Scouting Techniques for National Parks

Lesson 5/13 - Day Scouting Locations


Scouting Techniques for National Parks


Lesson Info

Day Scouting Locations

Preparing for a national park shoot. We talked about why the parks are great for photography. Now, let's talk about scouting locations, because now we're getting into the nitty-gritty of how to actually pull off a park shoot in a way that, that will really maximize your creative opportunity. So why are we scouting, what's the concept, what's the impetus for doing this? When you walk into a national park, you're confronted with a wide range of possibilities for photography subjects. Consider all the options just in a place like Olympic National Park. So you go to Olympic and you've got mountains, um, some of the best mountains in the park system, they're just beautiful. Then you've also got wildlife, and you've got coastline, at the coastline you've got tide pools. Then you get into the mountains and the forests and you've got these beautiful rainforests. In the forests you've got waterfalls this cascades, get up in the mountains and you get this beautiful mountain fog when the conditio...

ns are right. You get fog on the coast and at different times of day, there are beautiful sunrises in the mountains, great sunsets on the coast, blue hour is fantastic, then of course the night skies. And this is all just in one park, and I'm just scratching the surface of all the subjects. So why are we scouting? With all of these options how do we even know where to begin? Scouting really looking to see what photography subjects are in place before you even take the camera out of the bag is gonna help you do better work, it hones your options and it maximizes our creativity. Lemme give a couple examples from work that I've done. This is a photo I did of Yellowstone in 2010, I was able to do this photo because I was there a long time. I got ten days in the park and this was at the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone and I saw this rock formation in the canyon with an osprey nest on top of it but the light was all wrong, the back wall of the canyon was in the same light as the rock formation and the nest so everything just kind of blended together, but I was able to see just by looking, and seeing the angle of the sun if I went there earlier in the day then I could make a better photo with the back wall the canyon in shadow. So again I'm scouting location I'm taking a look and seeing when the light would be better. And another thing I did was I, I read up just a little bit at the visitor center about the behavior of osprey when there's young in the nest. And what I learned is that an osprey- the male and the female will take turns leaving the nest to look for food and then they'll come back in about 15 minutes. So with all this information in mind, I knew I'd have a decent opportunity to get a photo like this, so a few days later having scouted the location and knowing the behavior of the animals, I was able to go back and set up at a better time of day when the light was nicer and just wait for the birds to come and go. And it only took me about a half hour to execute the photo that I had in mind. Another example, this is another scouting photo, for an idea that I had in Yellowstone on that same trip. I wanted to photograph the silhouette of an erupting geyser in front of a sunrise or sunset, So, I scouted before I even went to the park, I did some research to see how I could pull this off. And there were three criteria that I came up with, all having to do with which geyser I was gonna do it at. One is that it had to be geyser with some sort of aesthetic quality to it, some of the geyser are just a hole in the ground, so there's nothing to silhouette, except for the water. I wanted to be able to have some aesthetic quality to the geyser that I could silhouette to give some context to the photo. Two: is I wanted a geyser that erupts relatively frequently, some of the geysers, you know if you've been to Yellowstone, some of the geysers erupt every few days, every few weeks, then there are some that erupt every few decades. Obviously those aren't good possibilities if I'm trying to time an eruption to a specific kind of day. Also the third criterion is that I wanted a geyser that erupted predictably. Even some of the geysers that erupt more frequently, there could be a large window of time so like there's one geyser I know that they say erupts every eighteen hours, give or take eight hours. So that's kind of hard to plan a shoot around. So I settled on White Dome Geyser. One: I liked the dome, it was something I could silhouette. Two: It erupts every half hour. And three: that half hour eruption is very predictable, it almost always happens. So I went and I did a scouting photo, took a look at the area and determined that sunrise wasn't gonna work so it was gonna have to be sunset. So a couple days later I went back and the light wasn't really quite what I wanted. It had been a nice day but some clouds had rolled in and it wasn't the kind of sunset sky that I was looking for. I did a couple photos, they were okay, but it wasn't what I wanted. So I came back again a couple days later it was a better sunset sky and this was more of what I had in mind. However, as much as I talk about scouting, and making a plan you know we're going to get into more of that in a little bit, an important point that I emphasize is to still leave room for serendipity, to be flexible, and this is a good example too because as much as this photo was close to what I was envisioning, I ended up liking this even better. This was after the eruption was over with just the steam coming out, and I kinda liked the more peaceful quality of this image. To take that even further, there was another night that I was there, trying to do the eruption you know the silhouette of the eruption... If you've ever been to Yellowstone you'll know what I'm talking about. If I'm y'know say I've got my tri-pod I'm facing White Dome Geyser and I'm waiting for the eruption, about 200 yards in this direction is Great Fountain Geyser which is one of the geysers- it's beautiful, it's got one of those large pools that fills up before the eruption, it's really a stunning sight, but it doesn't erupt very frequently, or predictably. It erupts every couple of days but there's a large window of time which is why I wasn't targeting that geyser. But I'm standing there waiting for White Dome Geyser to erupt at sunset, and all of a sudden I kind of realize that I'm hearing this noise that wasn't there before just kind of this hushing, almost a roar in the background and I turn around and I see this. So I'm all set up to shoot White Dome, but I'm not going to ignore this beautiful pinkish light and so I just whipped around the tripod and completely changed my setup. So again, as much as I talk about scouting, serendipity. No matter what you've got planned, if you see a good opportunity, then of course, you throw away the plan and take what's given to you. So what this all boils down to is: what's your approach? Is it a reactive approach or a proactive approach. And this is where scouting comes into play. You can be reactive, it can be very exciting to go to a new place you know a new national park, somewhere you've never been before and just jump in and look around and see all this- all these new sights that excite you and just kind of shoot from the hip so to speak. But it's not really the best way toward creativity. It's being reactive, it's just hoping that a good opportunity is gonna show up and then you shoot it. It's much better to be proactive, do some research ahead of time, to scout your locations, and then use that as a basis to have a plan that leads you to better creativity. And we'll get into more of that in a little bit. But also, there's another reason, once we tie this back into night photography, is that scouting is going to help with safety too. You know particularly at night when you can't see so well. So here's an example, this is Acadia National Park at Great Head, so if you're ever in Acadia this is a wonderful spot to shoot. I hardly ever see another photographer out there in the morning and it's not even hard to get to. It's about a 20 to 30 minute walk it's nothing at all. But you know you're up on the cliff shooting and it's a beautiful spot, easy enough in daytime, but at night it looks more like this: Okay so I'm exaggerating a little bit, it's not quite that dark but, the point is that here I am at Great Head. This is not the kind of area, on a 50 foot cliff where you'd wanna be walking around if you hadn't seen it in daylight. It's, again, it's just a safety issue. Scouting is gonna help with creativity and its gonna help with safety just knowing where you're working. Okay so we're here to do some night photography. So why are we here in daylight? We talked about the importance of scouting a location so here we are. This is Ruby Beach in beautiful Olympic National Park, this is one of my favorite spots to shoot in this park. But coming down during the day it gives us some advantages in two ways. One is there's gonna be creative advantages to doing this. We're shooting tonight and it's a new moon so there's gonna be no light out here for us to see by. Coming during the day gives us time to look around and see what looks interesting to us, we can predetermine some compositions, even get the camera out and do some test shots, or heaven forbid we could actually shoot in daylight. We can pre-focus our lenses, that's something that Gabe has talked about. You know, figuring out exactly where you're gonna focus in daylight. It's a lot easier. Another thing we can do in daylight that's a lot easier than waiting til its dark, is figure out how we're going to light paint. A lot of these spots is- You know we gotta move 90 degrees, we gotta go over rocks, we have to go over some logs to get to our light painting angles. So if you're here during the day you can figure out a safe path to do all of that. So we're really setting up our night shot where we can see everything. The second reason is safety, being able to spend some time here during the day is gonna allow me to get comfortable with the area and allows me to get comfortable with the terrain. Even just walking around on a rocky beach like this, You know the rocks are moving under here it's a little bit different so you just get used to it. Also, one of my favorite parts of this park is the driftwood, all these logs, I think they're beautiful, and it tells a great story about the environment here but they're a little treacherous to walk on. Some of them move you can get over it okay but I wouldn't want to do it in the dark if I'd never been down here before and I can't see everything. Another thing we can do in daylight is get a better sense of where the trails are. all along the coast there's one trail that we use to get down here, but from where I'm standing I can't see it. And it's daylight, so to try and find that trail in the dark is gonna be even harder. So good idea is when you get to an area like this give yourself a landmark of where that trail head is. I learned this the hard way, one time when I was in Olympic I was up on second beach and I didn't give myself a landmark. I was out shooting until two or three in the morning, it was pitch black when I getting out of here. And I couldn't find the trail head. it took me about twenty minutes of walking over log like this and popping the flashlight now and then to just see how to get out. You can imagine at three o'clock in the morning how excited I was to be doing that. So again, we're going to scout, take a look at the area, I've already seen some good places to look to maybe shoot tonight and we're gonna really get set up to get an amazing shoot at night.

Class Description

National Parks offer vast landscapes, dynamic vistas and views that are worthy of hanging on gallery walls. Capturing those scenic areas in a photo that represents what you experience in person takes planning and preparation. Knowing what opportunities you have in each park at what time of year is a great start to capturing incredible images. In this class you’ll learn:

  • National Park rules and regulations- when to get a permit and how to obtain one
  • Scouting tips for night shooting, how to scout and prep your shoot before sunset
  • Safety tips for yourself and your gear when shooting in remote locations at night
Chris Nicholson’s passion for the National Parks and photography led him to write the book Photographing National Parks. His experience in all 59 US National Parks will help any beginner or professional photographer optimize their experience and photographs in either marshlands or desert landscapes. 



This class was a tremendous help. It is definitely a "tool kit" class and not a "how to" class. With that said, it is worth every penny just for the amazing scouting tips, safety tips, and national park app suggestion. I downloaded one of the recommended apps from this class for a trip I'm taking next month and was thrilled with the information. There are definitely a lot of great tools discussed in this class.

Gaily Cowart

This class was incredible because I wouldn't have gottent this info anywhere else. It's basically a lesson in common and not-so-common sense while shooting at night. No, you're not going to get a whole lot of techniques for working your camera, but you will get strategies for making sure you're actually able to shoot once you're ready. With night photography, there are many unknows that can ruin your chances of getting good shots. Without this class, I never would have thought about how to make the most of daylight hours to plan and prepare a night shoot. And, I wouldn't have known much about how to be as safe and prepared while shooting in the wilderness. I found this course to be very interesting and helpful in the grand scheme of understanding how to get the best from your efforts while shooting at night-time in a park, or secluded area.