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Photography In The National Parks: Shoot Some Video


Kilauea after sunset, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park / Rebecca Latson

Still imagery is wonderful for capturing a moment in time and freezing it in pixels suitable for framing, but what do you do when you crave the sounds and movements as well as the sights of a favored national park? How do you seize those moments to store in a bottle and uncork at a later point in time? Short of moving just outside a national park’s boundaries, video is a great option for both sight and sound.

There are so many different methods of capturing video nowadays: dedicated camcorders, action cams like the GoPro or Garmin Virb, video-capable DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras, and smartphones. During recent visits to Glacier National Park and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, I captured video footage running between 12–40 seconds utilizing each of these platforms and have inserted them within this article for review.

I have one main requirement when capturing video: I want my videos to be “view-ready.” While I enjoy learning about new photographic formats and don’t mind in the least spending time editing a single image, I’m really not a cinematographer and don’t have any great interest in spending a lot of time cutting and splicing, or adding music or voiceovers. The video platforms I utilized were with the mindset of a regular visitor to a national park wishing to capture a little bit of my travel experience to ultimately upload to YouTube or Vimeo or include in a blog post or other website article. I wanted a decent video out of the box, with minimal editing on my part. Please bear in mind that the opinions in this article are quite subjective, because they are my opinions based on what I am looking for in a video platform. This article is a good starting point and a good reminder for you, the reader, to do your research before going out and purchasing something straight off the shelf.

The Smartphone

Probably the most readily available video platform is that from your smartphone. Most of you own a smartphone, carrying it around with you practically all the time, right? Video via phone is certainly handily accessible, and the quality isn’t half-bad. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, I used my iPhone 6S to capture my winter surroundings during a January visit to Glacier National Park. The caveat I encountered, though, was that my iPhone completely pooped out on me after maybe 15 seconds or less in the extreme cold. I had to warm the phone back up again to get the battery to resume its previous power level. My workaround was to shorten my video captures then place the phone back into my pocket. The lesson learned is that capturing lengthy videos with a smartphone in freezing weather might be a bit problematic.

A winter morning view of Going-To-The-Sun Road near Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

The Action Cam

Another platform I used during my Glacier trip was a rented GoPro. I’ve seen such cool things done with these pint-sized action cameras that I just had to try one for myself. I almost purchased one right off the shelf but decided instead to rent it prior to doing something so impulsive. After using it off and on for two of my three days in Glacier, I decided this is a sort of niche platform and not something I’d use for all of my national park video captures. I was not shredding the slopes, surfing the waves, riding the red rock, or doing anything remotely as cool as what I have seen in the GoPro commercials. For the one GoPro video I captured (that looked decent), I was simply snowshoeing around Lake McDonald Lodge, heading down toward the lakeshore. The original video was 7 minutes long, and I shortened it to 40 seconds. I wore the little camera on a chest harness while walking around. The first thing I noticed as I watched the raw footage is that I sway while walking. The video bobbed to the left then to the right then back to the left, giving me the makings of a slight headache. That was the main reason I shortened it to 40 seconds, not to mention that I got a little bored watching myself slowly wend my way to my destination. If I got bored, I’m pretty certain you all would be bored. For all I know, 40 seconds is still too long, but while you watch it, think about things such as sound and color and contrast and overall quality. Speaking of which, I was not too thrilled with the light and color quality. The original footage was dark and dull, forcing me to brighten it with the editing software downloaded from the GoPro site. Had the day been clear and sunny, perhaps, the quality might have improved.

A winter walk toward the shore of Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

DSLR Video

While my Canon 5DS is not a dedicated camcorder, it sure did a sweet job of capturing video. Of course, I placed it on a tripod to facilitate smooth movement. I tried handholding the camera while taking video, and that was short of disastrous. Aside from that, the color and sound are very nice, I think.

A January afternoon in Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Dedicated Camcorder 

After a little research, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Panasonic HC-V380 for my Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park trip. I was pleased with the sound, video, and smoothness of movement from this recorder that's not much larger than my hand (which might be awkward for people with larger hands). Oh, I could have gotten better output, I’m certain, with a much more expensive camcorder. I could have rented a high-end consumer model from for approximately the same price I paid to purchase my Panasonic, but I’m a still photographer and not a cinematographer, so I stuck with the simple stuff. Besides, purchasing a camcorder outright allows me to take it with me all the time now, instead of renting one out just for certain periods. I ultimately would have spent more renting for each national park trip.

The view of Kilauea volcano and surroundings from the Jaggar Museum overlook, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park / Rebecca Latson

Other Thoughts

Is video size going to be an issue for you? Even snippets can be quite large in file size. That 12-second iPhone video of the doe in the snow was 23mb. The 24-second DSLR video of Lake McDonald was 74mb. The 38-second camcorder video of Kilauea volcano was 52mb. To email the iPhone video to myself (or anybody else, for that matter), I used Mail Drop, which allowed me to open up my email then access a link in order to download the video to my hard drive. The other videos were transferred to my computer via USB cable, and for this article I was able to upload the videos to the Traveler’s library because they met the size limit for this site. To send the videos to my relatives, though, it was easiest to just upload to YouTube and send them a link. 

When shooting video, think about your resulting file format. My iPhone videos produced .MOV files. The GoPro and DSLR videos produced .MP4 (a popular and easy format with which to deal), and the camcorder videos were shot using AVCHD mode which produced .MTS files (higher-quality files for HD results). I had no problems opening up any of these files on my computer, but I did notice the simple video editing software I use only picked up the MP4 files. The other files were “invisible,” and I had to download software to convert the .MOV and .MTS files to .MP4.

In truth, all of these platforms worked just fine for capturing sound and movement. As with choosing a camera for your photography, it all depends upon what you want from your video and what you plan on doing with the results. For my simple requirements, the audio and video from each platform satisfied my needs. I probably could have done without purchasing a camcorder, although its ease of use as well as quality of output is a winner with me.

The verdict is in, and video is a great way to capture the sights and sounds of a national park. I intend to apply this method more often during my future visits as a way to supplement the landscape and wildlife stills I capture. If you haven’t thought about doing this before, then give it a go with one of the platforms I’ve mentioned in this article. I think you’ll be pleased with the results and you’ll have that “bottle” to “uncork” when you most need it after returning home to “civilization” and all it entails.

Halemaumau Crater at night, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park / Rebecca Latson


Great article !  I do stills, but forget all about video.  Trying to be more conscious of it, though.

I tend to be in the video first, photography second mindset when it comes to the camera.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is worth a million.

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