Elbow Room

September 15, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I've never seen the national parks as crowded as they've been over the past few years. The issue is especially acute in the better-known destinations - like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, my two local parks. They're in the top five on the most-visited list. 

If you love the parks and enjoy photographing them you might wonder if there's any way (other than venturing deep into the backcountry) to avoid the congestion. 

Visiting during the school year used to be a good solution; it was off-peak and reliably quiet. You can no longer count on that as a fail-safe remedy. That said, there are times that are slower. Sometimes just a few weeks can make a world of difference. Take Moab, for example. Mid-March visitor traffic in Arches and Canyonlands is markedly different than what you'll encounter in late April.

Don't discount winter. While many parks can be more difficult to access and navigate, it's worth the effort. (Check first, though. Some places like Yellowstone are restricted to oversnow travel during the winter months.)  

There are other strategies: 

Consider navigation alternatives
Some parks are easier to get around in than others. If a highway runs through it, you'll have more options. If it contains only a single loop road but there are multiple access points you'll be able to jump in and out. Yellowstone doesn't have either of those features and it's huge. Once you're inside, that's it. You can easily get trapped behind scores of other vehicles; there are no alternate routes. Then someone decides to stop in the middle of the road.....just because. Ever been stuck in a bison jam? Yellowstone in the summer isn't my cup of tea. (You might have more tolerance.)

Grand Teton, on the other hand, is easier to traverse. When it's really crowded simply steering clear of the Inner Loop Road will make life easier.

Committed to summer? Consult a park map first to peruse maneuverability.

Edges of the day
I don't know any photographer who doesn't want to take advantage of the light during the golden hours. Fortunately, that's not when most non-photographers are out and about. In the morning they're still sleeping, and in the evening they're heading for dinner. If you plan carefully, you may be able to cover a handful of locations during those times.

Working during the middle of the day can be more difficult; by 9am inbound traffic might be a steady stream. If it's too crowded for you to be productive there's often interesting scenery nearby - like national forests, for example. Explore outside the park boundaries.

Get up a little earlier
If you're going to be heading out for a sunrise shoot at a popular location, plan on arriving even earlier than you'd otherwise need to. The lack of sleep and extra time spent waiting in the dark will be well worth it if it means you can claim the preferred spot from which you want to work.

Use your legs
How many times have you seen people set up their tripods just steps away from where they parked? Especially when the area is jammed, wouldn't you rather avoid all that? Besides, who doesn't want a more unique vantage point?

Take a walk away from the parking area/designated viewpoint to survey the situation. Sometimes you don't have to go very far to see something special. 

Put the crowd to work for you
Incorporate people into your shot. They don't even have to know... Break on ThroughBreak on ThroughTurret Arch (Arches National Park - Moab, Utah)

A little bit of scale can add important context to a photograph. The image at right, made in Arches National Park, is one such example. Actually I had no intention of shooting anything; this was a late afternoon scouting expedition to prepare for the following morning. I'm not sure why I even brought my gear along. 

As I was beginning the hike back to the car, I looked through Turret Arch and liked the way the clouds were stacked. It was a high-contrast scene but I decided to pull the camera out anyway. A woman was on the other side of the arch photographing her two young children. I waited a while to see if she'd move. No such luck. Though the kids eventually disappeared from view, she didn't budge.

I decided to include her in the composition to provide scale. The arch is massive, but there are no other visual clues to make this obvious. I hoped she'd turn her back to me (and that nobody else would walk up there in the meantime), and voilà - it happened.

The significant contrast issues were managed in Lightroom when the image was processed.

Another example, below, is from Death Valley National Park.

It was very early in the morning and the location was mostly deserted - nevertheless, I ended up with company. This woman arrived after I'd been working for a while and walked right into the area I was photographing. She just stood in that one spot, looking around. This was a wee bit frustrating; by now the sun had risen and I was about to lose the shade.

Since it was clear she wasn't going to proceed up the path any time soon, I decided to reframe the composition, using her to underscore the enormity of the rock formations. 

The fact that she was dressed in all black was the perfect touch; it made her more visible against the trail.

Exquisite EnormityExquisite EnormityOxidation has created a magical variety of colors throughout the massive Artist Drive Formation. (Death Valley National Park, California) Are the parks overcrowded? Yes, especially this year with visitation numbers off the charts.

It may not be the experience you hoped for, but crowds don't mean you can't see beautiful sights and make some good photographs. 

Be flexible. It'll work out.


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