Update 7/10/2021: Due to the increase in wildfires and heavy smoke and haze, this trip has been put on hold.
This summer’s Rocky Mountains Photography Tour will start on July 9. I was once again hoping to head north to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. But since it looks like the border won’t be open in time, it is on to Plan B. So this year I’ll be revisiting some locations from 2019 and 2020.
These locations will mainly the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I’m also planning a lengthy backpacking trip to the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. That location was on my itinerary last year but I swapped it out for Glacier National Park instead.
On last summer’s visit to the White-Clouds I was only able to visit the north section. This year I’ll be backpacking in to the south half to photograph the Boulder Chain Lakes Basin and the some of the highest peaks in the wilderness. This area is also part of the popular White Clouds Wilderness Loop. For my purposes though I will be doing an out and back trip instead of the loop. I’ll also have plenty of time budgeted for layovers at the best locations along the route.
Squaretop Mountain Wind River Range #66997 Purchase
Wind River Range Wyoming
Ah, what can I say about the Winds? This will be my seventh trip there and I still can’t get enough of this spectacular mountain range. It’s a backpackers’ dream. Thousands of lakes, 40 peaks over 13,000′, miles and miles of trails in the subalpine along the Continental Divide, plus easy cross country travel to boot!
This year my plans will include parts of the Hailey Pass-Washakie Pass Loop, Desolation Valley, and Baptiste Lake. Also on the itinerary will be a return to Cirque of the Towers and Deep Lake. I’ll also be returning to the Green Lakes area for more new photos of the Green River and Squaretop Mountain.
Known among locals and avid backpackers as “The Bob”, this wilderness destination in the northern Rocky Mountains has been on my must photograph list for decades. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is a huge swath of land straddling both sides of the Continental Divide. An important part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem it is home to the largest intact population of Grizzlies in the lower 48.
Last year It was on my itinerary but I took a pass due to an unusual opportunity to obtain backcountry permits in Glacier National Park. The destination on this trip will be a multi-day backpack to the famous Chinese Wall. This is arguably the signature feature of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 12 mile long 1000′ high limestone escarpment on the Continental Divide.
For an ambitious trip like this several caveats need to be mentioned. First of all if it becomes clear the Canada border will open before the end of July it will be back to Plan A, as in A for Alaska.
Secondly, as with all of my trips that include multiple long backpacking excursions, some locations may be modified due to weather or time constraints. There are already indications of a major wildfire season in the making, so smoky conditions or closed off areas may change my plans.
Finally, if you are in any of these areas in July or August and would like to meet up in the wilderness, or in town for a coffee or beer, feel free to contact me!
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The infamous 2020, it’ll go down in history as the year everyone, including me, wanted to bludgeon to death, and bury in the molten core of the earth where it would be incinerated into oblivion. Yes, it sucked beyond belief, all the way to its ugly end. Let’s all get down on our knees and pray 2021 will be better!
Despite all the endless lows I’m sure there were a at least a few high points for everyone. For example, during the spring lockdown Coleen and I got to do a bit of virtual traveling by binge watching a bunch of British Drama shows on Britbox. After watching Shetlandwe began to dream of visiting that hauntingly beautiful part of Scotland! Also, we were able to complete a load of long overdue home improvement projects. So all was not lost.
The photography part of the year was certainly very memorable for me. Since most of my subject matter takes me to remote wilderness areas I was able to get out and photograph while respecting safety guidelines. So let’s dig into some of my favorite photos made in 2020.
Vote For Your Favorite
As always feel free to vote and comment on your favorite photos. And also, check out the New Images gallery to see even more photos made this year!
# 1 Whatcom Falls Bellingham Washington #68412 Purchase
#2 Blue hour at Shore Acres State Park Oregon #68598 Purchase
Note: This post is a bit longer than some of my others since there is a lot of information to share on the topic.
A successful winter photography trip is all about planning and timing, especially if you’re photographing landscapes. As I outlined in my previous post winter photography presents some unique challenges to the photographer, but if you can get past them a whole new world rich with rewards will be open to you. Few experiences can match getting out of your tent at dawn after a storm has cleared to photograph a trackless pristine winter scene in perfect light!
Front Country or Backcountry:
When planning a winter photography trip your location options are basically the same as the rest of the year, frontcountry or backcountry. However in winter a backcountry photography location involves more risk and preparation.
Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park #43396 Purchase
Frontcountry locations can be accessed in a number of different ways. It may be as easy as driving up to a classic viewpoint along a road or in a national or state park. But keep in mind many of those locations may be closed or on unplowed roads in winter.
Utilizing ski area chairlifts is a great method for accessing winter landscapes. They can get you higher up to views usually accessible by hiking trail in summer. They’re also a good way to shave off some miles and elevation when starting a backcountry trip. Some ski areas offer a discounted one trip only lift ticket. But if you’re a skier a full day ticket is the way to go. It will enable you to do some early morning photography, have fun skiing all day, then make one last trip up for evening light. Getting on and off a chair lift can be tricky though when you have a pack full of camera gear.
North Cascades Winter Backcountry Camp #47098 Purchase
Backcountry locations involve more planning, more gear to carry, and efficient means of travel. Don’t even consider getting into a winter backcountry location by just walking in snow boots. Nothing is more exhausting than trudging through hip deep snow! Snowshoes, skis, or split-board snowboards are the best options.
All the gear for a full day backcountry photography trip can be reasonably carried in a mid-size backpack. If you’re planning an overnight trip expect to carry at least 25% more weight on your back. But if that seems doable don’t forget that snowshoes or skis can add up to an additional 5-7 pounds on each foot Any way you look at it you’re in for a good workout!
A well timed overnight backcountry trip will put you in an enviable position. Photographing a pristine landscape at sunrise just after a fresh snowfall is a magical experience, making it well worth all the effort!
*Essential Tip: To photograph pristine landscapes arrive as early as possible when photographing near ski areas, or other popular locations. After a fresh snowfall skiers will flock to the slopes in hordes. Often within an hour after sunrise slopes will be completely tracked out. The popularity of backcountry skiing has exploded over the years. So even relatively remote areas can be tracked out quickly.
Also, be aware of reckless drivers on roads leading to ski areas. Many skiers throw caution to the wind when it comes to getting first lines.
Wells Grey provincial Park British Columbia #3683 Purchase
In winter the sun of course is in a lower latitude. And for photographers that means more opportunities for golden light and side lighting. Also, since the days are shorter there’s a lot less waiting around in the cold for good light. The golden hour lasts longer in the morning and starts earlier in the afternoon. But even in late morning and early afternoon the angle of the sun can still present wonderful photographic opportunities.
As a bonus you don’t need to get up as early in the morning. But if you’re camping out you’re in for nearly fourteen hours of darkness. You’ll also have less travel time available, requiring some locations to be an overnight trip. Of course waiting until late winter or early spring means longer days and warmer temperatures. However during the transitions of seasons the weather will also be more volatile, which could also provide opportunities for dramatic light.
*Essential Tip: Set your camera meter on manual. Camera meters are set for a base exposure of neutral gray. All that white snow will trick your camera into exposing the scene too dark. There are numerous methods of compensating for this, but for me the easiest is to set the camera on manual and overexpose +1 stop. Also, always check your exposure on your camera’s histogram view, and adjust your exposure accordingly.
Ideally you’ll want to be on location just as a storm cycle concludes, leaving the trees* and landscape covered in fresh snow, with the remnant clouds bathed in glowing morning or evening light.
*Essential Tip:Trees that are free of snow tend to lose detail and become silhouettes against a snowy white backdrop. Try to get on location before snow melts off tree branches.
Your first challenge is to become a bit of an amateur meteorologist. You’ll need to regularly keep track weather of patterns and trends for your desired destination. Make sure you use several sources, such as NOAA, Weather Network, AccuWeather, Mountain Weather Forecasts, etc.
Observe storm patterns and satellite images on weather sites. Watch the direction they come from and where and how long they last. Also take note of temperature fluctuations before during and after a storm. Winter storms often start out warm and wet, followed by colder dryer conditions. Look at the bigger picture and find out the seasonal patterns of weather. Let’s take a look at why this is important.
Pacific Northwest storms often dump huge quantities of heavy wet snow in the mountains. Quickly fluctuating temperatures can change the snow to rain in an instant, or vice versa. This is especially true in November and December, the stormiest months of the year. However January and February have cooler and more consistent temperatures, with more calm periods between storms. Making this a better time to visit locations such as Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. In March the storms ramp up again with more variable temps.
Rocky Mountain states and provinces have a completely different scenario. The big difference is temperature. This far inland it’s much colder and dryer. The snowfall amounts will be a lot less, even in major storms. And even more importantly the snow will be dryer and less likely to accumulate on trees. So your window of opportunity to photograph that fresh snowfall my be much smaller.
In the Rockies the cold dry conditions are a great benefit for photographing other winter subjects, such as ice. The consistently colder temperatures freezes waterfalls lakes and rivers, something that is quite rare in the coastal ranges.
So make sure you educate yourself to the various conditions in different areas, it’ll help get you there at the right time and decide where to go for different subject matter, not to mention when it’s time to high tail it out to the safety of a motel.
Ski Touring Coast Range British Columbia #50345 Purchase
Well groomed summer trails to your favorite mountain vista will be under several feet of snow in the winter. There won’t be any trail markers visible, leaving it up to you to find the route.
White-out conditions are especially dangerous. There will be no visible distinction between sky and snow, and it’s very easy to get turned around in a matter of seconds. When traveling on skis in these conditions there can often be a strange and frightening sensation of sliding backwards when you’re actually moving forwards! Even in good weather a familiar route in winter will look much different than in summer. I’ve been up to Artist Pointby Mount Baker dozens of times in summer. But it always amazes me how unfamiliar the route looks in winter.
Check in with park rangers for special winter routes and advice, or go online to local winter recreation forums for advice. For example due to avalanche dangers the Paradise area at Mount Rainier has different winter routes specified by the park service.
I’m a firm believer in using map and route finding skills, and not relying on GPS, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets. In winter especially you must develop a new set of skills and common sense to get around safely. It is unbelievably easy for things to go wrong in winter. Dead batteries, or losing your phone or GPS in the snow mean disaster.
Avalanches are the biggest hazard on a winter photography trip in the mountains. Never ever travel alone in any area that is is susceptible to avalanches! If you are caught in even a small slide your chances for getting out alive are very slim. However the science of learning to identify potential hazards is too complex to explain here.
Visit your local outdoor recreation store to get information on avalanche awareness and safe winter travel in your area. Most likely they will also offer avalanche safety courses or direct you to an organization that does. A good short course will go a long way in keeping you alive and safe. Plus you’ll have fun and probably meet some future travel partners.
Afterwards, and before heading into the backcountry, you’ll need to invest in the tools needed for safe travel in avalanche prone areas. Namely an avalanche beacon*, avalanche probe, and shovel. Expect to pay anywhere from $350-$450 all three items. Most outdoor retailers sell these items both separately and in a package, which offers a bit of savings on cost.
*Do Not purchase a used beacon that was manufactured before 1990! These older beacons use a different frequency, and are not compatible with newer models.
Also exercise extreme caution on lakes or streams. A snow covered surface may hide dangerously thin ice.
Frostbite and Hypothermia are the next biggest hazards of photographing in winter. Landscape and nature photography practically requires sitting around in one place waiting for the right lighting conditions. This alone is an invitation to hypothermia. But remember, hypothermia is not limited to winter conditions. It can occur in temperatures of 50º, and even higher in windy wet conditions.
When you’re working up a sweat hiking or skiing in it is very easy to quickly lose heat and become chilled when resting. Even on a sunny day. Unless you quickly put on dry clothes or an insulating layer hypothermia can quickly set in. Learn what the signs are and act quickly to get warm.
Frostbite or frostnip are serious concerns anytime the temperature gets below freezing. Fingers and toes are most susceptible. Tight fitting boots and gloves are the biggest causes, since they hinder crucial circulation. Tingling numbness and loss of feeling are danger signs.
To prevent both hypothermia and frostbite it is essential to stay dry and wear properly fitting clothes. Keep your core body well insulated and warm and your extremities will fare better.
Always dress in layers. to stay warm and dry you’ll constantly be shedding layers when active, and adding layers when sedentary.
Baselayers are the foundation. You wear it all day and it keeps body heat in and wicks sweat and moisture away. Merino wool is preferred over synthetics. It stays fresher longer and retains heat better than synthetics.
Midweight layers can be a synthetic sweater or vest, or a lightweight down sweater. Keep in mind that when you work up a sweat down will absorb that moisture, causing it to lose its insulation properties. For that reason synthetic is preferred for this layer.
Insulated jacket. This is where you’ll want to invest in a good down product. When taking a break or standing around waiting for light you’ll loose body heat quickly. A nice puffy down jacket or parka will trap that heat and keep you warm and cozy.
Shell Jacket and Pants. These can be either hardshell or softshell, but hardshells are preferred for stormy conditions. Just make sure they are well made and are both water and wind proof. A lightweight article without insulation is best and most versatile. Look for lots of easily accessed pockets and waterproof zippers.
Gloves and hats. I always carry two pairs, a fleece liner glove and an insulated ski gauntlet glove with leather palms and fingers. Mittens can be better for warmth but they’re difficult for performing minor tasks like buckling and pulling zippers. A good beanie hat is essential to keep your head warm. Use a lightweight version or headband for uphill exertion and a heavier one for sitting around.
Winter dawn, Crater Lake National Park #3180 Purchase
Photography Gear Tips:
Keep it simple and organized:Try and keep your gear to a minimum and keep it organized. One my absolute biggest frustrations of shooting in winter is dealing with buckles, straps, snaps, and zippers. Every item you’re wearing or carrying seems to latch and get tangled on to these fasteners. Trying to cope with the problem is compounded by necessity of wearing gloves. Try and choose gear that have a minimum of these things and keep important items in easily accessible pockets or compartments.
Keep it out of the snow: When photographing try and lay your pack, spare jacket, or other large item on the snow, then place needed articles on it to keep them dry and in view. It is incredibly easy to drop a filter or lens cap in the snow right in front of your feet and never find it again!
Keep it dry: Bring along several good micro fiber lens wipes and or large cotton bandannas. No matter how hard you try things will get wet or snowy and having an absorbent fabric on hand is indispensable.
Keep Batteries warm: This should go without saying but batteries will quickly lose power in cold temperatures. Modern lithium-ion batteries hold a charge longer and better than traditional AA or AAA types. Regardless keep them warm in a pocket close to your body.
Keep your camera cold: Needless to say your gear will be in cold temperatures for most of the day. Bringing a camera in and out of a car, warming hut, or lodge will quickly warm it up, causing harmful condensation to form on the lens and camera body. If this happens always wipe your gear dry immediately. Better yet, protect them in plastic ziplock bags before bringing it inside.
Tripods: Using a tripod in deep snow can be challenging. Manfrotto makes tripod snowshoes that will attach to the legs of most tripods. I have a pair of these but have never used them simply because they’re a pain to attach and don’t work well in all the various snow conditions I encounter.
When setting up my tripod I cautiously spread the legs only about half way or less and sink them into the snow almost monopod style. Since this position isn’t very stable I’ll use a remote to trip the shutter. Spreading the legs all the way out increases your chance of bending, jamming, or breaking them. Be warned that this may not be the best technique but it works for me.
Handle with care: The lower the temperature goes the more susceptible everything is to breakage. Plastic items are the biggest concern, but metal items can become brittle too. Never overtighten anything! Not only is it an invitation to breaking but it will be more difficult to unfasten when wearing gloves.
Filters: Polarizing filters should be used judiciously. It’s very easy to darken a blue sky too much against a white landscape. And just like using them throughout the rest of the year, be careful of vignetting on a wide angle lens.
If you regularly bring graduated neutral density filters you’ll probably use them in a reverse manner in winter. Meaning the land will need to be darkened instead of the sky. I rarely find a need for these filters in winter, and never take their added weight into the backcountry.
Stormy Sunset from foothills of Wind River Range #69049 Purchase
I’m happy to announce that the first group of new images from my recent summer trip is now online! This group represents the first half of the trip which includes locations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming. Also included in the gallery are some floral photos, along with images from the recent Oregon Coast Trip.
Aside from the photos from the Palouse Region of Washington all of the new image are from locations I’ve never visited or photographed in before. Although I’ve been to the Wind River Range of Wyoming many times this was my first trip to Upper Middle Fork Basin.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area #44164 Purchase
This week we will be leaving for a ten day photo shoot on the Oregon Coast. Our usual plan is to photograph coastal locations in April or early May but this year we had to postpone it for obvious reasons. However after several months of enduring Stay At Home orders filled with endless home improvement projects we can’t wait to hit he road again and get back to work!
At this writing only about half of Oregon State parks along the coast are open for camping. So we’re a bit limited on our options. Fortunately a few choice locations are open, enabling us to photograph some areas we haven’t visited in a number of years. We will be starting at Shore Acres State Parkwith its whimsical sandstone cliff formations, and Bandon Beach‘s iconic sea-stacks. Then we’ll move north to the Oregon Dunes, and finally on to the Cannon Beach area.
If you’re also visiting any of these areas at the same time let me know, I’d love to meet up and chat!
While this long awaited trip to the Oregon Coast is exciting in its own right, it’s only just the beginning. Several days after returning home I’ll be leaving on an extended photo tour of the Rocky Mountains. In some ways it will be a continuation of last year’s epic trip to the Idaho Sawtooths and Wyomings Wind River Range.
Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #54316r Purchase
Photography has always been an essential element of vacations. Since the first portable roll film camera was introduced people have been taking pictures of their travels. And backpacking trips into wilderness areas are certainly no exception. In this post I’ll be offering some backpacking photography tips to help make your trip a success.
My previous post, Backpacking Photography Gear Tips, went into some of the details of choosing the proper photography and backpacking equipment. This time I’ll give tips on photography while backpacking on the trail.
For the purpose of this article I’ll focus on some basic tips for working in the field which can help to free your creativity.
Setting a goal for yourself can vastly help in making better photographs. These goals can vary depending on a number of factors, such as:
On a backpacking trip you may need to place a limit on and be flexible with your goals. For example, if your goal is action/adventure photography your opportunities for landscape or nature photography will be limited. Or if your goal is to photograph dramatic landscapes but the weather is consistently gray, consider changing your goal to nature details and or abstracts.
Backpacking in the Wind River Range #66330 Purchase
Know Your Limits
Remember that your pack will most likely be fairly heavy, and will determine how far and fast you can travel. Don’t push yourself beyond your limit. Take it easy and break your hiking distances into manageable lengths. If you arrive at camp physically exhausted you won’t have much energy left for making good photographs. Unless the perfect image is right in front of your tent you’ll need to be on the move until after sunset.
Carefully research your trip in advance. Check out trip reports and maps, and pay particular attention to elevation differences from point to point. You may think that you can easily hike 15 miles in a day. However, that distance will be considerably less when throw in 3000′-4000′ elevation gain while carrying a full pack.
Also know your location. Backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range is vastly different from backpacking in the North Cascades. In the Winds you gain elevation gradually with many ups and downs. In the North Cascades large amounts of elevation is gained either by endless switchbacks or straight up endurance tests.
Glacier Peak and Image Lake North Cascades #58239 Purchase
Know Your Subject Matter
This may be the most important tip I have to offer.
The best portrait photographers will always tell you this. Being keenly aware of, and bringing out the nuances in someones personality is the key to great portrait photography. This is also true for other subject matter, including landscape and nature.
One of the best ways of accomplishing this is to just sit and observe, be meditative. Consider the current catchphrase Light And Fast. Going light is good, but why fast, what’s the rush? Isn’t wilderness something to be savored? Aside from photography aren’t you also here to get away from the rush and complexities of daily living?
Slow down and think creatively, you’ll enjoy your trip more and make better images.
It’s easy to backpack into a beautiful area, set up camp, grab your camera and snap your brains out. However, when you get back home you most likely will have only snapshot quality photos.
While on the trail be observant of your surroundings. Take frequent breaks and enjoy the scent of the forest, and the sounds of the birds and streams. After setting up camp use this time to relax and restore your physical and mental energy.
Be particularly aware of how the light changes. The position of the sun and type of light can make the difference between a good and great photo.
See and photograph with your own eyes. Don’t set out armed with GPS coordinates just so you can replicate the other guy’s photo.
Know your subject and photograph deliberately.
Backcountry Camp Mount Baker Wilderness #53372 Purchase
Selecting A Campsite
Ideally you’ll need to select a campsite, or base camp on longer trips, that is in close proximity* to your subject matter. If your campsite is a mile or more from that perfect mountain view or field of wildflowers you’ll need to rush to get there in time set up.
This is especially important at sunrise. It’s incredibly easy to just sleep in if you need to make a long pre-dawn trek to that great composition. Especially if it’s several hundred feet higher up. In a perfect situation you should have a variety of compositions to photograph within a quarter mile of camp.
If you’re backpacking in a National Park or Wilderness Area with camping restrictions your options may be limited. National Parks deliberately, and for good reasons, limit camping proximity to pristine locations. Always do your research and check in advance. In these situations you may have to plan on some extra legwork.
*Whenever possible camp only on hardened established sites, bare ground, rock, or snow. This may not be an option in very remote or rarely visited areas. Scroll down to read about minimal impact and Leave No Trace Principles.
Good location scouting begins at home while researching your trip. Trip reports and guidebooks usually include photo of the area. Poring over topographic maps can give clues to directions of light, and hidden features. Goggle searches of your trip area using different keywords can also reveal little known spots.
1. If you planned carefully you should arrive at and set up camp early enough to have time to relax and do some scouting. Aside from obviously finding the best spots for compositions, scouting also gives you an opportunity to get to know your subject better.
2.Walk through the entire area, and look beyond the obvious. While the big snowcapped mountain may be the obvious dominant element, there may be other compositions more subtle yet just as inspiring. It’s easy to focus your attention on the main scene during golden hour and completely miss something even better in the opposite direction.
3.Be aware of where the sun will rise and set in relation to the landscape. That perfect composition may be in shadow during morning and evening golden hours. This is particularly true in deep narrow valleys.
4.Be observant of cloud and weather patterns. Some mountain ranges are prone to dramatic midday storms. However at sunset and sunrise the sky may be devoid of any clouds. Of course in some areas the opposite may be true. That gorgeous summit may be consistently shrouded in clouds at sunset.
5.Look for key elements which can you can use in compositions. For a mountain scene, a foreground with a winding stream or a grouping of wildflowers can add movement and depth to the image. Objects such as boulders, a distant tent, or person can also add scale to the scene.
Face it, backpacking and the related chores of camping are a lot of work. But it’s only one half of the work you’ll face when you’re there to make excellent images. While other parties are sitting around camp enjoying the sunset, or sleeping late the next morning, you need to be on the move.
1. Don’t be in a rush, plan in extra days. Good light and photography rarely happens on your schedule. An extra day or two in an area increases your chance of getting the light you want.
2. Get accustomed to rising before dawn in the morning. How early you need to get up depends on how far you are from where you need to photograph. You can always get more sleep when you return to camp.
3. Stick it out until it’s really over. Some photographers pack it up right after the sun sets or rises. Big mistake. I can’t tell you how many times it appeared like all the best light was gone, only for the sun to find a gap in the clouds and come back in full force. Sometimes you’ll be faced with a boring cloudless sunrise when a few minutes later glowing wisps or puffy clouds develop literally out of nowhere.
4. Wait for the afterglow. Often, hidden beyond your view, there may be some atmospheric elements that create a beautiful long lasting afterglow.
5. If the sky is clear of clouds and there is no afterglow it’s always worth waiting to photograph the Belt of Venus, and during the blue hour.
6. Stay up late or wake up earlier for photographing the Milky Way.
7. With the right conditions excellent images can be made throughout the day, not just during golden hours. Always keep you mind and eyes open to new creative opportunities.
8. Wait out the weather. You’ve put a lot of time and energy into getting here. Stick it out if you can.
Good nutrition is important to maintain the energy you need to sustain a high level of activity. There are endless books, articles, and opinions available to help guide you and confuse you on this topic. Everybody is an expert and will be happy to point out why their research is right and yours is wrong.
I’m not a nutrition expert but I have found out through experience what works for me and what doesn’t. Everybody is different. You’ll need to find a balance of taste, convenience, and nutrition that works for you, preferably in advance of a long trip.
1. Whatever choice of foods make sure you bring enough. You’ll be burning a lot more calories per day than you normally would.
2. Keep your menu as simple as possible, and look for dehydrated or freeze dried items to keep the weight down.
3. For safety in bear country avoid foods with strong odors. Only prepare as much as you can eat, leftovers attract not only bears but also rodents.
4. Try to bring items that can be prepared by just adding boiling water. The time you save can be spent photographing. You’ll also save weight on fuel.
5. When on the trail stay well hydrated, and drink an electrolyte replacement instead of plain water. Over the years I’ve tried many, most taste horrible and are ridiculously expensive. I’ve gone back to Gatorade, it tastes better, is cheap, and it works for me.
6. Bring enough energy bars (again, most taste horrible) or trail mix to last the duration of your trip. It’s also a good idea to pack a few special treats to break up the monotony.
7. Supplements are optional and subjective. I always take a B Complex supplement daily. I find it helps in converting nutrients into energy, but that’s just my opinion.
I’ve recently started to add this extremely important topic to all of my hiking posts. Don’t even think about visiting backcountry areas unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT).
All national parks and wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!
For most people bringing back photos from a backpacking trip is essential. Who doesn’t want to share their adventure with friends and family on the social media beast?
The big question is what is the end use for those photos, and what photo gear should you take to meet that end? Ask 100 photographers that question and you’ll get 100 different answers. And there really are no wrong answers here.
For the purpose of this article I’ll focus on backpacking photography gear tips for photographers that may be in the advanced amateur to aspiring pro levels.
Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades
It’s All About Weight
Get used to it, if you’re into serious photography while backpacking your pack will be heavy, period.
Only you can determine how much weight you can comfortably carry and for how far. There are endless variables which determine what you should or shouldn’t bring, such as photography goals, trip length, elevation gain, trail or off trail routes, and seasons, to name a few.
Basically though, carrying too much weight can turn your trip into a grueling muscle cramping ordeal. And at the end of the day you won’t have any energy left for photography. Believe me I know what I’m talking about here. For 20 years I lugged around a 4×5 film camera with four lenses, 18 film holders, a film changing tent, extra film, light meter, tripod, filters, etc. All this photo gear alone was well over 35 pounds.
So here are my gear tips for helping to make your backpacking photography trip more successful and enjoyable.
Disclaimer:The following tips are offered from my personal experience and preferences after many years of backpacking photography. What works for me may not work for you.
Backcountry camp North Cascades National Park
There isn’t much you can do here for weight savings. You can’t shave off pieces of you camera or lens to cut down on weight. And this isn’t the category for scrimping on quality to save weight. My choice of photo gear may be on the heavy side, but it ensures high quality results.
One camera body. The best you can afford. It doesn’t matter if it’s digital or film or, which brand, as long you can change lenses. Make sure it has a high quality sensor with enough megapixels sufficient for your end use. A 20 megapixel body may be good enough for social media sharing, but not probably for making large format fine art prints.
Pro Tip: Pro or Prosumer level cameras are much more rugged, and have better weather seals than consumer level cameras. Something to consider if you regularly visit dusty, and or rainy environments, or are hard on your gear.
My Gear: Nikon D850 Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s well built with all the features I need and more. It’s 45.7 megapixel sensor is outstanding for night sky photography, and mural size prints. Really Right Stuff L Plate Used for quick release in conjunction with Really Right Stuff Tripod Ballhead.
Illuminated tent, Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Wide or ultra wide to short telephoto lenses will cover most situations. Again, go with the highest quality you can afford. It wood be ideal to bring just one zoom lens with a focal length from 20-200mm. However the quality of such a lens may not be optimum.
Many photographers will swear by the quality of prime lenses, but for our purpose bringing an arm load of them isn’t practical. One wide angle zoom lens, plus a normal to short telephoto zoom lens would be a good option.
Pro Tip: High quality lenses are always more important than the camera body. The most expensive camera or post-processing editing app can’t make up for an inferior quality lens.
My Gear: Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 This lens is considered by many landscape photographers to be the gold standard of wide angle zooms. I can attest that it is extremely sharp, and has minimal distortion and chromatic aberration. Nikon 24-70mm 2.8E ED VR There are arguably smaller, lighter weight, and cheaper lenses in this focal length. But for me this lens has proven its worth many times over. It’s tack sharp, and the VR feature is outstanding for hand held work. Nikon 70-200mm 2.8E FL ED VR Again, it’s a heavy and expensive lens, but for me it’s high quality glass and features are worth every ounce.
A tripod is an essential piece of photo gear. Night photography would be absolutely impossible without it. So would close-ups of flowers, long exposures of flowing water, and techniques such as focus stacking.
A tripod is also one item where you may be able to get away with choosing a lighter weight model. This is especially true if you camera body and lens combination is on the lighter side.
Many manufacturers offer tripods with three or four section legs. I prefer three, simpler, less parts that can fail. Also make sure your tripod is tall enough for your needs. Carbon fiber tripods are your best option, they’re slightly lighter than metal, and very durable. They also won’t freeze your hands in cold weather light metal does.
In recent years ball heads have become the standard, and I find them to be a vast improvement over older style handles and knobs.
Pro Tip: Do not opt for an inexpensive poorly made tripod with plastic components! They are not stable and break very easily. I was once in desperate need of a replacement tripod while on location. All I could purchase was a cheap lightweight model. Even with everything locked down as much as possible it was like using a wet noodle to support my camera!
Polarizing Filter. Probably one of the most indispensable filters to bring along. Just be careful not to overdue the effect of darkening a sky. Also keep in mind their limited effect when using wide angle lenses. Graduated Neutral Density Filters. I still find them extremely useful. But If you’re looking to save weight you could leave these at home, and produce their effect in post-processing. They are not always the best option in certain circumstances. However, when possible I will always prefer to use them to make the best exposure in the field, and not rely on post-processing techniques.
My Gear: B+H Polarizing Filter Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters: Four filters; 1 & 2 Stop soft and hard edge. Lee SW150 Mark II Filter System, necessary to accommodate Nikon 14-24mm lens
Extra Batteries. I always take three fully charged batteries, one in the camera and two extras. On a recent 10 day backpack I still had about half power left on my last spare. Be aware that mirrorless cameras may consume more battery power. Extra Memory Cards. Remote Shutter Release. Weighs next to nothing and helps in reducing camera shake. Micro Fiber Cleaning Cloth. Essential for cleaning lenses and filters Camera Chest Pack. I find this optional item to be extremely useful. Not only does it give me quick access to my camera while on the tail, it also has room for small items such as trail snacks and maps. My Gear: Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AWII
Backpacker Glacier Peak Widerness
Here is where you’ll have the most opportunities for saving weight while on the trail. It’s also where you can spend or save lots of money. Once again how light you go depends on your destination, how long you will be out, and what season you’ll be backpacking in.
Going Ultralight is the catch word of the day, and gear manufacturers are cashing in on it big time. Just be aware that that ultra expensive ultralight gear may not be ultra durable, especially when the weather turns nasty, and after a few seasons of use.
Absolutely nothing is worse than sitting out wind, rain, and or snow for days at a time in a flimsy leaking tent.
Nearly every tent, backpack, or rain jacket on the market today will perform well in adverse conditions, at least for their first season. What gear reviewers won’t tell you is how well they hold up after a few seasons of use!
A high quality good fitting backpack is one of the most essential pieces of gear you’ll need for a successful and enjoyable backpacking trip.
Pro Tip: Forget that fancy expensive photo gear backpack. They are designed foremost to protect your camera and lenses while on the trial, everything else is secondary. You’ll quickly find that out when you’re several miles into a steep climb when that backpack has suddenly turned itself into a medieval torture device.
Go with a pack specifically designed for backpacking. Use soft items in you pack, like clothes to protect your gear. Visit a reputable outdoor gear store and try on different packs. Speak with a knowledgable salesperson about what you need, a good one will help choose and fit the ideal pack. Keep in mind that to accommodate all your photo gear you may need a larger pack than you initially think.
Pro Tip: Do not buy a backpack from an online retailer until you have already physically checked it out and tried it on! Ideally borrow a friends for a short trip first to see if it works for you.
My Gear: Osprey Zenith 88 Osprey makes high quality packs for every type of adventurer. This is the most comfortable pack I’ve ever used. Its suspension system is much more comfortable for carrying heavier loads than their popular Aether 85. Perfect size for trips over three or four days in length. Although it is a bit on the large size for a weekend trip.
Backcountry camp North Cascades
A good shelter is the next most important piece of backpacking gear.
If you’re traveling light and fast, and are only concerned about making miles in gorgeous summer weather without any flying insects to bother you, then even a thin nylon tarp will do.
But it’s a different story when you’re out for a week and the weather turns sour, with mosquitoes, flies, and gnats out in biblical proportions. Then you’ll wish for something a bit more substantial to protect you and camera gear.
Look for a lightweight tent with a silicone treated rain fly. I also like a tent with a vestibule large enough to protect items you don’t want inside the tent. Like boots and a dirty backpack.
My Gear: Big Agnes Copper Spur 2. Super lightweight, easy to pitch, with two doors and large vestibules. This tent also comes in a one person size, but I like a little more elbow room.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
For years I steered clear of down bags, mainly because I felt they were a poor option in the rainy Pacific Northwest. However, now I’m an enthusiastic supporter of down. They’re like sleeping enveloped in a warm cloud. And they’re generally much lighter and more compressible than synthetic bags. A high quality down sleeping bag is not cheap so look at it as an investment. However, with proper care a well made bag will last for many years. Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering make some of the finest bags around.
Sleeping pads are essential for keeping those roots from poking into your back while sleeping, or for insulation when camped on snow. Options here are either a foam pad or an inflatable. I’ve used Therm-a-Rest pads exclusively for many years. They are incredibly comfortable with adjustable firmness, are lightweight, and compress down very well.
My Gear: Western Mountaineering Badger Therm-a-rest Classic
North Cascades National Park
Another essential item for any overnight trip. The days of preparing your meals over an open campfire are long gone. Campfires above timberline are banned just about everywhere, and for many good reasons. Besides, cooking over an open fire takes an awful long time and is messy and dangerous.
The two options are liquid white gas (Coleman Fuel) and butane mix canisters. Canister stoves are all the rage right now and I have a strong opinion regarding them.
In my experience canister stoves are great for warm weather summer trips. However, when it starts getting cold their performance drops significantly, especially with a partially filled canister. On one winter ski trip I went through 2 whole canisters trying to boil a quart of water. The heat output wasn’t much better than a candle. Thankfully my friend had a backup stove and saved the day.
The empty canisters are also very wasteful. Some canisters can be recycled, but why even bother if there’s another better option.
Liquid fuel stoves perform well at any temperature, and do so to the last drop of fuel. They weigh only slightly more than canister stoves, and there are no empty canisters to dispose of.
My Gear: MSR XGK. Yes, I know, this model is loud. But it heats like a blowtorch in any weather. Plus it’s both incredibly dependable and well built. The one I have now has lasted over ten years and is still going strong!
Wind River Range
Proper footwear is only second to a good backpack for comfort on the trail. There is a strong debate on leather boots vs lightweight trail runners. For years I’ve sworn by stiff leather boots with lugged soles. But on recent trips I’ve gone with lighter weight boots, and will probably move more towards trail runners in the near future.
Pro Tip: Be aware that if you’re backpacking in the mountains early in the season lightweight shoes may not be the best option. Hiking in snow for only a few minutes will result in very wet cold feet. In steep snow slopes you also won’t get much traction, and step kicking will be very difficult.
Here is a list of other necessary items. They’re all important, but I won’t go into detail about them since it would require a separate article.
Weather appropriate clothing
Water bottle or hydration bag
Water filter or other purification method
Food, including trail snacks
Height of the Rockies Provincial Park
This should provide you with enough gear tips to begin planning for your next backpacking photography trip. As I mention many times in this article, cutting down on weight is important. But so is your personal comfort level. This isn’t a contest to see who can have the lightest pack and hike the farthest. So what if you choose a slightly beefier tent, or need to bring another lens? It’s your trip and you can always make adjustments to your preferences in the future.
Now get out there and have fun!
Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with you friends and colleagues! And make sure to check out my next post in this series: Backpacking Photography Tips
Titcomb Basin Wind River Range
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Oxbow Bend Grand Teton National Park #67724 Purchase
A photography trip to Grand Teton National Park can be a once in a lifetime experience. It can also be one in a series of return trips to photography the park in depth, and in all seasons. Whichever it is for you, photographing this gem in the national park system can be a daunting challenge. This is especially true if it your first visit to Grand Teton.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Grand Teton National Park Trip Planning, a visit to photograph this or any other national park can be a very rewarding experience. It can also be a disappointing exercise in frustration. Good planning and having enough time available to meet your photography goals increases your chances of success.
Since I’ve already outlined trip planning in my previous post, let’s start talking about locations. Grand Teton is a big park with dozens of great areas to photograph in. However, for the purpose of this article I’m going to focus only on some of the more popular front country road accessed locations. But first.
Essential Tip #1:Nearly all photography locations in Grand Teton National Park is best photographed in early morning light and sunrise. Of course this means you’ll need to get accustom yourself to rising very early and setting up on location before dawn. However, most of those same locations are also great for evening and sunset photography. But in Grand Teton sunrise has the edge.
Essential Tip #2:Scout out your desired locations ahead of time. Leisurely walk around and previsualize compositions in advance. That way when you return in morning or evening you won’t waste precious time and light scrambling around wondering where the best compositions are.
Essential Tip #3:Throughout this post I reiterate the value of photographing during morning and evening golden hours. However certain lighting conditions can make excellent photography possible during every part of the day. Just because golden hour is over is no reason to stop photographing. Have an open mind and be creative!
Essential Tip #4:Be ready to encounter hordes of other photographers nearly everywhere you go. Plan to arrive and set up in your chosen spot an hour and a half to two hours early. Yes, that means for sunrise photography you’ll be there in position while the stars are still out. Dress warmly, you’ll be standing there for a while! And expect to be elbow to elbow and lock tripod legs with other photographers.
Essential Tip #5:Be respectful of other photographers and park visitors. For many of them this literally may be a once in a lifetime trip that they scrimped and saved for. Everybody wants to get that perfect photo from the best spot. But don’t be one of those jerks that pushes and shoves their way into the front. If you arrive late that’s your own fault, come back the next day, or better yet get creative and find a new composition nearby. And please be friendly. So many photographers can be reluctant to converse, as if they’re going to reveal a special photo secret or technique by talking to their neighbor. Grow up, we’re all here for the same reason, have fun you may make some new friends.
Essential Tip #6:PLEASE, PLEASE PLEASE, be respectful of the environment! All of our parks and wild lands are being loved and photographed to death. If there are signs prohibiting entry or are roped off for restoration, don’t ignore them, no matter how tempting it may be to get that photo. It also should go without saying, don’t alter the scene by cutting down branches that get in your way. If necessary retouch unwanted objects out in Photoshop. Read more aboutOutdoor Ethics here.
Essential Tip #7:Wildlife such as, bison, moose, and elk are abundant in Grand Teton National Park. All wildlife from bison and elk to squirrels and birds have difficult lives just trying to survive on a daily basis. Please give them a wide berth and strictly observepark regulations. Never ever, under any circumstances, for any reason, approach wildlife. They can easily be stressed and provoked into attacking. While you’re recuperating in the hospital, park officials will be busy destroying that animal. I’m sure that’s not in your trip plan.
T.A. Moulton Barn Grand Teton National Park #67410 Purchase
Mormon Row Barns / Antelope Flats
This are is one of the closest locations to the town of Jackson and offers a variety of photographic opportunities. Historic Mormon Row has several noteworthy structures, but the two iconic Moulton Barns are the biggest attractions here. Both barns are close enough that you can photograph both of them during the same golden hour session. However, if you have time available try for one and return the next day for the other. That way you can avoid rushing and finding another parking in the limited parking areas. This area also has some attractive old cottonwood trees to aid in compositions, which are especially nice in fall color.
Antelope Flats Wildflowers Grand Teton National Park #52085 Purchase
Antelope Flats is a great area to photograph carpets of yellow balsamroot wildflowers in spring. They make a wonderful foreground element to the dramatic snow covered Teton Range. Some of the best displays are in the vicinity of the Gros Ventre (pronounced “Grow Vaunt”) road. Early June is the best time of the year to photograph balsamroot and lupines in the Teton Valley. Again, you’ll want to thoroughly check out the entire area the day before to find where the best displays are.
Best time of day for photography: Morning, though excellent in evening. Best season for photography: Moron Row spring, summer, fall. Antelope Flats wildflowers, late May-June.
These include Blacktail Ponds Overlook, Glacier View Turnout, Teton Point Turnout, and Snake River Overlook. All, except perhaps Blacktail Ponds Overlook, have excellent wide open views of the Teton Range. Photography at these locations doesn’t get much easier, as compositions can be made a few steps from the parking lot. As you move from Blacktail Ponds Overlook in the south to Snake River Overlook in the North the view of the Teton Range changes considerably.
Snake River overlook is the most popular since it was here that Ansel Adams made his famous 1942 photo of the Tetons. Be forewarned that over the years trees in the scene have grown considerably. Today, because of this, the Snake River is partially obscured. The view is still wonderful though.
Best time of day for photography: Morning, though excellent in evening. Best season for photography:All Seasons
Schwabacher’s Landing Grand Teton National Park #67503 Purchase
This is one of the prime locations in the Grand Teton for photography, and one of the few accessible to the Snake River. Expects to see lots of other photographers here at sunrise.
There are several excellent options here, including the iconic view of the Grand Teton framed by trees reflected in the still waters of beaver ponds. This photo is a short walk north from the parking lot at the end of the road. It’s imperative to arrive very early, as the ideal composition is within a narrow range of only about four feet wide. Be polite, your neighbor will be photographing the same scene only inches away from you.
Schwabacher’s Landing Grand Teton National Park #67383 Purchase
There are also two creekside (actually branches of the Snake River) areas that provide great photo opportunities. The first being along the trail to the beaver pond viewpoint. The second, just as interesting but less photographed, is 1/4 mile back down the road. Both of them offer compositions where the Teton Range is reflected in the calm waters. There are also an abundance of cottonwoods trees here, making fall photography an absolute must.
Schwabacher’s Landing is a location that offers so many possibilities that you can easily just photograph just here if you only have a couple of days available in the park.
Essential Tip #8:Be aware that this entire area is in a fragile wetland environment. Please observe signs of areas closed for restoration. This is also prime moose habitat. Be alert when walking through brush, I once came across a female and her calf here. If you’ve never seen a moose in person you’ll be amazed at how big they are. Don’t get in their way!
Best time of day for photography: Morning, and evening. Beaver ponds photo, mostly morning. Best season for photography: Fall,Spring, Summer. This area is closed and off limits in winter to protect wildlife habitat.
This is one of my favorite areas in the park for photography. It has excellent photographic potential but many photographers pass it over for Schwabacher’s Landing or Oxbow Bend. The views of the Teton Range here are outstanding. The western pole fencing make a great composition element. It’s also possible to access views along the Snake River, via a long walk through pastures. Occasionally you’ll see herds of elk, or horses from the nearby Triangle X Ranch grazing here, another great aid for compositions.
Nearby on the East side of Highway 191/89 is the North access to the Shadow Mountain Dispersed Camping Area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A wide parking lot just outside the park boundary is the only place in the entire valley available for winter camping.
Best time of day for photography: Morning, and evening. Best season for photography:All year
Oxbow Bend Sunrise Grand Teton National Park #67699 Purchase
This is arguably the granddaddy of all photo locations in Grand Teton National Park. The views of Mount Moran and the Teton Range reflected in the still waters of the Snake River are recognizable throughout the world. In addition this is a prime wildlife viewing area. You can often see Trumpeter Swans floating lazily on the water, along with moose grazing in the willows across the river. I once saw an enormous herd of elk fording the river here, a scene reminiscent of Serengeti migrations.
You can also observe mobs of photographers, every morning and evening, every day. Don’t even think of finding a prime spot unless you get here well over an hour in advance of golden hour. Most photographers try for a spot at the parking lot edge, however there are plenty of excellent options among the willows along the river.
Aside from the view from the river there are also a couple other spots well worth checking out. This is one of the best areas in the park for fall photography, mainly due to the abundance of aspens groves and willows. About a quarter mile east of the Oxbow Bend parking lot is another pullout at the edge of large groves of aspens. During the height of fall color these tress make spectacular frames for the Teton Range.
Also, on the benchland above Oxbow Bend, there are great views looking down to the aspens surrounding the area, and out to the Teton Range. This view is accessed from the trails on the Christian Pond Loop. If you have the time it’s well worth returning to photograph these two areas after photographing the main attraction. And of course they’re another option if the riverside crowds are a bit too much for you.
Best time of day for photography: Morning, and evening. Best season for photography:Hands down fall is best, but excellent throughout the year. Also one of the best locations in the park for winter photography.
Wildflowers Grand teton National Park #52034 Purchase
Pilgrim Creek Road
Between Jackson Lake Junction and Colter Bay Village is Pilgrim Creek Road. This approximately three mile long gravel road gives access to the Teton Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. For photographers the first mile or so of this road gives access to some of the best spring wildflowers in the North end of the park.
Unlike wildflowers around Antelope Flats this area can be a bit more tricky to photograph. The peak bloom usually happens around early June, but a good show depends on a wet season. During a drier than normal spring there may not be a large enough bloom to make the trip worthwhile. Also, some of the best groupings may not be obvious from the road, so make sure to park your vehicle and thoroughly scout the area on foot.
Best time of day for photography: Morning, and evening. Best season for photography:Spring
This long stretch of road encompasses everything from Moose Entrance in the South to the Jackson Lake Junction in the North. Beginning in the North the Potholes and Mount Moran Turnouts offer closer photos of the Teton Range, and in particular the Cathedral Group. In June this is also a very good area for yellow balsamroot wildflowers.
The main highlights of this area are the trails along Leigh, String, and Jenny Lakes. You can park at the Leigh and String Lakes Trailhead and do the entire loop hike. Or you can park at the Jenny Lake Overlook and walk only a portion of the trail. Either way this is the best place to get up close and personal photos of the Cathedral Group and Cascade Canyon.
Further south the Taggart Lake trail will take you to stunningly close views of the Grand Teton.
Essential Tip #9: Leigh, String, and Jenny Lakes are best photographed at sunrise and early morning. The lake waters are more apt to be still and mirror-like at this time. Also, the close proximity here to the walls of the Teton Range will put most of the areas along the Teton Park Road in shade during the second part of the day.
Best time of day for photography: Morning Best season for photography:Spring, Summer, Fall. Teton Park Road is closed in winter at Taggart Lake Trailhead in the South and Signal Mountain Lodge in the North. However, in winter this road is open to cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
As mentioned earlier, this post covers only the more popular easily accessible locations for photography in Grand Teton National Park. There are many more opportunities to explore including these:
Laurence S. Rockeller Preserve
View points along the North section of Jackson Lake
Extensive trail system along Jackson Lake starting from Colter Bay Village
In the backcountry a network oftrailsgives access to the backside of the Teton Range, and includes numerous lakes, canyons, and subalpine meadows. All overnight backcountry trips require permits.
Camera Equipment Suggestions
What camera gear should you bring on a Grand Teton photography trip? In a nutshell, everything you have. Ok, maybe not everything, especially if you’re a gear junkie with dozens of lenses and camera bodies. But subject matter in the park is so diverse you’ll probably end up using everything from ultra-wide to telephoto lens.
Wide to ultra-wide lenses
Normal range lens
Telephoto lens; for landscapes up to 200mm should be fine, but much longer focal lengths if you also plan to photograph wildlife.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters; I still prefer to use these in the field over creating the effect in post-processing. Although in some situations they are not always the best option.
Remote shutter release
Combining all the information and tips in this post andGrand Teton Photography Trip Planning, you now should have everything you need to know to have a productive, safe, and enjoyable trip to Grand Teton National Park. Now get out there and have fun!
Essential Tip #10:BE CREATIVE! Use you own eyes and mind. Just because there are 20 other photographers photographing the exact same scene, in the exact same position, with the exact same gear and settings, doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit. Photographing something in a unique and creative way could be as simple as just turning around to see what’s behind you!
Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with you friends and colleagues!
Oxbow Bend Sunrise Grand Teton National Park #67681 Purchase
Moulton Barn Grand Teton National Park #67219 Purchase
This post is the first in an ongoing series of articles intended to help landscape and nature photographers plan photography trips to big locations on a small budget.
Photography in Grand Teton, or any National Park, can be a very rewarding experience. It can also be a disappointing exercise in frustration. Even the most meticulous planning is not a guarantee of success. It all depends on what your goals are, and how much time you have available.
In this post I’ll be offering some planning tips and suggestions which can help increase your chances of success during a Grand Teton photography trip. Whether the end results are better vacation photos or portfolio quality images, they’ll also help you obtain a more enjoyable and memorable experience.
Planning A Grand Teton Photography Trip
Theoretically you can spend as little as a day in the park and come away with a few good photos. In reality that probably won’t happen. So I would recommend at least three days to concentrate on one, or maybe two locations. A better time frame would be a week. For a comprehensive trip to include all of the parks highlights, at least two to three weeks would be ideal.
Basically, make sure you have as much time available to meet your goals. And make those goals realistic, don’t expect to create portfolio grade images every morning and evening during your stay. It’s incredibly unlikely that you will have excellent light to work with during every golden hour photo session. On my last trip I spent two weeks in the park and had only one evening and two mornings of decent light.
Of course it’s also a silly notion to think that planning on just one trip to Grand Teton you’ll come away with award winning images from every corner of the park. Just like you can’t go to the grocery store and expect to buy all the food you’ll ever need if your lifetime. You’ll need to return again and again.
Learn to go with the flow, relax, get to know and interact with your subject matter. If you only come away with one or two good photos that’s great, you can always return another time. Good photography is about much more than grabbing trophy images, it’s a lifetime learning journey that should be savored, not rushed.
Guided Tour Or Solo
Once you determine how much time you’ll have available the next thing you’ll need to decide is whether to go with an established workshop/photo tour or do the trip on your own. There are many advantages and disadvantages for either option.
Photo Tour/Workshop Advantages:
-Led by a seasoned professional photographer with intimate knowledge of the park, and the opportunity of learning new techniques from a pro.
-Meals, lodging, and transportation usually included
-Being part of a group of a group dynamic
Photo Tour/Workshop Disadvantages: -Limited freedom to photograph where and when you want
-Daily schedules can be very rigid
-Travel times and distances from lodging to locations can be great
-Cost can be prohibitive
Solo Photo Tour Advantages: -Unlimited freedom, photograph where you want when you want
-Ability to lodge or camp where you choose, cutting down on travel time to locations
-Huge cost savings
Solo Photo Tour Disadvantages: -Extra research need to find best locations
-Finding lodging on the fly on a daily basis can be difficult
-Lack of assistance from leader or group members
-No one to share ideas or experiences with
During my entire career as a professional photographer I’ve traveled mostly solo. I love the freedom and flexibility associated with this mode of travel. And I know for certain that I’ve been able to get better photos because of it. So this is the mode I’ll be giving tips on in this post.
Grand Teton Photography Trip Planning: Seasons
Many photographers consider autumn to be the best. However, Grand Teton National Park offers spectacular photographic opportunities in all four seasons.
Winter: Planning a winter photography trip to Grand Teton requires more preparation and gear. In winter the Teton Park Road is closed to vehicles, as is the popular Schwabacher’s Landing. Antelope Flats and Mormon Row Roads are also inaccessible. However all the viewpoints along Highway 191/89 from Jackson to the Flagg Ranch in the north are open, including the famous Oxbow Bend overlooks. Snowshoes and cross country skis are an excellent option to access some of the easier areas of the park.
Most of the lodging and services in the park are also closed for the season. Lodging options are mostly in the Jackson area in winter, and camping is nearly nonexistent with just a few spots open in the Shadow Mountain area. With temperatures that can dip down to -30º you won’t have much company. But with the right weather and lighting you’ll come back with some rare winter images of the park.
Spring: Since the Teton Valley sits at an altitude of just over 6000′ winter conditions can last well into spring. May would be about the earliest I would consider visiting for spring photography. Late may through June is the best time to visit for wildflowers. During this time many areas of the valley are blanked with brilliant yellow balsamroot and blue lupines, to name a few.
Antelope Flats and Gros Ventre (pronounced “Grow Vaunt”) roads, along with Pilgrim Creek Road near Colter Bay are among the best areas for spring wildflowers. Most of these areas are also wide open to include the snowy Teton Range as a dramatic backdrop for compositions.
Wildflowers Grand Teton National Park #52086 Purchase
Summer: This is the high season for tourism in the park, and possibly one of the most challenging for photographers. This is not only because of having to deal with crowds, but also because of weather conditions.
During the height of summer high pressure ridges can create beautiful warm sunny weather, which unfortunately keeps the sky free of clouds. Most photographers consider blank blue skies and gray rainy days as some of the worst conditions to work with. With global warming in full swing these conditions can last well into September.
Along with those warm sunny days comes the yearly threat of wildfires. In recent years the park’s blue skies are often hazy with thick blankets of smoke. Another consideration of summer photography is that as the season progresses the Teton Range gradually looses its white cloak of snow. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that snowy mountains look more attractive than bare rock.
Fall: This is arguably the most popular season for photographers in Grand Teton National Park. Although the crowds of tourists and vacationers are mostly absent, there are now throngs of photographers to take their place. And for good reason. In a good year the changing colors of aspens, cottonwoods, and willows can be as outstanding as autumn in New England.
In addition to the lively colors of foliage, the changing seasons bring back storms that not only clear the air but also dust the range with a fresh coat of snow. Quite possibly some of the most sought after national park images in the country are those of the Teton Range in full autumn color after a snow storm.
Location, location, location. It’s all about location. And Grand Teton is no exception, it’s a big park with many great locations spread throughout it. Generally you’ll have time to photograph only one location during morning or evening golden hour. By the time you can reach the next spot the light will most likely have faded. And remember this isn’t a race or contest, slow down and appreciate where you are!
The closer you stay to your subject matter the better chance you have at being in right place at the right time. And you will be more relaxed and focused when you get there.
Absolutely nothing is worse than planning on being at a certain spot before sunrise than being late because of hitting the snooze alarm one last time, and then having a long drive ahead. Stopped for speeding, or worse, hitting a moose in the dark during your haste? Ughh!
No matter where you stay, be it in a national park or forest service campground, or in a motel or resort, be prepared to make reservations well in advance or your trip, if possible. Even in the shoulder seasons vacancies in lodging and campgrounds can be difficult to find. Popular campgrounds will fill by early morning. Research and plan ahead. It’s no fun driving around in the dark after a long day trying to find a place to sleep.
In the Town of Jackson: If you crave luxury and have deep pockets then look no further than the town of Jackson. Some of the most opulent hotels and resorts in the West are in this town, as are many chain and mom and pop motels. However, be aware that all of them will have a considerably higher price due to their location.
Also keep in mind that distances from the town of Jackson to many of the most scenic park locations can be anywhere from 15-35 miles. Not a terribly long drive, but back and forth to a motel over several days can really add up. And don’t forget that ideally you’ll need to be at your desired location before sunrise and until after sunset. So you won’t be sleeping in that expensive bed for very long.
Shadow Mountain Dispersed Camping Area #67195 Purchase
In Grand Teton National Park: There are seven lodging options within the park boundaries. These range from rustic cabins and ranches all the way up to the full service luxury hotel of the Jackson Lake Lodge. Depending on where in the park you want to orient your photography efforts, these facilities can put you just a few minutes from some of the most dramatic vistas in the park.
There are five official front country campgrounds in the park with varying amenities. At the time of this writing none of them are available for advance reservations. Most of them will fill to capacity before 10:00 a.m. Jenny Lake is one of the best and most sought after campgrounds. If you choose Jenny Lake campground be prepared to line up for a site well before sunrise, it routinely fills by 6:00 a.m.!
Bridger-Teton National Forest: There are several national forest campgrounds outside the eastern boundaries of the park. These include a couple on the Gros Ventre Road and on U.S. Highway 26-287.
In my opinion the most ideal national forest campsites are in the Shadow Mountain camping areas of Bridger-Teton National Forest. This area is in an ideal location just outside of the eastern middle edge of the park. These sites are always my first choice when visiting the park. I know of at least one site here which has an incredible elevated view of the entire Teton Range and valley.
Camping in the Shadow Mountain area is free on a first come first served basis. Stays are limited to five consecutive nights. However it is primitive camping with only vault toilets and no running water. In addition, parts of the roads can be very difficult to negotiate, high clearance is advised and some can be impassable to trailers. As with everywhere else in the park vicinity these sites fill up early.
Highway 191 Grand Teton National Park #49386 Purchase
Fees Passes Provisions Cell Signals
The entrance fee to Grand Teton National Park is currently $35 for a private vehicle and is good for seven days. An annual pass exclusive to Grand Teton National Park is $70. Note that both of these passes are good only for Grand Teton, they do not carry over to neighboring Yellowstone National Park.
Consider an America The Beautiful annual pass if you photograph in many national parks and federal recreations areas throughout the year. This pass costs $80 and is good for National Parks, BLM lands, National Forests and more.
Various amenities like gas, groceries, showers, and laundry services are available in several areas of the park. However, if you are on a budget plan to make a trip into Jackson to stock up on supplies. Park concessioners charge a premium for their goods. Although sometimes the cost of driving all the way back to Jackson is more than an inflated price for goods in the park.
Grand Teton is one of the few national parks where you can get a decent cell signal in most areas. In the vicinity of visitor’s centers and lodges you should be able to receive a signal strong enough to surf the web, and transfer small files. Further out it will probably be only one or two bars strong.
Oxbow Bend Grand Teton National Park #70448 Purchase
When I announce my planned list of locations at the start of a lengthy photo tour I always stress the subject to change factor. Now that I’m over eight weeks into this trip it’s very apparent that factor has long ago come into play.
For example, the Grand TetonYellowstone segment of this trip was originally going to last for around 5-7 days. However the abundance of subject matter, changing seasons, and weather patterns extended my stay to nearly three weeks! When I return to the office I’ll be posting more details on these two iconic locations. Suffice it to say these parks were a definite change of pace from the quiet solitude of backpacking in the Sawtooths and Winds. I’ve now had my fill of park traffic jams, and crowds of selfie obsessed young women!
Great Fountain Geyser Yellowstone National Park #70539 Purchase
It’s also apparent that I most likely will not be continuing to the Canadian Rockies. After Leaving Yellowstone National Park I’ll be making my way up the Rocky Mountain Front Ranges into Glacier National Park. This will probably be the final destination for the trip. Since by the time I arrive fall color should be close to peak, and I’ll be working hard to take advantage of it.
Moulton Barn Grand Teton National Park #69714 Purchase
*The photos appearing on this post are quick on the road edits. However they will be reprocessed and made available for sale when I return to the office.
*Please note, due to being out of cell or WiFi range for most of this trip I may not be able immediately to respond to any licensing requests, or blog comments. Print orders that are placed while I’m away on this trip will not be shipped until I return to the office. Thank you for your patience and understanding!