Photo Shoot: Today's Cameras Make It Easier to Capture the National Parks

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. Copyright, Pat Cone.

Early morning light falls across the travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Pat Cone Photo

Not everyone is a painter, musician, or sculptor, but it seems that everyone is a photographer. Whether tracking Yellowstone wolves, following Glacier’s goats, or watching Yosemite waterfalls, all it takes is a camera. And that’s exactly what camera manufacturers count on: Making it easier and easier, especially in the new digital world, to produce quality photographs.

With better equipment, lots of disposable income, and more vacation time we have been flooded during the past decade with wonderful images by travelers from around the world. As a professional photographer for the past three decades I see these great images from amazing places; images I wish I’d taken, but couldn’t afford to shoot on speculation.

That’s the difference between the professional photographer and the amateur. While amateurs get it right much of the time, the professional must get it right all of the time. We know when we get it right, and that the photographs will “turn out.”

We go into a situation to bring back the images, on assignment for a book, magazine, or newspaper. We make our living going into dynamic situations, reading the action, and recording the scene, as the proxy witness to today’s events. Modern technology can make it easier, but it’s still hard work.

Today’s cameras have many advantages, with automatic exposure, auto-focus, high-resolution card storage, and new technology. But the technical basics are still the same: shutter speed, aperture, film speed, lens choice, and how the image is recorded. But the most important piece of equipment, amidst the automatic camera beeps, belches and flashes, is still the human brain and eye.

But just like drawing and painting, using a camera is a skill that can be learned, because it’s not the camera that takes the photograph, it’s you. Like everything you must know your tools and how to use them. Once you’ve mastered them, then creativity can take over.

Photography is truly the realm where art meets science. While a picture is worth a thousand words, a bad picture isn't worth talking about, because foolproof systems don't take into account the ingenuity of fools.

The new digital immediacy over the past decade has revolutionized the photography business. Millions of images are accessible online. But there are some downsides as well.

This same instant gratification can lead to “chimping,” as we call it, where photographers are so busy looking at their screen that they miss the next photograph. They’re doing what an ape would do if they had a camera. And unlike film and paper, which can stand the test of time, digital images can disappear at the push of a button.

After you master the technical basics, even in this digital age, the best photographs still require choices in color, lighting, shadow, content, design, and emotion. For people who photograph outdoors, for example in our national parks, there are lots of variables on your camera, but just two on the scene: where you stand and when you stand there: time and place.

With such a big world to record, choices must be made, and quickly. What will include or exclude in your frame, editing in the viewfinder.

Photography is a complicated subject, but by grasping a few of the technical aspects of the machinery itself, with experimentation and patience, you can make technically excellent photographs.
It takes more than technical excellence to make a great photograph of course, but no great photograph lacks it.

Now, it’s good to be lucky, but you can help the process. I define luck as preparation meeting opportunity.

In the accompanying photograph of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Terrace, I woke early to make sure I was in position above the terraces before dawn. (And in mid-June, this meant in the 5 a.m realm. Be prepared as a photographer to be up early and out late…you can snooze at high-noon’s harsh light.)

The night before I had assessed that morning light would be best on the terraces, since a large mountain blocked evening sun. Also, it had been raining quite a bit, humidity was high, and steam plumes should be prominent. With a camera on a tripod I took a slightly backlit aspect with the viewfinder, framing the scene with two pines, looking to the northeast.

I did not want the steam to show motion, so shutter speed was at 1/125 second. Telephoto lens aperture was f8, enough to have the terrace and far hills in focus, but not the framing trees. Finally I went vertical (not enough people turn their cameras, but of course for video it would be non-sensical.) I metered with a spotmeter from the white sides of the spring then opened 3 stops for a perfect exposure.

This image was photographed with a Nikon F4 camera fitted with an 80-200 F2.8 telephoto. I used fine-grain 50 ASA Velvia transparency film, but in today’s digital world it would be much the same but at 125 ASA.

Once you know the rules and tools you can begin to be creative and get into the even tougher realm: balance, harmony, content, design and color. The science of photography is merely a starting point, but without a rudimentary knowledge of it, luck will be about the only thing that you'll have going for you.

Pat Cone's works can be viewed at this site.


I can't believe this is real... yeah, I guess you are right, with new digital cameras we can all be great photographers, there isn't much to know in making pictures, it all depends on your will to spot unique wonderful places like this one above.

I define luck as preparation meeting opportunity.

That's a great definition, and one that anyone who attempts much outdoor photography can appreciate!