Google Maps

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

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night

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.

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night