For myself and many other photographers, probably you included, one of the more difficult parts of the hobby is figuring out where to shoot things like nature photography.
If you have a big trip or a vacation planned, whether it be an exotic location or somewhere not so far away, then that question is answered for you. But for evening shoots after work, spontaneous sessions or weekend outings, a bit of planning is necessary. Enter the wonders of your local parks!
A park can take many forms and can exist in any location, and almost any country. It is generally defined as a “large public green area, used for recreation”. They come in all sizes, and each features their own unique variety of plants, animals, and landscapes.
Parks can be as small as a local city or county park, a larger state park, all the way up to a massive national park. Their common thread is that they have been well-defined and set aside for public use, and are perfect areas to practice nature photography.
Why shoot at a park?
Parks are unique and useful to us photographers because they can be a testing ground for new equipment, a safe practice area for new techniques, or a fully-realized background for your real work.
Parks are attractive because they are a (usually) safe, well-defined area, a miniature representation of the local environment. They give you a small, diverse biosphere of flora and fauna, all wrapped up in one package.
Parks are also numerous, and you have a lot to choose from, regardless of size or classification. Even national parks, with the fewest number of all the types, are plentiful. Over 100 countries worldwide have lands designated as national parks, including 59 in the United States alone. This doesn’t even count other sites in the national registry, such as forests, seashores, and historic sites.
The bottom line is you’ll never have a lack of subject matter when visiting one of these areas.
Preparing for the shoot
Preparing for a photo shoot in a park isn’t really any different than most other outdoor environments. You’ll want to pack and check all of your normal gear, including:
- Camera body – If you’re hiking to a location, you’ll probably want to keep the number of bodies down to one; otherwise, maybe bring a film or instant camera as well for backup.
- Lenses – Again, you don’t want to weigh yourself down too much, but always bring lenses to cover most of the situations you’ll find yourself in. If you’re shooting landscapes, bring a wide-angle prime lens, or at least a zoom that covers focal lengths down to 18 to 24 mm.
- Tripod – Some camera bags and backpacks have holders for your tripod. Otherwise, take this into consideration as tripods are often not heavy, but bulky and unwieldy to carry while tromping through the park with your other gear.
- Filters and other accessories – Don’t forget the little things such as UV filters, neutral density filters, remote shutter releases, and microfiber cloths to keep lens glass clean.
Since you’re shooting outside, you also need to be prepared for events and conditions outside your control, such as the weather. Depending on the size of the park, there may be hiking and long walking involved. So, you’ll also need to plan ahead and consider items such as:
- Appropriate clothing – Long sleeves and long pants for mosquito-prone environments, hats, extra dry socks for long hikes.
- Items to protect against the sun – Sunscreen and sunglasses.
- Defensive items to keep yourself safe – A knife, or bear spray, if you’re traveling into areas where bears are known to live.
- Location tools – To help identify where you are and where you’re going, such as a GPS receiver, paper maps (absolutely the best idea), and a compass.
As with any outdoor excursions, you’ll need to plan ahead a little, both physically and mentally, when venturing out into a park, especially a state or national park or forest.
First, just make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re going to a large, sprawling national park and have never been to the area before, then it’s pretty tough to physically scout the location before your shoot. The best you can do in that situation is to do as much research as you can online, or talk to friends or co-workers that have been to the area before.
For a smaller park, or one that’s close by, the best idea is to scout the location first. What hazards are present? Native animals? Plants?
Here in Florida, we have a tree (uncommon, but it exists in the wild) called a Manchineel. Everything about it from the leaves to the wood itself is extremely toxic. Even brushing up against it can end badly. These are the kinds of things you want to research well before you explore a park, especially the larger ones that may take you into more remote areas.
On the fauna side of possible dangers, you have the local wildlife. Here in Florida, it’s primarily alligators and snakes, although some areas of our state are habitats for small populations of bears and panthers. First aid and snakebite kits are a smart idea for almost any wilderness area around the world. Other areas of the United States and around the world have larger animals that can pose a serious threat to explorers and photographers, such as bears.
Black bears alone exist in approximately 40 of the 50 states in the U.S., and they, along with the other species, need to be respected and avoided. Many photographers and tourists have been making headlines in recent years by getting too close to bears, without thinking of the possible outcomes to themselves or the bear.
While unprovoked attacks aren’t very common, it is very easy to surprise or startle a bear, and it’s always recommended to carry bear spray in the wild when in bear territory.
What to Shoot
The possibilities of subjects in an outdoor park are almost endless. Some of us will go just to shoot a sunrise or sunset, while others want to take home photos of local wildlife.
Landscape photographers can focus on grabbing a shot of that sunset, or other features of the environment, such as lakes, mountains, and rivers. Open, panoramic scenes captured with wide-angle lenses are a favorite, as are forests, trees and the changes in the color of leaves. Flowing water such as waterfalls or fast moving rivers are good candidates for a long exposure photo, and even plains and prairies can be framed into beautiful minimalist compositions.
There is a never-ending variety of flora and fauna that can be photographed, such as flowers, trees, plants, and animals such as small mammals, reptiles, and an endless variety of birds. Many parks have some species that are concentrated in that area and offer opportunities for us photographers that we can’t get anywhere else.
Here on the west Florida coast, my nearest state park is home to the Florida Scrub Jay, endemic to this area, and concentrated higher in this one park than anywhere else. It’s almost a rite of passage to photograph one. Many parks around the world are home to their own species as well.
Finally, we need to address an overall importance when discussing capturing images of our beautiful environment; we as photographers need to be nature’s greatest champions.
I would suspect that most of us who love to be outdoors, already have a desire to be careful when enjoying our parks. But as we’ve seen recently in the news, not all of us take that into consideration. The commonly heard phrase, “leave nothing but footprints” may sound cliche, but it really is a best-case scenario of what we should strive for as we enjoy the great outdoors.
The plants and animals that make their home in these areas were likely there long before we visited. It is our responsibility to leave the areas as we found them, without adding or taking away anything from the environment. This will ensure that future generations of photographers and explorers will be able to enjoy those areas too.
What was your best experience visiting and photographing a park for nature photography? Where do you want to go that you haven’t been yet? And what tips would you give others who are ready to visit and document the great outdoors? Please comment and let’s discuss below.