Photography In The Parks: What's In Your Camera Bag?

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Looking across the pond toward the unreachable: Acadia National Park during the shutdown. Rebecca Latson photo.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been dragging myself along, super-tired from jet lag from the Eastern Seaboard time zone change (that Maine trip), losing hours of precious sleep due to plane delays and plane diversions, and then forcing myself to rise early (3 a.m. early) each day of the work week to sync my hours with the rest of my department’s team currently located in London (you do the math). A fuzzy brain makes writing an article on a single subject quite a challenging prospect.

So, Traveler Editor-in-Chief Kurt Repanshek suggested a Q&A article. I liked that idea. It tells you a bit more about me personally, about what I photographically like (and don’t like), and about the process I apply when choosing where and when to travel. So, with that little bit of preamble, here we go!

NPT: Do you lament the disappearance of film and/or do you prefer digital cameras over film?

Personally, no, I do not lament the disappearance of film or film cameras. Film purists will call me lazy, but the fact that I can immediately see the results of a digitally-captured image has been a huge boon toward improving my photographic skills. I can see – right away – whether or not my settings are spot-on or have missed the mark. I can see – right away – if I need to use (or discard) a graduated ND filter or a polarizer. I can see – right away – if the white balance works for a particular situation.

This immediacy permits me to really comprehend which settings I should use for different lighting conditions. With a digital camera, I don’t have to bother with scanning slides or prints for use on websites and brochures and business cards, nor do I have to purchase an expensive slide scanner to achieve the quality of imagery I want for print or website purposes.

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Sure, there is the initial monetary outlay of the camera itself, along with my choice of lens and however many memory cards I choose to purchase. But my cameras and memory cards have more than paid for themselves in terms of usage and output within a very short time span. On a side note, I think this immediacy of results after the digital shutter click has increased not only the number of people out there using cameras (great for the camera companies) but has taken the creativity level to a height not thought of in the past, when my father was using his Mamiya twin lens camera.

NPT: Besides your camera body, what is the most crucial item you ensure you take on your national park treks?

The most crucial item for me to take on my national park trek is a zoom lens – usually more than one. Because of my predilection toward landscape shots, as well as the possibility of a wildlife image capture, I never travel anywhere without a wide-angle zoom lens (such as my 16-35mm or my 24-70mm) as well as my 100-400mm telephoto.

NPT: What do you think of the advent of smartphones with built-in cameras? Good or bad for photography?

I’m really of two minds regarding smartphone cameras. Part of me likes having a smartphone to capture a video on the go or a quick photo of something yummy I am eating in order to post to Facebook. It’s not bulky and is super-easy to carry along. I used my smartphone for videos of the bears while staying in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

For professional purposes, however, I don’t like phone cameras at all. My SLR beats out that smartphone image, hands down. I have yet to see a smartphone totally equaling what a professional camera produces – especially when it comes to making an enlargement of 16 x 24 or greater.

Smartphones don’t have much nuance in terms of settings and adjustments, which I suppose is great for those people (like my sister) who don’t want to learn the ins and outs of a more dedicated camera; they just want an easy medium with which to take a quick photo of the moment without any hassle. I also don’t like smartphone cameras because those things lead everybody who owns one to think they are a professional photographer (which drives me NUTS when it comes to wedding photography).

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Sunrise and moonset over Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

NPT: Are smartphone cameras and the miniature video cameras (think GoPro) diminishing the skills needed for photography, or are they opening up opportunities for recording national park visits?

Both. I suppose that’s something else film photographers probably say about digital photography.

As answered in Question 3, I really only use my smartphone camera for quick videos and Facebook posts. That being said, I do think smartphones and video cameras in the style of GoPro are definitely opening up opportunities for the people visiting national parks. These photographic vehicles are relatively inexpensive (compared to a $2000 - $6000 SLR, not including the lens). I personally think GoPro is a neat thing for videos. I’ve seen a GoPro video made by a guy during a visit to one of the Alaskan national parks, and it caught some totally cool imagery of the coastal brown bears (including what the inside of a bear’s mouth looked like as it tried to chew on that tough little GoPro). The photographer just set the GoPro down on the ground, switched on the video, then walked away a good distance and let the camera do its thing.

Hmmmm.

In retrospect, I just might be looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it takes a great deal of skill to make a smartphone or miniature video camera image look as good as an image captured by a professional SLR with a really good lens.

Was this a trick question?

NPT: When you sit down to plan your next national park trip, what do you consider in deciding which park to visit?

In my day job, I am around people constantly, all day long. While I can be as extroverted as the next person, I really am a loner at heart. I want to do my own thing, go where I want, when I want and call my own shots. If I feel like stopping along the road to photograph something, I don’t want to worry about whether the other person with me in the car is getting tired and restless and wants to get to the hotel for the night.

Because of my loner nature, and depending upon the time of year during which I wish to travel, I always go online and check those busiest times of year for a park I wish to visit.

I also like vacationing at what I think may be under-photographed parks. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Zion, Acadia – those are all heavily-visited and heavily-photographed parks. I want to try and see parks that may not be as oft-photographed as the aforementioned parks. As such, Capitol Reef, Sequoia, Great Basin and Theodore Roosevelt national parks are on my bucket list for the near future.

One final thing regarding planning my trips to national parks: aside from living near a national wildlife refuge and being within a 4-hour drive of Padre Island National Seashore, it would take me at least a day’s drive or longer to get to someplace like Big Bend, depending upon how early I start off on my trip. So plane flight is my mode of travel to the locations I wish to visit. Upon landing, I rent a vehicle. Ergo, I always check to see how much flying and driving time is entailed to arrive at a particular park, not to mention how much a roundtrip ticket and car rental will actually cost. Those two items differ depending upon the time of year and how far ahead I make my reservations.

NPT: Is there any one park that you return to (or would return to time and again) and why?

Prior to discovering Arches National Park, the one park to which I continued to return to was Glacier National Park in Montana. Part of this is because I am a native Montanan and was born 20 miles away from Glacier, so it’s home. Actually, it’s more than home. When I was married and living in Seattle, my then-husband never wanted to travel to Glacier with me because – as he once told me - mountains are all the same; you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

With Glacier, that just aint so. I made it my mission to visit and revisit this park in my attempts to capture the many moods of that magical place and photographically prove that the mountains of Glacier are different from anywhere else….geologically, they really are different from other mountains around the U.S.

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Delicate Arch on a cloudy day, Arches National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Then, I visited Arches in 2012. I’ve been twice now and would like to go back. There’s something about the immensity and geology of those red-rock formations that continue to pull me back. I wish I could put into words that open-mouthed awe I experienced the first time I drove between the Three Gossips and the Organ, and Sheep Rock and the Tower of Babel; the first time I made that hike up to Delicate Arch; the first time I captured a sunrise at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint.

Plus, I don’t have to worry about a grizzly popping out of the forest to surprise me while I lollygag along the trail with my cameras, tripod, and heavy camera pack. Grizzlies were always a bit of a worry for me while hiking solo in Glacier. Ok, maybe I have to worry about snakes and scorpions at Arches, but I think I could maneuver my way around them better than a grizzly sow and her cubs on the trail. 

NPT: Do you have a checklist to ensure you take all the necessary photo equipment with you on national park visits, and if so, what’s on that list?

Do I have a checklist! I’d forget half of what I want to pack gearwise if I didn’t write down my list on an Excel spreadsheet, then keep a copy at work and email a copy to myself at home to print out and lay upon my suitcase (so I wouldn’t forget where I placed the list itself).

Here’s what is always on my list – the only thing that changes is the number of extra lenses I pack, including any rental lens like the 500 prime I rented for my Katmai trip earlier this year.

* Induro carbon fiber 8X C314 tripod

* Canon 1-DX body

* Canon 5D Mk III body

* 16-35mm lens

* 100-400mm lens

* 24-70mm lens (sometimes yes, sometimes no but I always try to take it with me if I can)

* All of my extra batteries

* All of my memory cards

* My battery chargers

* All of my filters (UV, polarizer, neutral density and graduated ND)

* My wireless shutter release remotes 2 portable hard drives (yes, I believe in redundancy)

* A memory card storage device My 15” laptop

* All of the assorted electrical cords that go with the above items

* A couple of microfiber lens cleaning cloths

* Giottos Rocket Air Blower in case I have to do the unthinkable and clean my sensor in the hotel room

* 1 or 2 extra push-on lens caps since I have a habit of losing them

* My Vortex Media Storm Jacket rain covers for camera & lens

I’m sure I’ve probably forgotten something here, but you get the gist of what kind of photo gear I pack with me for a national park trek. Most of these items are packed into my two plane carry-ons, which consist of my camera bag and my laptop briefcase.

NPT: How do you store your national park images?

I totally believe in redundancy when it comes to my precious photos. When on the road, I download the day’s park images to two portable hard drives. In addition, I download the images on my memory cards to a portable memory card storage device (SanHo Hyperdrive Colorspace). I take with me all 42 memory cards of 4GB and 8GB size so I don’t have to reformat and reuse a full card until I absolutely must. Once I get home, I keep those images stored on the two hard drives and clear out the memory card storage device and start reusing my memory cards.

After processing those images I like best, I upload them to my photo website which is linked to SmugMug.

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Bonk! Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve. Taken with a 500 mm lens. Rebecca Latson photo.

NPT: What single piece of advice can you share that would make national park visitors better photographers?

While you may or may not have used the perfect settings or arrived at the optimal time of day for great lighting conditions (each issue of which can be rectified to some extent in the post process), the thing that will make you a better photographer is working to improve upon your powers of observation and patience. Don’t just look around a spot, take a snapshot, then walk away.

Stop.

Take a moment to breath the fresh air, savor the scenery, and frame your composition.

If the lighting is not quite right, or if you are waiting for that bear/wolf/moose/eagle in the distance to approach a little closer, just be patient and see what transpires.

When you return from your trip and look at that photo you took, it will not only remind you of that one particular spot during that one particular moment, but it will also bring to mind how you actually felt while you were there at that one particular spot. That’s the power of photography: to elicit an emotion or response from a single photo. That’s what I, as a photographer, try to accomplish with each image I capture.

NPT: Which do you consider your best-yet photo from a national park visit?

This fall image of Mount Rainier at the Paradise area of the park is what I consider my “best-yet” photo from a national park. I have a 16 x 24 metal print of this hanging on my living room wall. I use this image on my photography business cards, and I have a coffee mug with this image on it. I love the bright colors and clarity of this scene.

I’ve captured many landscape images which I think are beautiful, but this one most elicits the feelings and memories about which I described in Question 9. I can absolutely remember where I was standing when I shot this photo. I remember the weather and how I felt. Yup. This is my favorite and thus – to me – my best yet.

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One of my best: Autumn in Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Hopefully the answers to these questions give you a little more idea about me as a photographer, how I feel about certain things and how I plan for things.

Surely you readers out there have some photographic questions of your own that you might like answered? If so, feel free to ask me; your question may stump me, but that just means I’ll do a little research of my own and then get back to you. I won’t ignore you.

Comments

How many pictures of a subject do you usually take? I am sure it depends on the subject. Also, How often do you crop, adjust or edit final product?

David Crowl - Great question! The number of photos depends upon several issues. If it's a landscape and the camera is on a tripod, I either use a 2-second timer or a wireless remote and proceed to take maybe 5-6 separate images, each one using a slightly different aperture or shutter speed setting as well as a different position of my graduated ND filter (if I am using that). If the camera is on a tripod but I am taking a wildlife photo - as of the bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai NP - then I simply hold down on the button and let the shutter click as fast as the fps will allow in order to capture every bit of movement of that bear (I also have my focus setting on my Canon set to "servo", which means it tracks movement and keeps focusing during that movement). If I am hand-holding my camera, then I do the same thing: hold down on the shutter button for several clicks. That way, out of, say, 4 shots taken continuously, at least *one* of those shots is almost guaranteed to be sharp. I do this regardless of whether the lens has IS (image stabilization) or not, but it especially helps with a lens that doesn't have IS. It uses up alot of space on the memory cards (which is one of the reasons I have so many). I *always* edit my final products. It's my opinion that every photo taken - no matter how perfect the camera settings may be - can make do with a little bit of editing. For me, that's usually some sharpening, a little color saturation work, some curves work, and some contrast/brightening. It may also be to reduce the noise level (grainy-ness) too - particularly in low-light or star shots. I also need to sometimes straighten a slightly crooked horizon and that is done in the editing stage. Sometimes I crop, sometimes I don't. It just depends on how much extraneous stuff I want to get rid of in a photo and whether or not I want the subject to look larger by virtue of cropping out the extra stuff.

Another great article that is not only instructive, but also inspirational in terms of encouraging me to improve my own photos. And, as always, it's treat to see some of your great images. Thanks!

Thanks so much, Jim Burnett. You are always so kind and it's a pleasure for me that you enjoy my articles.

Agree Jim, I would also like to thank Redecca Latson for her inspiring and "make my day" photos.