What Matters Most When Photographing National Parks

August 3, 2016Jessica GeraciNPF Blog

Camera in hand and beads of sweat dripping from his forehead, Michael Spear Hawkins bolted from his car across the West Texas highway in pursuit of a lone dust devil. Swirling dust in circles like a mini tornado, the dust devil dodged Hawkins frame, appearing to slowly die out. He lowered his camera, scanning the area. After a moment, the plants in front of him began to move. Caught in the middle of a dust devil, he was suddenly being slammed by winds. Adrenaline seized him and wind tugged at his hair, taunting him for the missed photo opportunity.

Photographing nature isn’t always easy, and seasoned nature photographer, Hawkins, knows better than anyone that sometimes all you can do is hope for a little luck. Being in the right place, at the right time, for the right moment rarely happens on purpose. There are, however, ways you can stack the odds in your favor. Here are some of Hawkins’ tips for photographing national parks:

Lighting

Grassy foreground with sun-lit mountains in the background at Big Bend National Park
Michael Hawkins

“Everything looks better when light is hitting it from a low angle,” Hawkins said. “Sunrises and sunsets are great for the colors, but the hour or two before the sun sets or just after it rises is great too because the light is not coming straight down.” Hawkins added that landscapes get a magical pop when the sun is lower in the sky. 

The Night Sky

Star trails in Big Bend National Park

Star trails over Big Bend National Park

Miachel Hawkins

The lack of light pollution near many national parks makes stargazing particularly impressive. Hawkins said good gear and an understanding of what you are doing is vital when capturing the stars. He said, “A basic set up to shoot stars requires a sensitive sensor that can shoot at least ISO 3200 with minimal noise, a tripod to keep your camera still and a wide lens with an aperture that can open up to at least f/4.” He added that exposures of the night sky should be between 10 and 30 seconds.

Just as important is planning your trip around the moon’s cycle. “A full moon is just as bad as being in a light polluted city,” Hawkins said. “You want a new moon, or the moon at its waxing or waning crescents. This will help make the sky darker for you.”

Travel Companions

Smiling man surrounded by camping gear in the grassy wilderness

Hawkins' traveling companion Michael Briseno camping out at Denali National Park and Preserve

Michael Hawkins

Being aware of who you’re traveling with is important, Hawkins said. If you’re going solely to capture great photos, go with a photographer friend. He added, “If your party is more outdoorsy and wants to hike, enjoy that with them and photograph life as it passes you by instead of waiting for the right moment.”

Season

While national parks look good no matter the season, some seasons make certain parks appear even more magical. Another thing to take into consideration are the crowds. “It’s great to go back in the winter and explore in the snow without the large amounts of crowds the park has in the summer season,” said Hawkins.

Location

There are certain sites in our national parks so spectacular that they have been photographed millions of times. Hawkins suggested some backcountry hiking, especially in places like Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. “There are so many hidden gems in Denali and only a fraction of the park is available without hiking and sleeping in the backcountry,” he said.

Similarly, in Great Sands Dunes National Park and Preserve, Hawkins recommended walking to the top of the sand dunes for sunrise or sunset. “The park is open 24/7 and it's safe to traipse up and down the dunes in the darkness,” He said. “For each step up you take, you lose half a step backwards into the sand. But it’s worth it to be able to look out as the light gets low and things are golden and magical.”

Footsteps in sand dunes with hills in the background
Michael Hawkins

All in all, Hawkins said no matter how you photograph the parks, make sure to take the time to decompress and soak up the beauty. “Go, enjoy it,” he said. 

If you’re interested in national park photography contests, be sure to check out Share the Experience.

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