Photography In The National Parks: Get Intimate With Your Camera

A pinyon pine tree against a red rock wall at the Devil’s Garden trailhead of Arches National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Get intimate with your photography.

How’s that for a provocative statement?

What Is An “Intimate” Photo?

The word “intimate” has a number of definitions, all of which are related to each other. According to the online Free Dictionary, the word “intimate” can mean:

* Marked by close association or familiarity

* Essential; innermost

* Very personal

A couple of days after arriving in Moab, Utah, for an eight-day February vacation, I was standing with my tripod and camera at the La Sal Mountain Viewpoint in Arches National Park, waiting (and hoping) for the La Sal mountains to peep from behind the haze of winter clouds as the late afternoon sun began to bathe the landscape with white-gold light. While watching the interplay of light and clouds, Jim Becia, a large-format photographer also waiting for the La Sals to come out of hiding, approached me to ask about the merits of my rental SUV as he was looking to replace his current older vehicle. Naturally, our discussion turned from SUVs to photography, and Jim mentioned that he didn’t really photograph many wide-angle landscapes, per se, choosing instead to focus on more “intimate” compositions within nature.

That word “intimate” kept rolling around in my head for the remainder of the afternoon. Upon returning to my hotel room and laptop, I looked up Jim’s website to view his galleries. I then proceeded to review the past and current photographs I’d stored on my laptop’s hard drive to find my own “intimate” images.

After about 20 minutes of review, I arrived at the conclusion that an intimate image didn’t necessarily mean a telephoto close-up of a scene (although many of my images from this particular trip were taken with my Canon 70-200mm lens). I decided that an intimate image was one which captured the pure essence of place with a personal feel to the composition, regardless of the lens utilized. Indeed, an intimate image should invite and enfold you into a scene, giving you an impression of familiarity. Even if you’ve never been there, you still feel like you know this place. 

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A swath of sunlight shining through Turret Arch in Arches National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

When A Wide-Angle Landscape Just Doesn’t Cut It

I woke up one morning and looked out of my hotel window to see huge, feathery snowflakes falling from the pre-dawn sky. I was so excited, I could barely contain myself as I readied my gear for a drive into Arches.

Judging from the tire tracks in the fresh snow on the road up and into the park, only two other vehicles had preceded me that morning. One of those vehicles was an NPS truck, the driver of which waved to me as he drove out of the Windows section of the park. The other vehicle was actually parked in the snow-covered lot of the Windows section.

As I pulled into a slushy parking space, I noted two photographers in the distance at Turret Arch and another photographer loading his tripod into the SUV beside me. After we greeted each other, the photographer proceeded to grumble that he was finished and didn’t know why his friends were still out there since he, personally, couldn’t find much worth photographing.

A bit taken aback at first, I ultimately clued in to the fact that this man probably had been aiming to capture dramatic, wide-angle-type landscapes on this snow-clad day. Regarding that aspect, the photographer was pretty much correct about the paucity of scenes. The sky was a matte white-gray and the distant mountains and mesas were hidden behind a similar white-gray haze. Aside from the interesting contrasts offered by the red rock and green trees against the white snow, the day was indeed more or less “blah” for broad landscapes.

I, on the other hand, thought there was plenty to photograph. You see, I understood that the day’s great compositions would be of the more intimate kind. My own compositions of this park’s incredible beauty would not be from any overall panoramic landscape, but rather from the essential objects and colors that constitute the character of this park.

Did this mean I would stow away my wide-angle lens? Absolutely not! Wide-angle lenses are good for more than just wide-angle landscape comps. With that in mind, I decided to perform a little experiment, and thus set out with my Canon 1-DX and only my Canon 16-35mm lens to get “intimate” with my surroundings.

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Your’s truly heading up the snow-draped steps toward the North Window. Rebecca Latson photo.

Getting Intimate With The Scene…Using A Wide-Angle Lens

A portion of my morning of photography was in part spent either trudging up the trail through the footprints left by the previous three photographers or blazing my own trail over the snow-draped line of steps from one arch to another.

During this time I managed to trip and fall flat on my face (just call me Grace). Thank goodness, the trail had 5 inches of white cushioning. Luckily for me, that fall also triggered the proverbial light-bulb-switch-on over my head: to capture intimate images with my wide-angle lens, I would need to get down and quite near to my subject. Not only would this create a sense of closeness (read: intimacy) but an interesting sense of perspective as well.

You see, wide-angle lenses have this remarkable ability to take an object that’s very close to the camera’s viewfinder and make it even more prominent by exaggerating its relative size vs. the size and distance of other items around it.

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The North Window on a snowy day. Rebecca Latson photo.

This creates an “anchor” upon which the viewer may place their focus and thus be invited into the composition; the anchor helps initiate that feeling of familiarity and sense of intimacy within an image. Are you following me here? Take a look at the next photo. I placed my tripod and camera very close to the bush you see in this image looking toward the North Window. My 16-35mm lens exaggerated the perspective of this bush in relation to me and the arch, and as a result, the bush became the anchor drawing the eye first to it, and then onward toward the arch – sort of inviting the viewer to step into the image and stay awhile, even on a cold snowy day. 

For this next photo, I knelt to the ground (don’t ask me how long it took me to get back up) and placed the tripod and camera very close to the little tree to produce another anchor drawing the viewer’s eye and inviting the viewer into the scene. 

My camera, wide-angle lens, and I spent the remainder of the morning wandering around Turret Arch and North and South Windows capturing intimate compositions.

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Snow-dusted tree at the base of the South Window. Rebecca Latson photo.

I had a great snow day in the park and my photo-op cup ranneth over without ever having acquired more than a single broad landscape scene.

Photography is about capturing the scene while stretching your photographic “muscles”; it’s about going out of the box to experiment with different techniques while using familiar gear (like your wide-angle lens for a close-up scene).

So, whether you use a wide-angle (8mm to 35mm), standard (50-60mm), or telephoto (85+mm) lens, go ahead and challenge your compositional creativity by getting a little more intimate with your photography in the parks.

I guarantee your photo-op cup will runneth over too.