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Frequently asked questions about the National Parks project

The National Parks project is a unique effort by photographer QT Luong (me) to document and interpret each of the 58 National Parks of the United States in a unprecedented level of depth and detail, often using a 5x7 large format camera. In Sept 2002, a decade after starting the project, I achieved the goal of visiting each of the National Parks at least once. This was the first time a single person had photographed all the 58 US National Parks with a large format camera.

How did you get interested in the US National Parks ?

I was born in France. After I completed my PhD, I wanted to spend a couple years in the USA, to see what this most dominant country was all about. At that time, I was an avid mountaineer and climber. I even had a government certification for guiding. As I didn't know much about the geography of the USA, one of the few places I kept hearing about from other climbers was Yosemite - because of its high cliffs. At the beginning of 1993, I came to the University of California at Berkeley, since of all the top US research universities, it was the closest to Yosemite.

Yosemite was the first park I visited - I would subsequently return to there time and time again to explore its vertical world, as well as to hike and cross-country ski. In the spring of 1993, I visited my second National Park, Denali, to climb Mt McKinley solo. The focus during those first parks visits was on mountaineering. In Nov 1993, I visited Death Valley. Growing up in France, I had never seen deserts before. After standing on the highest point on the continent, I was now at its lowest. The diversity of the natural world, and its potential to draw parallels and contrasts has always inspired me. I began to realize how interesting the National Parks system was, as a whole.

I thrive looking for new experiences. After spending so much time in the glacial atmosphere of steep high mountain faces, I was drawn to the natural diversity offered by the National Parks, as I noticed that each environment gave rise to distinct new emotions. They represented all aspects of a vast continent with large tracts of wilderness: deserts and rain forests, Tropics and Arctic, soaring mountains and pancake-flat areas where a pass is 4 foot above sea level. The contrasts were endless compared to what I was used to in Europe, where the last remnants of wilderness are found only in the mountains. Even just the forests in California were a source of wonder, with the tallest, largest and oldest trees in the world, whereas in Europe we didn't even have any virgin forest anymore.

How did you do it ?

When you think about National Parks, you first think of the wilderness, but in America, a lot of things are made for the automobile. Many of the beautiful places are not very far from a road engineered to make them accessible to the general public... which is convenient when you have so much of heavy camera equipment. The project involved a lot of driving, on many road trips from park to park. I haven't kept track, but I know I drove well over 100000 miles.

For further places, such as islands and Alaska, I flew dozens of times (enough to get a couple of free bonus flights per year), from commercial flights to chartered single-engine bush planes - used in roadless areas of Alaska. The part of air travel that I do not enjoy is to have to lug around up to two monster "body bags" filled up with photo gear, camping backpacking and backpacking necessities, and sometimes specialized outdoor gear.

Often, that's just the beginning. To get to some places, you have to backpack for days, sometimes with a 70lbs pounds pack in trailless terrain. More specialized trips involved climbing to such heights as the summit of Mount Mc Kinley, paddling a kayak and inflatable canoe, and getting wet snorkeling and scuba diving.

With the exception of a few week-long wilderness trips in Alaska, where I wouldn't have seen any other people if I was not with a partner, I prefer to work alone. I planned all the expeditions by myself, without guides nor special access/assistance from the NPS, using chartered transportation only when no other options were available. It was important to me to conduct the project with limited resources, since democratic access is at the root of the National Parks idea.

On the road, I almost never stayed in motels, but instead camped out, often without a tent, even in the middle of winter. This was not only to save money, but more importantly to be the closest possible to the environment I was seeking.

I self-funded the entire project, using at first income from my job as a computer science researcher. This semi-academic job afforded me enough flexibility so that I could go on several two-week long trips each year. It is only in the latter years of the project that I began to realize that the images, initially conceived as a labor of love, could be commercialized, and then began to make the transition towards full-time professional photography. Nowadays, I derive all my income from photography.

Hasn't it been done before ?

Ansel Adams was indeed commissioned by the US government to photograph all the national parks, however this was in the forties and there were fewer national parks than now (he still managed to miss one), so that's a whole new task. He also visited only a few areas of some parks.

Almost all contemporary books about the National Parks are actually compilations of images by different photographers. While the most popular parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone have been over-photographed, there is surprisingly little photographic coverage of the less accessible or less known parks. Even within the well-known parks, the coverage is mostly photographs taken from nearby the road. I always try to spend at least some time in the backcountry.

To the best of my knowledge, Stan Jorstad is the only other professional photographer to have photographed the 58 national parks (using medium-format cameras). David Muench, the doyen of American color landscape photography, has worked in-depth in most of the National Parks, but not all. For that reason, his 2005 book "Our National Parks" used some of my own images. Both those photographers used cameras which do not capture images with the same resolution as my 5x7.

What is your favorite National Park ?

Frankly, it's difficult to say, because they are so different. However, If I was to pick a park, it would have to be be Yosemite.

Its deservedly famous views of cliffs and waterfalls are among the most spectacular in the world, but the Yosemite Valley represents only a small fraction of the beauty the park has to offer. There is the 95% other areas in the high country, as well as the smaller sights, the more intimate details of nature. What makes it special to me is that it was the place that draw me to California, the first National Park I had heard of and visited, and the time I have spent there on repeated visits. Yosemite offers a lifetime of climbing and hiking.

Other favorites:

What is the 5x7 camera, and why would it be superior ?

First, the 5x7 camera produces an original transparency (a piece of film) of 5x7 inches (12.7cm x 17.8cm), which records 25 times what is contained in a regular 24mm x 36mm frame - an amazing amount of detail captured in a single shot. Second, the camera is not rigid because the lens is connected to the film plane with a bellows, like the "box cameras" used in the 19th century. This let the photographer control the perspective and the distribution of sharpness in a way which cannot be achieved with a regular camera.

Trying to appreciate the quality of a print obtained from 5x7 on the web is a bit like trying to appreciate the sound of a high-end audio system through the phone, but this page of examples of large format photographs should give you an idea of it.

Do you use exclusively the 5x7 camera ?

Although it can produce superior results, the 5x7 camera is not suitable for every subject and situation. The camera needs to be used on a tripod. The set-up can be time-consuming, requiring anticipation, and making it difficult to capture fast changing conditions. Since everything is manual, one has to be careful, as it is extremely easy to make a mistake which would ruin the image. There are more controls than in normal cameras, resulting in more complex creative decisions. The gear is quite bulky and heavy (a typical kit complete with camera, lenses, tripod, film holders, and other accessories, weights 50lbs). Because of the absence of real-time viewing and the difficulty of using long lenses, the 5x7 camera is not suitable for wildlife photography. The limited depth of field at higher magnifications makes its use problematic for many close-ups as well. Another difficulty is the need for long exposure times, which is problematic in windy conditions.

For all those reasons, there are a number of situations when using the 5x7 is not practical. In that case, I use a 35mm format camera that I always carry in my kit. That camera was film-based, but starting from 2005, I have used a full-frame digital camera. The high sensitivity of digital sensors open up new possibilities, in particular for night photography.

Why not digital photography instead ?

I am using digital cameras to complement my 5x7 camera. Why a complement rather than a replacement ? Image quality. There are two categories of digital cameras: the instant-shot cameras that expose the image during the brief opening of a shutter, and large format scanning backs, that basically work like a flatbed scanner mounted inside a large format camera.

The bulk of my project was completed by 2002. It was only in 2011 that an instant-shot camera (the Phase One IQ180, introduced at a price of US $44,000) caught up with 5x7 film in terms of resolution.

When usable, the scanning backs indeed produce very high-quality images, however, if you had a device that required accessories such as battery packs and laptop computer, and took long exposure times even in bright sunlight and tens of minutes in less strong light, necessitating the sturdiest tripod and making it impossible to photograph anything moving, you would certainly welcome a device that doesn't use electricity, is compact and light enough to be carried by a solo photographer in the backcountry together with food and gear for an extended outing, and capture images in fractions of seconds to a few seconds instead of dozens of seconds to minutes. In other words, if you had today's digital large format scanning backs, you would see the "ancient" film technology as a technical breakthrough for the purpose of photographing wild landscapes. As an example, Stephen Johnson's "Digital National Parks" project resulted in the coverage of barely more than half of the Parks despite large resources, and was quite limited in scope by his very choice of those tools. Digital backs yield higher resolution files, but when scanned properly, a good old piece of 5x7 film is still capable of producing stunningly sharp prints at the size of at least 50x70 inches.

What large format equipment did you use and why ?

My format of choice, 5x7, has an aspect ratio that I find ideally suitable for landscapes, while the area size of the original transparency is almost twice as large as the 4x5 used my most large format photographers. It yields transparencies that are large enough to enjoy on the light table. Looking at them that way, I often see details that escaped my bare eye when standing at the scene, and this brings back wonderful visual memories.

I use a wooden camera hand-assembled by Keith Canham of Mesa, AZ. It is one of the most light (6 lbs) and compact 5x7 camera around that is fully featured, with a complete range of adjustments and the capability to accommodate a wide range of lenses. My assortment of lenses range from 90mm to 720mm, and include optics from each of the 4 major manufacturers (Nikkor 90/8, Schneider 110/5.6, Rodenstock 150/5.6, Schneider 210/5.6, Nikkor 300/9, Fuji 450/12.5, Nikkor 720T/16), however the lens I use for more than half of my images is the Schneider Super-symmar XL 110/5.6, the equivalent of a 24mm lens in 35mm. This lens is demanding, because so much of the scene is included that all the elements have to fit together, but those are the conditions I am striving for.

I work exclusively in color, for I find it a crucial part of the visual experience. Like many landscape photographers, I have used extensively Fuji Velvia, for its vivid colors that seem good at matching the memories of a scene. However, these days, I use exclusively Fuji Astia. This film provides me with a more natural palette. Interestingly, I find that while in smaller formats, this film, because of its less saturated palette, does not match the colors that the mind perceived in a natural landscape, in a 5x7 transparency, the precise rendition of the textures, identical or better than what can be observed at the scene, is just right to recreate the visual experience of being there. Technically, Fuji Astia has three important advantages, first it holds almost more full stop of contrast more than Velvia, making it in particular easier to retain shadow detail in full light or sky detail in overcast conditions, second, the full additional shutter speed is very useful for freezing the motion of vegetation, and third, the reciprocity failure corrections are not necessary until 30s exposures, while Velvia definitively needs them starting from 10s.

The only filters that are use are the polarizer and a variety of Graduated Neutral Density filters. These days, I find that minor color correction are best left for the (digital) darkroom. Digital tools give the color photographer a degree of fine control that is very difficult to achieve in the traditional darkroom, and makes it possible to make prints that best matches my intentions.

For more details and pictures of equipment, see inside QT Luong's general-purpose large format camera bag on lfphoto.info.

Are you going to publish a book ?

After much delays, I am pleased to announce that my National Parks book is released in the summer 2016 to coincide with the Centenial of the National Park Service.