How to Take Great Photos at National Parks

Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Photography and national parks go together like peanut butter and chocolate. That might sound silly at first, but it's true.

Humans are deeply visual creatures, which is why the creation of our national parks system is directly tied to the documentary efforts of early photographers — like Carleton Watkins, whose stunning imagery of Yosemite Valley spurred President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Grant of 1864. More than 150 years later, the work of photographers continues to play a pivotal role in inspiring the masses to feel a deeper connection and appreciation of their natural surroundings.

One photographer who understands this quite well is Chris Nicholson, who makes it a priority to visit and shoot at several national parks every year. In his new book, "Photographing National Parks," Nicholson guides readers through the best ways to plan and shoot in a diverse variety of national park environments, from dry deserts and swampy marshlands to temperate rainforests and rugged coastlines.

Whether you're looking to shoot iconic, sweeping vistas, or more off-the-beaten-path scenes, the book doesn't miss a beat. Continue below to read an interview with Nicholson and see more of his sigh-worthy national park photography.

Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Treehugger: Tell us a little bit about your background and photography career — what inspired you to pick up a camera for the first time and what led you to focus on national parks?

Chris Nicholson: At least in some respects, my road to both photography and the parks started with my father. My dad was a serious amateur photographer, and he also had a love of nature that he passed on to all of us. Other people were influential, too. My mom, of course, as she was the other half of the team that brought my siblings and me on countless camping trips as kids. My uncle was a professional photojournalist, and a good family friend was a career wedding photographer. I was exposed to all of this while growing up, so I suppose it's no surprise that I ended up photographing and writing about national parks.

Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

You've visited many national parks over the years, but are there some parks that stand out as your personal favorites?

Absolutely. I always tell people that there are no bad national parks for photography, just those that suit your style and your interests better than others. For me, Acadia and Olympic top the list. Both are along the ocean and have their similarities, but are also vastly different — not just from each other, but from all the other parks, as well. I love their unique coastlines and the aesthetic variations that they offer inland.

Everglades is also a favorite, though it can be frustrating for landscapes — it really makes you work for them. But something about the primal nature of the Everglades environment really draws me in. The wildlife, the raw aesthetic of the land, the fierce summer storms. I just find it all fascinating.

And Yellowstone needs to be toward the top of any photographer's list. It has a lot of things that photographers love to aim lenses at wildlife, wildflowers, mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and, of course, the geothermal features.

Shenandoah National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Do you have a photo that you're particularly proud of capturing?

Gosh, I don't know. I know it's cliché to say, but I really am my harshest critic. There are very, very few photos I've ever made that I can't find flaws in. I imagine it's annoying to hear me talk about one of my images because I can envision someone liking it until I start explaining everything that's wrong with it.

One that stands out is actually one of the simplest I've done, which is ironic because lately, I've been trying to create more complex compositions. I was in Shenandoah in the fall of 2014, photographing in Big Meadows in the morning fog. I'd spent the whole morning just meandering any which way, following the wildlife trails through the meadows, making abstracts with the shapes of trees and rocks and such. I couldn't see more than about 30 feet away, so before long I really had no idea which way was north or south—I was completely lost in the fog, except for the knowledge that I could walk no more than a half-mile in any direction and come upon one edge of the meadow. As I was out there, just for a moment the sun started to peek through the fog. I turned around with my camera and tripod and composed a very simple scene of the fog, the small sun, and the red blueberry bushes on the meadow floor (seen above).

I like it because it's just different enough from what I usually do to feel interesting to me, and also because of the quiet morning that it reminds me of. I find there is generally very little correlation between photos I liked making and photos people like looking at, but in this case, those two traits seem to meet, and I've been happy about that.

Acadia National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Tell us a little bit about your new book, "Photographing National Parks." What motivated you to write it, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

Funny story — it started as an accident. I was delivering a lecture in New York City, and the host introduced me by saying I was writing a book about photographing national parks. The thing is, I wasn't. But in a friendly meeting a few days later, I told that "funny story" to a publisher I work with, and he turned to me and said, absolutely serious, "Chris, that's a great idea for a book."

While thinking over the next few days, I recognized it as an opportunity to immerse myself in a project I would love working on, which is always a dream for anyone in a creative field. The structure and ideas for the content all came to me very quickly over the next week or two. It was one of those rare moments in life when what feels like the "right path" just lays itself out in front of you.

Once actually working on the book, I tried to write in a way that made me want to visit and photograph each of the parks, in the hope that it would have the same effect on someone who was reading it. If I got excited after writing about a park, then I knew I probably got it right.

The reason I wanted to write it that way is to inspire others. There are amateur photographers who think shooting a national park is beyond their reach, and there are even pros who default to the belief that they will never shoot a park because they don't have the types of clients who will send them there. I want both those groups and anyone else who thinks like that, to know they can do this. Making a photo trip to a national park is within anyone's reach. It is possible, it is doable. Moreover, there is no way it won't stretch your creativity and improve your art, and no way it won't be one of the prime experiences of your life.

Olympic National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

What is an important thing that many photographers overlook or neglect when planning a photo-centric trip to a national park?

Adequate planning and research. Sure, you can just jump into a park for a week without knowing anything about it, and that can be an exciting way to explore. But if you research the park ahead of time, you'll know better what the hits and misses are, and you won't waste time with the latter once on site. Know the “hot spots” for photographers, and whether you want to cover them or avoid them. Know where and when the light is best, and where the good spots are for rainy days. Know what time the lake surfaces are still, or where to find the caribou herd, or when the moon will be full, or where the sun will rise. All of this knowledge will make your experience and your photography more productive and more enjoyable.

Everglades National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

As a tool for conservation, photography is widely touted as being directly responsible for the creation of many of our country's most beloved national parks. What does conservation photography mean to you and your work?

Well, I think photography was only one catalyst, but it was an important one. You're right that photographers are very visible as proponents of conservation, which is evidence of the power of the medium. They're just as important to environmentalism as a photojournalist can be to history. In terms of national parks, I think photography played an important role in the early days because it allowed a relatively stationary populace to see the real beauty that could be lost if proactive measures were not taken to save it. Nowadays we're better traveled, but maybe photography can still convey that beauty to people who just forgot.

In terms of my work, I'm sure I'm not at a point where my photography has any influence or impact on people's opinions about conservation. And that's OK. I just try to document and convey the beauty of these places, these pockets of nature the way it all once was. To me, the parks are kind of a window through time, through which we can see what the whole world used to look like before we overpopulated and overdeveloped it. A national park is like an oasis in the desert of society. The most I can hope to influence at this point is that maybe my book will cause just a few someones to appreciate the parks or wilderness in a way they didn't before, and to get out and create their own photography that further spreads that appreciation, or just to explore nature and discover how invigorating it can be.

Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Is there a national park you're less familiar with that you would like to spend more time shooting in the future?

I'm a big proponent, from an artistic standpoint, of revisiting places so that you really get to know them. For example, I've photographed Acadia about ten times now—I say "about" because I've honestly lost count. Studying and photographing a place in different seasons, different weather, different light, and so on allows you to really get to the bottom of what a park is and how to best portray it to others. But still, I also love to explore, and visiting a new place is like giving a shot of adrenalin to the creative mind.

That's a very long way of saying that yes, I would love to visit some parks that haven't been on my regular itinerary. One that really stands out is Lassen Volcanic, particularly for the landscapes in the northwest section of the park. Great Sand Dunes, North Cascades and Kings Canyon are also calling to me, and I very much want to get back to Redwoods soon. And Alaska—I intend to spend an entire summer there, a couple of weeks in each of its parks, sometime before I die. I don't care if someone hires me to go or not, that's bucket-list for me and my cameras.

Oh, Haleakala, too. And Gates of the Arctic. And Theodore Roosevelt. Seriously, this is like asking a toddler which candy she'd like to eat next.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)

Now that your book is out, are there any new projects, trips or other endeavors on the horizon?

I do have another few books scheduled out for the next five years, but right now I'm very much looking forward to 2016 and the centennial celebration of the National Park Service. I'm hoping I can get around a bit and talk to even more people about the parks and photography. I think it will be an exciting time for our country in terms of more people becoming aware of, or becoming re-aware of, the real gift that our parks are. I wouldn't be at all surprised if all 59 national parks achieve record attendance next year.

That would be exciting not just for its own sake, but also because perhaps it will inspire the additional support needed to get Washington to recommit the funds necessary to keep these places preserved the way they should be.

Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)
Shenandoah National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)
Badlands National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)
Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Chris Nicholson)