Take Great National Park Photos

Are you ready to take great National Park photos?

We know how important it is to capture your vacation memories. We also know how frustrating it can be to get a photo ‘just-right.’ That’s why we’re teaming up with National Park Patch Lady, Sandra Ramos, for some lessons on how to take better national park photos! Sandra has been featured on our list of Top National Park Instagram Accounts to Follow. Right now, you can see her work on display at an exhibit at the Biscayne National Park Dante Fascell Visitor Center Gallery. Check out Sandra’s final post in our series and start asking yourself: Are you ready to take great national park photos?

 Yosemite National Park - Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos
Yosemite National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Welcome to the final installment of this series! Hopefully you’ve read a few nuggets along the way that have moved you forward into taking better National Park photographs. 

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the most important takeaways from this whole series are:

  • To know your gear inside and out.
  • Use a tripod
  • scout your scenes
  • be patient, take your time to practice
  • and get out of your comfort zone to get up early and stay up late. 

Before every outing, you should always do your research and check with each park on what the rules are for photography, either via their website or check in with a ranger when you arrive. Some parks don’t allow tripods, some close areas at sunset, and most require permits for commercial photography (if you are shooting for anything other than personal use.) Make sure you know before you go, because showing up and not knowing is a big bummer.

Dry Tortugas National Park Brick Archway
Dry Tortugas National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Also sometimes (and I’m not naming names!) when you’re talking with ranger about your love of photography, for our parks, and are genuinely curious, occasionally you might get really cool access with a behind the scenes tour or go to an area inaccessible to the general public. These are very rare and never asked for but amazingly special gifted occasions. When these occur, I ensure I have permission to photograph and/or post on social media when given these extraordinary opportunities (of which I am always super grateful.)

On to some of the fun stuff.

Where to take awesome photographs in our National Parks. 

Scouting a park is always going to be one of the most important things you can do to improve your photography, and is just a little different from just looking at the map and deciding where to go and what to see. As Chris Nicholson explained in the second part of this series, scouting is a necessary aspect of great photography. Things to take into consideration when putting your plan together are the time of year, time of day or night, and direction of celestial objects. Don’t forget to ask your local friendly park ranger where their favorite part of the park is!

Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Scouting A Scene

When deciding how to shoot a scene, dig in a little bit about the placement of objects: where will the sun will be – is it a golden or blue hour? How will the light and shadows play into how you photograph the scene? Is the scene better for sunrise or sunset? Consider what your foreground will be – a rock, tree, or other formation? Will there be movement or motion to capture, like a waterfall, lake, car lights or star trails? Your primary focus will be how the light affects the scene you’re scouting.

Grand Teton National Park - Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos
Grand Teton National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Look for leading lines

Next, spend some time on how to compose your shot. Look for leading lines to draw people into a scene. Some of my favorite shots are long stretches of road opening up to a gorgeous mountain range. Are you following the rule of thirds or centering your image? Will you take the shot at eye level, or get down on the ground and shoot low? As a general rule, I often shoot every scene both vertical and horizontal as well, so I don’t have to crop the photo later (and potentially lose image quality.) 

Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Not every shot has to be a sweeping vista either.

Spend some time focusing on the details with a macro lens. Alternatively, find ways to show perspective, for instance line up a friend near giant sequoias. Look for often overlooked details to make your photography unique and be open to interesting perspectives that aren’t just your normal iconic shot.

Flowers with bees, Chicksaw National Recreation Area
Shot with a macro lens in Chickasaw National Recreation Area – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Shooting smaller parks can be tricky, but look for items and scenes that make the park stand out. One of my favorite shots from Maggie L Walker National Historic Site in Virginia, a smaller park site, is still the personal safe of Maggie L. Walker because it is such a powerful way to tell the story of this amazing woman and why we protect her story through this NPS site.

Maggie L Walker National Historic Site – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Interesting architecture

I also really enjoy photographing interesting doors and hallways at forts or other architecturally interesting sites. Another cool idea is done by my friend Ranger Gary (IG: @thetravelingranger) where he makes Park Squares comprised of four photos merged into a square for each park he visits. 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Suggestions for off the beaten path photo ops in our national park sites

Our parks are full of wonder and it shouldn’t be difficult to find something to photograph while you’re out there. But maybe you’re looking for some ideas on where to find unique photo ops? Here’s a short crowdsourced list from the folks who have been there:

Gabe Biderman @ruinism: Dry Tortugas; Cinder Cone hike at Lassen National Park; and Valley of the Sun and Moon at Capital Reef National Park.

Rachael M. @backbacktocalicali: troll bridge on the Little River Trail in Great Smokey Mountains National Park;

Chris Nicholson @photographingnationalparks: Gates of the Arctic mountains in Gates of the Arctic National Park; wilderness area basin of Haleakala National Park, and the Kabetogama Peninsula in Voyaguers National Park;

Tim Cooper @timcooperphotography: A stunning shot of the Narrows in Zion National Park; Backlit Icebergs in Kenai Fjords National Park; and truly great sunset picture from the Mesquite dunes in Death Valley;

Park Ranger Gary Bremen @thetravelingranger: Jones Lagoon, Biscayne National Park;

Some of my personal favorites:

The 8 mile road on Cumberland Island National Seashore; sunsets at Joshua Tree National Park; Running Eagle/Trick Falls at Glacier National Park; any fort with great arches or architecture; and the Tennessee Valley/Marin Headlands of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Oh, and grounds at Martin Van Buren National Historical Site. And sunrises at Everglades Nine Mile Pond or the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Maybe the epic sunrise spots at Haleakala or Acadia…you get the point.

Cumberland Island National Seashore – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

In summary…

There are fantastic photography opportunities everywhere.

Don’t just take the ones off the side of the road. Follow other photographers on social media that you admire or want to learn from. Go out, explore your parks (even the smaller sites!), and create a great image.

I hope this series has been helpful and feel free to reach out with any questions you might have about taking better National Park photos. I’d like to thank everyone for their amazing input and to Park Chasers for this cool opportunity.

Happy shooting and hope to see you out on the trails!

Sandra Ramos, the National Park Patch Lady

About Sandra Ramos

Sandra Ramos, also known as the National Park Patch Lady on your local social media channels, is a seeker, avid roadtrippper, self-taught photographer, and Park Ranger groupie based in Fort Worth, Texas. Her day job as the education coordinator at Fort Worth Camera allows her to not only assist others in taking awesome photos but also to daydream about photo gear and future travels. You can follow her on Instagram at @nationalparkpatchlady.

Read the rest of the series on How to Take Great National Park Photos:

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Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 130/423
Next Stop: @hawaiivolcanoes


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