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Photography In The National Parks: Capturing Winter In Our National Parks

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The mountain and the cloud at Mount Rainier National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

“Winter” is a relative term. For me, the word conjures images of snow and ice along with such adjectives as “crisp” and “stark.” Winter for others, however, can bring to mind sandy beaches and turquoise water or alligators and migrating birds along with adjectives such as “warm,” “hot,” “humid,” even “wet,” depending on one’s location within the National Park System.

Visiting typically cold and snowy winter parks means capturing a clean, icy beauty with clarity of resolution in your landscape photography. A trip to warmer national parks such as Biscayne or Death Valley won’t yield any “icy beauty” but there will be a kaleidoscope of color ranging from deeply-saturated green vegetation to sugar-white sand beaches and clear blue saltwater to sinuous light-golden sand dunes towering overhead.

Snow or No Snow in a National Park

As hinted above, while the majority of us may link the winter season to snow, not all national parks are going to sport a blanket of the white fluff. Location, elevation, and atmospheric conditions help determine whether or not snow will accumulate. A few parks may get a minimum of snow and ice but a maximum of wet (think: Hoh Rainforest within Olympic National Park) while some parks (Everglades and Virgin Islands national parks) measure moisture in terms of relative humidity as well as waves slapping the beach.

Then, there are those national parks with which we associate red rock, arid landscapes, and practically no rain (except during monsoon season). For such places as Arches or Canyonlands or Bryce, a dusting of white creates a totally magical effect.

Capturing Winter in a National Park

The Traveler counts 59 national parks within the United States and its territories; this is not including all of the national seashores, national historical parks, national memorials, national rivers, national wildlife refuges, national etc., etc. etc. With so many parks and so many different environments, what should one look for when photographing a park during the winter? I absolutely cannot claim to have visited every single park, but I and the Traveler between us can help you out with a very short list of suggestions for selected parks.

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Consider heading to Yosemite National Park in spring to hone your photography skills.

Acadia National Park: How about photographing a snow-covered carriage road, or maybe the wide-angle winter view from Cadillac Mountain. Hunker down close to the ground to get a stormy, wide-angle, shot of the shallow water landscape at Echo Lake’s shores. Make sure to have your polarizer with you to cut down on glare from the water and atmospheric haze.

Yellowstone National Park: Try to get that iconic shot of a bison’s snow-encrusted head as it exhales steamy breath into the frosty air. Get out to one of the hot springs and capture the differences between frozen vs. steam vs. liquid H2O. Make sure you’ve got a fast shutter speed to capture that one frozen moment of exhaled breath or rising steam. While you are out there, focus on the contrast between the snow’s edge and the reds, greens, blues, and oranges of algae rimming a hot spring like Grand Prismatic.

Olympic National Park: While this place presents many different environments within its boundaries, pay particular attention to the rainforest areas. With so many hues of green all saturated by the winter rain, try getting some macro shots of the details on leaves, mosses, ferns, and lichens. Get close to a banana slug. Practice your “silky water” skills while photographing the myriad waterfalls (Hoko Falls, Sol Duc Falls, Maple Creek Falls, Willaby Creek Falls, etc).

Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park: If it has snowed, make sure to get that color contrast between red rock and white snow. If there is no snow but it’s very cold, look for small, iced-over potholes and get down low with your tripod for a unique wide-angle composition of the icy potholes and slickrock. If it’s sunny, then get a really wide-angle shot of the landscape (ie., the Green River Overlook in Canyonlands) and make sure your f-stop is set to between 5.6 and 16 to try and achieve a sunstar. Don’t forget your polarizer and graduated ND filters.

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Winter coats Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a mix of snow and hoar frost. NPS photo.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The leafless trees blanketing the rounded mountains of this park make for moody shots that are further enhanced if there has been a dusting of snow. Don’t forget to include the rustic fencing, bridges, and other buildings on the park’s grounds – the dark wood, with or without snow, adds some interesting contrast as well as scale and familiar reference points.

Virgin Islands National Park: Capture the saturated turquoise waters against the light sandy beach on a sunny day (great to send to a friend who might be shivering down to their toes on an overcast, dull winter’s day). Go snorkeling (with a waterproof camera or waterproof camera housing) and use a flash to reveal the brilliant colors of the salt-water sea life. Show people that winter can be very colorful indeed.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: Frame and photograph the geometry created by ice slabs piling up against the shore and each other. Use a tripod and polarizer or neutral density filter on your lens to slow down the shutter speed and achieve a photo of silky flowing water amongst the sharply still ice slabs.

Everglades National Park: Use your polarizer and your graduated ND filter to photograph a dramatic stormy winter sky over the grasslands. Capture images of the birdlife migrating from the chilly north down to the warmer climes of this Florida park.

Mount Rainier National Park: If “the Mountain” is out, then snowshoe around for various photographic vantage points. Don’t just concentrate on the “big picture,” though; get those more intimate shots of a cone-laden conifer against the white snowy background or drive to a lower elevation to capture scenes of the quiet forest interior with all of its mosses, lichens, and greenery in an otherwise snow-carpeted land.

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Both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks offer "ghost trees" for photographing. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Glacier National Park: Home of the “snow ghost” – make sure to capture images of these totally snow-covered trees that look like people in funky poses. Also take a trip out to the south end of Lake McDonald to capture a wide-angle shot of the clear pebble-strewn water in the foreground with the starkly beautiful, snow-tipped mountains in the background.

Sequoia National Park: Notice (and photograph) the contrast that the tall, straight, reddish trunks of the trees with their green tops make against a snowy background, like soldiers standing at attention. Get some macro shots of tree bark texture that’s color-saturated from any precipitation, be it rain or snow.

Grand Canyon National Park: Winter in the park makes not only for extremely dramatic stormy skies, but also saturates the rock strata for deeper, richer colors. Like Arches and Canyonlands, a little bit of snow can really accentuate the geologic color contrast.

These are just a few ideas to shift your photographic creativity into gear when visiting the myriad national parks spread all over our vast nation. While these suggestions may appear to relate to a specific park, there’s no reason why you can’t do a little borrowing and apply those ideas to a different national park. Just don’t get in a hurry. Stand still. Look around you. Breathe in that air and figure out what you like best about a scene. Photograph the thing that draws your attention.

Get out, enjoy this winter, and photograph the season no matter where you are.


Utah's celebrated photographer, Tom Till, is a judge for a Utah Wilderness 50 contest in Utah that the Museum of Natural History Utah is sponsoring. Submission are being accepted January 1 - March 15 2014. Good time to pull out those national park images and enter...

Excellent article and great ideas for how to approach wither in the parks. You cover a lot of ground, a lot of parks. I love this. Nice to mention capturing the little details, too.

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