Scouting Techniques for National Parks

Lesson 7/13 - Tools for Scouting on Location


Scouting Techniques for National Parks


Lesson Info

Tools for Scouting on Location

Scouting locations. We've talked about scouting at home. But, of course, we haven't actually done any shooting yet. When we get on site, what do we do? We have all this information. What do we do with it? We're going to talk about scouting in the field, 'cause we're not done scouting yet. We just have our preliminary information. We have the places that we're interested in. Now we actually have to go and see what we can do with the information we've collected. When I go to a park, usually the first day, I don't do much shooting at all. I drive around. I visit the visitor's center. I just kinda go and I look at the locations that I've been reading about, that I've bee scouting online. See what they look like in person. Sometimes I might see something, and say, "You know what? This isn't as interesting "as I thought it was going to be." Or I might even come across places that I hadn't read about and think wow this is such an amazing spot. I write that down to shoot, too. I also get onto ...

the dirt roads; the primitive roads. Especially if it's not on the map. Basically if there's a road that I see that doesn't say, "Do not Enter", I'm driving on it. In some of the parks, you get these dirt roads. They're not even on the map, but they go to these wonderful spots. I can think of one in Grand Teton off the top of my head. One of my favorite spots at Everglades National park is down a road that's not on the map. It's right there. Anybody can turn down. Just nobody pointing you to it. Also, get out on the trails. In Yellowstone, they have what they call the 90/10 rule, which is that 90% of the visitors see only 10% of the park. That's a shame, but it's also an opportunity for photographers because we don't have to walk very far to be alone, or to be able to shoot without people, or to be able to shoot something that not everybody else is shooting right now. So, get on the trails. Not necessarily during the nice light. Go out in the middle of the day when you're not worried about getting a photo right now, but you can really just look around and take in a place. Approaching it on that different level can help you see things that you might not see during the rush of the moment in nice light. Also, in general, I would recommend not scouting in good light. Good light is not for scouting. It's for shooting. Scout when the lights bad and shoot when the lights good. Another thing is talk to humans. So far, we've read books, we've been on forums, we've been using software, but talk to people. You get into the National Parks, especially the popular ones, and there's photographers everywhere. It's almost guaranteed that you can find a photographer whose already been there for a week and might have seen a great wildflower bloom, or might know where the bison herd is hanging out. Most photographers are friendly. You can talk to them and say, "Hey. Have you seen anything cool? "Any information you'd like to share? "Any spots you know of I should check out?" I very rarely come across a photographer who's not interested in talking shop or sharing some information. This is a spot in Olympic that I found. This was my first or second time in Olympic. I was on the shore, and I had this idea to do a certain photo where I wanted to photograph the sun setting over a certain rock formation. Right before a sunset, some clouds rolled in. There was really no good sunset, so the idea was scrapped. Fortunately for me, I had been being friendly with another photographer while we were waiting. We had been chatting for a while and it turned out he was a local photographer, so he shot in the park a lot. He knew the photo I was going for and when it didn't work out, he offered the information, he said to me, "If you walk about 1/4 mile down the beach, "you're gonna find this spot where the sea stacks just kinda recede off into the horizon, and you can do some nice work down there." Again, just by being friendly and by talking to somebody, I got some information that essentially saved my evening. This is in Yellowstone National Park. The Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. My brother, I was very fortunate, was actually working out there. I had this 10-day project planned and my brother had been working there for three months. He has a photographer's mind. It's not what he pursued as a career, but he loves doing it and he knew I was coming. For three months, he was basically my advanced scout. He was writing down information for me. By the time I got there, he had a list. You have to check out this place. You have to go here this time of day. He suggested this spot to shoot the Grand Prismatic. There's no trail to get here. If you've been there, you know how difficult it is to shoot the spring from ground level 'cause it's just so massive. But he had found the spot where you could get up on a hill. It's not a secret spot, so much. The people who frequent the area know it. Again, there's no trail, so you probably wouldn't find this on your own. He found it for me and he told me how to get there. He even brought me right to the spot. My recommendation is if you have a sibling, have them work at a National Park, and collect information for you before you get there. Also, talk to the rangers. They're there to help and they're happy to help. If you can find one that's into photography, even better. I'm always talking to the rangers. Just friendly chatter. It often leads to, they wanna know. They're interested. "What are you doing here?" "Oh, I'm a photographer. "I'm doing night photography. "Blah, blah, blah." You can get some good information that way. Real time example. Earlier this year, I was with Matt and Gabe from the National Parks at Night crew. We were in Utah shooting some parks. It was how we celebrated National Park week. We kind of went off and did some night photos in the parks. We went to Natural Bridges National Monument. None of us had been there before. The first thing we did when we got there was we went to the visitor's center to see what we could find out. We walk in, the rangers at the counter. He sees us come in and he says, "Hey. What you guys doing here?" And we said, "Oh, we're night photographers." And he said, "I'm a night photographer." Had to be 45 minutes that he spent with us pulling out maps, pulling out some of his photos. He actually drew a little map. He told us which rock formations were the most photogenic. Which were difficult to photograph at night because you didn't have a good view of the sky. There was one that he said was beautiful, but he didn't recommend making that hike back in the dark if we'd never done it before because it was a safety issue. All this information was invaluable. We only had one night to spend there. If we just jumped into it, not knowing what we were doing, it could've been just a disaster from a creativity standpoint. He pointed us in exactly the right direction. So instead of fumbling around in a place we didn't know, we knew to go here and get this. All because Ranger Ted decided that he was going to help us out. Again, in the field there's tools that we can use besides just driving around and looking. We can collect information by using some apps. There's some very powerful apps that are available that you can have just on your phone or your tablet and get real time information in the field about what the scene is gonna to look like at different times a day. There's also some apps that'll help you do some research ahead of time. Some of my favorite, Chimani has very quickly become the leader in National Park guide apps. As of just a couple of months ago, they have an app for all 59 National Parks and they're free. There's two really great things about these apps. One is that they work even if you don't have a data connection. You download them and they're self-contained. All the maps, all the tips, all the information, is there. You don't need to have a data connection to be able to pull up that information. That's important because a lot of the National Parks, you can't get a cell signal. The second thing that I really like about these apps is that Chimani recognized that photography is one of the top three activities practiced in the National Parks, along with camping and hiking. So, they realized this last year and what they did in response to realizing that is they built in information for photographers. Photography tips, location tips, information on sunrise and sunset times, et cetera, et cetera. Again, these apps are free. Great resource. Also, National Geographic has a nice app. They don't cover all the National Parks, but the ones they cover, the thing I love about it is National Geographic photographers got involved. Their photos are in there and their tips about how they shot these locations. This is not a free app. I think it's $10, but it's worth every penny for the expert information that comes with it. There's also a few apps that I use in the field, particularly The Photographer's Ephemeris, PhotoPills, and Tide Graph Pro. We actually went into Olympic National Park to show exactly how to use these. Now we're going to talk about some great 21st century tools that we can use to help us out in our photo shoot. For one, I've got this great watch. It's called a Yes watch. It's got my sunset times, my sunrise, my moonrise, my moonset times. This is designed for photographers, aviators and boat captains. Great piece of equipment to have out here. There's also apps like SunsetWx, which is relatively new. Designed by college students to tell you how good the sunsets gonna be. There's a great app I use called SkyView. As much as I love shooting at night, I barely know anything about what I'm shooting in terms of celestial objects. SkyView, and other apps like that, you can just point your tablet to the sky, and it will tell you, "That's Jupiter. "That's Sagittarius." It will even point out satellites or the space station as it's going by. That's great information if you wanna caption your photos and know exactly what you're shooting. We also have a few that we're gonna demo right here because they're just such wonderful tools for doing work out in the National Park. We've got the Photographer's Ephemeris, which is gonna help us see what the lights gonna be like at any time of day. We have PhotoPills, which is gonna help us spot the Milky Way if we want to build that into our photo. We're gonna start with an app that I like called Tide Graph Pro which is gonna help us figure out what the tides are gonna look like which is important, not just for creativity, but for safety in this kind of environment. Let's go see what we can do with this now. When we're working around the water, at the ocean, knowing the tides is important. Again, there's the two reasons I keep mentioning. One is safety and one is creativity. Here in Olympic National Park, most accidents happen around the coast, specifically because of the tides. For one thing, all these logs that can come in with the water. If you're not careful, you don't see one that going to hit you, you can get very hurt that way. But another thing that tends to happen is, as you can see this point back here. The coastline is full of points like this that can be either difficult or impossible to pass around at high tide. So, you want to know when the tides gonna be in and when the tides is gonna be out from the safety perspective. One of the most dangerous things you can do in a place like this is as the tides coming in feel like oh, quick I gotta get around that point while I still can. Because even just one early high wave could knock you out. Again, this is a danger to your gear and a danger to you. So, know the tides. Another reason is for aesthetics. If I'm out scouting during the day, when I see this scene and I love the way that the waves are breaking and how they're leaving toward the sea stack. I say this is going to be a great shot at night. The problem is I come back six hours from now, when the tide is out, it's gonna look completely different. Again, it's good for me to know the tides, so that I can see what a scene is gonna look like now compared to later. There's a lot of apps that are gonna help with this. My favorite, the one I use is called Tide Graph Pro. I can go right on here. I've set our location for Destruction Island, which is an island with a lighthouse just off the shore over here. This is gonna tell me when the tides gonna be high and when its gonna be low. Right now the tide is just about fully in. Actually, no, I can see it's just about to head out again. So I can see if I wanted to shoot this scene, the way it is right now, the next time that the tide is high is at nine in the morning. If I want to do a night shot here that looks exactly like this, I'm gonna have to pick a different day. Again, I can use the app to find a day when the tide is gonna be high at night. Or I can just know I'm gonna have a low tide. Low tide is great to shoot at, especially right as the water is going out. You get nice reflections. You can even get reflections of the stars in the tide pools. All very useful information you can get right from this app. It also tells you about the moon phases. We can scroll through days and weeks ahead and really plan our shot exactly how we want it. Photography is all about light, or the absence of it. We're doing night photography. But it's very important to know the light. We come out scouting during the day. I always say that bad light is for scouting and good light is for shooting. So, I'm usually out scouting during the bad light. How do I know, let's say, at one o'clock in the afternoon that the lights gonna be this gorgeous at 8? The app that I use for this is called the Photographer's Ephemeris. It's gonna tell me, right where I'm standing, what the light is gonna be like at sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset. It's gonna tell me the angle. It's gonna show me right on the map where the suns gonna set, or its gonna rise. Where its gonna set, where its gonna rise, and exactly the times all those things are going to happen. Right here from my tablet. You can run the same app on a phone. It's a beautiful app to have and their desktop version is free. Excellent information for planning a shot. Another app that's very valuable. It's very similar to Photographer's Ephemeris, but works in a slightly different way, is called PhotoPills. I like PhotoPills a lot for its feature called Augmented Reality. This is excellent for planning a night shot, particularly if you want to include the Milky Way. Say, for instance, we're on location. We're scouting and we say, "Oh. I'd love to get a shot of this sea stack with the Milky Way over it." Well, first of all, as in the site I can tell ya it's not gonna to happen, cause we're facing northwest and the Milky Way is gonna always be somewhere in the south. But let's assume that I do want to try and scout the scene and see if the shot's possible. I can open up PhotoPills in my iPad. I just hold the screen right up, as if I was taking a photo. What PhotoPills does is it overlays the celestial objects right over the scene that we're looking at and I can see there's no Milky Way there. But if I turn this way, I can see a beautiful sunset. Ah, now I can see the Milky Way. It's right here right now. I know as the night progresses, it's gonna come a little more this way. Again, just looking right at my screen, I can see the scene that's in front of me and exactly how the Milky Way is gonna look any time tonight or any time in the future. Extremely valuable information for scouting a Milky Way shot hours before you were even gonna execute it.

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.