Photography In The National Parks: Capturing Spring
It’s February as I write this article: that in-between period when winter is playing a last-ditch game of tug-o-war with spring. In my part of southeast Texas, this particular time of the year brings a uniform dusty tint to whatever greenery remains, while dead, dry leaves cling to the otherwise bare branches of trees.
There’s not much in the way of birdlife at the local national wildlife refuge, although I am noticing that - much like human retirees – some varieties of winged wildlife are beginning their migratory routes back through the state as they return to their northern “summer” homes.
Soon enough, the bright colors of wildflowers will dot the currently-browned fields and roadsides within the national parks and I am counting on photographing cactus in bloom when I travel to Big Bend National Park in late April. Spring is right around the bend (no pun intended).
In addition to wildflowers, spring in the national parks will see the emergence of sweet little feathered and furred faces peeping above the rims of nests and poking their heads out of dens comprised of sand, dirt, twigs and branches.
And the waterfalls in the spring…oh the waterfalls: cascading flows of water rejuvenated from melting snow packs make the ideal subjects for those silky-water shots.
All of this spring activity is just what the photographer ordered to cure those winter doldrums!
When to Visit
First and foremost, you need to decide upon which national park you want to visit and during which of the spring months (March, April, May or even early June) you will make that visit. Spring doesn’t show its face at the same time in all of the parks.
Parks in the lower elevations (Everglades) will see the advent of spring much sooner than parks in higher elevations (Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance). Some parks (Virgin Islands) probably won’t even see much of a change in weather variation at all, with the switch from winter to spring.
Prior to your visit, start checking the weather conditions because this will help you decide what to pack, clothing- and gear-wise. The National Park of American Samoa remains warm, humid, and rainy practically the entire year. Acadia National Park sports temperature lows between 20–50 degrees Fahrenheit and highs in the 30s to 60s during that spread of spring months.
Once you’ve chosen your location and researched the average spring weather conditions, you’ll have a better idea of what to pack to keep yourself and your camera gear protected and in good working order.
Since spring is one of those variable times of year, when (aside from drought conditions), rain is generally a given, here’s a piece of advice from me: even if the weather report calls for sun during your entire stay, you should tote along weather protection for your gear, nonetheless. It’s much better to have that rain gear and not need it, than to need the rain gear and not have it (I write this from experience). And, if you haven’t already deduced, this rain gear for your camera is also good protection against blowing sand if you are traveling to a place like White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
Know Your Lighting Conditions
Photography in the spring requires an understanding of the lighting conditions you might encounter for a particular national park. Spring rain (no matter where you are) can create an atmosphere of flat-to-dim light. Parks such as Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns also have their own set of lighting issues regarding photography underground (of course, these parks have the same lighting issues year-round and not just during the spring season).
And, let’s not forget about aquatic photography should you opt for a nice little spring break at someplace like Laughing Bird Caye or Biscayne National Park. Underwater photography presents its own interesting lighting challenges: make sure the camera you use has a flash for those underwater photos in order to get the true, brilliant colors of the corals and fish - otherwise, your image will be a canvas of blue-green.
So, research those spring lighting variables in addition to the weather and temperature of the national park you intend to explore, because knowing your light will help you choose the right lenses, believe it or not (go onto the Internet and look up the meaning of a “fast” lens).
What Else Should You Pack?
Ok, so let’s return to the reasons you enjoy spring photography and figure out what gear to pack for specific subjects. For spring wildflower shots in a national park (regardless of the lighting), take along your dedicated macro lens or some other alternative, such as a telephoto lens, a point-and-shoot camera with a macro setting, or a close-up lens filter that screws onto an otherwise non-macro lens to magnify the subject of an image.
The blooming flowers and sparkling spring water drops on petals and leaves offer myriad opportunities for really neat, close-up shots. For wildlife photos (and all those spring babies), it goes without saying that you should pack along a telephoto lens with the longest focal length you are willing to carry around during a day hike or a backcountry expedition.
While many people enjoy seeing a landscape image populated with wildlife (think: bison scattered over the hills at Yellowstone National Park), the real attention-grabbers are those frame-filling visages of (baby) bears, bison and bitterns (to name a few creatures you might see during your spring visit to a national park). For landscape images, be prepared to capture those dramatic spring thunderstorms across broad vistas like Grand Canyon National Park using a wide-angle lens with an attached polarizer and/or graduated neutral density filter.
These filters – separate or combined - will give you a great color “pop,” remove most water reflection and glare, temper light variations along a horizon line, and really bring forth the drama and texture of those dark rainclouds.
In addition to the normal Internet search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo, I utilize a site called Flickr to help me research upcoming trips (no matter what season of the year). Flickr is a photo-sharing site populated by hundreds of thousands (or maybe even millions) of images taken by photographers from all over the world. It’s a perfect pictorial database from which to search for shots of national parks captured during every season of the year, under any lighting condition.
Most of the photos on Flickr also detail camera settings, lens data, and photographer commentary, all of which can provide helpful information to aid you in deciding upon your own spring travel plans.
To help narrow down your search for national park shots on Flickr, simply surf over to Traveler’s Flickr page which offers more than 6,000 photos from more than 300 photographers!
Now, let’s review class. In summary, for a spring visit to a national park, think about:
• The kinds of images you want to capture since that will determine the lenses you pack;
• Spring weather conditions and temperatures, since they will determine your clothing and protection for your camera gear; and
• Lighting conditions for the season, the park, and the particular location you wish to visit within the park, since that will also determine the lenses you pack.