Park Environments


Scouting Techniques for National Parks


Lesson Info

Park Environments

We've discussed wilderness survival techniques and footwear and food and water. Finally, we wanna talk about the park environments. And I'm gonna approach this not just from a safety standpoint, but that is important, but also just creativity. There's things about working in different places that might change how we approach photography. We're gonna talk a little bit about mountains, snow, forest, desert, and coastline. These are the most common environments that we're gonna find ourselves in. So the mountains. Just a few considerations about working the mountains. One is particularly if you live at sea level, then when you get to the mountains, be aware of the idea of altitude sickness. Once you start working in the thinner air, especially if you're exerting yourself, then altitude sickness can really take a toll on you. So take some time to acclimate. If you live in New York City and you're going on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, before you go, maybe spend three days there a...

t altitude before you try to do a 10 mile hike. Cause what will happen is ya fatigue and you dehydrate faster, both of which can be very dangerous if you're out in the middle of the wilderness. Also, in the mountains, the sun rays are more intense, the UV, you can get burned faster. So, carry extra water, make sure you wear sunscreen, and wear a hat, easy solutions. However, despite all these problems, there's also mountain awesomeness. The opportunities in the mountains are amazing. There's snow, lasts longer so the snow season lasts longer. At a lot of the parks, you can shoot snow well into, well in the summer. Also, there's beautiful juxtapositions of light and shadow, particularly at the beginning and the end of the day, when the sun rays are coming in from more horizontal angle. And also you get fog frequently in the mountains, because any clouds that roll up and hit the mountains are fog, if you're actually at altitude. Snow, shooting in the winter or even in the summer up in the mountains, like I mentioned. But there's some special considerations for working in the winter, for working in snow. One is it's cold and my biggest suggestion here is to follow the advice of skiers, because skiers kind of have what we're looking for. They wanna be warm but they don't wanna be too warm, because you don't wanna sweat. But you also wanna be able to move around. So ski clothes are great, ski pants, a ski jacket, ski gloves, all of these things fit the criteria of what we would want, of what photographers would want for clothing. You wanna dress in layers, cause you don't wanna sweat in the cold. If you start sweating, that's when you get in trouble, cause then your body starts to cool down a lot faster. Another thing from a creative standpoint, don't walk into a scene until you're sure you don't wanna shoot there because you can't back up. Now you've got footsteps all over the place. Another consideration is that snow could be deep. If you're working in an area that's got a few inches of snow, that's not a problem. A few feet and now you gotta start walking like this, you got 30 pounds of gear on your back, you can't do it. And another consideration is that ice is slippery. We don't wanna hurt ourselves, we don't wanna damage our gear, heaven forbid. So a few pieces of gear for working in the snow. First of all, like I said, if it's more than a few inches deep, snowshoes, you'll be able to get to places that would be impossible otherwise. This is me in Grand Teton National Park, holding up my six foot tripod, which I pushed into the snow and it's still not touching the ground. I'm about two miles into the wilderness up into the mountains and I'm just walking on top of the snow. There's no way I could have gotten up there to shoot without wearing snowshoes. With snowshoes, we're just walking on top of the snow like it's nothing. Those are not full size trees. Those are the tops of the trees. There's at least eight feet of snow here. I believe eight feet is what they said. ICETrekkers for icy conditions. Serious winter sports people might frown on ICETrekkers a little bit, because you don't really need 'em. When I got 30 pounds of gear on my back, I don't wanna slip. I don't wanna hurt me and again, I don't wanna hurt my gear. Remember I mentioned that trip to Acadia National Park, the winter project. Not a lot of snow but there was plenty of ice. I wore these the whole week, I didn't slip once. I actually tried to slip at one point, cause I wanna test them, I still couldn't fall. I'm not saying you can't, I'm just saying you gotta try. This is excellent equipment. Some other snow considerations. Temperature changes can cause condensation on and in your camera gear. So if you're going from the cold into warm, then you wanna put your gear in a plastic bag. Or just leave it outside. I was on a winter trip, shooting Grand Teton with my brother, and we were in his pickup truck, which we kept the cab warm to warm us up, but we kept the gear in the bed in the back so that that didn't go through the temperature changes and get condensation. Also, you wanna worry about, or just pay attention to not getting snowflakes on your lens, cause they get on there and then they melt and now you've got moisture issues to deal with, it's cold, it could start to freeze. So try to keep the snowflakes off your lens. You can use a lens hood. And another tip is that if there's snow falling, don't face upwind, because then all the snow is gonna blow right into your lens. Just face the other direction or downwind and that'll keep the snow off. And then finally, if you do get snowflakes on the lens, don't try to blow it off (blowing air) cause again you're gonna have a condensation issue. Instead use a bulb blower like we used to use for cleaning slides and negatives and just blow the snowflakes off that way. A couple other snow considerations. Don't open your camera if you're in blowing, driving snow. You don't wanna change lenses when the snow's blowing, cause then you can get snow in the camera and on your sensor, which is not a good thing. Also, if you have an aluminum tripod, I recommend carbon fiber, cause you don't have this issue so much, but an aluminum tripod can get really cold in cold weather. So get leg coverings so you don't have to worry about freezing your hands or doing the Christmas Story thing. Also, batteries drain faster when it's cold out. It doesn't kill them, they just run out of power faster. So what you do is keep two or three charged batteries and if one drains, you replace it, put the drained one in your pocket to warm it up, and then it'll work again faster. Also, from a safety perspective, in the snow, just be aware of hypothermia. You don't wanna get too cold. Frostbite. Avalanches. Last time I was in Rainier, I heard six avalanches in one day, so just pay attention to these things. Again, not to scare you, because there's also snow awesomeness. Snow is such a great subject, winter is such a great time to shoot. Grand Teton is amazing for winter photos. Another great thing about winter is that the golden hour lasts longer, so you get this beautiful light at the beginning of the end of the day that could last two, three, four hours, depending on what latitude you're at. Snow is also great to shoot in moonlight, because it's so reflective. You can really get very creative and do things that you couldn't do with green grass on the ground. Desert, there's a number of deserts in the park system and there's some important considerations to think about here and a lot of them are kinda similar to working in the snow. Sand and wind, sand is not your camera's friend, especially when there's wind. So considering how bad sand can be for a camera, if you're not using it, then put it in the bag. A desert is not a place where you're gonna walk around with your camera on your shoulder while you're not using it. Get it in the bag where the sand's not gonna touch it. Also, don't put your bag down in the sand because now you're gonna get sand on the bag, which is inevitably gonna end up in the bag, and then get on your equipment. Ideally, just keep your bag on your shoulder. If you do have to put it down, try to find a rock that you can put it down. Something hard, something that's not covered in sand. If you have to, take off your jacket, put that down on the sand or if your camera bag has a rain cover built into it, pull that out and put that on the sand and then put the bag on the rain cover. Anything to keep the sand off your bag and off of your gear. And lastly, I don't know how many of us still own photo vests in the digital age, but that's a way to get away with not having a bag at all, is you can just put your lenses and your accessories and wear them on you and then you don't have to worry about having anything that you wanna put down. Again, sand and wind, if it's windy in the sand dunes, any place with the sand, you do not wanna change your lenses. Don't take the lenses off. As much you don't want sand on your camera, you definitely don't want it in your camera. Another consideration is when you're shooting in the desert at night, use a GPS. I was warned about this the first time I shot in the sand dunes in Death Valley and I was like, I can see where the parking lot is, I hiked out a couple miles, but you can see. Once it got dark, the issue isn't that you can't see the horizon, it's that you can't see how to get through the sand dunes, so you end up doing a lot of winding and getting off course cause you can't walk straight. So a GPS, if you have one, it'll help keep you on track and just make your night a lot easier. Also, dunes are harder to walk on than solid ground. So again, you can't walk straight, cause if you're walking up and down the dunes, then that's a lot of loose sand. For every two steps forward, you slide back one. So instead, walk on the ridges of the dunes or in the troughs between them. So you can see this guy, this in the Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley. He's doing it right, he's walking along the ridge where it's just more stable, you're not gonna slip as much. You can also, like I said, get down in the troughs. The difficulty there is you can't see over the dunes, but it's very packed down there so it's much easier to walk. Finally, desert consideration, water, water, water. It can get very dry in the desert. I was in Death Valley last year in December. The temperatures were very comfortable but I still, within five minutes of finishing some water, I was thirsty again, because it's just so dry. You don't wanna go into the desert without an appropriate amount of water. Again, despite all these worries, the desert is an awesome place to shoot. The sunrises can be amazing. If you can find some water somewhere in the desert and you get this great juxtaposition, this contrast, between life and lifelessness. If you can find wildflower blooms. Like I mentioned, this year there were great blooms in Death Valley, like a once in a decade experience. Also, the juxtaposition of light and shadow in the sand dunes in the desert could just be phenomenal to work with as a photographer. In the night, the sand dunes, the sandy desert, is nice and reflective like snow, so it's a great place to shoot moonlight or starry skies or to do light painting. Finally, forest, some considerations for working in the forests. First of all, bright light is hard, it's not the best light to shoot in the forest because it gets very contrasty. Ideally, you're looking for overcast. Even better is to shoot in the fog. You could really do some very nice work in foggy and overcast conditions, it's the perfect time. If I'm in a park and I see overcast skies, if there's a forest, that's almost definitely where I'm heading. Another consideration is it can be very easy to get lost if you go off-trail in the forest, especially a dense forest. So stick to the trail or make sure you have a compass, because your GPS might not work under the forest canopy if it doesn't have a clear shot at the satellites in orbit. So carry a compass, carry a map and know how to use them. Also, look out, again, for poisonous plants that might be in undergrowth. And again, despite the challenges, the forests are a great place to shoot. Like I mentioned, fog. I love shooting a forest in the fog. A forest, the trees, can be very distracting, busy backgrounds, but the fog just equalizes all that and just makes a challenging condition so much more simple to shoot, but also a much more mysterious atmosphere. Also, rain, if it's raining, forests come alive in the rain. Tripod and a polarizer and a raincoat and spend the whole day out there. Doesn't matter how uncomfortable you are, you're gonna love the photos that you do. In the spring, I love blooming trees. This is a dogwood in the Smoky Mountains. And in the flip side, you get into the fall, the fall foliage. Forests are great to shoot in the fall. This is in Shenandoah. Shoot at the edge of the meadow is a good tip too. When you're in the forest, can be a little more challenging. But if you find a meadow, it allows you to shoot the edge of the forest, helps you create some compositions easier. Also if you can find a meadow, get into the forest and then shoot out at the meadow. I don't see this done enough, but it's a great way to take advantage of forest photography. You can also do detail work and focus in on individual trees and I love shooting birch bark. And again, forests look great in the snow and they can also look great at night to do some light painting. The Jesup Path is one of my favorite places in Acadia to shoot and I never tried it at night until earlier this year and I had the idea, let me get in there and do some light painting. You can really get in and isolate certain scenes in the forest. Great place for night photography. We've talked about a lot of the other environments in the park system, and now we're on the coast. The national parks are filled with fantastic coastal scenes, like I mentioned before, Acadia, there's a great coastline at the parks in Alaska, Redwood National Park, Everglades National Park. But my very favorite might actually be right here at Olympic National Park in Washington. And it's just a gorgeous spot. But working on the coastline does come with challenges and you're looking at the biggest ones right here. The two biggest enemies of camera equipment, sand and water. On top of it, it's salt water, which is even worse. You don't wanna be getting either one of 'em around your cameras. So how do ya work on the coast and not damage your gear? Well, for one, work with purpose. Be even more careful with your gear than you are when you're working inland or in a place without sand and water. When you're setting up your tripod, double check and make sure that you're locking the legs, because if it's just a little soft, you don't want it to start to fall and then fall into the sand or fall into the surf. You also wanna make sure that your bag is always closed. This is a good rule of thumb anyway. When you put your bag down, always zip it closed, cause if you forget that it's open and then go and pick it up, stuff falls out. Excellent rule of thumb for always, but even on the coast, cause if you pick it up and stuff falls out, it's gonna fall on sand, it's gonna fall in the water. Another thing about working around the water on the coast is you gotta watch for waves, especially when the tide is coming in. But one of the problems they have on the coast up here is every now and then you get what they call sneaker waves, which is essentially a rogue wave that's made its way here. So we're standing right here, it's perfectly dry, but you never know. Every now and then, a wave can come up and just wash up where we are right now. Could be powerful enough to knock us down or to knock our camera down and wash things out into the sea. Not a good situation. When you're working with your tripod around the water, also make sure that it's firmly seated in the sand, especially if you're down where the waves are coming in. The sand can get loose and your tripod can start to sink into the sand. That's okay, just make sure when you're done with your shoot later, rinse off those tripod legs, again, especially with the salt water. You don't want that salt sticking to those legs where they can start to corrode the materials over time. Wash it all off and you'll be fine. Just like if you're working in snow or in the desert is if there's a wind blowing, you don't wanna be opening up your camera at that time, because you don't want sand blowing into your camera and possibly damaging the sensor. If you absolutely need to change lenses in those conditions, then try to go up shore a little bit, try to find some shelter. Or at the very least, you can open up your jacket and change your lenses like this. Just anything you can do to try to keep sand from getting in the camera. Another thing when you're working with your bag is try not to put it down in the sand. A lot of times when I'm working on the beach, I'll actually keep the bag on my shoulder. As uncomfortable as that can be after a couple of hours, it's better than having sand getting on the bag, cause if it's on the bag, then later on, it's gonna get in the bag and then you can get some real trouble with your gear. If you don't wanna carry it on you, then try to find a rock to put it down. Or you can see right here, where we're standing, is a beautiful rocky beach. I have no trouble putting my bag down on the rocks. Another thing you can do is if you are on sand and you can't find a nice clean spot to rest your gear, just take off your jacket, put that on the ground, and put your bag on that. Some people even go as far as to bring a blanket with them and lay that out and work on the blanket, putting their tripod and their gear right there. An interesting product to check out is they sell now these, I think they call 'em sandless beach mats that are specifically designed for grains of sand not to stick to them. So if you wanna be really prudent, you could try to work on some kind of a surface like that. All those warnings aside, there is absolutely coastal awesomeness for photographers. I don't even need to explain why, just look behind me. It's beautiful. We're here on Olympic National Park, amazing shoreline, the sun is just set, a beautiful mist is rolling in, there's these beautiful pinks and blues, the sea stacks, the trees, there's birds flying overhead, the coastline, this is just amazing. The tide is starting to roll out, it's gonna expose tide pools, which are just teeming with life that are beautiful to photograph. Such an amazing spot to shoot, it's such an amazing spot to be creative and to be inspired. Get out here and do some great work.

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.