Scouting Techniques for National Parks

Lesson 2/13 - History and Overview of National Parks


Scouting Techniques for National Parks


Lesson Info

History and Overview of National Parks

The history of the national parks actually is founded in the arts. Thomas Moran was a painter in the late 1800s who was actually sent out to Yellowstone and Yosemite to document what the parks looked like. Especially with Yellowstone, most of the people were living in the east at the time, and they found it hard to believe these stories that were coming back of hot springs, bubbling pools of water, and spouts of water coming out of the ground, and it just sounded too fantastical and a lot of people just didn't believe it. So artists went out to document what these scenes looked like, and that directly led to the parks being created. This is some work that he did in Yosemite and the Hetch Hetchy valley. This was, the writer and naturalist John Muir actually described the scene to him so that he could paint this, because they were desperately trying to save this valley from being turned into a reservoir. They didn't succeed, and the loss of that land and what our country lost in terms of...

a natural resource. So as tragic as it was to lose the Hetch Hetchy valley, the silver lining was that the loss actually created a sentiment in the country to start preserving these places. And he was also sent out to Yellowstone. This is of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that he painted, which to this day is one of the most photographed and painted places in the whole national park system. That Yellowstone expedition which was the Hayden expedition also had a photographer called William Henry Jackson, and he was doing still photos of the park, again, so that we could bring imagery back to the east and show people that this place is real and that it's a beautiful spot worth preserving. And again, he was at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone shooting the waterfall, again, one of the most famous scenes in the park system to this day. John Fery was another painter of the time. He was Austrian-born, and the Great Northern Railway was very interested in getting the word of the parks out because they were using it as a marketing opportunity to bring passengers out there. So they had him go and paint a lot of the scenes, too. Another thing that happened about this time was actually in the 1900s during the Great Depression. There was the Federal Arts Project, when artists were commissioned to create posters depicting the wilderness of the parks as a way to, again, further get the word out. And these posters today are having kind of a resurgence in popularity. If you have any interest in the parks and you're online, then you've probably seen people selling reproductions of these in the centennial year of the National Park Service. And then of course, perhaps the most famous artist involved in the parks was Ansel Adams. Obviously, this was during the 1900s, but Ansel Adams, his name is vividly connected with the national parks, including Yosemite. He loved Yosemite so much that he actually got married in it, and he later lived there. And he even, eventually, he helped get some of the parks created, most notably, perhaps, Kings Canyon, as a member of the Sierra Club actively pursuing legislation to create a park there. In 1941, Ansel worked for the US government to go around the park system and produce photography. Glacier National Park, this is in Kings Canyon. Saguaro National Park in Arizona he photographed. I love this photo he did of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. And here we see it again, like I said, one of the most famous spots in the park system to this day for artists, right in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, this is Lower Falls. And then in Grand Teton. And then this is one of his most famous images in Grand Teton National Park. And incidentally, you actually can't shoot this today, if you wanted to try to reproduce this photo, because the trees have grown up and you can't even get that scene now. So the parks change, but what does that mean? So the national parks today are still great for photography. Why? Well, for me, the reason is because, as a nature photographer, they offer so much. There's fantastic mountain scenery in the park system. This is Grand Teton National Park, but there's also Gates of the Arctic in Alaska and Mount Rainier in Washington. Kings Canyon, like I mentioned before, in California. All great mountain parks. Coastline, Olympic National Park, Glacier Bay in Alaska. Channel Islands in California. Redwoods National Park is widely considered, thought to be a forest park, and it is, but it also has some of the most pristine coastline in the whole park system. There's also waterfalls all over the national park system. This is in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, but also North Cascades in Washington state has an uncountable number of waterfalls and cascades. Again, Kings Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, fantastic for waterfalls. Sand dunes in Death Valley. Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. Kobuk Valley in Alaska. Badlands, the obvious being Badlands National Park, but also in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there's amazing badlands there to photograph. Canyons, the first one that comes to mind for most people would be Bryce Canyon, or Grand Canyon. But there's also Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, Canyonlands in Utah. Forests, the birch and the aspen groves in Acadia are such an amazing photography opportunity. There's also great forests in Congaree National Park, that whole park is a floodplain forest. Great Smoky Mountains, Sequoia National Park. And then there's even parks that have specific, unique kind of trees, like Joshua tree, the Joshua Tree National Park, the trees there are such a wonderful photography subject. You can find them in Death Valley as well. But then there's also the enormity of the trees in the Redwoods, and if you really want to stretch the definition, then Petrified Forest National Park has the petrified trees that you can photograph there as well. There's also a lot of wildlife in the park system. This is a moose in Grand Teton. The wildflowers in the parks. In the spring and in the summer, all over the park system we've got great wildflowers. Mount Rainier has a very famous wildflower display in midsummer. Big Bend National Park has the cactus that bloom in the spring. Death Valley, about every ten years or so, gets what they call a super bloom, when all the climate conditions work out perfectly. Channel Islands National Park in California has sunflowers that grow so tall that they're referred to as sunflower trees and at a peak bloom, you can actually see them from the mainland 12 miles away. Wildlife in the wildflowers. Bird photography. Everglades National Park is the easy example. Arguably it's the best place in the whole national park system to photograph birds. But also you can get great bird photography in Glacier National Park, Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, Rocky Mountain National Park. There's volcanoes in the park system. Yellowstone, essentially, is a huge volcano. But there's also Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Katmai in Alaska, Lassen Volcanic in California. And then historic structures. In Grand Teton, the barns on Mormon Row. Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida is essentially a preserved fort. Mesa Verde National Park is the cliffside dwellings. And in the seasons in the park system, again, there's more opportunities and more subjects. Yellowstone is such a wonderful place to photograph in the winter. So is Acadia, which most people don't think of as winter destination. Lassen Volcanic, again, great snows. Arches National Park, which is considered, the red stone and most people think of it as a warm weather destination, but in the winter, the snow can lace the landscape and there's hardly anybody there. You practically get the place to yourself. Fall in the national parks, another great photography subject. The most famous, perhaps, being Acadia National Park, which just has amazing fall color displays just about every year, but also Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Even in the southwest, you're getting good fall color on the cottonwoods. Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, amazing fall color there as well. And finally, night skies. This is why we're all here this week, right, is to talk about night photography. And the national parks preserve some of the best night skies in the whole country. This is Congaree National Park in South Carolina. But there's also three national parks that are designated gold-tier by the International Dark-Sky Association. And it's Big Bend in Texas, Capitol Reef in Utah, and Death Valley in Califronia, all just amazing places to photograph the night sky. And one of the things about the national parks and the night skies that a lot of people don't think about, you know we talk about the parks and how they preserve these beautiful landscapes and they preserve wildlife and they preserve wilderness. But one of the things we don't think about is that they also preserve the night skies, because the parks tend to be in remote locations, and even the towns and the cities around them usually follow good light pollution standards. So if you want to see and photograph the skies the way that people might have a hundred years ago, then the national parks are such a great place to go.

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.