For this week's park feature, I decided to mix it up a bit for one week and talk about some general strategies and tips for photography in the parks. Much of this of course is applicable to photography in general, but these are some tips that will help you get the most out of your trip to the parks. If you have any to add, please chime in in the comments.
For the most part, I am approaching this from the standpoint of those with SLRs (digital or this ancient photography process known as "film") or advanced point and shoots that offer more control over the photography process than switching the camera dial to the mountain, the flower or the running dude, pointing the camera at the subject and pushing the shutter. Basic point and shoots definitely have their place, and are often fine from travel/park photography, but one of the number one things you can do to improve the quality of your images is using an advanced point and shoot or DSLR that allows you to take control of how the image is captured. Additionally, these cameras tend to have larger sensors and lower pixel densities that improve image quality, sharpness and color while reducing noise. They also permit larger prints (i.e. bigger than 5"x7") without significant loss of quality. Just because a camera has more megapixels doesn't mean it is better. A 10MP DSLR will run circles around a 15MP point-and-shoot.
I'm at the Park...What do I Photograph?
Your subject matter can vary wildly by park. Some parks are more conducive to landscape photography while in others wildlife or macro photography may work better. Much of this is going to depend on what you personally want to shoot. While landscape photography tends to dominate at say, the Grand Canyon, you could decide to break the mold and photograph the wildlife there if that's your thing. For the most part, most parks will offer some form of combination of landscapes, wildlife and macro, but if you want to let your destination dictate what kind you will focus on, do a little research before hand at the National Park Service's website for the park, or by perusing the results of a search on the park on a picture sharing site such as Flickr or SmugMug.
Standing where many tripods have stood
In many of the most popular parks, the most spectacular locations have all been photographed many times by many different masters of the craft. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try your hand at doing so. So what if it has already been shot by Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and/or David Muensch...it hasn't been shot by you. While finding a different composition or interpretation of the subject may be impossible, such locations are spots to hone your skills while having a clear idea of what a masterful image from that spot looks like. Don't be afraid to photograph it because you've already seen a picture of it before. Also consider, it may have take the masters several trips to that spot to make their masterpieces. Unless you are a professional photographer or simply visit the same park frequently, you shouldn't be discouraged because your image from location X isn't as good as someone else did. One photographer whose books I enjoy is Tim Fitzharris. In one book published in 2002, he states he's photographed at Schwabachers Landing in Grand Teton National Park eight times. In my trips to the Tetons, I've visited that spot four times and am still not completely satisfied with my shots there. Getting the best possible shot at a particular location is a matter of practice and preparation meeting the chance of perfect lighting and atmospheric conditions, a confluence unlikely in a short one time visit to a park.
Here are some examples of my 4 trips to Schwabachers Landing. I don't have images from the first because the mountains were complete obscured from view by clouds and the air above the pond was hazy. The second was still pretty cloudy. The third was midmorning with some decent light and the fourth was a sunrise with almost no clouds. While #4 and #4 are pretty good by most standards, I know I can get better and just need the right mix of clouds and sunrise to make a better photograph. Practice and persistence can pay off.
Researching a Park's Photographic Opportunities
If you are looking to plan some shots in advance, one of the best ways to get ideas is to talk or communicate with other photographers that have been to the park to which you're going. The forums of many photography sites often have boards where you can discuss the park and in my experience people try to be helpful to their fellow photographers. I also like to browse Flickr for ideas and inspiration to see what shots other photographers are taking in the park. This can be especially helpful if they have geotagged their images so you know where they were when they took the picture. This can be helpful in finding places in the park you want to see. There are also more photography guide books being written for each park. One publisher as has titles of "The Photographers Guide to..." for Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Olympic, etc. They are generally national park specific, but some are more general in nature (eg. the Photographer's Guide to the California Coast). Finally, one of the best resources at your disposal once you get to the park are the rangers. Chat up the rangers or the naturalist and pick their brain for shooting locations. They can often tell you where wildlife has most recently been spotted or let you know about various hidden gems most people don't visit. I found out about one of my favorite spots in Grand Tetons from this sort of research: an old tree not on any trail overing great views of the mountains as the back drop.
Getting the Best Light
Usually the best time to be out taking pictures is in the first hour or so after sunrise and the last hour or so before sunset. These two hours are known as the golden hours because of the warm tones produced at these times. Because the sun's angle to the horizon is very low at sunrise and sunset, the light of the sun must travel further through the atmosphere, scattering the blue wavelengths more giving a warmer tone that is great for photography. Contrast is also lower, allowing you to see deeper into shadows than you can in midday light and reducing the chance that you'll get overexposed bright areas.
Not only is this the best light of the day, you will generally be up before most other park visitors. The sites you want to photograph are much less likely to be crowded. These are also the hours in which wildlife tend to be most active, especially in the summer months when midday heat drives most wildlife into the protective shade of forests or their dens. By the time most tourists are leaving their hotels for their day, you've already got a few hours out in the field and can take a rest while the light is not so good.
There can also be subtle differences in sunrise and sunset conditions. At sunrise, winds are generally lighter, making it easier to catch reflections in still bodies of water such as ponds. Because of the lower morning temperatures, you also are more likely to get fog that can add a sense of moodiness to your images (though admittedly it can sometimes be too thick, obscuring the subject of your photo). Sunset, on the other hand, can provide dramatic sun bursts. During the course of the day, uneven heating of the earth causes winds that blow up dust into the air, an essential component to getting the rays of light affect. As winds die down at night, the dust falls out of the air.
Also learn to use the angle of light effectively. Direct light from behind you illuminates yours subject, but this head on approach also can give the subject a flatter appearance. This is why portrait photographers have their lights to the side. Side lighting reveals texture whether it is the jaggedness of a rock or the ripples of a sand dune. It adds dimensionality, whereas front lighting robs us of the small shadows that give our brain a clue to the depth in an image. It is not that front lighting is bad, it isn't. It can simply be more effective to have the sun at at 45 to 90 degree angle to your subject on either side to add a sense of depth.
Backlighting can also be used to great affect. Shooting an autumn leaf with the sun behind it can reveal the brilliance of the leaf's color essentially using the translucence as a color filter. Dramatic skies can also be captured just after sunset by point the camer to the are where the sun set and lining up some feature in the foreground that extends above the horizon (a mountain, tree or cactus). Meter the exposure for the sky and push the shutter to get a silhouette affect of the foreground against the colors in the sky. This is most effective when you have some clouds, especially high clouds, in the sky.
Your Three-legged Friend
If you are doing serious photography in the park, especially at sunrise and sunset, you probably need to have your camera on a tripod. I know some people don't like to carry them around, but in lower lighting conditions, you either have to increase the camera's ISO (and thereby noise) or risk getting blurry images. A tripod allows you to shoot at the lowest ISO settings that get you a decent shutter speed without introducing camera shake. To further reduce vibrations, when you shoot, try using a shutter release (either corded or cordless depending on your camera) or the self timer. If using a tripod, you should also deactivate any vibration reduction setting your lens may have because this can actually introduce vibrations on the tripod (though some newer lenses can detect a tripod is in use and turn themselves off).
One way to dramatically improve your images is to learn and use the elements of composition. The rules of composition don't just apply to painting, they are essential in photography too. Use things such as leading lines, S-cuves, diagonal lines, etc to lead the eye through the frame. Learn to use the rule of thirds where the subject of greatest interest is placed not dead center in the frame, but off on one of the invisible lines making the thirds of the image from right to left and top to bottom. This is especially true in landscapes when dealing with a horizon. The horizon should be either lower or higher than the center (depending on where the main subject is) to be more effective, unless you are photographing a reflection when centering the horizon makes the most sense.
Do I need a filter
This is a common question and there are many different philosophies about this. One filter people tend to hear about a lot is a "protective" filter their camera shop tries to sell them when they buy a lens. It can be a controversial subject on whether this is necessary, but really for me the best answer is "It depends." Other photographers are welcome to disagree, but I take the view that adding a UV or Skylight filter to a lens as a "protective" filter generally doesn't make much sense. You are adding another layer of glass between the camera sensor and the subject. Each layer of glass affects the microcontrast levels of light and can degrade image quality depending upon the quality of the filter. The biggest danger posed by the filter is introducing flare. Stray light that hits a lens can sometimes reflect back inside the barrel of the lens creating little trails of flecks of light in your image. Filters with no lens coatings or poor lens coatings greatly increase the chances of this. Also the protective value is minimal. If you drop the lens, it would be far better in protecting the front of the lens by having the lens hood attached than to have a simple filter on the front. The lens hood also reduces the chances of lens flare rather than adding to the chances of it.
Am I blue?
So am I saying having a UV or Skylight filter on your lens is a bad thing? No, not if it is serving the purpose for which they were designed or are serving a "protective" purpose in more limited cases. In a windy, sandy environment, or in a salty sea area, having a UV or Skylight filter on for protective purposes can make sense. Windblown sand can scratch the front element of the lens and it is far better for the scratching to occur on an easily replaced UV or Skylight filter than a lens that can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
The other time you may need to use them is in very high altitude areas. UV light gives your images a bluish cast. Most lenses this day and age have lens coatings that provide sufficient UV light filtering for lower altitudes, but if you are atop a fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park, you are in air that is much thinner, allowing more UV light to reach your camera sensor. The filter can compensate for that. Skylight filters are similar in filtering UV light, but also have an extremely subtle pink (warm) cast to them, further reducing the chances of getting bluish images. Haze filters are similar to Skylight except they have a slight yellow cast. For all practical purposes, UV, Skylight and Haze filters do the same thing and you should not overly worry about which to get other than to make sure the filter is coated (or preferably multi-coated) to reduce the chances of lens flare.
Another filter you will hear mentioned frequently is a Polarizing filter. These filters are useful in a number of ways and make an great addition to your camera bag. This is not a filter you want on the lens all the time. It is one you add only when needed. The filter reduces the amount of light going through the lens by blocking out reflected light. This has the affect of improving color saturation, deepening the blue of the sky and changing (usually removing) the reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as the water of a pond. This can let you see into the water better. The ring of the filter rotates and lets you control the amount of polarization. A turn of 90 degrees will give you all of the levels of polarization you can get with the filter. Because it reduces the amount of light getting to the lens by getting rid of most reflected light, it will increase your exposure time by a factor of between 2 and 4 times.
A couple notes about its use though: beware of using it on ultra-wide angle lenses and at high altitudes. Because of the polarizing affect of the sky, it can exacerbate or exaggerate the difference in the tones of blue when used on wide-angle lenses. The sky is not an even color of blue, but we tend not to notice it that much because our field of view is equivalent to about a 40-50mm lens. But on a wide the lens, you see more of the sky and that color difference is more apparent. Also, at higher altitudes, a polarizing filter can give the sky an unnatural black appearance. Either rotate the filter to lower the level of polarization or forgo its use all together. A polarizing filter also can serve double duty as a neutral density filter when you need to slow the shutter speed of the camera (see below).
Neutral Density and Graduated Neutral Density
A neutral density filter is a filter that evenly reduces the amount of light traveling through the filter by a specified amount. This is generally expressed in stops of light, density factor or a filter factor. If it is a one stop filter, if is having the light getting through, which in turn doubles your shutter speed. This is a density factor of 0.3 and a filter factor of 2. A two stop filter lets in one quarter of the amount of light for a density factor of 0.6 and a filter factor of 4. A three stop filter lets through 1/8 the light, has a density factor of 0.9 and a filter factor of 8.
Why would you use such a filter if all it does is extend the shutter speed? Have you ever seen a photograph of a waterfall where the water falls with a silky, graceful appearance? This usually requires a neutral density filter. The water affect is a product of shutter speed. Usually you need a shutter speed of 1/2 second or longer (usually closer to 1-2 seconds) to get the affect, but most of the time that would require using a very small aperture that can degrade overall image sharpness. While most lenses go to f/22 and most cameras have a ISO 200 setting or lower, you still, with the lowest ISO and smallest aperture, may not be able to get a slow enough shutter speed on a bright sunny day to get the silky affect. Adding neutral density to the lens is the solution. Having a one or two stop filters (or both) are most useful, but higher densities are available.
Another use, is to set up the camera on a sturdy tripod in a place with a lot of people moving around and put a very high density filter on the lens. Open the shutter and expose properly. Where did the people go? In really long exposures, the people are moving so fast, the light the camera records from them is so minimal that they disappear. This generally requires manually calculating the exposure and using the bulb setting on your camera since the shutter usually has to remain open for longer than 30 seconds.
Graduated neutral density filters, unlike the other filters talked about above, tend to be rectangular, not circular. A portion of the rectangle is completely clear while the other part has neutral density applied. The filter is classified by the type of edge between the clear and neutral density portions. There are soft edge, hard edge and reverse. Soft edge is a very gentle or fuzzy transition. Hard edge filters transition over a much shorter distance making the transition area less fuzzy. Reverse filters have a very hard edge and then start to decrease in density going up, so unlike the soft and hard edge that go clear -> light -> dark, they go clear -> dark -> light.
These filters are useful in balancing the light between the foreground and background of an image, usually between the earth and the sky. If the horizon is uneven, a soft edge works best. If the horizon is relatively level like at the Grand Canyon or are the sea shore, hard edge filters are best. If you have a level horizon and are getting the sun rising or setting near the horizon, use a reverse filter. In these scenarios, the density holds back the light from areas where the image is likely to overexpose. Have you ever had a picture with a white sky and nicely exposed foreground? Or a picture with a beautiful blue sky, but the foreground is completely black? This is the filter to use so both are properly exposed. Like plain neutral density filters, they come in varying strengths. The two and three stop versions are most useful.
These are just a sample of some things that can help improve your images as you make that trip to the parks. If you have your own photography tips for park photography, feel free to add them to the comments.