NPAN's Very First Video: 10 Photo Scouting Tips for National Parks

I’m pretty big on the scouting thing. I wrote a whole chapter about it in my book Photographing National Parks, and it’s always a part of my lectures, and it’s certainly an important part of our National Parks at Night workshop experiences.

Jumping into a new place without knowing anything about it can be a fun way to vacation, but it’s not the best way to maximize creative potential on a photography project.

Not scouting—just wandering a place hoping that you’ll stumble upon good photo opportunities—is a reactive approach to photography. Scouting—doing some research about the subject, and looking around at different times of day and during different sorts of weather—is a proactive approach. And as with many other things in life, proactive is usually more productive than reactive.

On any national park shoot, I’m always researching, scouting and making a plan. I leave room for serendipity, but 90 percent of the work I end up being happy with comes from the ideas I prepared for, not from the ones I found by chance.

The idea of scouting a location becomes even more important with night photography. It helps in terms of creativity, technical details and safety:

  • Creativity. You can see better in the day than at night (I don’t need to provide evidence for that premise, right?). It’s much easier to construct a composition when you can actually see what’s in front of you.
  • Technical details. Where to put your tripod? How to focus your lens? Positions to stand when light painting? All of these are easier to determine in daylight.
  • Safety. Working near a cliff? How about in a forest of cactus? At the edge of a river? On a field of boulders? Areas such as these are much easier to navigate safely in the dark if you’ve gotten familiar with them in the light.

With all that in mind, fellow NPAN instructor Matt Hill and I got together to produce a video about the topic. Titled “10 Photo Scouting Tips for National Parks,” it contains … well, you know.

We'd love to hear about some the scouting tools that you use, too! How do you prepare for shooting a location at night? Feel free to share tips for other photographers in the Comments section below.

Chris Nicholson is the author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at

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Finding Our Parks: How We Participated in National Parks Week

Click to experience the map!

Click to experience the map!

In late April, we hit the road NPAN style. We chose to celebrate the National Parks Service's free entrance days for National Park Week by taking a whirlwind tour of Southern Utah.

Gabe, Matt and Chris were joined by our friend Sean in Las Vegas and we hit the road in a car and on two motorcycles. Our trip led us through three national parks (including Zion, which wasn't a destination, but how could we not at least drive through?) and two national monuments. It was epic, and awe-inspiring.

Our routine was great! Eat a substantial breakfast, hit the road, drive through some amazing landscapes, grab some food and head out into the park to go shooting for the late afternoon and evening (often until 2 or 3 a.m.).

Here are individual highlights from the adventurers:

Bryce Canyon National Park - by Matt Hill

Love them hoodoos.
— Matt

My first impression was a gasp when I viewed Bryce Canyon under a full moon. A massive canyon filled with hoodoos and trees. And gorgeous shadows. It was brutally cold, even for late April, and we withstood the wind on the canyon rim to enjoy the view and make some images.

Upon descending into the canyon, the wind died, as well as my hopes for avoiding aerobic exercise for the day. ;-) What goes down, must come up! That canyon is deeeeeep and steeeeeep. Nonetheless, we hiked into the hoodoo field and I spent a lot of time playing with the relationship between eroded sandstone rock and living wood. What a gorgeous juxtaposition of colors, textures and shapes.

We're fortunate the skies cooperated in a big way. Very happy with our experience there, despite hiking back up the canyon with 30+ lbs. in my backpack at altitude.

Visit the Bryce Canyon Official NPS Website to plan your visit! 

Capitol Reef National Park - by Chris Nicholson

Capitol Reef simply shines in the dark!
— Chris

Capitol Reef has been on my bucket list for a couple of years, so I was thrilled we were including it on our road trip.

But to get there, first we drove through the big shocker of the trip: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. None of us knew much about it, other than that it exists. And it's beautiful! We stopped about four or five times, mesmerized by both its size and its amazing landscapes. We didn't have time to linger, but we will be back there someday for sure.

We arrived at Capitol Reef with just enough time to scout some locations in daylight, which is important in a place with such dark night skies. (Capitol Reef is one of only three national parks designated as Gold Tier by the International Dark-Sky Association.) Checking our Photo Pills app, we knew we would have one hour of utter darkness before the moon rose, so we planned to start our evening photographing star trails at Chimney Rock.

From there we went to the orchards in Fruita, a remnant of the vibrant agricultural community in that area more than a century ago. The orchard proved difficult to photograph, primarily because it’s the one spot we did not scout well; instead of shooting right away, we spent 45 minutes walking around in the dark trying to imagine some compositions.

We ended the night near Panorama Point. We’d scouted a nice location with a road S-curving in front of a distant mountain. We each set up a composition, and Gabe manned our intervalometers while Matt drove the car and I held a Pixelstick out the sunroof, creating light trails along the road. The creativity was fun, but the wind was brutal and cold, so as soon as we felt we nailed the shot, we packed things in for the night.

On our second night in Capitol Reef, we were joined by our friend Steve Ryan, a sports photographer from New York City. He was very gracious in agreeing to drive us out to Cathedral Valley, an area filled with wonderfully photogenic rock formations accessible only by primitive roads. Unfortunately, a quick storm a few hours before departure made those roads impassable.

So instead we night-hiked to The Tanks, a series of natural water holes a short (but steep) climb up from Capitol Gorge. It was a gorgeous hike (ha! see what I did there?), a challenging (but fun) shoot, followed by a photograph-slowed hike back out of the gorge.

We are all eager to run a night-photography workshop in Capitol Reef some year soon. Stay tuned!

Visit the Capitol Reef Official NPS Website to plan your visit! 

Natural Bridges National Monument - by Gabriel Biderman

Bridges that lead you to the darkest of skies.
— Gabe

Our quest for the darkest skies leads us to some very remote locations. But the opportunity to work with no light pollution and crystal-clear skies with thousands of stars is an experience no one will forget.

Natural Bridges National Monument is one of those special places. Located 40 miles from the nearest town in Southeast Utah, Natural Bridges is the oldest National Park Service site in Utah (1908) and was the first “Dark Sky Park” to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

We arrived a few hours before sunset and had the most amazing conversation with Ranger Ted Hodson as he shared his stories, photographs and advice for how we could make the most of our one evening. Imagine three bridges that lie at the bottom of a deep canyon, formed from an ancient river over 260 million years ago.

You can do the 8-mile loop drive (in 20 minutes) and get little peeks of two of the three bridges, but the real adventure lies when you walk down the canyon and see the bridges act like windows to the stars.

So that’s what we did. With overcast weather looming we chose the path to Owachoma—probably the most photographed of the three bridges. We had seen the images at the visitor center and were focused on looking for new angles. I put myself right under the bridge and Matt and Chris found an oblique angle to start brushing light under the bridge. The three of us worked together on a few more angles and group light painting until the clouds enveloped the stars.

They say you can see 15,000 stars on a clear night at Natural Bridges. I stopped counting after 500.

Visit the Natural Bridges Official NPS Website to plan your visit! 

Thanks for reading. Tell us if you participated, and how, in National Park Week. Did you #findyourpark? We'd love to hear more!

Job well done.

Job well done.

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Photographic Foreknowledge: Planning Your Shots in National Parks

Visiting our National Parks with a little foreknowledge is the best way to ensure your chances of coming home with great photographs. Being in the right place at the right time is rarely an accident. Foreknowledge is also the recipe for making your images stand out from the millions of other photos taken in these dramatic locations.

Photographers should take the time to do some “virtual” scouting. Begin with a Google search of the name of the park you are planning to visit. At the top of the resulting screen you’ll find filters to adjust what content is displayed on the page. Click on “Images” to be rewarded with a page full of photos in and around the park.

While not all of the photos will be masterpieces, they will give you a great idea of the locations of the more popular viewpoints and places of interest. Clicking on an image opens it to a larger view and supplies the link to the image. You’ll often find the name of the location or feature right here. If not, click on the link to discover more information about the image.

Take some time with this process and create a list of all possible locations you’d like to visit. Some of the places you may want to shoot might be inconvenient, closed for the season or farther than you would like hike.

Next, find a map! Google Maps is a great resource, as are the official National Park maps that can be found at Once you locate the desired sights on the map, you can better assess the best time of day or night to be there. Knowing the exact direction you want to face makes it easier to find south-facing mountains for star trails around the North Star, east-facing objects for sunrise, and west-facing scenes for sunset.

Making a list of possible scenes and locating them on the map is the least anyone should do before visiting a national park for photography. For those who leave nothing to chance, there are plenty of websites, computer applications and smartphone apps that can assist in exact sun angles and rise and set times, direction of moon rises and even when it will rise above a land formation. A couple of my favorites are PhotoPills and Google Earth.

PhotoPills is a great iPhone app that can do just about everything — planning your Milky Way shots, calculating depth of field, discovering the start time of astronomical twilight, or even discovering exactly when and where the moon will rise over the nearby peaks. It’s a must-have for any photographer who uses an iPhone. By phone app standards it’s a bit pricey ($9.99), but well worth every penny.

Google Earth is another indispensable, content-rich application for your computer and iOS or Android phone. Using Google Earth you can get an excellent lay of the land you plan to visit. By using the controls in the upper right, you can not only zoom in and around but also tilt to get a reasonable idea of the land formations.

For those looking for a less technical experience, Sun Seeker, Night Sky and Moon Seeker are three apps that are quite useful … and free!

Learn more techniques from Tim Cooper’s book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

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