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Photographing National Parks

Lesson 5 from: Photographing America's National Parks

Ian Shive

Photographing National Parks

Lesson 5 from: Photographing America's National Parks

Ian Shive

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Lesson Info

5. Photographing National Parks

Lesson Info

Photographing National Parks

On the screen I've got some of my favorite images actually I'm gonna go back to this when I had the uh this is this is one of my first shots here and the whole rainforest and it is a completely different scene then what we just had yesterday when we were there so keep the shot in mind as we go through the next couple of days um, because you'll see how again the landscaping the opportunities really change and I referenced the shot as well and the idea of calling out using long lenses and landscapes, but again, you know, the parkes one thing I won't talk about with my style too, you know, on somebody I think asked earlier today about, you know, the fundamentals of landscape photography, and I tried to think about what does that really mean and what does it mean to me and it's? A very hard thing to ask because I think there's this idea that we should have a fixed set of rules around how we photograph or do something, um and really, I think that there are a fixed set of technical rules or ...

skills really not even rules but skills, and there are rules and and and aspects of things like the rule of thirds, um, in putting certain things in a frame and leading lines and having a center of focus but there are also is very, very important, I think, to be willing to release yourself of those and teo to look with wide eyes at how you experience these places. The picture that I currently have up right now is a personal favorite it was photographed a white sands national monument in new mexico, and I love it because a lot of my inspiration a za photographer actually comes from painters, and I love the texture of the quality, and I've been a huge fan of georgia o'keeffe I've made no secret of that over the years and for me to be in new mexico, her state that she has painted an illustrated so well through her art on goto white sands and spend three days in the rain very similar theme teo, the challenges we've had here in washington state now quite raines I'm thankful for, but nonetheless the weather challenge these dunes. I'm standing on the top of these dunes and I'm looking out across him and it was the first time I started to things that quite an old image now, and it was first time I started think of not using a wide angle lens to capture what was a very expansive area I'll definitely get into that throughout this course of not thinking of landscapes is something that could only be taken with a wide angle but also with medium to telephoto lenses and this was the first time where this is actually a four hundred millimeter landscape photograph, whereas the rain finally let up. It's the end of day it's evening evening, very overcast, the tops of the drew dunes with the first thing to dry off. And so they started turned white again were the more wet aspects of the sand were still very beige. And so you had this natural grady in and in the background is not sky a lot. People think that skye, but that blue is actually a actually the atmosphere if you've ever driven through the rocky mountain west and you see mountains way in the distance and they have the quote unquote, purple mountain majesty, that's what that blue is and it's just all been compressed using a long lens. And for me, this was really incredible moment, and I had a shot a whole series of these because it really reflected the vision and the concept and also kind of an ode, teo an appreciation for the work of georgia o'keefe in the sense of the pastels, the colors, the shapes, the lines, the gentle way it flows, and right there in the home state of new mexico and so all of these skills and ideas and things that I've had some kind of kicking around you don't really know when they're going to just crop back up and when you're gonna think of them and when they'll strike you in a landscape um joshua tree national park and the other hand you know go I'd get close I'm certainly going to talk a lot about that of the over this this course is well and um you know and and then obviously ah glacier national park on dh sometimes is good luck has played a huge role in and documenting the national park such a cz in this shot which um actually became part of visit montana's campaign for awhile and has ah has also appeared in backpacker a number of times so it's been I've been really great to have this image out there and it really goes to show luck but I also remember that a lot of these trips um you know, I had to had to be really well prepared for um hit you when you're in places like montana or washington you're working around mountains you know the old saying of course you don't like the weather wait five minutes well if you also like the weather wait five minutes because you've got rain and everything and so preparation has been really important for me in the process of of of photographing in the parks and so obviously rain gear and ah ways to protect your camera you know, I've spent way too many times under rock crevices and in rain or hail to make sure things don't break or I've had my camera's short out a number of times because they've been soaked by by by water because it was unprepared preparation has been critical um and knowing that you're you know, obviously the safety elements that come with that people know where you're going, what you're doing ah, whether you're traveling in grizzly country or not and how to handle that um educating yourself as a nature photographer is about more than educating yourself on how to take a picture that's more than the technical aspects but it's also the also the aspects of safety ah, certainly enough responsibility um and how you you know, leave yourself when you leave a park um you know and where wherever you may be, I think it's really, really important. Um the other thing is if your nature photographer my backpack and I carrie light is between thirty and thirty five pounds, depending on what I'm going with and that doesn't count if I'm doing a back country hike um so if I'm bringing a sleeping bag and tent and food and water purifier and headlamps and all the other stuff, my bag will get between roughly fifty and fifty five pounds on average um that's on your back and I might be going from sea level to eight thousand feet and spending a week hiking at that elevation um, you know, fitness is something that I really want, teo, you know, encourage people teo to think about it, it's also part of safety, you don't want to go out and go thirteen miles one direction because you want to get a great shot, though I have definitely pushed my own boundaries, and I think that can be healthy. Um, you also want to do it well, and so, you know, I'm real active is a runner, and I love doing that, and it helps me go and run up mountains when I see a moment and help me respond faster to changing climates and changing environment. So you know, it's again, another added benefit, I think, to being ah, being a nature photographer, what's one of the moments that you've had in ray said, thank goodness I have been keeping, you know, I've had a lot of moments where I have fallen out of fitness. Um certainly you know, I I have I think over the last year and a half or so I've been spending more of my time at a desk and talk a little bit about the role of tandem uh, photo agency that I started and and that has brought me more of the desk and it's easy to get wrapped up in work and it's easy to get wrapped up in whatever you're doing and lose track of that um but it also feels really great to get back into it I think but I'm sorry to repeat your question oh, it was just maybe in a story about a moment when you realize thank goodness that I have been killed about a year or two after I finally quit the day job I felt the most fit I remember it because when I first left me in a really good friend of mine at the time I've had a lot of hikes and we were both coming from the same spot it also done a similar trajectory and we'd go on a hike and I remember we make fun of each other because we couldn't go a mile a pill without just getting winded and feeling horrible and I remember there's probably two and a half years you know, after that we'll probably a year and a half after that moment two and a half years or so um that we had just completely transformed our level of fitness and remember going up that same hill and then passed it for five miles and thinking how great we felt and how many new opportunities as a photographer it opened up and you never hear about that in all of photography stories and places you read about shooting outdoors and nature and skills and all the things you can learn that's what I really wanted to mention a little bit and it's not a huge thing um and I'm not saying I'm the picture of fitness necessarily but I think that it's still um I still think it's an important component to the big picture of howto access places that are very far in when I was a glacier national park and I shot a lot of the images that including the cover of my paperback book and a lot of the images that have graced the covers of these magazines and spreads inside magazines I covered over one hundred miles on foot at twelve thousand feet elevation ten thousand feet in elevation up and down and over the continental divide um and and I captured all those images in the backcountry you know we do thirteen miles fifteen miles in a day at eight, nine thousand feet and it was tiring it was gratifying you felt great at the end of the day, but it was exhausting was hard work and I had a thirty five pound pack on me as well that's what some of these images are yeah, as we're going through, um you know, these some of these here now actually this year's transition into aerial images that I did in alaska um and so one thing actually just being in like the perspective and sort of the broader lesson of nature photography is um don't think there's only a right time to go um I think there's ah you can go to the to a place at what might seem like the absolute worst time you know people say oh it's better in the fall go then there's definitely better times to go when certain flowers are blooming and so on but I remember I went to alaska and that's what these images are from a zoo lake clark national park alaska and I was actually asked to go up there to speak on on the national parks actually and I'm up there and I'm thinking, well, I don't want to just come all the way to alaska from california and not go out and shoot something but it's january and I remember thinking I'm gonna go up in an airplane and I'm going to do aerials because I don't have to hike through waste I snow or anything like that and they're a lot of roads already closed in the park like denali was already closed for the season in the main roads and so I managed to through siri's of relationships that built over the years in alaska find a way teo get a plane to poor dolls worth was this little back country town where you had four hours of sunlight every day ah, you know, five hours, something good sunlight and it was basically all sunset light the whole time. So the photographer's dream rented a plane um and actually was doing a barter at the times it wasn't costing me a lot of money so great was actually almost free. In fact, the exchange had worked out and um and end up photographing les clark in the middle of winter in a way and mountain mount augustine the island volcano that you see out there in the distance on this photo in a way that no one's ever done before there's a first time anyone had ever done it but it seems absurd to go to alaska in the middle of january was sixty below zero with the door off on this plane is just me and just the bush pilot in this tiny little thing bouncing around photographing and ah, it was mortifying ly awesome it is really, really great and so that was ah great way tio ah, really great way I think teo kind of illustrated has also been a lot of really quiet or times as a photographer is your career evolves and you start to get published and even better you start to get assignments you get really some of the most incredible opportunity to meet and work with awesome people this is a writer who have been great friend with uh for many many years um we haven't worked together super recently but incredibly talented writer and filmmaker herself and we were actually working as a writer photographer team and out and just roaming around and she ends up becoming the model of the picture so to speak and sharing the experience in big bend national park uh in texas where you can actually see mexico on the left and the u s on the right's a little knee high river and we spent ah week out there just photographing and so you know again photography is is is more than just creating images and getting off twenty two and auto focus and hypersonic x y and z but also relationships and and and memories and a lot of other great things that have really worked overtime one of the greatest memories and very early on in my in my my second career is a photographer um I got embedded in a search and rescue crew on mount mckinley and that's what this image is from you know, I was actually I believe the first photojournalist embedded on search and rescue crew on the mountain the highest mountain in north america. Um speaking of fitness by wasting me good followed three or four months of you know the stairmaster to actually get into shape for this thing um it's the high spot of north america it's considered by many as the harder climbing mount everest and just because of the challenges and also its relation to the arctic circle and so on. But what an incredible opportunity to be able to do that and to climb the glacier and live in the base camp and go in the medical camp and and to tell that story, to see things like mount forker from eleven thousand two hundred feet, where we spent two days acclimating hanging out, talking, getting to know each other on our team. Um, you know, meeting people in the camp, and then, you know, flying in and out of the mountains such as this flight here landed on the hill in a glacier, and this is the heart of the knowledge national park. Um and again, I think people think national parks and they think icons, and I think photographing the icons is certainly one of most gratifying things you could ever do, but I've also really loved telling the stories that people don't automatically think about as national parks such as this one. You lookit everybody looks at mount mckinley from the valley and fromthe road in the bus, how often they ever get the opportunity, really? Take that extra step and go on a plane and land or take a day trip to seventy two hundred base camp or climbed the mountain depending on how far you really want to push yourself but that's how a lot of these images this is a plane this tiny little playing around banks and I had this little submarine porthole window and I pushed my lens up to it it's been voted right straight down and got this what almost looks like a miniature world and that's actually national park headquarters at seventy, two hundred feet and a runway where the planes have skis would land on and again changing the perspective, pushing the boundaries of how you actually get to see the parks I think has also played a very pivotal role in telling their story section ian on sort of some of your iconic images yes, but I think that's when I'm most excited about for for these three days is you think of a national park and then you think of those iconic things but we started earlier today talking about story and so how is it's probably the number one question that you get how do you find new stories in in these iconic places that you've been showing us you know I know what my question was going to be was do you take the shot that is the iconic shot just so you're like ok got that and then keep exploring, I do now I didn't when I started and then when I went to publish a book on the park, so unfortunately my publisher came back to me said you've got two hundred and fifteen incredible images, the parts that no one's ever seen before. This is completely new, and we totally won't publish it. But where's, old faithful where's, delicate arch where's, the grand canyon, you know, and I was missing all of these iconic spots that made the national park so famous, and so I immediately identifiable that I end up doing an icon road trip essentially and would go to one parking day. Actually, um I did a couple trips like that, but one in particular, that was pretty epic and went back and photograph them, and now I don't make that mistake so much because at the end of the day and getting into the business of it ultimately you've got to make a living from it. Um, the icons of the most written about the most talked about the most photogenic in many cases, not on ly um, certainly like you saw lake clark was epically beautif full on wasn't immediately iconic, though, uh certainly should be recognized iconically I think, over time, um, but answer the question about how do you find these stories you have to live in it first, I think a lot of people go and, um, there's obviously a journalistic approach to separating yourself from the story, but I think with the parts, you also have to really live them as a visitor, especially the nature photographer or conservation photographer in the sense that you need to get out, hike, walk, whatever and, you know, I've done plenty of hikes where I don't bring the whole bag, I'll take one camera, one lens, no filters, no tripod and go do you know, put on a pair of running shoes and get up a trail on do you know, of seven or eight miles just to see what's up there and get great shots potentially on dh sometimes paring down is also a really great thing, and I think we'll talk a little bit about that as well over the next few days, but paring down to a very, very simple setup forces you do not rely on changing your lenses or or certain gear oh, god, I wish I have this so I have to do this. You have to work with what you have and I think that's, whether you have those items or you aspire to one day on them, um, I think that works both ways in that way, I think, also the one uh, compelling um, peace in nature photography and in national parks and in any ecosystem or natural place where I photographed as mentioned in all over the world, photographing has been the rule of the human element and the rule that people play. This isn't kirk a national park in croatia um, the rule that people play and not only providing perspective, but to tell the national park story or to tell the natural world story without people as a part of it ah, is not is not is not, um, it's not the whole story essentially, um and we're certainly talk a lot about that. I know we're also in the next time we're gonna do some camping, photography and showing those in between moments um, that you're really important to capture but, um, you know, having a person for sense of scale this is an image I took last fall um and I was on a sunset magazine tour of the west and ah, and I saw this this composition it was it was perfect there's no photo shop in this this is all the nd filters and skills were gonna learn in this course, um, just had a fresh snowfall on crater lake national park in oregon, ah, just south of us here by a few hours and, um and it was it was just beautiful I mean great light super cold with seventeen degrees and I forgot clubs so I had socks on my hands because I was coming up from a much warmer much warmer happier happier place where I was I wasn't expecting it necessarily stop here exactly the way I did and um and and this tiny little person that's in the frame ah who is a friend and it doesn't it is not nearly as precipitous as a as it looks um but this time you let personal frame gives you that sense of scale that grand and if you think without that person with shot worked as well yes maybe but not as quite as well same with like that first shot has started and in many of these shots which is out on the channel islands channel islands national park self portrait adding myself into the scene um and such as in this image here uh fell in several times trying take this picture but I felt like I needed some human element I've been photo having nothing but landscapes for three days I was alone I need to do something different but the human element can also be more than just just you know people or silhouettes or something but also rhodes cutting through the everglades ah or it could be more abstract um this isn't a national park but I love because it really illustrates the idea of how you could get a human element in a more subtle way such a sprinklers or irrigation over grapevines in in calif for nia so I think that that's that's really I think that's a great way teo teo to really change the way we tell the story and to think about it in a hole waist incorporate people um I want to look back to this subject because I think it's really important which is the best subject is your own backyard um and that really is you said where's the best place to start and hey, I want to be a nature photographer and you know I want to do I save up into a goto africa for two weeks so I go to alaska for ten days I take that cruise I think you you put on your shoes you pack a lunch and you find the next closest thing because if you're here in the states or anywhere in the world I guarantee there's something pretty awesome in your own backyard and I think that you have to own what it is in your backyard. Um now I ventured a little farther from mine and in yosemite national park has been ah super super great place and obviously I'm lucky to have that in my backyard but the benefits of having something close your backyard is not that you get to go and you photograph it once but you go back for weekend after weekend after weekend after season after season after season, day after day as often as you can and every time you go you see something like the overlook view and then the next time you see it's covered in fog and and clouds and and it's beautiful and the wind happened to blowing right this day where the waterfall was blown into the in front of this tree on dh thinned out so that there is this gigantic rainbow coming through um we're hanging out again with a writer and their airstream parked under the milky way outside the national park all the details that come with seasons and changes and fog and whether and opportunity and maybe just, you know, living in that moment I think are all the most important reasons photographing something close because accessibility, I think is one of the most important things to finding ways to make it great images. And then obviously, as you start to continue to photograph and expand your horizons, you just keep growing out from that and that's what I did, I started with a little it wasn't a national park actually first place they started was a a little recreation area that just had really great mountains and ice in the winter, and it was fun to photograph, and that was my first published photograph was of that place from film um, and then from there grew out into a national park, and then to many national parks to now all the national parks to now national wildlife refuges and coral reefs and all these other places. So, um, you know, it's, I think it's, a really t element, is, uh, his photograph in your backyard forgot something that's familiar to you to the better. You know it, the better you know how to tell a story. Imagine writing a book report on a book you never read. You wouldn't be able to. Um, yeah, you have to read the book first, so you have to go and experience the place and recognize it when it's, even though it's an extraordinary place, recognize it when it's the most extraordinary moment in that extraordinary place, that is what makes a great photograph stand out.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Field Guide to Photographing the American Wilderness
Icons of Nature Keynote
National Park Photography Intro and Setup
Photo Editing Keynote
10 Steps to Processing Perfect Star Trail Images
Business of Photography Keynote
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


I have taken quite a few courses with createlive and this was by far one of the best. Ian is a fantastic teacher and remarkable at describing what he is doing and his thought process clearly. There is so much good information in this course, I definitely plan on buying this class. Not only is Ian a great teacher, but he also seems to genuinely want to help other photographers and see them succeed. You can tell he cares more about seeing good pictures of nature than anything else. I cannot recommend this course enough. Whether you are a beginner who shoots landscape photography as a hobby or a professional who already specializes in landscape photography, this class has something to offer and will expand your skill set. Can't thank Ian enough and I hope he does another course soon.


Ian is a great teacher and it is great when some one who "can do", can also explain how he does it. Clearly, his experience and commitment are why he is good at what he does. There is a lot more to a great photo than getting the camera settings and filters right. Ian did his best to help us understand what to look for when "working the scene" and finding a good composition without distractions. A great course. Thank you, Creative Live and Ian Shive.


Amazing course. Ian Shive is a wonderful teacher, as well as photographer, and it all comes across. I was glued to my computer for the entire 3 days when the class was live, and just had to purchase it so I don't lose any of it. The bonus materials alone are worth the purchase price. I've got a trip coming up soon and will have the opportunity to put some of what Ian said into practice; and love that I can have it with me on my portable devices so I can refresh my memory and reinforce it all. Great to have on a long plane ride. If you are on the fence, get off that fence and go purchase this great course!!! You won't be sorry. My thanks to CreativeLive, and Ian Shive for giving us this wonderful opportunity to not only learn, but to actually be in the field with Ian.

Student Work