Scouting Techniques for National Parks

Lesson 4/13 - Scouting Locations From Home


Scouting Techniques for National Parks


Lesson Info

Scouting Locations From Home

Let's talk about scouting locations. We're gonna talk about doing some scouting work at home, so doing some homework about the locations you're gonna shoot, scouting in the field, so once you actually get on site in the national park, and then organizing that info into some kind of a plan that you can do something with. So, scouting at home. Google is my friend. They have some great tools for scouting that are all free. One thing I always do before I go on a national park shoot, once I know I'm going, I'll go to Google News and I'll create a news alert. And what this does is it'll send me emails every time the park shows up in the news. For example, I knew earlier in the summer I was gonna be coming to Olympic National Park twice this summer. Create a Google news alert for Olympic National Park. So whenever Olympic showed up in the news, I'd get an email about it, and this helps me keep track of what's going on in the park. For instance, here's one from, so this is from July. Olympic N...

ational Park showed up in the news for some road work being done. That can be very valuable information if, say, a road is closed for a place that I wanna shoot, that I might have to change my plans. Keep your distance from mountain goats. Apparently there's a problem in the park right now with some mountain goats being a little cranky and bothering people. Again, if I was there for wildlife photography, or if I was planning a shoot for Hurricane Ridge, which is one of the areas where there's been some problems, that would be good information for me to know, that there are some wildlife who maybe aren't gonna be very welcoming to me. All right, so another great tool from Google is Google Earth. This is different than Google Maps, which is online. Google Earth is software that you download and again, it's free. There's a pro version you can pay for, but for our purposes, the free version gives plenty of tools that we can use. And you can zoom in on satellite imagery of any place in the world. So this is Olympic National Park as seen from a satellite, and we can zoom in on, this is one of the more popular areas in the park to shoot, this is showing down at the bottom as Otter Cliffs, and there's Monument Cove and Boulder Beach in there. We can actually switch to an actual satellite photo, and then we can zoom in even more by using the drag to street view tool. What you do is you just drag this little guy onto the map, and it'll actually put you right into a street view of the park. As of, I believe it was just last year, Google has done street view of about half the national parks so you could actually virtually drive around the whole park seeing real imagery, which is just a fantastic way to just be able to preview what your drive through an actual park'll be once you get there. You can also turn around, you can do a 360 view, and see what things look like in different directions. So this right here, if you've been to Acadia, you might recognize the shoreline. This is right between Monument Cove and Boulder Beach, two very popular places for photography for good reason. Up here you can see exit street view. Now why do we wanna exit street view when we just got in it? Okay, what this is gonna do, is now that we're on the street level on ground level, is it's gonna bring us into a virtual reality depiction of the scene. From here, we can actually walk off the street right into the scene. So I'm right up on the waterfront now. We can turn north and look up toward Monument Cove. We can turn south and look down toward Boulder Beach. We can say hey, we wanna cut a shoot, let's check out Boulder Beach. So we can zoom in here. Now you see all these icons that are on the screen, these tiny icons. What those represent are photos that other photographers have uploaded and allowed Google to use to place in the scene exactly where they were shot. I can click on one of these. Oh, look at that. It's a great Milky Way photo down at Boulder Beach. So you can imagine how valuable this information is when you're scouting a scene from your desk at home. So more tools. If you look up here, this is gonna predict what the sunlight is gonna look like any time of day, any time of year. You get this slider where you can change the time of day or the time of year, and then you can see. So here I've got it set, this was in, so May, at 5:00, so the sun's starting to look okay, and this is what it looks like as night's coming in. A little further in the night we can see that the Milky Way is coming into the scene. So again, you can imagine how valuable this information is if you were thinking of doing a Milky Way photo here. And now the sunrise light, which is legendary at Boulder Beach. Another tool is Flickr. I love going on Flickr to see the work that other photographers are doing. Not only can you see what they've done in the past, but here's where it gets really interesting, is you can see what they're doing right now. So here as an example I put in Isle Royale National Park, which is a island park up in Michigan. These are some photos that people have done, but we can go and change the sort order to most recent and we can see the photos that people are doing right now in the park. Why is this valuable? Suppose, for instance, you were doing a fall foliage shoot in a place like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of the varying elevations, the foliage changes. It'll change in the mountaintops first then works its way down. So at a given time during the fall, you could have bare trees at the top of the mountains, beautiful foliage in the middle, and still be green down closer to sea level. By going into Flickr and looking at the most recent photos, you can see where people were shooting this week and see where the color is. Another example, earlier this summer, actually in the spring, I was planning a trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. I had to do a project that wasn't very time-sensitive, but I had to do it sometime between spring and fall. I had time in spring, and I was just gonna tackle this in April, but I went on Flickr and I saw that they were having a late spring and there were no leaves on any of the trees, which wasn't gonna work for me, so I put off the trip until June. So again, I saved myself a whole trip that would've been nearly wasted just by going online and seeing what work people were doing right now, and I could see it's not gonna work for me. Some other online resources. These are four websites that I really like for their forums. Photographers online, some of these photographer forums can be very helpful, very generous with information about places that they know. is one of the best. It's a wonderful website, but their forum is very active, and you can find a lot of people on there willing to share location information. is another great one. The reason I like this one is because their forum is broken down by region, so you can really target, you can go into, for instance, a forum of the northeast and find people who are experts at Acadia because that's where they live. is another good one. It's more international, so if you're gonna venture outside the country, but even in the United States, you can find a lot of photographers willing to share information. And then Not a forum, but what's interesting on their website is they have a wiki where people can go in and share the secret spots that they've found or their favorite out-of-the-way locations in the parks, which is again very valuable information for a photographer who might wanna get away from the crowds or get away from the more photographed locations. I also recommend checking out books. This Photographing National Parks, which is my mom's favorite book, but there's also two other ones. Treasured Lands is a book by Q.T. Luong who is famous for being the first photographer to photograph all 59 national parks with a large format camera. That book is very new, and I actually haven't seen it yet. I'm very excited to see what's in there. But there's also a book by Tim Fitzharris who is an editor for, I believe, Popular Photography Magazine, and he wrote a book a number of years back, but it's still valuable information. He doesn't cover all the parks, but the parks he, he gets into the most popular parks and offers some really great location and seasonal advice. So all three of these, I think, are very valuable resources for different reasons. There are also books about specific parks, so if you're gonna go someplace, especially if you haven't been there before, then I recommend seeing if there's a book that's been written about it. Some of the parks like Yosemite have multiple books written specifically for photographers. The one caveat that I would suggest is try to find a book that's written by a photographer as opposed to a travel writer. A few of 'em I've seen have been written by travel writers who, while they have some good information about the place, they might now know as much about what photographers are looking for. Another excellent resource, the Photograph America newsletter by Bob Hitchman. Bob is a photographer based in California, and he's been publishing this quarterly newsletter since 1989, so do the math. I think it's over 140 issues at this point where he basically just covers a trip that he takes and writes about a location, writes about places that he found to shoot and good times of day to be there, and even gets into information like where to eat and where to stay. And a lot of the issues that he's published have been about specific national parks. You can get his whole back catalog or you can order individual issues that are about specific places that you're interested in going.

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.