7 Things Professional Nature Photographers Want You to Know About Visiting National Parks

Respect the rangers when they are stopping traffic to give wildlife some space, like for this grizzly bear and her cubs crossing in Grand Teton National Park. © Dawn Wilson

Tourists have been flocking to national parks, wildlife refuges, and other nature areas in record numbers since the coronavirus pandemic began—which is both a reason to celebrate and potentially a cause for concern. Whether you’re new to these areas, a frequent visitor, or somewhere in between, don’t pack up the car until you read this.

1. We’re thrilled to see you enjoying nature. 

The increase in park visitors is obvious to us as nature photographers, in part because we’re sometimes in the field from before sunrise to after sunset and see the crowds, and in part because park efforts to manage those crowds—like timed-entry reservations—have changed the way we do our jobs. But we’re excited to see you here and certainly are willing to share our love for these amazing spaces. 

Many of us got into nature photography because we have a deep desire to educate and inspire others to appreciate nature. We hope you’ll hang out in public parks and national wildlife refuges with us long after the pandemic ends. In fact, some of us offer workshops and guided photography tours, and we know you could even be a future client. 

We’re happy to answer questions if we can when we’re in the field, but speak softly and give us some space so you don’t accidentally startle our subjects. You may be on vacation, but we may be making up for months of lost work. Regardless, common courtesy for others still applies in nature—slow down and stay alert to people and wildlife on the roads, say “hello” when passing others on a trail, and share space with others at popular pullouts and photo locations. Always walk around other photographers—professional or not—instead of walking in front of their cameras, and give visitors hiking up a trail the right of way. 

Be respectful of other drivers on the roads and use designated pull-outs when you want to stop for a photograph. Taken in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska © Dawn Wilson

2. You can—and should try to—avoid crowds.

While we’re thrilled to see you exploring the national park system, we admittedly aren’t that excited about crowds. They’re not just mildly inconvenient; crowds also increase our impact on the habitats we’re visiting and that can have catastrophic effects on wildlife, wildflowers, trees, and humans, too—both immediately and in the long-term. So we have a few tips to help you avoid those crowds:

  • Get up early.
  • Stay out late.
  • If possible, get out of your car and walk. 

Award-winning conservation photographer Krista Schlyer explains, “The last time I visited Yellowstone there were bear jams, bison jams, and wolf jams, where traffic backs up for miles because people are stopped in the middle of the road to watch these animals or take a photo. But if you walked a half mile onto a trail, there was nobody. This is even more true if you rise at dawn and go for a hike. It’s true you can get great megafauna photos from your car in some of the parks, but you don’t really experience the park that way, and you get the same photo everyone else gets. Step onto the trail early in the morning and you not only get unusual photos, you also connect with billions of years of Earth history and find some new sight or experience some new sound with every breath.”

We also suggest visiting some of the lesser known parks. “Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Glacier and the Everglades are all spectacular, one-of-a-kind places, and they belong on every bucket list. But so do Big Bend, Olympic, White Sands, Organ Pipe, Great Basin, and many more. Each one holds something more magnificent than you can imagine, so think about trying someplace a little harder to get to, a little more adventurous, a little less crowded,” says Schlyer.

3. You can get a deeper experience, even in an iconic park.

If being in the most iconic parks is what is important to you, we can understand that, too.  Photographer and conservationist Tom Blagden has spent decades focused on Acadia National Park and, more recently, the Grand Canyon. “The Grand Canyon is one of the most unique and powerful landscapes,” notes Blagden. But there are still ways—and reasons—to avoid crowds in even the iconic destinations. 

“I recommend going [to Grand Canyon National Park] in the shoulder seasons of early spring or late fall when it’s less crowded. Most folks simply marvel at the Canyon from the rim, but the true experience is to hike down its depths or raft the river within. Only then does one get a true sense of its scale and complexity, enveloped in a primal world of rock and river,” Blagden says. 

Blagden encourages visitors to consider signing up for a concessioner’s specialized trip through the Commercial Services Program of the National Park Service. “Yes, [these trips] cost more, but you can usually get a higher quality experience in some of the best places and with fewer people. A perfect example: an 8-17 day raft trip down the Grand Canyon,” he explains. 

Experiences like these can help you see a park beyond its face value. “The Canyon, for example, represents many of the critical issues facing not only the park but the West and our quality of life as well: water contamination from mining, invasive species, and water itself as a diminishing resource. Of the hundreds of people with whom I’ve rafted the Grand Canyon, many have claimed it to be one of the most humbling and life-changing experiences of their lives,” says Blagden.

Observe posted closure signs, like this one in Rocky Mountain National Park at a road closed due to damage from a recent wildfire. © Dawn Wilson

4. Read the park’s website. 

Every park is unique with different mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, trees, wildflowers, plants, fungi, and other living things that call it home. We’re their guests, and it’s our responsibility to know and follow the house rules.

The rules for viewing wildlife—how far away you should be, for example—can vary by park, even if the wildlife species are similar. The rules aren’t arbitrary but rather have been calculated to keep you safe. If it’s difficult to conceptualize the distances, you can keep in mind that a typical city block is roughly 300 feet in length, and your yard at home may be roughly 100 feet in length. Visitors are advised to stay 25 yards away from most large mammals in Rocky Mountain National Park, which Park staff clarify is equivalent to approximately two full-size buses. When in doubt, leave more space between you and wildlife. 

Park websites can also help you identify designated parking or pull-off areas so you and your car remain safe. Roads, trails, or specific areas of the park are sometimes closed unexpectedly due to recent weather conditions, wildfires, natural resource management strategies, or wildlife activity. You’ll be able to plan for closures if you check the park website immediately before heading to the park. 

The best source for park information is usually its official National Park Service website. Visit nps.gov and search for a park, or google the name of the park you wish to visit and look for the search result with nps.gov in the url. 

While you’re on the park’s website, Schlyer suggests reading about its history—human history and natural history. “Some of these stories are incredible, and they help visitors gain a more profound experience of and connection to the parks,” she says. You might start by exploring the “Learn and Explore” menu on the National Park Service website. 

Schlyer certainly knows how life-changing a deep immersion in the parks can be. “Many years ago I sold everything I owned and lived in a car for a year, just traveling around to national parks. I later wrote a book about the experience titled Almost Anywhere. It was one of the hardest times in my life but also one of the best years of my life, immersed in the rich history and biological complexity of these protected lands,” Schlyer says.

Watch for wildlife on all roads, like this moose that crossed the road into oncoming traffic in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. © Dawn Wilson

5. Park animals are wild.

The wildlife in our parks are neither tame pets nor captive zoo animals. They will attack if they feel threatened, and they may perceive you as threatening even if that’s not your intent. 

What may be even more surprising to you is that some things you perceive as friendly or harmless gestures are in fact threatening. Feeding an animal human food, for example, will lead to that animal’s death. 

“I can’t tell you how many times we have stopped people from sending their kids, or their dog, out to stand beside a bison for a photo in Yellowstone. We have watched as rangers had to pull their guns to make a point,” says wildlife photographer Mary Ann McDonald, who has also authored 29 natural history books for children. 

“Remember that if you are looking at a wild animal through a viewfinder or phone, it may be closer to you than it appears to be,” warns McDonald.

It’s also true that families—and in particular moms—can get aggressive if they fear their baby or babies are in danger. Give animals with young extra space and consider the impact your presence may have on them. 

Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas, who specializes in baby and family wildlife images, explains, “It is important to remember that animal mothers, like humans, can be incredibly sensitive and protective of their young. When I am around wild animal moms, I usually use a long lens and keep my distance, and also make sure to keep my body movements slow and gentle. Your energy, or your vibe, is also highly important. I always try to breathe deeply and calm myself, so that my energy is low and non-threatening.” 

Eszterhas adds that if you’re anxious, an animal mother is likely to feel that energy as threatening or even predatory. “I think we need to realize that animal moms are just like human moms in the fact that they are just trying to make a living and raise a family. So give them the space they need to feed, feel safe, tend to their young, and thrive,” she says.

Staying quiet, including speaking in a low voice or avoiding speaking at all, will also help reduce the disturbance on wildlife. Ultimately, the less disruptive you are to wildlife, the more natural your photos will look.

6. Great vacation photos are personal. 

You don’t need fancy camera equipment to create beautiful nature photos. Your smartphone can create display-worthy photos that will help you remember the magic of your national park vacation. 

But keep in mind that the frame-filling headshot of a bear or moose, the striking pelican with lunch in its beak, and many other images that you have seen in magazines likely were taken with specialized lenses or aerial equipment that enabled the photographer to maintain a safe distance. You may imagine re-creating these images in the wild, but you’re not likely to get that shot with the equipment you have.

A better image for your souvenir purposes would be one that shows wildlife in the beautiful landscape that you want to remember—a big landscape with a bison as a small focal point in the scene rather than a frame-filling portrait, for example. 

Blagden suggests making an image as personal as possible. “Try to avoid the iconic, signature shots that most folks see,” he says. “Instead seek the most personally meaningful experience you can within the park, and then create an image that emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically symbolizes that experience… that you will carry forever.”

Whatever you do, follow posted instructions. “If a sign says Don’t go off the trail, then please don’t. The signs are there for your safety,” says McDonald. If you want the iconic image you’ve seen before, “Go and buy the postcard in the gift shop,” she adds.

Remember that taking the same photo as those in a large crowd produces just that, the same photo. Find something unique instead by trying different angles, different lenses, different perspectives, and you will treasure the photo—and the experience—that much more.

It can be hard to take a unique photo when you are standing in line with a crowd of people like this group waiting for a grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park. Look for unique locations and subjects, and venture into the trail system. © Dawn Wilson

7. Your actions matter.

What you do in the parks affects the lands and wildlife long after you’re gone. Schlyer once took a magazine assignment to document the National Park Service’s effort to transition to zero waste in Grand Teton National Park. “The NPS’s greatest challenge in managing waste comes from visitors who don’t understand the impact garbage has on the parks. Because they don’t see the trash after they toss it in a garbage can, they seem to think it just magically disappears, rather than becoming a huge sustainability problem for the parks,” she explains. 

“So now, when I visit parks or any public lands, I endeavor to keep my garbage footprint to the absolute minimum. I bring food and drinks in reusable containers, and if I bring something in,…I take it out. If you make your trip zero waste, the park service has a fighting chance to make the parks zero waste, too—ultimately saving taxpayers money while increasing the health of our shared national treasures,” Schlyer adds.  

Blagden likewise hopes that park visitors will remain mindful of park costs. “Almost every one of our national parks is gravely underfunded. Visiting our parks is a privilege and not a right just because we are taxpayers. We must not take them for granted and can do our individual best to contribute to the friends groups and nonprofits that support most of the major parks. If you enjoy a park experience, try to give back more than the admission ticket,” he asks. 

Remember that it is best to leave the park better than you found it, follow Leave No Trace principles, and respect the posted signage and directives of park rangers.

Please share this story to help protect our national parks and public green spaces.

About the contributors

Tom Blagden’s devotion to land protection and conservation issues is evident in his body of work, focused primarily on Maine, South Carolina, Costa Rica, and, more recently, the Grand Canyon. Three of Tom’s 10 books won national book awards, and his photographs have graced the covers of Smithsonian, Audubon, Outdoor Photographer, Nature Conservancy, and Sierra. A graduate of Harvard University, Tom was one of two recipients of NANPA’s 2021 Environmental Impact Award. 

Suzi Eszterhas is an award-winning wildlife photographer, including NANPA’s 2021 Outstanding Photographer of the Year Award, and best known for her work documenting newborn animals and family life in the wild. She has photographed over 100 cover and feature stories for publications such as Time, Smithsonian, BBC Wildlife, The New York Times, Ranger Rick, and National Geographic Kids. As an author/photographer, Suzi has more than 20 books in print. 

Mary Ann McDonald received NANPA’s 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award, together with her husband Joe. Her work regularly appears in calendars and publications of the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and elsewhere. Author/photographer of more than 29 books and a winner of the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, Mary Ann and Joe are known for photographing the seven big cats of the world and completing 107 treks to photograph mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Krista Schlyer is a conservation documentarian and storyteller focused on long-term landscape-based projects, including the Anacostia River watershed and the longleaf pine ecosystem of the American Southeast. She spent a decade documenting the biodiversity of the United States-Mexico borderlands and the impacts of U.S. border policy on the region, including writing/directing the 2019 feature film Ay Mariposa, a project honored with a 2021 Environmental Impact Award from NANPA. Her book Continental Divide won the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award and Ansel Adams Award.  

Dawn Wilson is an award-winning professional nature photographer specializing in photographing the wildlife of high latitudes and high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Recognized as one of the top ten female nature photographers to watch by Wild Planet Photo Magazine, Dawn’s work is widely published, including Wyoming Wildlife, Outdoor Photographer, Colorado Outdoors, Colorado Life, and Nature’s Best Photography. She currently serves as President of NANPA’s Board of Directors.