Archived Articles
 Archved Information
 Sinclairification by Grant Sinclair

What you need on that long trip to a national park

15 Sep 2009

This summer, I took a road trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and, of course, I took my camera along for the ride. I literally took more than a thousand pictures with typically mixed results. Some of the shots I tried turned out great, some did not. But I learned some great lessons while I was out there.

1) Remember: if you are going to shoot anything professionally, you must fill out a form with the National Park Service and pay the respective fees. The application is a $100 fee and at least $50 per day to take pictures in the park. If you show up with professional gear, expect the Park Service to ask you about it.

2) Scout your sunrise shot ahead of time. Never rely upon a guidebook to tell you where your best shot is. I decided to take some sunrise shots of the Grand Teton Range from a pass to the east. The view was gorgeous, but setting up a tripod on the side of the road in the twilight was not fun and the shot was better farther in, but I lost that awesome light as I came down from the pass.

3) Take the smallest camera bag you can fit 75% of your gear in. You can bring additional gear, but leave the heavy stuff in the car. Unless you plan on spending several hours in the back country, dragging a huge camera bag with cumbersome equipment will become very dreary very fast. Remember: enjoy yourself!

I suggest a small shoulder bag or waist bag with two to four lenses. And unless you are heading to a remote perch to shoot wildlife, leave your 10-pound snub-nosed bazooka-style lens in the car. The extra weight will make it much harder to be nimble and much harder to switch lenses, etc., while you are moving.

4) Pay attention to the other drivers. If you see a gaggle of people pulled over on the side of the road with cameras out, pull over. But after your fifth time pulling over for a single buffalo, you will start to get a bit choosy. Once you are out shooting, however, try to move away from the group to get a different shot. Just be careful not to corner an animal.

This has applications for all of your shots. A lot of the overlooks are there because they are the best viewing angle for a particular feature, but don’t be satisfied. Unless it specifically says otherwise, feel free to get off the beaten path and look for a unique angle.

5) This may seem like a “duh” tip, but if you are pulled over taking pictures, be sure you turn the car off! I was shooting a buffalo herd at sunset from 10 feet away. I could not safely get out of the car, so I was shooting from the passenger window. I was getting some great shots, but looked down to check them and saw they were a bit blurry. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized the car was still on.

6) Take a digital photo wallet with you. Bill has a link on his Web site to one that is just great! It downloads a full 4 GB memory card in about two minutes. Keep it in your camera bag. It is worth sacrificing a lens to have that with you. The moment you fill a card, provided you are not in the middle of action, take a few minutes to download it and reformat it. That keeps your back up memory cards handy for when you see something really exciting. The more shots you can take of something, the more likely of you getting that one awesome shot.

7) Understand the limitations of your equipment (and your budget) versus your conditions. For example, while in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone NP, I came upon a gaggle of people with spotting scopes, etc. They were observing a wolf pack at a distance of more than three quarters of a mile. My piddly old 75-300mm had no chance of even getting close to the wolf cubs and I knew it. A snub-nosed bazooka would have been nice (EF 800mm), but the $11,000 price tag is a bit steep. So, I never got the shot.

8) Having a good zoom lens, however, is paramount when you go to a park like Yellowstone or Grand Teton. The wildlife there is like nowhere else in the US. I would have given a lot to have had about 200mm more zoom on some of the shots, but I also know that would have come at the cost of a lot of weight and money. I am looking into getting a teleconverter and a new zoom. I will let you know how it turns out.

9) When taking long shots without a monopod or tripod, sit down or lean against something solid. Think of shooting a camera like shooting a gun: the longer away the shot, the more you have to steady your aim. If you are using a lens that is too big to be hand-held, use a monopod for shooting wildlife. While a tripod is far more stable, it is also much more difficult to relocate when the animal moves, as they are oft to do.

10) Shoot in RAW format only, especially when shooting wildlife. Being able to adjust the photos in RAW conversion will give you so much flexibility when you need to shoot on the fly. It also preserves a digital negative which does not lose image data when you open and close it, like the jpeg format does. When you save your images, save them first into tiff or another lossless format.

11) If you are shooting scenery shots, remember to take a picture of the sign before you start shooting (click the link and read about the "establishing shot"). It will make it a lot easier to remember where you got that “awesome shot.”

12) Talk to the rangers about where to find wildlife and what times to find them. Be prepared to be up at dawn and to eat an early dinner so you can go back out at dusk, since that is when the animals are most active.

13) When taking scenery pictures, remember to get something in the foreground to give the shot perspective. Your camera cannot hope to adequately capture the vastness of a place like Yellowstone or Grand Teton, so you have to build in some way for your viewers to understand the scope of what they are seeing.

14) I loved my EF-S 10-22mm lens. It was amazing to use. I was able to take a picture of an entire rainbow, end to end,  with it. Having a wide angle zoom in a place like that is essential.

15) Be prepared to improvise. I broke my tripod head somewhere along the way and when I went out to take sunrise pictures of the lower falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; I had to set up on a flat piece of rock with my cable release. It worked just fine and the framing I got was good. Then the fog rolled in, completely obscuring any of that awesome light at dawn. I ended up using the shots for black and white photos and they turned out great.

One last tip on taking pictures on your next trip to a national park: find a way to share them without boring your viewers. I tend to post a handful of my best photos on Facebook, which works very well. Also, you can create a photo book via Snapfish or other photo Web sites. I was very impressed with the end product and now I have a bound, hardcover record of the very best photos from my trip.

Enjoy your next trip and take more pictures!

Grant Sinclair is an amateur photographer and was a newspaper reporter/photographer for eight years.

© 2009

Thank you for reading.  If you have something to add to this article, please click here to go to the Contact page and select “Contributing to an article” from the drop down menu.  Please enter the article title in the message field so your addition goes to the correct article.  Thank you for your contribution!

National Park Service Filming and Still Photography Permits

Uses For Your Digital Camera, Other Than Photography (discusses establishing shots)

Don’t Leave Home Without It: A Digital Wallet review