Landscape Photography and National Parks


Double Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.
Double Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.

Landscape photography has a fairly broad definition as it can encompass a mix of nature and urban environments, an undisturbed natural space or one interfered by human influence. It can be narrow and concentrated, or vast and expansive.


At its essence, it is the photographic discipline of capturing the geographic makeup of the natural world. This can introduce a blend of other structures and elements such as roads or wildlife. It is the emphasis of an environmental composition in a given time and space.


Article Contents:

-Theory

-National Park Service History

-Editing Processes and Camera Gear

-Exposure Bracketing and High Dynamic Range

-Graduated Neutral Density Filters

-Polarizing Filters

-Variable Neutral Density Filters

-Conclusion


In the United States, the National Park Service is the steward to some of the most remarkable scenic treasures to behold and experience. These national parks are the perfect venues to explore and cultivate aspects of landscape photography.


Hit the road and get away from the noise of the city and suburbs. Immerse yourself into the breathtaking wonders of the wilderness. It can be easy to forget the phenomenal awe of the earth when secluded in the comfort of your home or constantly surrounded by endless human activity.

The Virgin River in Mt. Zion National Park, Utah.
The Virgin River in Mt. Zion National Park, Utah.

There is an unbelievable contrast between standing at the corner of an intersection while waiting to cross the street and standing at the top of a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon. Especially in this day and age, it recurs the frightening thought that these natural marvels are at constant risk of being industrially exploited or permanently defaced altogether.


While one can easily interpret landscape photography as simply standing outside and taking a picture of a faraway hillside, it nonetheless demands a much deeper exploration. This is something that national parks accommodate in spectacular fashion and should not be overlooked or ignored.


National Park Service History


By the time the National Park Service was established, many authorizations from previous presidents had already designated millions of acres of federal land for preservation interests, but they were distributed among different departments and managed independently.

A photograph of Yosemite State Park from 1865.
(Library of Congress) Yosemite State Park, 1865.

Some important highlights:


President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act on June 30th, 1864, prompting the establishment of Yosemite State Park in California as the first natural park in the United States.


President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park as the first national park in the United States on March 1st, 1872.


A painting of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
(Library of Congress) Yellowstone National Park, 1872.

A photograph of giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in 1890.
(National Park Service) Sequoia National Park, 1890.

President Benjamin Harrison established Sequoia National Park as the second national park on September 25th, 1890.


President William McKinley established Mount Rainier National Park On March 2nd, 1899.

Photograph of Mt. Rainier National Park in1899.
(National Park Service) Mt. Rainier National Park, 1899.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act on June 8th, 1906, which would give presidents the authority to create national monuments and to preserve areas of natural or historic interest on public lands.


Having already declared Wind Cave National Park and Crater Lake National Park earlier in his administration, Roosevelt would go on to declare Mesa Verde National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, El Morro National Monument, Montezuma Castle National Monument later that same year.

Photograph of Devils Tower National Monument in 1906.
(National Park Service) Devils Tower National Monument, 1906.

All of this finally reached a culmination point after the signing of the Raker Act on December 19th, 1913, which allowed the construction of the very controversial Hetch Hetchy Dam.


John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and other environmentalist allies petitioned the government for stronger protections of national parkland through the creation of a unified federal service to manage the parks.

Photograph of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1917 before and after it was flooded in 1933.
(San Francisco Chronicle) Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1917 before construction and after it was flooded in 1933.

Official National Park Service badge.

Ultimately, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act on August 25th, 1916, officially creating the National Park Service as an agency within the United States Department of the Interior.


The new agency would be tasked with the mission of conserving the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife within the parks as well as to “provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”


Throughout future presidencies, the number of national parks, monuments, and memorials managed by the National Park expanded to 423 sites as of December 1st, 2021. These sites also include battlefields, parkways, recreational areas, and much more.


As more sites were consolidated into the authority of the National Park Service, efforts to promote and improve accessibility for the public to view them also increased as well. For purposes of landscape photography, the beauty to behold in these places is endless.


Editing Processes and Camera Gear


Before starting your journey, it's important to consider how you'll be capturing your landscape photographs, what camera gear may be involved and what editing processes might be necessary for the finishing touches.


The remainder of this article will be focusing only some common elements that can enhance landscape photography as this is a topic that spans across a wide range of resources. For more information on these discussions, be sure to review the links at the bottom.


Exposure Bracketing and High Dynamic Range


Exposure bracketing is a camera function where a series of photos of the same scene is captured at different exposures, creating one underexposed image, one properly exposed, and a third that is overexposed. The idea is to take the images into post-processing and blend them together for the widest dynamic range possible.

An infographic showing the exposure differences between bracketed images before they are blended into a single frame.

High dynamic range (HDR) is a heightened version of this technique that blends a wider series of exposures together in post-production. Using a camera’s bracketing function, the exposures would be taken at 1 or 2 stop intervals.


Using an exposure based on your camera’s meter, you would then take three bracketed exposures one, two, and three stops overexposed, followed by another set of bracketed exposures one, two, and three stops underexposed. Including the original scene, this would give you seven differently exposed images to blend.


With high dynamic range software, these images can be blended into a single frame, showing the highest amount of detail and quality in the shadows and highlights of the scene.


Be aware that some HDR software can struggle when moving elements, such as water or clouds, are in the images which can result in ghosting. This process can take a lot of study and practice before the desired results are achieved. Lastly, bracketing and high dynamic range can be very time consuming.


Not only do you have to maintain proper alignment of your bracketed exposures, but you also have to commit to a lengthy post-production process based on the number of images being blended into a single frame. This is why some photographers may prefer to use certain filters on their camera instead.


Graduated Neutral Density Filters


Graduated neutral density (GND) filters are best for high contrast scenes where the background is much brighter than the foreground. Using this filter, you can darken an overblown sky and capture its details at an equal contrast to the rest of the scene while the foreground remains unaffected.

A landscape photo divided into three sections, each showing the effect of different graduated neutral density filters.

And while contrast between the extremely light and dark regions is decreased, the contrast in other parts of the scene increases and improves the quality of color and detail because extreme tones are being brought closer to the mid-tones where a camera's tonal curve has the most contrast overall.


Graduated neutral density filters come in a variety of densities and strengths, but are mainly divided into three separate models: a soft edge, a hard edge, and reverse.

An infographic showing the three main types of graduated neutral density filters.

A soft edge has a longer, more gradual transition from very dark at the top to clear at the bottom. A hard edge has a sharper, more abrupt transition from dark at the top to clear at the bottom. A reverse filter has its dark edge in the center and fades towards the top. All three models can differ in qualities of strength and rate of transition.


The strength of a GND filter refers to how much light is reduced at one side of the gradation compared to the other, the density needed for the desired results. The rate of transition refers to the length at which the gradation transitions from its darkest side to its clearest side. This can vary for both soft and hard-edged models depending on the manufacturer.

An infographic showing the differences in strength and rate of transition in graduated neutral density filters.

Focal length and aperture also affect the rate of transition. The gradation will appear much softer on a telephoto lens than a wide angle lens because of magnification and it may appear more blurred at a certain aperture or have a smaller depth of field.


It is important to note that if there are objects in the scene at the top of the frame, they will be affected by the filter and possibly reveal its transitional edge. Adjustments can be made to correct this, either by rotating the filter or adding additional filters in different positions to compensate.


Another possible setback to be aware of is that if the filter ring is adjusted beyond its minimum and maximum settings, the filters can interfere with each other and create a cross of exposure variation. Always keep within the density ratings of the ring to avoid this from happening.


Polarizing Filters


A polarizing filter (or polarizer) reduces haze, reflections, and glare by blocking randomized light waves. In doing so, they also increase color saturation, contrast, and clarity. They are great for capturing deep-blue skies and are also common in architectural photography as they reduce reflections in windows, however, they have very little effect on metallic surfaces.

An infographic showing two photos before and after a polarizing filter is applied to it.

This is because light waves radiate from their source equally in all directions. When those light waves hit a flat surface, they are reflected off of it in a polarized form, meaning that they now radiate in only one direction. When light reflects off of a metallic surface, it is not polarized.

An infographic showing the structure of a light wave changing as it passes through a polarizing filter.

The function of a polarizing filter depends on the position of the sun, therefore it is essential to be aware that both the time of day and the time of year can impact the amount of polarization that can be obtained. For maximum polarization effect, the sun must be at a 90-degree angle from the lens.


There are two types of polarizing filters: linear and circular. This does not refer to the shape of the filter, but to the way light waves are modified as they pass through it. Both types are sold in circular shapes that can screwed onto the thread of a lens or a plate that can be fitted into a removable frame.


Some issues can occur when using a wide-angle lens, such as vignetting in the corners of the frame. Also, using this combination near sunrise and sunset can potentially make the sky in a scene have a gradation or appear uneven.


Polarizers do not equally affect an entire scene and this can become intensified when using a wide-angle lens. In this case, there might be some highly polarized areas and others that are not as affected.


Variable Neutral Density Filters


Variable neutral density (VND) filters reduce the amount of light that enters a camera. While a fixed neutral density (ND) filter blocks out only a certain amount of light, variable neutral density filters allow the amount of reduced light to be adjusted. This way, a photographer does not need to constantly switch between individual filters.

A landscape photograph showing the different effects of neutral density filters at varying strengths.
An infographic showing that the effects of multiple neutral density filters can be achieved with one variable neutral density filter.

Attached to the end of a camera lens, the variable ND filter diffuses incoming light without affecting the color or quality of an image. By rotating the filter frame, the density of the filter is adjusted to the desired effect. A single neutral density filter is restricted to a set stop reduction and cannot be adjusted in this way.


ND filters can achieve certain effects such as motion blur or making something stand out from the background by producing a shallow depth of field. Having the option to adjust the exposure with a variable ND filter allows greater flexibility in keeping with any changes in light.


Terms to Remember

exposure bracketing

a technique where multiple photos of the same image are taken at incrementally different exposures.

exposure

the amount of light reaching an image plane as determined by shutter speed and lens aperture.

overexposed

when the image plane is exposed for too long a period of time, the image captured contains excessive light.

underexposed

when the image plane is exposed for too short a period of time, the image captured will not have enough light.

dynamic range

​the contrast ratio between the darkest and brightest tones that a camera can capture in a single exposure.

graduated neutral density filter

an optical filter that has a neutral density transition and partially diffuses light reaching the image plane.

polarizing filter

an optical filter that polarizes light passing through it, reducing reflections and improving clarity.

variable neutral density filter

an optical filter with adjustable density levels that diffuses varying light levels reaching the image plane.

neutral density filter

an optical filter with a fixed density that diffuses a specific level of light reaching the image plane.

Conclusion


While it can be tempting to do everything in post-processing, capturing the intended aesthetic in camera is crucial. A healthy combination of the two can yield beautiful results like those achieved in bracketing.


These filters may appear to be quick and easy to use, but they can also require more time to set up. Polarizers, for example, need to be frequently readjusted whenever framing is significantly changed because they strongly rely on the position of the sun in relation to the direction of the camera.


A good set of filters can be expensive, but well worth the investment. Cheaper sets tend to be made of plastic and of very poor quality. They can cause severe color casting, lens flares, or softness. If its ring is too thick, there is a higher risk for vignetting. The size of the filter, its quality of glass, number of resistant coatings, and brand are very important to consider.


Filters can scratch or break easily, so handle them with care and keep them clean. And because a filter is another element between the subject and the image plane, it can reduce the amount of light entering the lens. A polarizer can lower the exposure by 1-3 stops alone. As a result of losing light, the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will need to be adjusted.


All of these things will depend on the subject matter, the difference between its lightest and darkest parts, and the look that you are trying to achieve. Do not overthink the details and stop yourself from getting out there and capturing what images you can. Push yourself to experiment with these different tools and discover what works best for you.


Visiting any of the national parks is an excellent source for such inspiration.


Additional Resources