My employer allows its employees a sabbatical, 12 weeks of paid vacation, every seven years. It is designed to recharge the batteries after seven years of high stress in an extremely fast-paced technology industry. I am now in my twenty-second year with the company, which allowed me to take my third sabbatical between May and July 2004. During this time off, I visited, hiked and photographed at five of the great U.S. National Parks. The ones I chose are arguably our grandest parks. My travels took me to Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks. During these trips, I averaged just over nine miles per day on foot, often in steep and unforgiving terrain. Conditions varied from sunand rain to even a blizzard in June. I was always loaded down with photo gear, water and other essentials.
My goal was primarily landscape and opportunistic wildlife photography. The gear I took on each trip included the Canon EOS 1Ds and EOS 1D Mark II camera bodies, the 16-35 f/2.8L lens, the 24-70 f/2.8L lens, the 70-200 f/2.8L lens, the 300 f/2.8L lens and all the usual accessories such as flash, teleconverters, and spare batteries. For the later trips, I ended up switching to the 70-200 f/4L lens to save weight.
Yosemite National Park
In April 2004, even before my sabbatical began, I spent two-and-a-half days in east central California’s Yosemite National Park after a Triple D wildlife shoot in the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time, but I was still able to produce some satisfactory photographs.
The Yosemite Valley is absolutely beautiful even in horrible conditions, with several tall waterfalls and the iconic Half Dome and El Capitan mountains. This is the most accessible part of Yosemite National Park and is a relatively small valley for the number of people who visit it. It is serviced by a two-lane, one-way loop that millions of people travel every year, so this part of the park is very crowded. There are other areas accessible by road, but these parts were closed during my visit due to severe weather that had dropped significant amounts of snow in higher elevations.
Photographs of the waterfalls and mountains are a must if you have never been to this park before. Some of the most spectacular landscape photographs ever captured in North America were taken here by the likes of late masters Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. I had hoped to produce some similarly stunning photographs but the light for it never materialized. So, instead, I focused on images of waterfalls that are often best photographed in overcast conditions. I also captured images of the landscape that showed the weather interacting with the terrain. Very little wildlife was present during my visit.
I found the EOS 1Ds coupled to the 24-70mm zoom lens and a super telephoto lens to be the most useful equipment here. Virtually all of the landscapes can easily be photographed within the 24-70mm range and the super telephoto is great for isolating certain features such as a lone tree in the middle of lower Yosemite Falls; I used the 500mm f/4L lens during this trip.
The gateway airport for Yosemite is in Fresno, California, with roughly a two-hour drive to the Yosemite Valley.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I last visited the Smokies as a teenager and my memories of it were that it was dark and wet. However, I have seen so many wonderful waterfall and atmospheric images taken at the park since, I just had to return. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the world. Located along the Tennessee/North Carolina Border, the Smokies do not offer the grand majestic “eye-candy” areas that some of the western parks have, but it is the best place I have found to photograph waterfalls and cascades. Some of the prettiest ones require strenuous hikes on the park’s vast trail system, but the payoff is always there with a wonderful waterfall in reward.
In addition to waterfalls, cascades, and streams there are several overlooks which allow you to photograph layered mountains. Distant mountains appear to fade away due to atmospheric haze caused by fossil fuel burning as well as oxygen generation by the dense old-growth forest covering the Smoky Mountains. My favorite of these overlooks is Morton’s Overlook on the Tennessee side of the park, which I consider to be the most spectacular overlook. It also seems to have the most consistent view, not tending to fog up as much as some of the others.
There is wildlife in the Smokies including deer and Black Bear. Deer are frequently sighted in the park, but very few visitors actually spot a bear. Your best bet for a bear sighting is in Cades Cove, an area where pioneer settlers lived and farmed the land. This is also a great place to photograph some of the old homesteads and cabins.
As in Yosemite, the 24-70mm zoom attached to the EOS 1Ds was my workhorse lens, but I also used the 300mm lens a lot for the layered mountain landscapes. Knoxville, Tennessee or Asheville, North Carolina airports provide service for Smoky Mountain travelers. Gattlinburg, Tennessee is a touristy town to stay in on the north side of the park. Cherokee, North Carolina on the south side of the park can be less crowded.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is an area of extreme beauty but it can be difficult to photograph. It features a number of mountains in the 13,000 to over 14,000 foot class. Almost all of the grand landscapes are morning shots. The best areas require a very early start to hike to the shooting location before sunrise, then hoping for good light.
The most accessible and one of the most beautiful areas in the park is the Bear, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake area on the park’s eastern side. Unfortunately, during my visit the road leading to the trailhead for these lakes was closed and the free shuttle to these areas does not run early enough be able to hike to the lakes prior to sunrise. Although this was a great disappointment to me, I found an adequate alternative at Sprague Lake. Avoiding including man-made objects like railings and parked cars in my landscape made shots a challenge here. Following my sabbatical, I made a weekend return trip later in the summer. The shuttle ran earlier in the morning, allowing me to photograph the Bear, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake areas with alpenglow at sunrise.
The Trail Ridge Road is open in summer and traverses the entire park from the northeastern to southwestern ends, taking you above 12,000 feet along the way. There are some breathtaking, spectacular views along this road. Note that at this high elevation everything takes on a bluish cast, so be prepared with the appropriate 81 series filters or white balance adjustments.
Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park is abundant with elk at seemingly every turn in early summer, while they head for higher elevations in late summer. Most are accommodating photo subjects at this time of year. At the highest elevations, marmot can be photographed and, if you are lucky, Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goat. One of the best experiences from my sabbatical travels was a coyote encounter I had here, where a curious coyote allowed me to photograph him for about 45 minutes. He meandered through a meadow near me, sometimes passing within ten feet of my position and even laying down for a rest right in front of me. Numerous birds may also be found at the park and are easily photographed, including Black-billed Magpie, Steller’s Jay, Gray Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker.
I found the 300mm lens, both with and without teleconverters, to be ideal for the wildlife at Rocky Mountain National Park and both the 16-35 and the 24-70 were heavily used for landscapes. Graduated neutral density filters were a must to keep snow-covered peaks and bright skies in check. About a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver International Airport will put you at the park entrance. The most convenient accommodations are located in Estes Park, Colorado.
Grand Teton National Park
In my opinion, the Teton Range is the most spectacular mountain range in the United States and possibly all of North America. This national park remains my favorite and I return as often as possible. I had not previously visited the park in June but was not disappointed. While dramatic clouds and sky color were absent, wildflowers were abundant. The usual spots, including Schwabacher Landing and Oxbow Bend, always offer exciting vistas but I also found some newer, non-iconic views that I had not seen published before. Bison were present in numbers greater than in past visits, and I was able to spend about two hours with a small group of them in evening light. I spotted antelope at a distance, too far away to be photographed.
Much of Grand Teton National Park is best photographed in the morning as the spectacular Teton Range and Mt. Moran views are from the east. A trip around the west side into the Grand Targhee National Forrest can also yield some beautiful photos, although I did not visit the west side on this trip. I reserved my afternoons for wildlife since I could usually place myself to the west of most of the animals. Bison, elk and moose are all generally photographable at close range in the Tetons. While on the Jenny Lake Trail, I rounded a corner and almost ran into a moose cow grazing on the trail. She continued her feeding, seemingly unconcerned about my presence and I had to pass within a few feet of her to get by. Sunset was spent at one of the mountain vistas in hopes of getting great color and clouds. Unfortunately, there were no great sunsets on this visit, but I have had a lot of success at Oxbow Bend in the past.
Everything from about 14mm to 600mm seemed useful in this park. The wider angle lenses were able to take in the mountains and with adequate depth of field for foreground wildflowers. The 24-70mm was heavily used for reflection shots and the longer focal lengths for wildlife. I used the 300 f/2.8L lens with a 2x converter for full frame bison headshots. A 1-stop and 2-stop graduated neutral density filter were essential tools here to tone down the snow-covered mountains and allow recording of good detail in the green foreground.
Several airlines service the area via the Jackson, Wyoming airport. Accommodations are available in the park and in Jackson, Wyoming.
Yellowstone National Park
I renewed my love-hate relationship with Yellowstone National Park in mid-June after a several year hiatus. On the one hand, Yellowstone offers some great wildlife opportunities, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and of course the geysers, pools, and many other thermal features. On the other hand, many parts of the park are in perpetual traffic gridlock, sometimes causing significant travel delays. Numerous road closures make some parts of the park inaccessible and construction delays advertised as a half hour wait, in reality, are often much longer. Many trails are closed, such as the path to the base of Tower Falls, a great photography location. Closures are not posted at the top of the trail; instead it is barricaded just a few hundred yards from the destination. This caused me a great deal of frustration and wasted time walking or driving to areas I was ultimately unable to reach. Improved signage would make this park so much friendlier to its visitors. Following this visit, I do not plan a return trip to Yellowstone during summer.
I arrived in Yellowstone early one sunny morning to be met by the first of several multiple hour construction delays. Having planned for the advertised half-hour delay, I instead encountered a two-hour delay, causing me to miss rainbows generated by the Upper and Lower Falls in Yellowstone’s own Grand Canyon. My next stop was the thermal features of Midway Geyser Basin to photograph the fantastically colored Grand Prismatic Spring. However, it was too cold at about 58 degrees, resulting in too much steam which obscured the spectacular colors. So, it was onward to Upper Geyser Basin which, among many other geysers, is home to Old Faithful and other predictable geysers. Here I did manage to adequately photograph some of these and also discovered my new favorite geological feature in Yellowstone – Morning Glory Pool. As the afternoon of my first day wore on, clouds rolled in and it started to rain. I didn’t see the sun again that trip to Yellowstone except for a brief period the next morning. During the brief lapse of cloud cover I was able to photograph the rainbow generated by Tower Falls, which I reached via an unmarked alternate route to the base of this waterfall.
The park was soaked in torrential downpours for the next three days until eventually turning into a blizzard. June 10 and 11, 2004 saw one of the largest summer blizzards on record in the continental United States. All passes were closed and the park resembled Yellowstone of winter, with virtually no driving allowed anywhere, creating a major difficulty getting back to Jackson for my flight home. Thanks to Microsoft Streets and Trips software, I was able to plot a course through southern Montana, eastern Idaho and western Wyoming that took me to Jackson without having to ascend above 7,500 feet where the roads were closed. During the long drive it was stressful not knowing if I would make my flights.
I was able to photograph elk and bison as well as some wintertime scenics on the bad days. One experience in particular stands out: during the blizzard I was photographing snow-covered pines when out of the trees emerged a bison coming straight towards me. He didn’t see me at first as I was crouched under a tree for shelter from the weather. About 20 feet away he spotted me, stopped, looked me over, snorted a couple of times and then passed by.
I found that focal lengths from 16mm (or even wider) for some of the colorful pools to long telephoto for wildlife were useful in Yellowstone. Access to the park is generally easiest by flying into Jackson Hole and driving. Weather permitting, of course.
The large amount of hiking with equipment I did during my visits to these parks had me seriously questioning my equipment choices due to weight. During a 5.4 mile hike with an elevation rise of 14,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park I contemplated the ideal kit for hiking/photography in our national parks.
The Canon professional digital bodies are heavy to carry while lighter-weight consumer models do not offer the full frame sensor and high megapixel count I need for landscapes. There is a niche for an EOS 20D-weight body (minus the optional vertical grip) with a full frame sensor similar to the 1Ds. This would cut the camera weight down by 60%.
I feel that the 70-200mm f/2.8L is the wrong choice for a short to medium telephoto zoom, with the 70-200mm f/4L offering identical image quality at half the weight (and price!). After the Rocky Mountain/Grand Teton-Yellowstone trip, I ordered the 70-200 f/4L for subsequent trips. This is a reduction in weight from 3.5lb to 1.5lb without sacrificing image quality. This equates to an extra liter of water that can be carried!
I would like to see camera manufacturers develop a professional grade lens in the 20-55mm f/5.6 range which would be half the weight of the 16-35mm f/2.8L, 17-40mm f/4L, or 24-70mm f/2.8L lens and it would replace two lenses with one. In landscape photography, apertures faster than f/5.6 are simply not needed often. It seems that the current offerings in slower and lighter lenses are not professional grade, with too many image quality compromises. Serious landscape photographers cannot live with significant pincushion distortion, barrel distortion or chromatic aberration.
I found the Gitzo 1348 tripod with a Kirk BH-3 head to be good hiking companions but the tripod legs were balky, easy to overtighten, and difficult to adjust, causing me to miss some shots. After years of searching, I am still looking for the ideal landscape tripod. The BH-3 performed flawlessly even with the 300mm f/2.8 and 2x converter, making me feel that the rhetoric about needing a heavier ballhead like the Arca Swiss or Kirk BH-1 to be false. Note that I use mirror lock-up with a delayed automatic shutter release via the self-timer for all landscape photos.
Several publications can be very helpful in trip planning and provide a resource while you are visiting great national parks, although based on my time at the parks I have found inconsistencies with some of the photographic advice. The National Parks Service website www.nps.gov also has excellent information on the parks.
AAA’s Photographing National Parks, by Tim Fitzharris
Tim Fitzharris is one of the country’s leading nature photographers. His book covers many of the U.S. National Parks and is beautifully illustrated. Each park has its own overview and details provided regarding photography hot spots which I found to be reliable.
The Smoky Mountains Photographer’s Guide, by Nye Simmons and Bill Campbell (ISBN 0974552607)
I found this book at the Knoxville airport as I was leaving and immediately wished I had found it sooner. This excellent book comprehensively covers the photo opportunities in the park.
The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, by Michael Frye
This book is the best resource on photographing Yosemite that I have found. Not only does it point you to the best spots, it also tells you exactly what time of year is best for each location.
Photographer’s Guide to Yellowstone and the Tetons, by Joseph K. Lange
This is the best guide available for finding great spots in these two parks. The location advice is outstanding, however, I found some of the photography advice to be inaccurate. Several locations are suggested as mid- to late morning opportunities with enhancing filters, but I found them great sunrise spots. I disagree with time-of-day suggestions, and in one case two Yellowstone waterfalls purported to be perpetually free of direct sunlight were both bathed in sunshine upon my arrival. The rainbow times for summer seemed to be off thirty minutes to an hour, suggesting an arrival time that would be too late to photograph them. Despite these issues, I find it the best book dedicated to photography on these parks and recommend it for that reason.
Photo Traveler Guides
Most of the parks I visited are covered by Photo Traveler’s Guides, a good resource for locating the most popular photography spots in the parks. The photography advice doesn’t go into much detail.
Editor’s note: Links have been provided to independent organizations that offer the recommended books for sale for the convenience of readers.