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Photography In The National Parks: Focus On More Than Just The Mountain


A view of the mountain, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

I returned to Mount Rainier National Park in July for a six-day stay. July is a great time to visit if you enjoy viewing and photographing wildflowers, gushing waterfalls, forest interiors, and, of course, Mount Rainier, aka "The Mountain." July may be officially summer, but it still feels like spring out there, and you'll probably encounter lingering snow on some of the higher-elevation trails.

While you’ll get plenty of shots of Mount Rainier, why not concentrate on a few other photographic projects in addition to those mountain photos?

Create your own flower identification book

Sure, you won’t see every flower in the national park … or maybe you will. Either way, you’ll have your own flower photos and you’ll know their names. Yes, you’ll probably still need to purchase a flower book in order to i.d. your flower shots, but your flower images will be much prettier. While you’re there, look for Jeffrey’s shooting star, monkeyflower, rosy spirea, avalanche lily, glacier lily, small-flowered penstemon, beargrass, phlox, lupine, magenta paintbrush, fiery paintbrush, tiger lily, pink mountain heather, and crimson columbine. Below are some tips to help you capture great wildflower images of your own.

  • If there is a breeze, and there probably will be unless you are within the forest interior, choose the focus setting on your camera that allows for continuous focus while tracking movement. This focus choice will help freeze the motion of blooms swaying in the breeze. My Canon’s setting is called AI Servo. Nikon calls this setting AF-C, Pentax calls it AF.C, and Sony calls it AF-C.
  • You can either handhold your camera or use a tripod. For all of the flower photos in this article, I actually handheld my camera/lens combo because I used a camera with a fast fps (frame per second), thus allowing me to apply the burst method aka “spray and pray.” Out of those multiple shots, I was guaranteed at least one really sharp, clear image. It's a personal preference of mine, and I know this method uses up memory card space. As such, I carry around lots of memory cards so I don’t have to keep reformatting them and erasing recent images to make space for more during my time in a national park. If you are short on memory cards, or are using a dedicated macro lens, then you might want to use a tripod.
  • In lieu of a macro lens, photograph flowers with your telephoto lens, or use a regular lens and crop the images later, during your editing process. For this trip, I left my macro lens at home and relied heavily on my 100-400mm lens with a little help from the 24-70mm lens and occasionally the 16-35mn lens for a different perspective. Point-and-shoot cameras generally come with a macro setting. Smartphones can also get quite good close-ups. Whatever camera you use, you’re sure to capture some great bloom pics.
Tiger Lilies, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Tiger lilies, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Crimson Columbine, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Crimson columbine, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Avalanche Lilies, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Avalanche lilies, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Jeffrey's Shooting Star, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Jeffrey's shooting star, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Pink Mountain Heather, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Pink mountain heather, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Beargrass, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Pasqueflower meadow, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Practice your “silky water” shots

The falls, rivers, and creeks should be gushing. During my stay in Paradise, I was told the snowpack there was heavier than usual, so the waterfalls at Falls Creek, Sunbeam Creek, Narada Falls, and Christine Falls were absolutely perfect for getting that smooth look to the white water.

  • Pack your neutral density (ND) filter. This filter is a piece of dark glass or high-grade resin that attaches to the front of your lens. ND filters (not to be confused with graduated ND filters) come in different “densities” (shades of dark). You can purchase a filter in either a single shade of dark, or one that allows for variable shades (“dial-a-darkness”). If you don’t have an ND filter, but do have a polarizing filter, then that will work to an extent, but you’ll have to be more careful with exposure settings since a polarizer won’t be as dark as an ND filter and you won’t be able to slow your shutter speed as much. The silky water touch is all in the shutter speed.
  • If you’ve been using your camera’s Program Mode, then it’s time to start learning some manual settings for silky water imagery. Because your camera is looking through a darkened lens due to an ND filter, you need to adjust your settings in order to get a nicely exposed shot. For the images below, I used ISOs ranging from 100 to 160, apertures from f9 to f11, and varied my shutter speeds from 1/6 to 1/8 of a second, depending upon the ND filter’s darkness. Too long of a shutter speed might result in overexposure of the water (blowing out the highlights), so play around with these settings to achieve the effect you like best. As long as you have your camera on a tripod (and you NEED to use a tripod), you can keep the ISO low and the aperture small. The more you experiment with manual settings, the more you’ll learn what it takes to get the right exposure for a great silky water shot.

Falls Creek waterfall, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Christine Falls, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Get in some night photography

Depending upon the time of your arrival, you might get there during a new moon (i.e. the sky is dark and you can see the stars and an arm of the Milky Way) or a full moon. My visit occurred over a full moon, and you’d think I’d get shots of the moon over Mount Rainier, right? Not during my early July trip. On those nights when I was out (anywhere from midnight to 4 a.m.), the moon was always behind me and my camera. So, after a shot of Mount Rainier, I turned camera and tripod to face the moon rather than the mountain. 

  • Night shots require higher ISOs, wider apertures (smaller f-stop numbers) and slower shutter speeds. This is where you really need to be familiar with your manual settings. You’ll also need some sort of noise-removal software because your images may appear a little grainy due to high ISOs. For shots like the ones below, your ISO doesn't need to be quite as high because of the bright light from the full moon. Mine ranged from 400 to 3200, with shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 15 seconds. My apertures were in the range of f5 to f5.6.

By the light of the full moon, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

A full moon at Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Moonlight on The Mountain at midnight, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Take time to explore and photograph the forest interior

Capture those many shades of greens and browns and the glow they impart to the quiet scene in front of your camera. Take note of the mossy-carpeted logs and ground cover as well as the moss draping the tree branches. Spend a moment to marvel at the luminescence provided by the dappled sunlight through the trees. You don’t even have to move far from your parked car to photograph these forest scenes. Use a tripod and you can keep your ISO and aperture relatively low, while playing around with your shutter speed. During your photo editing, you might even apply a touch of vignetting to slightly darken your composition’s edges and thus create even more focus on the main portion of the shot.

Walking along the Twin Firs Trail, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

There is so much to see and photograph in Mount Rainier National Park that I guarantee your memory cards will overflow with mountain, flower, water, and forest images. Do take time, however, to lift your eye from the viewfinder and allow your “mental memory card” to record the nature you see (and the nature you hear).

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Prime stuff, as always, Rebecca.

Thanks, Rick B.  You are so kind and your words are appreciated.

Another great article and pictures. Thanks so much. Always look forward to your writings.

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