A Photographer’s Guide To The American West

From west to east and north to south, we have toured and photographed numerous National Parks Service sites including national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites and parks.

These parks offer a cross-section of the best of the best for scenic beauty and historic significance across America.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most amazing iconic landscapes in national parks and beyond are found in the American West. Few landscapes are as awe-inspiring as those found in the western states. And who can resist taking lots of photos?

Here are some pointers to help you bring back images you’d be proud to share.

Take the Iconic Photos and Move Beyond

Everyone wants to capture those iconic images we’ve all seen in books and on postcards. Give it a try and you’ll likely realize it’s not as simple as it may seem. Many of those images were taken from high up on a mountain trail or from down below in a canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But even if you get that iconic image, push yourself to something beyond. Move around and go higher, lower, closer, farther away to find a different perspective—one that reflects your personal vision. Simple changes often redefine your image and give a more complete sense of the place.

Include an Interesting Foreground Element

One problem with many landscape shots is that the subject is far away and there’s nothing of interest in the foreground. That gives landscape images a flat sameness that we want to avoid. As you look at some stunning vista, pay attention to nearby rocks, plants, or even puddles of water that can add interest to your image.

Zion National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Work with All Kinds of Natural Light

Light is the primary ingredient in photography. You’ll encounter various types of natural light throughout the day and from one day to the next. Learn how to make the most of whatever light you have available.

Even dull overcast days can work wonders with landscape photos. Such days bring out natural colors and eliminate what can often be annoying shadows. Take advantage of getting a high perspective so your image is mostly land with very little sky.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since early morning and late afternoon are the choice times to photograph, plan out at a key location prior to venturing out.

Pay Attention to the Sky

Composing a landscape includes making a decision about how to deal with the sky. Finding the right balance between land and sky is often what makes or breaks a landscape image. Consider the sky and general weather conditions. A blue sky or one with puffy white clouds or threatening dark ones can be an asset to your image and you may want to include more sky and less land.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But if the sky is a uniform dull gray, minimize the sky or eliminate it completely. Nothing spoils a landscape photo more than a swath of white where the sky would have been.

Optimum Sharpness is Paramount

One of the great advantages of landscapes is that they don’t move, so you can take your time to compose and get optimum sharpness. What is optimal depends on the image you have in mind, but certainly, you want the foreground and middle ground as sharp as possible.

For maximum control over sharpness, use a tripod. That allows you to take several shots of the same location with different settings so you can decide later which works best for you. Also, you’ll get a sharper image with a higher f-stop. If you’re shooting just the landscape, a slow shutter speed should not pose a problem. But if you’ve got your eye on some wildlife in the landscape or want to capture grasses bending in the wind, vary your shutter speed to get either a sharp image or an interesting blur.

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After-Capture Techniques

One of the great boons of digital photography is that the image-making process continues after you have taken your shot. Today’s digital photography offers an incredible number of options for improving or rethinking our images in the computer.

One simple tool lets you crop your image in case you were unable to keep an unwanted element out of the frame during shooting. Remember, you can always cut something out, but you can’t add something you didn’t include in the rush of shooting.

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you become more familiar and comfortable using after-capture techniques, they will become a natural part of your photographic repertoire, helping you achieve the aesthetic results you want within one or two minutes.

As you work these pointers into your landscape photography, you’ll come up with landscapes that truly look out of this world.

Worth Pondering…

No matter how advanced your camera you still need to be responsible for getting it to the right place at the right time and pointing it in the right direction to get the photo you want.

—Ken Rockwell

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