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Photography In The National Parks: My Five Favorite Images Of 2013
Out of all the photographs you Traveler readers have captured over the course of 2013, you’ve probably got some favorites, right? I’ve plenty of favorites!
During the first couple of weeks of January, I noticed a number of photographers whose Facebook pages or blogs I follow post their favorite images from 2013. I’m always interested as to why someone – especially the photographer - likes an image. I decided I would pick five of my own favorite national park photos taken during 2013 and add commentary on why I consider these images favorites. I have to tell you that selecting just five was not an easy task.
I chose the following photos not necessarily for their composition alone, but also for the memory or emotion each one evoked. That’s what photography is all about, you know: capturing a moment, a memory, and a feeling.
In no particular order:
1. Evening in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas
I will admit up front that the image at the very beginning of this article is one of my top favorites. I arrived within the park later than anticipated and was getting a little anxious to make it to the Chisos Mountains Lodge before dark. As I drove up Basin Road, I passed this spot and immediately knew I needed to turn around, park the car, and set up tripod and camera to capture this backlit image of the mountains with the wispy clouds above and the century plant anchoring the foreground corner. If you have ever photographed backlit images before, then you know it’s not an easy task – the light is behind your subject, leaving everything shaded or almost in the dark. If it’s a person or a scene that is fairly close to you, a flash can help. However, for this wide-angle landscape, I used my graduated ND filter near the top of the composition and was able to open up the camera’s aperture a little bit to allow in more light. During the post-process stage in Adobe Photoshop, I used the curves adjustment tool and also reduced the shadows to lighten things up even more.
2. Turret Arch on a Snowy February Day, Arches National Park, Utah
It was a magical morning. I awoke at about 2 a.m., peered out of my hotel room window and witnessed huge, feathery snowflakes floating to the ground. A total of about 5 inches accumulated in the park that morning. After a couple of prior photo op stops, I finally made it to the Windows section where I parked my car next to a photographer loading his gear back into his SUV. He grumbled as why on Earth I would want to be out on this day since there was really nothing noteworthy to photograph. I suppose if he was looking to capture some broad vistas, he must indeed have been a little disgruntled, since the matte-pearl sky was not conducive to anything dramatic, and clouds and fog covered up distant mountains. The photographer missed opportunities, though, to photograph sights a little closer at hand, like this composition of Turret Arch. I used a 16-35mm wide-angle lens to make the scene appear more expansive and a 2-stop graduated ND filter to darken the sky a little. I also used that snow-dusted bush in the foreground corner to act as an anchor with which to lead the viewer’s eye into the image and toward the arch. By late afternoon, the snow had almost completely melted, and by the next day, only the shadowed areas of the park still sported the white stuff. Magic is ephemeral, you know.
3. Portrait of A Brown Bear, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska
I never in my life thought I would be viewing such incredible creatures as these 700+ lb brown bears….in Alaska…in Katmai National Park and Preserve. My favorite photographic objective consisted of capturing portraits of these bears. Sometimes the rented 500mm lens did a perfect job on its own, and at other times I cropped the shot in post-process to focus the eyes even more on the bear’s face. When you first see all the bears, they tend to look alike. After just a couple of hours in their presence, however, it's possible to suss out differences in appearance, facial expressions, and quirky little mannerisms they have when fishing the Brooks River. Each bear possessed its own personality and I tried to capture that with my portrait shots. This is one of my favorites, and it’s quite cropped, actually. This bear had been standing out in the river rapids beneath Brooks Falls and momentarily turned its head to warily view the competition before resuming its steady watchfulness of the rapids.
4. A Century Plant, Gibbous Moon, and Casa Grande, Big Bend National Park, Texas
This photo is so very West Texas and Big Bend, though I didn’t even notice it at first. My camera and tripod were pointed in the other direction as I waited for the sun to set between the “v” of The Window (an iconic scene within the park). I’d forgotten that those blazing sunset photos I’ve seen of this location were taken in the summer. When winter rolls around, the earth is in a slightly different position relative to the sun, which was going to set behind the mountains to the left of the v-shaped canyon walls. So I turned around to look behind me and saw this perfect scene falling together, waiting for the click of the shutter. As you can see from the image, there was quite a bit of difference in light. This created a challenge for me to keep the shaded area light enough for the viewer to actually see the century plant and surrounding ground without totally blowing out the sky and Casa Grande. Again, my 4-stop grad ND filter saved the situation. This is one of those filters every photographer needs in his or her camera bag. I also applied some post-process curves adjustment and brightening in the shaded area to lighten things up a little more.
5. On Top of the World at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Hey, favorite national park photos don’t have to be people-less. This is a favorite for several reasons. It’s an easy trail to hike (1.5 miles one way), but still a literal breath-taker. I huffed and puffed up this trail the day after a 5-inch snowfall in the park, so while the snow was gone almost everywhere else, the last few hundred feet of this trail were in the shadows of the rock formations and thus still snow-coated and ice-encrusted. I’m a bit of a clumsy person to begin with, so I was extremely cautious with foot placement since those final few hundred ice-covered feet were along a narrow ledge with a 200-foot drop off. I arrived just as the last people in that area departed. I savored the gift of standing within reach of this iconic red-rock arch on a crystal-clear morning with absolutely NOBODY else around; I had the entire place all to myself for 30-40 minutes. What a feeling! So I affixed a polarizing filter onto my wide-angle lens, set camera on tripod and, with my wireless remote shutter release in my hand, captured not only myself and the scene around me, but also that wonderful sensation of accomplishment and exhilaration.
Ok, here’s a couple of questions for you:
For any given year, would you be able to pick just five national park photos as favorites? Could you explain to yourself and others why those are favorites? It’s harder than one might think, but it’s a good exercise to look back on all of the images taken during a national park visit and think about why that specific shot is a favorite among so many.