Photographing All 59 National Parks: 5 Top Tips From QT Luong
By Michael Lanza
The number of people who can say they’ve visited all 59 of America’s national parks comprise a fairly small club. Only one person has made large-format photographs in all of them. In the 400 vividly sharp images in his beautiful and inspiring, coffee-table book Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, photographer QT Luong distills the results of more than 20 years and 300 trips hiking, paddling, diving, skiing, snowshoeing, and climbing in every park, every type of environment, every season, and at all times of day and night.
Now, in an interview with The Big Outside, Luong talks about this project and offers his top five tips for shooting outdoors, for photographers from amateurs to pros.
Luong was featured in the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and Duncan wrote the introduction to Treasured Lands. Burns said of Luong’s book: “It is not as if our exquisite national parks need any help in the beauty department, but Luong’s revelatory photographs suggest that our ordinary equipment for seeing is missing something. Luong offers us a leg up to a new way of understanding nature’s greatest gifts.”
Accompanying the photos in Treasured Lands is a guide that includes a map indicating where the images were shot in each park, as well as extended captions that detail each image’s orientation and lighting, along with pertinent facts on each park’s geography and natural history.
Interview With Photographer QT Luong
The Big Outside: What was the inspiration behind this long and incredibly committing photography project that led to this book?
Luong: In the winter of 1993, I visited Yosemite. In the spring of the same year, I headed to Alaska to climb Denali. The sheer scale and pristine beauty of the north far exceeded anything I had witnessed in the mountains of Europe. In the fall, I toured Death Valley. After standing on the highest point of North America, I was now looking at its lowest. I had never seen such wide-open spaces and deserts before, and the geological surprises concealed within this arid land mesmerized me.
I realized how much diversity the national parks encompass—they present every ecosystem a vast continent has to offer, and it was all new to me. Each park represents a unique environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated, interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I wanted to exhaust every opportunity to experience that natural diversity, and I wanted to share it with others.
This, combined with my realization of the descriptive power of large format photography inspired me to embark on a project that I thought was both original and compelling: photograph each of America’s national parks with a large-format camera, because only large-format photography would do justice to the grandeur of the parks.
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TBO: As a photographer, what did you learn through shooting all 59 national parks?
Luong: The natural world is more interesting and more rich than one could imagine, and the more you look, the more you see. For this to happen, you have to keep your curiosity alive and be open to surprises, which are one of the most rewarding parts of the work. More ideas come to you if you understand what you are photographing—in this case the natural history. Even after visiting a place multiple times, you can always find new photographs.
My project to photograph the national parks now spans almost a quarter-century. During that time, I moved from using large-format film to shooting with digital cameras, and I reformulated goals for my project several times. Not only is there always something new to learn about nature, but this is true of photography as well.
QT Luong’s Top 5 Tips For Outdoor Photographers
1. Plan For Seasonal Conditions
For most of the year, like the rest of California’s hills, Channel Islands National Park is brown. From mid-March to mid-April, the strange and endemic tree-sunflower coreopsis blossoms. I timed my visit to Anacapa Island for that time frame.
Instead of hiking in summer just because the weather is favorable, think about the natural features that you expect to encounter, and when they will be at their best. Any vegetated area is more beautiful when adorned with wildflowers, and depending on elevation and latitude, they can peak anytime from late winter to mid-summer. A forest that is a wall of green in summer can be totally transformed during a few weeks by autumn foliage, which can appear from mid-August (Gates of the Arctic) to November (Guadalupe Mountains, Congaree).
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2. Let the Light Guide Your Choice of Subject and Composition
Shenandoah National Park is known for its views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but on that cloudy day, the light was too flat for vast landscapes. I took instead a walk in the forest.
Large subjects such as wide landscapes often need strong light because their shapes are defined by shadows and contrast. Often, sidelight and low-angle light accentuate those shapes. On a clear day, try to be in position to photograph such landscapes in the early morning and late afternoon with the sun at your side.
Conversely, small subjects such as flower close-ups and forest scenes benefit from the soft light provided by a cloudy sky or full shade. On overcast days, concentrate on intimate scenes and exclude the sky, since its brightness may overwhelm your compositions.
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3. Arrive Early and Don’t Give Up Until it is Over
Half-an-hour earlier, the bottom of the canyon was in deep shade. Now from the rim of Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park, as the sky took on pastel colors, the even light revealed the blue, gray, and tan stripes of the buttes.
For key scenes, try to arrive well in advance of the optimum hour, to give yourself plenty of time. If that’s a sunrise, it means arriving at pre-dawn when the light is beautiful on its own. After sunset, don’t pack up immediately, as the light when the sun is fifteen minutes below the horizon is soft and directional at the same time, particularly great for canyons.
Yes, that may mean doing some hiking in the dark, but that can be a nice experience. Don’t forget your headlamp!
4. Experiment and Vary Perspective
For an unusual perspective on Wall Street Gorge in Bryce Canyon National Park, I walked right to the base of a tall fir tree growing between the hoodoos and pointed the camera straight up.
When you happen upon a scene you like, keep exploring possibilities. Look for interesting foregrounds and compositions rather than settling for the first spot you happen upon.
Begin with a wide composition that encompasses the whole landscape, then zoom with a telephoto on the features that you find the most interesting. Try placing the camera closer to your foreground, for instance low to emphasize features such as wildflowers. Instead of photographing only with level orientations, point the camera up or down for different perspectives.
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5. Revisit Iconic Views
Almost a decade and maybe a hundred visits after I first set foot in a Yosemite in the winter of 1993, I eventually captured the color contrast of sunset-lit cliff tops and fog-filled valley, my color homage to Ansel Adams.
A deeper understanding of a place leads to better photos. On repeat visits, you can see develop a relationship with a place, visualize changes, and grasp the interactions within the environment. Atmospheric elements such as clouds, mist, or rainbows can transform worn-out scenes, and so do seasonal variations. The more you return to the same spot, the higher your chance to catch “lucky” conditions that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
All of the photos in this story were provided courtesy of QT Luong.
Order a copy of QT Luong’s Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks at treasuredlandsbook.com.
See more of QT Luong’s work at terragalleria.com
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