Visiting US National Parks in the summer, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of thousands of tourists, especially the tourists in the middle of your shot, trying to take their shot. The US National Parks are indeed beautiful and unbelievably photo-worthy, but it doesn’t mean you can get pictures to be proud of by simply showing up with expensive DSLR in hand.
A summer spent in the National Parks taught me as much about how to photograph nature as it did not to. Here are my 5 best outdoor photography tips for taking better, more unique, gorgeous outdoor photos.
1. Go Further
The majority of visitors to national parks never stray more than a quarter mile from the road. They ride into the park in their cars or on tour buses, take a 30 minute walk while snapping some photos, and leave.
The majority of the national parks in the United States have hundreds of thousands of miles of acreage to explore and many many miles of hiking trails. Some of the best views may be within driving reach, but another photo of another famous view doesn’t stand out. You need a fresh perspective.
The fix? Go further.
Take the time to walk to remote parts of the park that you’re visiting. Find the trails the crowds don’t walk. You’ll often find a stunning shot just begging to be taken.
2. Time The Day
One of the best tools the masters of outdoor photography use to take amazing nature photos isn’t even a camera or a lens: it’s the time of day. In the biz, it’s called Golden Hour.
Golden hour occurs twice a day, once around sunrise and once again around sunset. As the sun becomes closer to the horizon, light must travel through more atmosphere creating more indirect light than at other times of the day. The more indirect light produces softer shadows and highlights, giving photos a more even look.
Taking a photo during golden hour is like taking a photo in a professionally lit studio instead of with the flash on your iPhone. That’s a big difference.
There are many apps available that will track when golden hour begins and ends. My favorite is Golden Hour because it works even if you do not have a cell phone signal- quite common in the remote areas where many of the best National Parks are located.
3. Get There First
Some of the most famous, most beautiful National Parks feel more like theme parks with nature as the backdrop. Buses arrive with tourists shortly after the sun comes up and don’t leave until late in the afternoon. Good luck taking that serene landscape photo without someone else’s family posing right in the middle of it.
Make a habit of waking up early to get there first.
All summer long we were able to take unobstructed photos of some of the most famous national landmarks precisely because we arrived well before the buses and hoards did. On many occasions we were the only ones at the landmark until the sun was well above the horizon.
When you’re there early you get the perfect shot without having to work around tons of tourists and you get the benefits of golden hour. It’s a win win!
4. Use a Polarizing Filter
One of the best accessories for better outdoor photography is also one of the cheapest: the polarizing filter.
When harsh light from the sun is directly reflected into your camera lens, it increases glare and decreases color: creating washed out photos no amount of Photoshopping can correct.
Polarizers solve this problem by filtering out that light. They’re what give skies their deep blue and clouds their texture.
Using a polarizer also reduces glare against water and through windows. In harsh light your only chance of photographing something in the water while on land is a polarizing filter, otherwise your camera can only capture the reflections on the water. A circular polarizer can be rotated to control what sunlight comes into the lens.
Polarizers do have some drawbacks:
- They remove light from an image and therefore require 2-3 stops more light than without the polarizer.
- A circular polarizer is required for modern day DSLRs to function properly, and they can be more expensive than others.
- The polarizer works best when the sun is at your side and not in front or behind you.
The biggest mistake new photographers make is leaving the polarizer on their lenses 100% of the time. The polarizer does not contribute to photos on cloudy days or indoors, which results in dark photos or photos that require a higher ISO or slower shutter speed for proper exposure. When the sun’s light isn’t too harsh, remember to take the polarizer off your lens!
5. Go Off The Beaten Path
Often the best photo opportunities require you to blaze your own trail or venture into the backcountry. If a National Park allows you to explore beyond established trails, by all means go off the beaten path.
Once you remove yourself from the crowds and established trails, new perspectives will open themselves up to you. You will have the chance to take a photo that no one else has ever taken and if wildlife is your thing, you’ll increase your chances of spotting some tenfold.
If the National Park requires keeping to the trails, consider a trip into the backcountry. The number of people that are allowed in the backcountry is usually very limited but the views can be spectacular.
In Grand Teton National Park for example, you can get up close and personal with the magnificent mountain range in a way that you can’t if you’re just driving by. Taking a backcountry trip also forces you to slow down and take in the smaller details of your environment, something day trippers almost never do.
Sometimes great photographs just happen, but often you have to go the extra mile to take a truly spectacular photo. If you combine these 5 outdoor photography tips above your photos will already stand out from the 95% of outdoor amateur photographers that just show up, point, and shoot.
Do you have outdoor photography tips? What do you think about these 5? Please share with us in the comments!