Etiquette for Taking Photos in National Parks

There are few better places to take pictures than in a National Park. And, if you’ve been to a park recently you many have seen a lot of people taking a lot of pictures! However, quantity does not equal quality. With a little thoughtfulness around how you approach the art and technique of photography you will be surprised not only with the quality of your shots but also with your relations with other park visitors, the animals that live in the park, and the feeling you may develop for your subject matter.

Here are a few tips to improve your experience and your pictures.

Photographers at sunrise near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park.

Photographers at sunrise near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park.

1. Share the Trail

Step to the side of the trail when you are taking pictures and always be considerate of other park visitors. Also at times you may find yourself at a crowded lookout or somewhere with limited space. Take a few pictures and step aside to share with others. This gesture will make you feel just as good as the person who gets to step forward and take their picture from a better perspective.

elk and photographer

Photographers shooting at a distance from wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. See also this Complete Guide to Yellowstone National Park.

2. Respect the Wildlife

Be a polite visitor and don’t disturb the animals. This is their home. If they keep looking at you or start to move away from you then it is likely they feel nervous about your presence. If you do not have a long zoom lens to get a good picture, then consider including the environment as part of your composition to show the animal’s habitat or use a setting on your camera that will tighten up the pixels (like a painting) and capture an unusual aspect.

Fading light requires a good tripod. Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

Fading light requires a good tripod. Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

3. Turn the Flash Off

Make sure you turn off your flash. Animals and people do not like to be flashed. And most people never keep outdoor pictures they took with a flash. Your best bet in low light is a small tripod which will fit in your pack or the use of the camera timer. When you use the timer it is like having a tripod if you place the camera on a rock or a bench. It will be still when the shutter opens and closes. This tripod is a good rental option as it is lighter and enables you to walk farther into the park.

ToGlacier Point walk in front of massive Half Dome.

Glacier Point in front of Half Dome. See also this Complete Guide to Yosemite.

4. Return the Shot

It is OK to ask strangers to take a picture of you with your group, and it is also polite to offer to take a picture of them in return. Some international travelers are shy about asking Americans to take their picture, so it is an easy gesture of international peace to offer to take their picture.

5. Check the Permit

In general, you do not need a permit for still photography or personal filming; you do need a permit for commercial filming and still photography that uses models, props, or sets. Many parks have an assigned park official who handles the commercial filming and photography permits. They are usually in the department with CUAs (Commercial Use Authorizations). If you are still concerned or confused, call your local land management agency, park administration or National Park visitor center, who can transfer you to the right person.

Tips for Better Pictures in National Parks

Off-road vehicle and photographer

Store your settings notes and camera manuals for offline use on your phone.

1. Read the Manual

If you do not know where it is anymore almost all cameras have their manuals uploaded to the web and most likely you can download a PDF to read on your computer or tablet (or even your phone!). I’ve guided many trips in National Parks and see incredible cameras all the time. Some people simply don’t know how to use them.

2. Chase the Light

In National Parks, the best pictures are generally taken early in the morning or in the low-angle sun afternoon hours around sunset.

The Sun: A Photographer’s Ultimate Lighting Source

3. Explore Your Settings

When you confront the splendor and really want to save the image, don’t just take one shot. Take three, five, or 15 shots on different settings. I personally like to explore the painting and panorama settings, or the macro setting for taking close-up shots of tiny things. The extra digital images can be easily discarded and usually one picture easily emerges as the ‘best’ shot!

Explore some of the auto and semi-auto settings of your camera.

Explore some of the auto and semi-auto settings of your camera.

Figure out what the HDR setting is on your camera or phone. It is great for landscape shots. As long as your subject matter is not moving, using this setting will vastly improve the range of light that your camera will capture…and the resulting pictures will be closer to what your eye sees than what a camera usually records.

4. Have Fun with Your Camera!

Try long exposures, full moon shots, set the timer and put the camera on the ground or a fence, find a new setting and experiment. While you’re experimenting with your camera you may see lots of things in the park that you otherwise may have missed.

Cover Image: Grand Teton National Park

John Baston is an Alaska adventure expert for Mountain Travel Sobek and a former National Park ranger who worked for the National Park Service in Yosemite, Glacier Bay, Mount Rainier, Kenai Fjords, Point Reyes and the Golden Gate. The wilderness is where he feels most at home and, in addition to being a world-class guide, John is also an avid photographer.

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