Photography In The National Parks: Telling A Story With Your Photos

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The Rio Grande and Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, think about the novel waiting to be written with a whole series of pictures. I’ll bet you may not even consider that you have in your memory cards the makings for some great stories about your national park trips.

When you take a single photo, you are, in essence, describing the photographic equivalent of a “plot summary.” Depicting a sequence of images, however, is the narrative itself, fleshing out the tale of your day’s (or week’s or month’s) national park adventure.

When I visit a national park, I not only strive to capture an outstanding landscape or wildlife shot, but to also try and tell a tale. I am constantly collecting material and ideas for future Traveler articles as well as posts for my own photographic blog site.

While people admire a single image, I’ve discovered they are also quite appreciative of a whole progression of shots. These are photos that work well at telling a story with or without words. I personally want people to feel as if they have experienced (or at least have made up their minds to visit) a park simply by looking at my string of storytelling shots.

This actually works, you know. A Facebook fan told me she recently reserved a spot with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris for this year’s Brown Bears of Katmai photo tour after viewing the series of photos I took (and then clicking on the Van Os link to my story on the Traveler’s site) of my own visit to this Alaskan national park in 2013.

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail Tale

The following is an example of what I am trying to convey in this article: a story for you in both words and images.

During my December 2013 visit to Big Bend National Park, Texas, I spent my last day driving toward the Santa Elena Canyon, in the southwestern corner of the park. This location shares the border with Mexico; many of the expansive vistas from within the park look out toward the mountainous Mexican state of Chihuahua. I’d read a description of the short (1.7 mile roundtrip) Santa Elena Trail and the breathtaking scenes along that route and decided that hike would be the perfect cap with which to end my 4-day stay.

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14 miles as the crow flies: Santa Elena Canyon as seen from Sotol Vista. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

I already knew I was going to tell a story about this location with my photography, so I stopped first at my favorite overlook (Sotol Vista) to get a distant shot of the canyon (that “gash” in the cliff face, center-right of the photo). From the overlook, as the crow flies, it’s 14 miles to the canyon. Via the road, it’s about 30 miles, more or less.

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Fossil shells within the canyon walls. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

As the road winds downward toward the Castolon Visitor Center, one can see along the route the very visible evidence of the violent volcanic movement that birthed this park and its mountains. Volcanism, however, was not the only activity involved in the creation of this place. Once, the land of Big Bend was an ancient sea bed populated with aquatic creatures. The uplifted and eroded rocks comprising Santa Elena Canyon clearly reveal this prehistoric life in the shape of oyster-like seashells, pointed out by a sign along the trail to give the hiker pause as he or she peers closely at the canyon rock wall to view this fossil detritus.

The trail hugging the rock wall on the U.S. side of Santa Elena Canyon begins along the sandy bank of the Rio Grande. During my mid-December trip, the river was shallow and – according to a Facebook fan – can be practically non-existent during the late spring / early summer (I‘ll let you know after my late-April trip back to the park).

From the riverbank, the trail reaches up and up, affording hikers a view of the vast park land behind them. Word of advice: whenever you go hiking on any trail in any national park, don’t forget to turn around and look back from whence you came, as the view looking back can often be just as much of a photo op as what awaits at trail’s end.

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Prickly pear cactus along the canyon trail. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

All along the trail are cacti and other plants indicative of this southwest Texas ecosystem.

The trail terminates in a rather lush, somewhat muddy setting, where the air is slightly humid from the moisture of the river. This point is where the distance between canyon walls (and the U.S / Mexico border) is about 30 feet apart. A clear, sunny morning is a lovely time to hike this area as the colors are deep and saturated, reflecting a sliver of sunlight onto the Rio Grande as it snakes between rock walls that reach as high as 1500 feet.

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The morning colors of Santa Elena Canyon. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

After a brief respite and many photos, it’s time to take the trail back to the car. This is a popular hike, so don’t be surprised to find quite a few others heading up the trail as you head back down.

Ok, so I know this photo story had words attached to the images. If this had been presented to you as a slideshow, however, without printed words, would you have gotten the gist of this story from the few photos of my day’s hike uploaded here? I hope so. If you did get the gist, then I have accomplished my storytelling goal, and hopefully, have given you some ideas or two about capturing your own photographic travel tale (rather than just a “plot synopsis”) during your next visit to a national park.

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An Official Fan of Big Bend National Park. Photo by Rebecca Latson.

You might even want to start your own blog site and post your own national park photographic adventures! You never know where that might lead; I became a Traveler contributor because of my photographic tales, as did Deby Dixon, the other contributing photographer for this column.

Comments

Nice explanation of your artistic thinking. Now that we have a one year old we are trying to do something along those lines to tell a story when we take her to various sites so she has something to look back upon as she gets older. I probably should comment more frequently but I do enjoy your articles.

Thanks so much, paulscuba. I know that the people who read this column are not always interested in the technical aspects or what kind of gear to use, so much as they may be interested in just taking some fun, beautiful shots of the park and then figuring out what kind of other things they can do with those images. I LOVE looking at all of the photos my parents took with me in them while I was growing up, so I know your one year old will be very appreciative as she gets older, of the fact that her parents enjoyed photography and capturing images of her and all of the family adventures for posterity.