Do Your Homework
Preparing for Your Photographic Journey
By Mark Sweeney
Those of us who are not professional photographers dream of turning our hobby and passion into a career. We romanticize the life of a professional and seldom think of the time, expense and days away from our homes and families that are required in order to be successful on a commercial basis. So, most of us compact our time capturing images into a few outings, vacations or the occasional get-away each year. This minimizes our opportunities to obtain that perfect image and makes it a necessity that we get the most out of our trips. To maximize the use of your precious time you need to do some homework before you go. In this article I’ll cover some of the easy steps you can take to be prepared for that next excursion. I’ve written this piece with national and state parks in mind but you can apply it to other areas of interest you may have as well.
Fortunately, for today’s photographer there are almost limitless sources of information to prepare for your trip. Here are a few thoughts on where to go to gather the data that will make your next photographic expedition as efficient and enjoyable as possible.
The amount of information on the internet is vast and potentially overwhelming. Sources of inspiration specific to the display of images run the gamut from sites like Flickr to more specialized sites with concentrations on distinct types of photography – from black & white to HDR. Do a few simple searches and an entire universe of photography will open up to you. Utilize these sites to search for images that have a look you like and allow that to become a creative springboard for developing a style of your own. Look for images of the unusual – things not normally photographed by the casual tourist. Save the ones you really like as favorites so you can refer back to them. You can often find more information on these sites such as specifics of where and when shots were taken as well as what equipment was used. Make the person who took the photo a “contact” (where you can) so you can readily refer back to their work and even have on-line conversations with them. I’ve found that fellow photographers, in general, are very much open to sharing their stories and tips when asked. So go ahead and ask – you might come away with a tip that nets you an image that you will never forget. The goal is not to duplicate something you see in someone else’s work but to find something that will inspire you to think outside the box when it comes to perspective, lighting, composure, etc. Be original and you will be happier with the outcome. This is especially important in national and state parks where billions of photos are taken each year. Finding something that has not been photographed is very difficult but taking your own spin on it can be done.
There are also huge treasure troves of information available on the web for unusual places and things to photograph – from architecture to gardens to landscapes. Use these sources of information to look for opportunities to capture something less cliche than the sights most tourists are fond of for snapshots. Or, look for more interesting points from which to take an image of something that is commonly photographed from a certain perspective. Don’t let the roadside pull-off dictate your photo ops. Get off the beaten path and explore but, be certain to keep your safety on your mind at all times – natural and state parks and even city settings offer plenty of opportunities for the absent minded or the risk taking types to put themselves in harm’s way. Also, obey the rules of the park or other area you are in and stay out of restricted places and do not damage flora and fauna.
Sites specific to national and state parks are also very useful. Explore not just the official sites but ancillary sites that concentrate on that park and are often run by individuals and organizations with a zeal for these treasures. Here you find people who are more than willing to share their knowledge of an area. Even checking chamber of commerce sites can net you some good information and advice.
Online maps will help you get the lay of the land and help you in determining how much ground you can reasonably cover in a given day. They can also give you a general idea of where the light might be best for a specific feature. But, maps can also be a little simplistic so you’ll need to do some more research rather than depending only on a map for this crucial information. Advice on hiking opportunities is usually very useful in terms of determining difficulties of certain trails and the amount of time you will need to dedicate to a venture. You will find this information will allow you to snoop out the unusual – things the drive through tourist will never see.
The first three shots in this section were taken on the trail to and from Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah. I had read a number of reviews on-line that amped up my enthusiasm for doing this hike. It was a harrowing climb and not one I would likely take again due to my fear of heights. But, I must say, the hike was 1,000% worth the unbelievable views from the top and the trip back down was less petrifying than the climb up – go figure. Had I not seen some of the inspiring photos I found on the web I would likely not have taken this hike as it consumes a large part of a day and my itinerary was packed for my whole time in Zion – not to mention my acrophobia.
One of the inspirations for the first photo below were the views I’ve seen of various river scenes in parks of the west with a dramatic turn in a river around huge rock outcrops – such as in Canyonlands National Park. I’d seen such beautiful landscapes on park web sites, on photo sharing sites such as Flickr, and on the sites of people and organizations who have an undying love for a particular park or natural area. This picture was taken from the summit of Angel’s Landing and was captured with the intent to show the scale and height from which it was taken by making the road on the river valley floor very visible and by including the parking spaces for large buses in the lower left hand corner. Here, it is important to compose the image to convey to the viewer the distance to the valley floor and how large the formations are. It’s a long way down!
This is another shot taken from the summit looking back to the high country of Zion with a lone hiker in the background to emphasize both scale and the feeling of being alone at the end of the hike (even though many others had made the same trek and were milling about behind me when I took this shot). Getting such an image takes a little patience. Take your time to get the scene just right – it’s worth the effort.
The following image was taken while descending from Angel’s Landing and takes advantage of the light at that time of day (late morning) to capture a view down the valley floor and includes some of the massive rock formations that dominate the park. Doing a little research ahead of time allowed me to time the descent to obtain the best shots – timing is everything in Zion. The main part of the park has such a deep canyon that ideal lighting is limited and doesn’t always include the “golden hours” I would normally wish for – sometimes the best light is at mid-day, a time not normally known for offering prime photographic opportunities. Knowing the best time to take each hike can help you obtain the optimal shots for each feature of the park. Also, having some good filters will help you take some great photos – graduated neutral density filters are very helpful in settings such as this.
Coral Pink Sands State Park near Zion N.P. is a little known natural wonder well off the beaten track. It gets few visitors because of its location and also because not that many people know about it. By just doing a little online research about things to see in the southern Utah region I turned up this little gem. It was also mentioned in a guide book I cover in the next section. The park has acres of gorgeous coral colored sand dunes with beautiful views of the White and Vermilion Cliffs in the background. This area can be very windy so taking care of your camera is paramount. Best photo ops are early morning or late in the day. In June the park is covered in beautiful flowers but I was too early to catch that sight. This shot was taken very late in the afternoon when the light was just right to bring out the gorgeous tones of the sand and the sky while providing dramatic light for casting shadows.
Here, again, the amount of information is massive and almost unlimited. Good sources are photography magazines, travel guides, books on parks or other areas of interest, and even biographies of famous photographers. Before a recent trip to Utah to see Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks I visited my local library and found an excellent guide specific to that area of the state written with the photographer as the primary focus. The book, Photographing the Southwest Volume 1 – A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah, by Laurent Martres 1 , proved invaluable on my trip by allowing me to organize my time with a primary mission of finding unusual and beautiful things to photograph. The book is very well written and full of great advice. Let me state at the outset that I have no connection to the author of this book or the publisher – I simply found this guide to be the most useful of all the ones I read prior to my trip. The guide goes into great detail about each national park, and many other state parks and natural areas within the geographic confines of its title. The author suggests the best hikes to take and best places to look for photographic opportunities that aren’t like the 99% of photos taken by people who whiz through one park on the way to another.
The book also has a very handy guide in the back that summarizes attractions in each park or natural area by its scenic value, photographic value, and road and/or trail difficulty. The ratings run from the mundane to world class. I found this to be extremely useful in prioritizing my time in each park which, unfortunately, I was limited to 2-3 days each. In my opinion this kind of rating system should be used more often to help users separate the great from the merely good.
Another thing this book offers is input on the best time of day to be in specific areas of the park for the optimal light. Zion, for example, has very deep canyons and very different, open up-country areas. Knowing when the most opportune time was to be in each area was very useful in setting an itinerary for each day.
As an example of the usefulness of this information, I knew to be near the formation in Zion called The Watchman late in the day for the most dramatic light. But, also, I knew that just taking an image from the side of the road would not allow for the best perspective. One of the common overlook trails to view this site offers little in the way of foreground subjects. As suggested in the book, hiking down a little trail toward the Virgin River allowed for a more interesting perspective with a foreground of greenery against the majesty of the massive rock faces. Luckily for me, there was some bad weather rolling in at the end of the day, near sunset, and I was rewarded with a spectacle I never anticipated as shown in the photo below. This shot was probably the most dramatic capture of the entire trip and a personal favorite.
In the photo below I captured the light from the setting sun over the Amphitheatre at Bryce Canyon National Park. All the views from the road and parking areas look pretty much to the east from the west so here you will find good light mainly near sunrise and sunset. Otherwise, the formations look flat and less interesting. Take the time to hike down into the canyon during mid-day for some wonderful sights you cannot see from the viewing areas on the rim of the canyon and use your time at the beginning and end of the day to photograph down into the canyon from the rim. Mr. Martres’ book advised that both Sunset Point and Sunrise Point can supply great lighting during the golden hours at either end of the day so I knew not to limit myself to just the obvious choice. A walk along the rim trail provided majestic views from both points at sunrise and sunset.
In the following photo I was fortunate to get a break in the weather to photograph the landscape of Capitol Reef National Park near sunset with the cliffs of the “reef” in the background as well as some beautiful coloration in the storm clouds that were beginning to clear. Information in Laurent Martres book gave me enough of an idea of where to be to take advantage of the fading light to get a dramatic shot.
In the photo below I was able to capture some dramatic shadows on the rock formations near sunset along Highway 24, which bisects the park. This formation is known as The Castle and is pictured in Mr. Martres’ book. His shot is wider and was taken at dawn. Here again, timing is everything as the formations look flat at mid-day. Knowing that views from this state highway would also provide excellent subject matter late in the day made it a focus of my time one evening on the way to the park. This view is tighter than the one in the book with a little more emphasis on the eroded rock lower in the photograph. Here, again, you should try to find a little different perspective to make your shots a bit more original – not always an easy thing to do in such a popular park.
Below is a beautiful natural stone arch identified on the park map as Hickman Bridge. Many visitors to parks have only a limited amount of time to spend there so commonly do that all behind the wheel with the occasional break at a road side pull-off. Some of the most beautiful features in these parks require a hike or walk to enjoy. Unless you did a little more research you might not think this was such an inspiring sight. Taking the time to do some searching for information ahead of time pays off.
This is an interesting formation in Capitol Reef N.P. that I could not find on any maps, including the park map available to visitors. The pyramidal shape of the rock with the somewhat circular shape of the large black rocks in the foreground give the picture a geometric look. This formation was mentioned and pictured in Mr. Martres’ book and was well worth the effort to seek it out. Here again, timing is important to get the light just right. An interesting note – the large rocks in the foreground are different than in Mr. Martres’ image – some have gone missing and I assume it’s someone’s idea of a good time to mess with what nature created (some people have no common sense or decency, I guess).
This photo was the result of simply taking a hike and discovering on my own a magnificent vista of part of Capitol Reef N.P. with very interesting rocks in the foreground. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Checkerboard Mesa in Zion N.P. is a very interesting formation with both vertical and horizontal cracks on its face. It is in the upland plateau area of Zion which is much more open. Mr. Martres recommends that the best light is from mid-morning till mid-afternoon with the sun on the left. Due to my side trip to Coral Pink Sands State Park I was passing the mesa later in the afternoon but the photo opportunity was still there because of storm clouds in the area. Sunlight was breaking through and it bathed the mesa in good light for this shot, emphasizing the cracked surface.
The last photo in this section was taken in early evening along the Kolob Canyon overlook road in a separate section of Zion National Park. Many visitors to Zion skip this area and concentrate on the main canyon area. Missing this area of the park would be a shame as it offers stunning scenery. I knew to make this area a must-see on my drive from Salt Lake City to Springdale on arriving in Utah. If you go to Zion take the time to visit this area as well. But do some research – the rock faces along the main drive are best viewed at the end of the day but there are trails into the canyons that take you to interesting features that are best captured in the morning.
Person to Person
Often you will find the best tips come directly from others – your friends, acquaintances, people you meet on your trip, rangers at parks and so forth. I find that a great many park rangers love to take photographs and are happy to give their advice for best places to capture a shot. As an example, a ranger at Capitol Reef National Park told me that the light in the early evening is beautiful for photographing a barn and horses against the backdrop of the wonderful stone formations in the area. This adds a little of the human element to the stunning beauty of nature.
The following shot was taken after receiving input from returning hikers about some small pools on the trail I was on in Capitol Reef N.P. If you see someone with a camera on the trails take the opportunity to ask about what they saw further up the trail and if they have any recommendations. You never know what you might learn. There are likely many interesting things to capture other than what may be the main focus at the end of a trail.
While in the Kolob Canyon area of Zion I stumbled across a car being photographed for a magazine article and calendar. I am a bit of an old car nut so this was a lucky find for me. The owner of the car and the professional photographer were very friendly and gladly let me take a few shots of the car with the gorgeous backdrop of the mountains. They knew what they were doing as it was a perfect setting for the stunningly restored Camaro. Chatting up the photographer led me to some great tips he used on lighting when in outdoor settings like this. Not everyone is so forthcoming but it never hurts to try to strike up a conversation.
I hope you found some of this information useful. I have been doing increasing amounts of research over the years to prepare for trips and it’s allowed me to take many more interesting photos. A lot of this is possible as a result of the explosion of information now so readily available. Have a good system set up to contain all the information you gather and make sure it’s easy to access. You can put this information on your phone or even do it the old fashioned way (like I do) by writing it in a handy sized journal you can carry with you. It’s all about having fun though, so don’t overdo it or tie yourself down too closely to an itinerary. Enjoy your surroundings and get out there and start clicking!
1Photographing the Southwest – Volume 1- A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah by Laurent Martes. Published by PhotoTripUSA, an imprint of Graphie International, Inc., Alta Loma, CA. Copyright 2002-2006
About Mark Sweeney
Mark Sweeney is 60 years old and retired from a long career in finance. Since his retirement he has been able to spend more time on his favorite hobby – photography. Mark’s equipment consists of Nikon digital cameras along with Nikon and Tamron lenses. Favorite photography opportunities are at U.S. National Parks, especially those in the west. Most of his vacations are planned with photography in mind and he spends a great deal of time researching the areas he will be visiting. Post capture processing is done in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom as well as in OnOne Software Perfect Photo Suite and Photomatix Pro (for HDR work).
You can see more of Mark’s work here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/