So please follow the above link.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How to Make Star-Trail Images with your Digital Camera

First Let us discuss what is a star-trail; in the evening because of the earth’s rotation the stars in the night sky slowly move (from our perspective) in a circular motion around the North Star (Polaris). So a star-trail image is essentially a long exposure ranging from minutes to hours during the night with your camera left pointed at the sky. The stars leave long beautiful streaks across the sky.

Cayo Costa State Park Florida, ISO 200, F5.6, 25min, 17mm

Some things to consider when shooting a Star-Trail Image:

Being able to find the North Star is essential because all the stars move around Polaris. This is important when composing your image because you can end up with a large bulls eye design in your sky or if your shooting more in a southern direction you will get what looks like a rainstorm of falling stars in your image. Any direction you point your camera is OK, but I usually like to keep my North Star off-center for a more interesting image unless something in my foreground strongly suggests a symmetrical composition.

*More often than not anti-symmetry is what you want for an attention-grabbing composition.

So how do you find the North Star? First look for the Big Dipper, which is one of the easiest constellations to find in the night sky. The end of the ladle on the Big Dipper will point you directly to Polaris.

I like to get a free sky map every month from

When and where to shoot a Star-Trail:

· I try to get as far away from city lights as possible, even miles away city lights will show up in your exposure illuminating your horizon.

· Cities also cause “light pollution”. Light pollution is when streetlights and other sources of light keep you from clearly seeing the stars in night sky.

· Elevation is also a factor in seeing the stars; the higher in elevation you are the clearer the night sky.

· If you are near civilization it is also a good idea to wait till after 11pm to start shooting your star-trail because of air traffic. Airplanes will put many a blinky light across your frame.

· Clear nights are good, check the weather forecast.

· Civil Twilight can also be a factor, the hour after Sunset (dusk) and the hour before Sunrise (dawn) are times when there is still light in the sky that can be picked up by your exposure even if it is not visible to you. This can be a positive or a negative. For example, an exposure taken around 1 am will usually give you a dark sky and foreground but an exposure taken closer to dusk or dawn can add some pretty interesting colors to your sky or foreground, essentially adding a little of that colorful sunrise or sunset light to your exposure.

Some Equipment and Camera Settings to consider:

Focal Length of your lens; The wider the better for me when shooting a star-trail and that is because the further away I get from the north star, the farther the stars appear to move in a shorter amount of time, so less time is needed to create that surreal image. If I take a 30 minute exposure; stars closest to the North Star will not appear to travel very far in my image but the further away from it I get the longer the trail of light is on my image.

Exposures can range anywhere from 5 minutes to all night long (depending on battery life) so you will probably need a Shutter Release Cable (or Cable Release). Most cameras are set so that 30 seconds is the longest exposure you can take and after that comes the “bulb” setting. This is the setting you want, it basically means as long as you hold down the button the camera, the camera will take an exposure. But if you’re like me you probably have better things to do than hold that button for and hour without letting go. So getting a good cable release with a shutter lock on it is important. A shutter release cable can range from $10 for the off-brand EBay variety to $100, depending on the bells, whistles and brand. My only recommendation is NOT to buy the wireless versions; they seem like a great idea but often do not have that shutter lock feature that is so important. How else can you walk away from you camera and have some hot cocoa or a nip of Scotch?

*Remember to make sure you camera has that “bulb” feature if you want to shoot star trails.

Tripods are essential and the sturdier the better. These are long exposures and you do not want your camera to move at all, which makes another great argument for the shutter release cable in that it keeps you from touching (and moving) your camera when you press the shutter.

If it is really windy weigh your tripod down. This can be done with a rope, a carbineer and something heavy like a rock or your camera backpack. Tie the rope into one large loop and set it on the outside of each tripod leg, between each tripod leg pull the rope into the center of the tripod and clip it with the carbineer, then set something heavy in the center to weigh down your tripod.

Another thing that I never leave home without when I am shooting a star trail is a hand warmer (that’s right those little pocket sized hand-warmers that hunters use). Often between 3-4 am or on really humid or moist nights you can have a big problem with condensation on the lens. To solve this problem, I take a hand-warmer and wrap it once in a hand towel and wrap that around the barrel of my lens secured with a rubber band. Problem solved, no condensation on the lens.

With such long exposures you may get some pretty heavy noise in your image. So you may have to consider turning your noise reduction on in the camera menu. Noise reduction takes a second blank frame or in camera dark frame, analyzes the frame for hot or stuck pixels, and then applies that dark frame to areas of your images that need it. This can often help your images out tremendously, but for an hour-long exposure your camera will take a dark frame of equal time making it a two-hour exposure. However, if you choose to leave the noise reduction mode off in your camera you can then use Photoshop, Lightroom and other software programs. They do a pretty good job of noise reduction. Choices!

You never know when a car will drive by or you forget your headlamp is on while checking your camera settings, so ALWAYS keep your lens-hood on to avoids lens-flares.

Shoot in RAW! There is a lot of information in a RAW file and therefore a lot of room to play around. If you shoot in JPEG mode you cannot adjust your settings such as temperature. Color temperature is a big one, you can leave it on auto or set your camera to a precise temperature but in the evening the color temperature changes dramatically from the day and it’s a good idea to have the ability to play around with it after the fact.

I also like to play with the Fill Light slider, Recovery slider and the Blacks slider, these can really bring out a lot more information in exposures that are too dark or light. All other processing for RAW star-trail files is normal.

If you are adjusting your exposure or levels using a Histogram it is ok to clip your highlights, as most of these will be stars and it is acceptable if they are blown out. This will help the contrast in your scene overall.


ISO 100 at F4

ISO 200 at 5.6

You can play around with this formula but I find this to be a good starting point. It is best to use your camera’s native ISO or the ISO that your camera performs its best at. For many Nikon cameras it is ISO 200 for other cameras it is ISO 100, you can find out in your camera manual.

The moon will greatly affect your exposure time with a DSLR; here is my rough guide on exposure times.

Full Moon Up to 10 Minutes

Half Moon 15-25 Min.

Quarter Moon 30-40 Min.

New Moon 50-120 Min. or until your battery runs out.

Try to train your eye to look for ambient light in the scene, wait for your eyes to adjust if you have to. In this image I saw just a hint of green light in the fog below and it adds a great eerie element to the photo.

Red River Gorge, Kentucky ISO 200, F5.6, 25 Minutes

If you don’t have any ambient light you may want to create some to add an interesting foreground element to scene. This can be done with flashlights, fires, strobe lights and don’t forget some colored gels. The night is like a blank canvas for photographers and lights are our paints.

In this image taken at Red River Gorge in the fall, my LED headlamp gave off such a cool blue that the color temperature of the night sky becomes a warm orange.

ISO 200, F5.6, 25 min, 17mm

This was quite a dark night on a rocky ledge in a small campsite so I made sure to find my composition during the day so that I was not fumbling around at night.

Remember to bring a flashlight; this will help you to find the hyper-focal distance on the distance scale in your lens at night. The hyper-focal distance is the distance on your lens where you have the most in focus at one time. To find it set the distance scale on your lens to just inside the infinity symbol (it looks like and 8 that got drunk and passed out). This will help you get the most in-focus in your image instead of relying on your eyes or auto-focus at night. The wider the lens, the more distance you can keep in focus. Remember you can always set everything up during the day and come back to your camera at night if you are worried about the focus or any other settings on your camera.

Digital vs. Film when shooting Star-Trails:

While most of us have sold or packed up our film cameras there are some unique differences when shooting a star trail on film. The biggest differences is time, here is a 4-hour exposure done on a medium format Mamiya 7 film camera.

ISO 100, F4, 4 hours

As you can see it was nice not to have to worry about battery life, I got some nice long star trails and a little bit of residual dawn light coming into my sky. I was also able to do a 4-hour exposure during a quarter moon (light on the trees) because of something called “Reciprocity Failure”. Reciprocity Failure is any exposure over a second long has to be doubled to compensate for how long it takes the light to reach the film. So I could leave my camera out as long as the battery was good and let the exposure “soak” in light all night long.

Digital sensors do not have reciprocity failure, if your meter says it will take 1 hour to reach middle grey on an exposure then it will take 1 hour. Although most of our meters do not work well in the dark so we end up guessing exposures when in the dark.

*It is also important to remember that each “stop” or change in exposure time is double the amount of light than the previous one, so the difference between a 1 hour exposure and a 2 hour exposure is really only one stop. Overexposure is not something we really need to worry about when the exposure is that long.

List of things to remember:

· Camera with a wide lens

· Tripod

· Shutter Release Cable

· Lens Hood

· Extra Camera Batteries, freshly charged

· Memory Cards

· Hand Warmer, Hand towel, Rubber-band

· Rope and Carbineer

· Bubble level

· Flashlight or other light-sources with extra batteries

· Watch with Alarm for timing exposures

· Compass

· Turn off image stabilization/vibration reduction, it will drain your battery and does not work on long exposures, it can cause your image to drift left.

· Find your Hyper-focal Distance

· Remove camera straps and anything else that can blow around on your camera and cause your tripod set-up to move.

· Turn on long exposure noise reduction if you don’t mind doubling your exposure time. It will help any pixel problems due to long exposures.

· RAW image format

· Camera on Manual Mode

· Shutter speed on Bulb

· Look for ambient light that may be in your exposure

· Check the weather report and sky map.

· IPod or other entertainment source (hey, sometimes it’s scary out in the woods alone).

Remember to experiment a lot and bring some coffee. Have Fun!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rear Curtain Shutter Sync

A flash mode that you should ALWAYS have ON in the menu of your DSLR is Rear Curtain Sync. This is a flash option that is available on most intermediate to advanced DSLRs that I have engaged 100% of the time on my camera and I have yet to find an instance where I would want Rear Curtain Sync disengaged while taking an image.

When the Roadrunner runs past the coyote is the trail of dust before or after him?

In normal flash mode your flash/strobe-light will fire at the beginning of an exposure. You do not want this most of the time. Imagine a four second exposure at night of a car driving horizontally across the scene; You press the trigger on you camera, then FLASH a 1/1250 second of light (give or take) pops out of your flash then four seconds of exposure happen as the car drives past burning it’s tail-lights into the scene. The problem is the flash burned an image of that car into your image BEFORE the taillights streaked across your scene. This does not look natural; the streaks are before the motion in the scene happens.

(Gas is expensive, So lets pretend my wife has taillights.)

So we have Rear Curtain Sync mode or sometimes called Rear Shutter Sync and what it does is allow the flash to fire at the end of an exposure. Let's take our same scene of a car at night: you press you shutter button as a car drives past, first your shutter opens exposing your sensor to the cool night, the lights of the car burn a trail of light across your scene then FLASH, the strobe lights up the car in front of the streaks of light created by the head and taillights of the vehicle. The scene is taken in order as we think motion should move and will probably create a more comprehensive image to the viewer.

So that was an example of a long exposure and your thinking; well sure that makes sense for a long exposure but if I am trying to freeze motion with a short exposure what’s the big deal? The answer is this, you may not notice the difference but I would rather keep my camera on Rear-Curtain Sync all the time so that I don’t have to go into my camera menu when I don't need to. Also, Rear-Curtain Sync is useful on some surprisingly fast shutter speeds such as in this hummingbird image. Notice the bird moves its wings so fast that 1/250th of a second creates some motion blur.

Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird F6.3 1/250sec ISO200 Nikon D300s 420mm Tripod

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Our Blitzkrieg Road trip through the National Parks of the West - Part 2

Utah - Zion, Bryce Canyon, Moab, Canyonlands and Arches National Park

Utah is one of those places that it would be best just to live there rather than visit. There is just too much to see and photograph. So I chose these four parks to visit in the time I had available. I hope someday to go back and see places like the Vermillion Cliffs, Capital Reef NP, various slot canyons, and more of the places of beauty that Utah has to offer.

Zion has a similar layout to Yosemite in that much of the park is cliffs surrounding a valley. When we got to Zion the colors of the leaves were starting to change. There were gorgeous yellow fall leaves, red rocks and emerald water. I could have stayed a week or two in Zion. The hiking is great if you are not afraid of heights. The deep green of the plant life compliments the red sandstone cliffs. There is a lot of good hiking in some of the out of the way places, such as the Narrows slot canyon (with a cold river at the bottom that requires renting specific gear to wade through) or the Subway a beautifully colored rounded tunnel that requires a backcountry permit.

Most of Zion can be seen from the main road. There is a shuttle service that operates from early morning until late in the evening. This was great because you don’t have to drive, you can stop at any major point along the way to hike and if you are like me when I am in a new beautiful place, I stop to look around and see what is new and driving becomes secondary. There is also a very informative recorded message that plays on the shuttle describing the wildlife, the formations and the parks early visitors. Zion is a must see for any photographer or nature lover, it is simply too beautiful to pass up.

There is no single iconic image from Zion; it has slot canyons, peaks and river valleys, all very colorful. My favorite images were taken while walking along the river capturing emerald cascading water against red rocks. For this an 8-10 stop neutral density filter is a must to help you get that soft misty water. A neutral density filter is essentially a dark piece of glass and when you put it in front of your lens it makes you exposure longer because your camera has less light going through it. The longer your exposure the “softer” or more misty your water is going to look. My minimum exposure with cascading water is ¼ of a sec but I try to get it anywhere from 2 seconds to 2 minutes.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1 Sec, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Not far from Zion but at a huge elevation gain is Bryce Canyon National Park. It is approximately 8,000 feet above sea level and it was cold. We had to get a hotel for the night and a good thing because it hailed that afternoon. Bryce is not a huge park and much of it can be seen in a day but Bryce is a must see with its large, orange crazy graphically shaped hoodoos. The orange in the rock is best captured at sunrise and if you can’t make that then late in the afternoon when the sun is making the shadows longer. Because of the position of the park it is very difficult to get a good sunset picture at Bryce. My favorite images were taken using the early morning light with a sunburst in the image. You can do this by placing the sun behind an object with just a pinprick or sliver of sun coming around the edge and shooting at F22 or your lens’s most minimum F-stop.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F22 @ 1/40, and ISO 400

To the east of Zion and Bryce across Utah is Moab; a city that inhabits a good spot nestled between Canyonlands and Arches National Park. There is a lot to see and do between these two sections of Utah but due to the weather getting colder and time constraints these are the places we chose to visit. We found that most cities next to National Parks and Monuments seem set out to empty your wallet but Moab was very reasonable. We had good micro-brews, inexpensive food, and cheap lodging. Moab still had a nice small town feel making it our favorite urban place that we passed through.

Arches National Park, as its name describes many sandstone arches, there is probably not a better place for astro-photography. Due to the elevation and lack of light pollution Utah prides itself on its night skies. When you add in a large arch for shooting night skies through you have a great place for star-trails.

My favorite arch would be double arch, pictures can never do the sheer size of the arch justice, it is like being inside an outdoor god-made (or time-made depending on your preference) cathedral.

One of the most popular arches in the park is Delicate Arch; there is probably not a more perfect arch out there. If you’re going to shoot this at sunset get there early, you are going to have to share your elbow room with a lot of other photographers.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F5.6 @ 45min, ISO 200

Arches National Park is photogenic any time of day or season, I prefer sunrise and sunset, but if you’re out in the afternoon bring a polarizer to help bring out the colors of the sandstone and the blue of the sky. Give yourself at least three days in this park to see all you want to see and give yourself a couple of nights for stargazing and remember to have flashlights, it gets really dark and quiet there. I’m talking hear the blood pumping if your ears quiet. Also, don’t make the same mistake I did and forget the batteries for your flash. Adding light on your subject when doing night photography will make your images more interesting and it turns photography into painting. The night is your blank canvas, the light is your brush, and you decide what to paint.

Canyonlands National Park is a very large park cut into sections by the Colorado (and Green Rivers). Most of the park is only accessible by raft or 4x4 but the most well known section of the park has its entrance about 45 minutes out of Moab called the Island in the Sky District. This section of the park has one of the most photographed arches in it, Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch’s underside glows orange at sunrise from light being reflected off of the stone below it. It is so popular in fact that you must get there early WELL before sunrise to get a spot. Photographers will create a half circle around the arch and there is a pact among them not to walk in front of the others so that everyone may get a shot. The down side to this is that there are so many images of the arch already out there that it is hard to create something original at this location, the up side is that you WILL get a beautiful image. Add a little extra sumthin-sumthin by adding a sunburst in your shot as described above. This is also a good spot to meet and talk shop with fellow photographers. It is here I met fellow photographers and regular contributors to Outdoor Photography Magazine Gary Hart and Don Smith. In fact if you are in a park in Utah you will meet other photographers many of them professional, it’s always worth saying hi and asking a few questions because in photography there is always something to learn.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F22 @ 1/40, and ISO 400

New Mexico - Taos, Santa Fe, Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks and White Sands

New Mexico seems like a dry and desolate place from the viewpoint of the interstate, but there are many hidden gems all across the state including, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on this planet; White Sands National Monument.

White Sands is pure white gypsum that forms sand dunes. Sand dunes are always nestled between two mountain ranges. No other place I have been has the ability to take away all the distracting elements in photograph, so easily making the image purely about texture, pattern, line or color as White Sands does. Of course, the sand is so white and so reflective it is best to meter your camera off of the palm of your hand to get a correct exposure; the sky will often come out dark blue in your images because the foreground is brighter than the sky. This is the same reasoning you would use for snow, you can even go to you exposure compensation dial which is usually marked with a little +/- and set it to around +1 ½. It is best to photograph in the early morning or late evening when the sun is raking its light across the dunes making stronger patterns. Another good time to photograph white Sands is during sunset, moonrises, and full moons and at night. In fact during season the park offers Full Moon walks. Don’t forget long sleeves and sunscreen, I once went to White Sands and forgot to put sunscreen on my legs and wore shorts, the next day I could not walk!

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, F8 @ 1/320, ISO 200

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a great day hike between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, named for the rocks the shape of pointy tents. The 2 1/2 hour hike takes you through narrow slot canyons as you climb to high above giving you a bird’s eye view. A five star hike in my book and it is not overpopulated by any means.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @14mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F11 @ 1/200, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Petroglyphs National Monument is a wonderful daytrip right outside of Albuquerque that is worth seeing if you are passing through. Keep a mental map during your day hike so that coming back in the evening is easy so that you can combine a petroglyph and a star-trail/astro-photography/timelapse, use your headlamp to light up the petroglyph. Of course the night hike in Petroglyphs is not recommended by the rangers.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @22mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F8 @ 1/125, and ISO 200

If you want images of picturesque adobe style buildings in the evening with maybe some dried red chili peppers hanging in front of a colorful door of a beautiful pueblo style church then Santa Fe city center is the place for you. If you would prefer a place that is less tourist oriented or more of an out west feel head to Taos. Taos also has a large well known, still inhabited Indian pueblo that is worth going to just for the experience. It is a World Heritage site and the TaosNorthern Tiwa) speaking Native American tribe of Pueblo people have tourist information at the entrance of the pueblo. Taos is also home to Earth Ships, self-sustainable homes built out of earth, tires, cans and what-have-you that looks like part of some futuristic art project. (

There are many cliff dwellings, pueblos, petroglyphs and other places in New Mexico that are worth visiting. A few years back when I attended UNM, I also visited places such as the ruins in Mountainair, Aztec Ruins, Bandelier, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Bisti Badlands, and Carlsbad Caverns NP. New Mexico is the land of enchantment and these multitudes of sacred places are one of the reason’s why.

Arizona - Sedona

There is still much more I would like to see in Arizona such as the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Monument Valley and basically the whole northern section. Unfortunately, the weather sent us straight to Sedona, which was warm. Sedona has a lot of great scenery, vortexes and spiritual healers. The city of Sedona is a nice little town that caters to tourism, surrounded by red rock sandstone plateaus covered in deep green flora, the hiking and landmarks are beautiful. Apparently, many of these landmarks have what’s called a “Vortex” which is described as a place where the spirit often feels lifted, you may have a sense of elation or happiness and these sights often have a male or female orientation of some kind. These vortexes were hard for me to pinpoint because whenever I am in a beautiful place I often feel happy and elated. This could also be because the trails were poorly marked, so it can be difficult to find your way around without a guide. This is something I feel that was done on purpose since most street corners in Sedona were trying to sell you some kind of guided adventure tour. Sedona is a place with so many vortexes in one location that the city has somehow attracted a large population of spiritual healers, tarot and different kinds of mind and body therapy.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @14mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F11 @ 1/40, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Any questions on locations, techniques, or how-to please email me at and remember; the easiest way to improve your images is to always use a tripod whenever possible!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Our Blitzkrieg Road trip through the National Parks of the West – Part 1

Just to be clear as to the purpose and origin of this trip: In 2007ish my wife and I bought a few acres in Costa Rica. In fact I am writing this right now in Costa Rica at a friends house (next to an organic dairy farm; coconut ice cream…yummy) as we plot and plan our next move; which is to build a B&B/Photo Education/Eco Tourism Center. So it is now 2010 and we had the great idea to sell everything not important to us, retro fit our 4 cylinder Chevy S10 with a lockable topper and cruise control and drive down to Costa Rica with all our earthly possessions in tow taking pictures along the way. Now as many of us have learned in life, things don’t always go as planned and we adapt to new situations. Even though we had done our research and thought we had good route picked out, news of the American-Mexican border and people continually being gunned down there kept reaching our ears and computer screens. People we knew would send us articles about the untrustworthiness of the border, photo magazines and podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis even mentioned the problem. On top of that, a recent dispute at the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border also came up. All this actually didn’t dissuade us, it was the fact that Thanksgiving was coming up and we found someone who listed a partial shipping container on craigslist from Florida to CR. So we were in Arizona 2 days from getting ready to cross into Mexico, we find a shipping container; decide to drive to Florida in 3 days for turkey dinner with my parents and to unload our truck into the hands of some guy from Craigslist.

Our truck and camping out of it

We decided to leave in the fall, this is when I decided to leave my job as an instructor at a Cincinnati college teaching photography, which I was quite sad about. This meant that as we made our way south our hope was that the temperature would remain moderate and the parks we were going to visit would be nearing the end of their season so we could get decent camping spots. Our trip was essentially managed day-to-day, which didn’t allow for many advance reservations and many of the parks want a two-day notice if you register online. Overall it went very well, there were very few parks that were at capacity, especially if you are arriving mid-week.

Our truck needed to have in it everything we wanted to bring to Costa Rica plus all our camping supplies. So this meant getting rid of more stuff than we wanted and getting a truck topper. We had that topper retrofitted with metal bars on the inside. I made a shelf to put items up top and lockable windows with padlocks. With security taken care of we also added Ipod ready stereo (podcasts and audio books are a must), aftermarket cruise control and helper springs on the rear axle to help out our load. Remember this is a 4-cylinder light duty truck. We also took out the child seats in the back to make for more room, I bolted down a fireproof lockable safe in replacement of one of the seats and we had our website plastered on both sides of the truck to set out on our national advertising campaign. Everything worked out very well, we packed everything we didn’t need for camping first and put all the essentials in the cab or in easy access near the tailgate .

So this brings me to my Photography Review of places we visited. My first recommendation is to add more time to the trip. We had too little. Our plan was to be in Costa Rica in 2 months, 3 tops. Figure 2 weeks from Mexico to CR, which leaves 6 weeks to travel in a crazy zigzag pattern across the U.S. This is not enough time to see all the parks and natural wonders our great nation has to offer, this left us with 2 nights average at a location. If it was a monument maybe one night, if it was a large national park we may only get 3-4 nights tops. The good was that we saw so much, the bad is that we did not have that much time at each place for scouting locations for the best photos. Advance online research and ranger stations helped a lot in finding the most scenic places and when to go.

A huge money saver on this trip was buying an annual park pass; they are eighty dollars and will get you into most Bureau of Land Management areas. This means if the park has “national” in the title you will probably get in with the pass but if it has “state” in the title such as a State Park then you are out of luck.

1st Stop Minnesota

I grew up in Minnesota so the first leg of the trip was not so much a national park visit as a week of R&R in Minnesota lake country with my grandparents. Although not a park per se northern MN is definitely worth visiting. Its relaxing, the people are friendly plus you can take pictures and fish at the same time, that way you are sure to come back with something.

If you could do only one thing in MN I would recommend a multi-day canoe trip across the Boundary Waters, it’s up near that little tip in northern Minnesota and you end up somewhere between MN and Canada. Many of the lakes have a no wake rule so you may not even run into boats with engines, just you, your camera and serenity. There is also Voyager and other parks. We went to Itasca State Park where you can walk across the Mississippi at its headwaters.

South Dakota - Wall Drug, Badlands, Black Hills and Wind Cave National Park

As you drive along the interstate in South Dakota you will see many signs for Wall Drug offering homemade pastries and other notions and potions. You will see so many signs in fact that you will have no choice but to stop here. Evidently the couple who started the drug store offered free ice water to stage coaches and caravans that patron their store, a tradition that still stands today, making it a very famous and well known drug store and a good stop for provisions before you head to the parks. We picked up an egg carrier for our cooler, a back support for the drivers seat, pie, homemade ice cream and other miscellaneous items.

If you are in the area the Badlands National Park is a must see, you drive across prairie and suddenly you come upon a big scar in the earth. The Badlands is a long and skinny park and you can see most of it by driving through and stopping for short hikes and overlooks. We camped one night outside the park in a KOA; this allowed us to see sunset and sunrise. Around sunrise and sunset colors are often more saturated, shadows are more defining and there is less contrast in a scene making it an optimal time for taking pictures.

Nikon D300s, 50-500mm @ 270mm, Tripod, Cable Release, Singh-Ray 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F8 @ 1/1250, ISO 200

Wind Cave National Park is situated in and around the Black Hills. This little known National Park has a lot going for it, for one obviously the Wind Cave portion of the park and if you happen to arrive on National Park Appreciation Day as we did, you can get a FREE cave tour which was a lot of fun. I have been on a few cave tours and due to the cramped quarters tripods are often not allowed. This is when I make sure and bring at least 1 flash, a TTL cord or some kind or commander unit for the flash (Nikon SU-800 or pocket wizard) and my trusty Joby Gorillapod Zoom. Wind Cave also has an abundance of wildlife including bison, elk, pronghorn, coyote and mountain lion. We arrived shortly after season so the camping spots were plentiful and the Elk bugled (i.e. played his nose in a trumpet like fashion) us to sleep at night, you can’t ask for much more.

Wyoming - Devils Tower, Bighorn National Forest, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton

Devils Tower National Monument is a large volcanic intrusion of crystallized rock columns sticking out of the earth creating a huge rock monolith. Climbers from around the world come to climb and camp at the top of the tower, which is the size of a football field. We were there in early October and the leaves were changing colors, it was beautiful. Below the tower is a river next to the KOA and in the morning you can get a perfect reflection of the tower as the morning sun lights it up purple to orange, this is the shot. Ask for a camping spot in the back of the KOA next to the river, you can thank me later. Remember to bring a polarizer for the mile or so walk around the base of the tower for those late afternoon shots, this will really help your skies turn blue and make the monument pop.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, Singh-Ray 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F13 @ 1/10, ISO 200

I found that National Monuments in general we could spend just 1 night at and sometimes 1 day, trying to get sunrise or sunset. Being they are usually smaller than national parks and have a central point of interest whereas national parks and forests are usually much larger with more points of interest.

Bighorn National Forest was a great one-night stop between Devils Tower and Yellowstone. I could easily have spent more time there, especially if we passed during a warmer part of a season, there was a very inviting lake that screamed swimming hole. We ended up camping at the southwest edge of the forest, our campsite was right next to a beautiful little river and it was FREE because we were there after season. Of course, this meant that the river was freezing and that there was no running water but you can’t beat sleeping next to a river. I thought Bighorn had a lot of potential for photography and recreational enjoyment. We also had the opportunity to share our propane with a Swedish couple who had just finished climbing Devils Tower and the water temperature did not stop them from bathing nude in it!

National Forest camping is nice because they often don’t get the crowds that the National Parks have, plus you often don’t have to deal entrance fees and you can usually collect firewood with little restriction.

Yellowstone is huge and due to its elevation much colder earlier in the season than surrounding areas as we found out. Our nights were in the 30’s in early October. For this reason we did not see nearly enough of Yellowstone spending only 3 nights 4 days here. It’s also one of the busiest parks making it hard to get a camping spot and you need a lot of patience driving. It is busy for a reason though, you can see a lot of wildlife just by driving through the park. Increase your chances by going early morning or late afternoon. Also there is a lot of thermal activity, geysers, mud-pots, hot springs, and other things that create colorful, interesting and otherworldly landscape images.

Nikon D300s, 50-500mm @500mm, Tripod, F6.3 @ 1/3200, ISO 200

Grand Teton
National Park has a great sunrise that turns the mountains and the sky pink. If you’re lucky like we were you can get a campsite next to Jackson Hole Lake (site #68 was exceptional). We spent 3 nights there; the hiking was great, the views beautiful and Jackson Hole Lake was a great foreground subject to reflect the Teton Mountain Range.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, Singh-Ray 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F18 @ 1/6, ISO 200

California - Yosemite, Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Death Valley

Yosemite National Park is a picturesque waterfall filled valley between granite cliffs, the cliffs are extensive and the valley is small and narrow far below. Yosemite is extremely popular with tourists and photographers a like so space becomes an issue in the small valley. It is often difficult to see everything you want to see in a day due to the crowds or even get a camping spot reservation. It is difficult but with good reason, the waterfalls are beautiful, the hiking is great and the stones are monolithic; it’s a very iconic place. I wish I could have experienced more of Yosemite while I was there but when you go to a park you need to relax, slow down and not fight traffic or people. Large and popular parks like this make it a good idea to go on a photographic tour if you have limited time and can’t find all the hotspots yourself. Yosemite and many other parks offer their own photography tours; also you can find many in the back of Outdoor Photographer or AAA park guides. My favorite hike was a late one on Sentinel Dome at sunset. The hike brings you up on top of one of the granite monoliths, you can oversee the valley and at sunset and the valley, granite cliffs and waterfalls were bathed in orange light and were glowing, the light was gorgeous.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, Singh-Ray 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F16 @ 1/30, ISO 200

Santa Cruz and the surrounding area was a fun stop, there are surf competitions and sea life. You can see sea lions, sea otters, and seals at the waters edge. Inland at Henry Cowell State Park the giant Redwood trees make you feel like an ant.

When photographing things that have very large (the Redwoods) or small dimensions it is often a good idea to put a person in the image to help lend a sense of scale.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F8 @ 1/15, ISO 400

Death Valley was one of our favorite National Parks, there is so much variety and unlike all the other parks where we were arriving at the tail end of the season, we showed up in Death Valley right at the beginning. With the highest recorded temperature on the western hemisphere of 134 degrees, their season starts in October and runs through the cold months. There are sand dunes, salt flats (the lowest elevation in the US) , Mount Whitney (the highest place in the US), Mosaic marble canyons, ghost towns, rocks that move, mineral colored mountains, desert fauna, flowers, two golf courses (one is the Devils) and so much more. You can get the lowest and highest point in the US in one Photograph! This is a good park to splurge on the 4x4 jeep rental and check out those places that not everyone can make it to. Death Valley is a photographic wonderland and I think many don't realize the variety of scenery it offers. Just be sure not to go in August.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1/640, ISO 400

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1/40, ISO 200

Nevada - Lake Meade and the Valley of Fire

We spent only one night in The Valley of Fire State Park. I wish we could have spent more time here but we wanted to make it to Utah before it got to cold to camp. Valley of fire has a lot of beautiful red sandstones formations that blaze orange/red in the evening. Also it is located right next to Lake Meade, which is a very photogenic lake at sunset.