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Two Books on Photographing the National Parks Reviewed

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There are a lot of books about photographing a specific national park, but to the best of my knowledge, there are only two books about photographing all the national parks.

Photographing National Parks
by Chris Nicholson, 2015, Softcover, 232 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, $28

Photographing National Parks is a modestly guidebook-sized volume (5.5 x 8.5 inches, 232 pages), composed mostly of text, although there are some color photographs – which look quite nice considering that the book is printed on uncoated paper. For a self-published book, the price remains acceptable considering the quality of the information. There are two parts: general tips, followed by a tour of each of the 59 national parks.

Photographing National Parks starts with logistical considerations. Some are specific to national parks, many apply to any outdoor photography trip, and will be useful for photographers not used to working in the relatively wild environment of a national park. They include some practical tips that took me years of trial and error to discover, like carrying in the car a gallon-sized jug of water for each day of travel. The section is followed by a general discussion of nature photography techniques, which although brief, has solid advice for everyday situations, and is not equipment-specific.

The second part of the book discusses each of the 59 national parks, with about a page and half dedicated to each park, regardless of its popularity or size. That uniform coverage will hopefully inspire readers to discover out of the beaten path areas rather than concentrating only on the most well-known parks. However, within such a small space, you won’t find many details. Instead, Nicholson does a good job at describing in a “big picture” way what each park has to offer, and suggesting a few locations that may be productive, which I found to be well chosen. One indication of how inclusive the book is, despite its modest format, is the length of the index: 11 three-column pages.

Besides being a photographer, the author has a background in journalism, and it shows: the book is extremely well written and, based on my experience, very accurate. If you bear with me for a digression, I wish the reviewers were as accurate as the author. I’ve seen some stating that the author has “taken his cameras to all 59 national parks,” whereas the book says clearly “In some cases, I had to write about parks I have not visited”. How many isn’t clear, since the author’s portfolio is not readily available, but I can attest that even for the parks that he hasn’t visited, the author’s descriptions and recommendations are right on the money.

Due to lack of details, Photographing National Parks is not a guidebook and therefore needs to be supplemented with books tailored to specific trips, such as the outstanding Phototrip USA books – which cover more than the parks. However, as the only book currently in print about photographing all the national parks, it provides to the photographer who is relatively new to the national parks useful planning tips and inspiration for where to go.

National Audubon Society Guide: How to Photograph America’s National Parks: Digital Edition
by Tim Fitzharris, Firefly Books, 2009, paperback, 192 pages, 8.5 x 8.4, $25

Tim Fitzharris is a well-established photographer with a large body of work, who has authored more than 25 photography books and is the nature columnist for Popular Photography. Although it is out of print, I am reviewing this book as the closest that we have to a photography guide to all the national parks. The book is essentially a re-issue of National Park Photography (2002), with a minimal number of updates for the digital age. However, this doesn’t matter as the bulk of the book is about locations and general photography tips based on the author’s methods.

How to photograph America’s National Parks is well illustrated with more than 250 color photographs which are excellent and diverse, including landscape, wildlife, and macro, although maybe a bit over-saturated. However, the presentation of the photographs doesn’t fully give them justice, as the book’s trim is a relatively modest 8.5 x 8.4 inch, and the design treats them as illustrations mixed with text rather than stand-alone works of art like a coffee-table book. The organization is clear, with general location information in the text, and photography tips specific to a particular image in its caption. After an introduction with general photography tips, the parks are listed in alphabetical order, and some of them are supplemented with “excursions” to nearby areas.

The book describes 23 of the most popular amongst the 59 national parks. For each park, there is a general introduction and discussion of shooting strategy, followed by an average of 5 “hot spots” keyed to a well-designed map – a total of 114 spots. Although I understand why one would want to concentrate on the most popular parks, there is quite a bit of information out there about them, including dedicated photo guides. I therefore feel it is a missed opportunity not to mention parks which are less reputed for nature photography, but nevertheless offer outstanding resources. Noteworthy omissions include Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which are amongst our oldest and largest parks. Also, the lack of inclusiveness is reflected in the choice of the “hot spots”. For instance, besides Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley, the four other locations in Everglades National Park are all ponds. It could be that those locations are particularly productive for bird photography, but their choice does not reflect the diversity of environments found within the park. Personally, rather than “hot spots”, I prefer to invite the reader to experience a representative sampling of the park.

Within those reservations, How to Photograph America’s National Parks is an excellent and well-organized resource, full of great information and images from a photographer with plenty of first-hand experience, that would deserve to be brought back to print.

What do those two books have to do with Treasured Lands ? In addition to being a comprehensive coffee-table book about the 59 national parks, its unique bonus feature is that it doubles as a guide that reveals how you can see and photograph each of the images in the book. As a guide, Treasured Lands aims to be inclusive like “Photographing National Parks”, but much more detailed. It covers all 59 parks and within each park, describes an average of 7 locations from each corner of the park, for a total of 421 locations. The descriptions are comparable to “How to Photograph America’s National Parks”, however its “art book” design is inherently more beautiful and inspiring. Thinking that maybe hauling a 7 lbs coffee-table book isn’t such a great idea ? You are not alone. A PDF of the guide will be available to owners of the book for a nominal fee.

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