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Photography In The National Parks: Don't Forget About Those Little Things


Howdy neighbor! Ghost crab, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

More often than not, our national park photography travels lead us to capture wide-angle swaths of panoramic scenery in places like Canyonlands National Park, or perhaps telephoto portraits of bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve, or moose at Glacier National Park. We’re essentially looking at The Big Picture. I’d now like to urge you to focus on much smaller, often-missed aspects seen within a national park. You see, these little things help flesh out a national park’s uniqueness and, in turn, add to The Big Picture

What do I mean by "little things?" Am I referring to macro images? Not exactly. While there might be a macro shot here or there, little things aren't solely relegated to macro imagery. A little thing might be a tiny chipmunk zigzagging along the path, momentarily halting to check you out.

A cute little guy, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

A little thing can also be a fat, silvery raindrop on a leaf, or a butterfly on a flower, or a colorful mushroom growing alongside the trail, or a water-filled pothole carved from sandstone over geologic time.

An autumn raindrop, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

White on purple, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

A funky little mushroom along the trail, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

A water-filled pothole at Pothole Point, Canyonlands National Park / Rebecca Latson

These little things not only make interesting images, but also teach us something about the culture and/or environment within a national park. 

Since it's my opinion these smaller aspects of an overall national park scene deserve more than just a mere snapshot, I want to provide some suggestions for capturing and composing your image in such a way as to arrest the attention of your viewers for longer than a mere glance. While my camera of choice is an SLR, you’ll be able to achieve wonderful shots of little things with point-and-shoot or smartphone cameras, as well. 

Suggestion #1: Photograph whatever little thing catches your attention, be it a banana slug, an autumn-hued leaf, or a small clump of wild mushrooms growing out of a decaying nurse log. If you are interested in what you see, you’ll put more effort into framing your composition.

Delicate little 'shrooms, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve / Rebecca Latson

Suggestion #2: For smaller moving subjects, you might just be better off handholding your camera rather than using a tripod. Why? If you are photographing an active small animal or a butterfly flitting around, you are going to want that freedom to move your camera as quickly as possible to frame/reframe your active subject while holding down on the shutter button.

Little birdies, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Suggestion #3: There is more than one way of capturing a close-up of something small. SLR users can affix a macro or telephoto lens to their camera body. Point-and-shoot cameras have both macro and telephoto settings built into their systems. Smartphones have the capability to move in quite close to a subject for a clear shot, provided the subject remains stationary. Cropping an image during photo editing also creates a close-up. Just be aware that cropping any original image removes data and makes for a smaller file size (e.g., fewer megapixels). 

Suggestion #4: All SLRs and most point-and-shoot cameras have a focus mode setting for tracking moving objects. Canon calls this AI-Servo, Nikon calls this setting AF-C, Pentax calls it AF.C, and Sony calls it AF-C. This is the setting you should use to photograph busy little wildlife such as birds, bees, butterflies (on or off the flowers), and wildflowers swaying in the breeze. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule to use this setting, but from personal experience, this focus mode sure helps. 

Suggestion #5: Apply the “burst method” by keeping your finger pressed to the shutter button for a series of consecutive shutter clicks. This method works not only on moving subjects, but on stationary ones as well, if you choose not to use a tripod. The theory is that out of several shots, at least one is guaranteed to be clear and sharp. It certainly works for me. Does this take up memory card space? Yup. I carry quite a few memory cards with me, ranging in size from 8gb to 128gb. That way, I can use the burst method to my heart’s content and not worry about needing to delete any recent images to make room for future ones during a national park visit. Carrying spare memory cards is also a handy manner of file backup, in case your laptop or external hard drive poops out on you during an inopportune moment (it’s happened).  

Suggestion #6: Fill the frame or use the Rule of Thirds. Filling the frame means exactly that. If you don’t fill the frame initially, you can apply Suggestion #3’s crop method to remove some of the extraneous background for a closer focus on your subject.  

Filling the frame with blooming pasqueflowers Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

The Rule of Thirds requires you to divide your lens viewfinder into threes, either horizontally or vertically. Instead of placing your subject(s) smack dab in the middle, place it/them to one side instead.

A thistle and the rule of thirds, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

A thistle and the Rule of Thirds, Mount Rainier National Park / Rebecca Latson

Suggestion #7: During your editing process, darken the sides and corners of your image just a little bit. This is called “vignetting.” When used sparingly, this technique calls attention to your subject while imparting a glow to the center of your composition. Your photo editing software may even have a vignetting preset, filter, or slider tool for this purpose. 

Freeze-dried juniper berries, Arches National Park / Rebecca Latson

Suggestion #8: Look for little things that emphasize the season or weather conditions in which you might find yourself while touring a national park. During an autumn rain, it will be easy to capture images of waterdrops on rocks, flowers, and autum-hued leaves. You might also try photographing drops hanging precariously from conifer needles. Autumn also brings more chipmunk activity as they busy themselves with feeding on or storing seeds for the coming winter. A spring and early summer visit will find you filling your frame with all sorts of wildflowers as well as butterflies sipping nectar and bees gathering pollen. Remember to look around for birds, too, during every season of the year. In the spring, you may be fortunate enough to see wildlife babies (definitely not macros, but little things nonetheless).

Of course, you don’t have to focus your national park photography on the small things all of the time. I just want you to be mindful of these little things comprising the overall Big Picture and how they give substance and added meaning to your photographic story. Observing the little things helps you understand the big things while improving your powers of observation and affording the opportunity to catch something that might otherwise be overlooked while on the trail. This, in turn, accords you a much richer appreciation of the national park in which you find yourself.

Filling the frame with ohelo berries, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park / Rebecca Latson


Finally caught a few minutes to read another great article from you. Thank you!!   Never thought about darkening the edges, so I'll try it.  Sounds like a good idea.


Thanks for the article.

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