at night. Photo (c) Scott Kirkwood

Bringing your camera on a park trip? Before you pack your bags, read these tips from the editors of National Parks Magazine, who offer ways to add interest and variety to your photographs. Thousands of people capture the same iconic landscapes and monuments over and over again in their travel pictures—here’s how to make your shots stand out.

1. Take more photos around sunrise or sunset. Nearly all of the landscape and wildlife photos you see in magazines are taken at these hours, when the light is more subtle, the colors more saturated, and wildlife tend to be more active. You should certainly carry your camera everywhere, but the 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset are called “the golden hour” for a good reason.

2. Find a central focal point. Whether it’s an animal, a single tree, a fence line, a curve in the road, a mountain pass, or a red bus in Glacier, find something to draw the reader’s eye immediately (see the Washington Monument photo above). Adding the human element will also make the landscape more interesting, e.g., a hiker in the distance, or a silhouette on a mountain’s summit.

3. Follow the “rule of thirds.” The most common way to take a photo is to put your subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame. But it’s pretty boring. Try to mentally picture a grid in your viewfinder, and divide the screen into thirds vertically and horizontally, then place your subject in one of those four intersections to the left and right of center. It adds drama to an image, and reels in viewers by throwing off their expectations.

4. Before pushing the button, check every part of the frame. If there’s a tent pole in the bottom right corner or a random tree twig on the left, it will distract viewers, ruining the impact. Everything in the image should be there because you want it to be there. Zoom in or out, move a step to the left, climb up a hill, or put the camera a little lower to produce a “clean” image.

5. Change your viewpoint. Shoot from the ground rather than at eye level. Climb to a point where there are no other photographers, rather than shooting from the main tourist platform where everyone else is standing. Use a tripod and play with longer shutter speeds to generate different effects. Just try to do something that hasn’t been done before, and have fun experimenting—you can always hit the “delete” button later.

6. Play with depth of field. You’ll notice some photographs are sharp throughout, but others blur out portions of the background so that the foreground stands out, e.g., portraits or wildlife photos, where you want the subject to really “pop.” More expensive cameras facilitate this with interchangeable lenses with bigger apertures, but you can even use your point-and-shoot camera to the same effect by stepping back from your subject and zooming way in.

7. Subscribe to photography magazines like Popular Photography and Outdoor Photographer. It’s like getting a photography class delivered to your mailbox every month, for $10 a year.

8. Subscribe to magazines that are packed with great photos, to see what the pros are doing. Landscapes and wildlife are featured prominently in Audubon, National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, National Parks, The Nature Conservancy, Outside, and Sunset. Magazine subscriptions are so inexpensive, it’s affordable to get four or five of the best ones every month.

9. Take a class. Find continuing-education courses offered through high schools or community centers. Talk to the local photography store and ask if they teach classes or know of any resources.

10. Go online. Join a photo community like Flickr, Shutterfly, or ZenFolio. Post your images and get feedback from other photographers. Visit stock sites like GettyImages.com and AuroraPhotos.com to see what the pros are doing. Google some of the best nature photographers for inspiration, like Ian Shive (who even has his own iPhone app), Matthew Turley, Marc and David Muench, Joel Sartore, Thomas Mangelsen, Justin Bailie, and George H.H. Huey.

11. Shoot in one locale again and again, whether it’s a place close to home or one or two parks you visit often. The more you go to one location, the more you’ll understand the best lighting situations and the places where wildlife gather, and you’ll experience more seasonal variations, allowing you to capture weather extremes like rain, clouds, thunderstorms, and snow.

12. Are you an experienced photographer with a serious digital SLR? Invest in a split neutral-density (ND) filter, which is darker at the top and clear at the bottom—basically ‘sunglasses’ for your camera. Most landscape shots feature a light sky and a dark foreground, but cameras can only expose for one or the other, which often turns the sky white rather than blue. A filter will correct this, showing the sky as it really is. (You could also take multiple images and use Photoshop to combine the images or turn the sky blue, but this takes more time, and won’t produce the best images.)

13. Do something different. National parks are SO widely photographed and have been for so many years that 99 percent of the photos you’re about to take have already been taken. Rather than limit yourself to landscapes, take some close-ups. Capture the smaller moments that others overlook. Tell a story. Show the human connection to the landscape by including people in the images, but also boats or kayaks docked at a lakeshore, postcards tacked to the wall, dirty hiking boots sitting by a door…

14. Keep shooting. The best pros have been at this for at least five to ten years, some as long as 30 or 40 years. Reading books, subscribing to magazines, and taking classes is an enormous help, but the best thing to do is get out there and shoot some more.

These tips were adapted from NPCA’s Park-Pak, a travel information kit we offer as part of our member benefits.

About the Author

Editor-in-Chief of National Parks Magazine Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

  • Margaret McMillan

    Thank you so much for this article. I really like taking pictures of people in nature & nature herself. I’m planning to take a continuing ed. course from our community college. I never considered subscribing to a photography magazine, but I will do so in the near future thanks to your advice. I’m thinking of printing this article, but wanted to know if it would be better for me to get your Travel Pak.

    Thanks again for this information & the NPCA magazine.

    Best regards;
    Margaret McMillan

  • Coleen

    Great tips! Can’t wait to try!

  • Lisa Holman

    Thanks for the great tips–very much appreciated. I was wondering, though– aren’t there any women nature photographers? From the response comments thus far, it looks like women are some of your biggest nature photography fans. It would have been nice, as well as inspiring, to include the unique visions of both genders. Best, Lisa H