Photographing National Parks by Chris Nicholson

Chris Nicholson released his newest book Photographing National Parks in May 2015. Reportedly, a guide for photographing America’s National Parks. I bought my copy of the book directly from Chris at OPTIC 2015 in New York City. First printing and author autographed – sweet!

First and foremost, this article is not sponsored, endorsed or otherwise influenced by the author, publisher or other entity outside myself. The book being referenced is copyrighted by its author with quotes given here only for reference purposes within the limits of United States and International Copyright Law.

Photographing National Parks
by Chris Nicholson

From the Cover

Photographing National Parks Front Cover
Book Front Cover

From sea to shining sea, the national parks reserve some of the country’s most unique wilderness areas. Their existence is a gift to nature photographers everywhere.

In the pages of Photographing National Parks, Chris Nicholson delves into what each of the parks offer to the photographer, and how to best research and prepare for a trip to explore the artistic opportunities within. Learn how to travel safely and photograph in the various environments found in the park system, including desert, alpine, forest and coastline. Discover where to find valuable information about iconic and secret photo locations, how to stay powered up in the outdoors, and ideas for supplementary gear that will make a photo project more productive and enjoyable.


Simply put, this is a very good book filled with loads of useful information for photographers, amateur and professional, though it falls short in a few areas likely for the purpose of keeping the book a reasonable size.

Nicholson’s book provides details on 59 national parks of the 407 areas which the U.S. National Park Service manages. The parks given in the book are iconic with phenomenal photographic opportunities. It appears that the smaller and less photogenic parks were left out of the book to save space; besides who is interested in reading about less than stellar locations.

I would have liked to see more pictures featured within the book. Although the book is intended to provide valuable detail, more pictures would have helped the reader appreciate the data given.


With the book lacking its own supplement, I felt it appropriate to provide some insight on other U.S. National Parks. The remainder of this article is not about Chris Nicholson’s book, but instead about my personal experience photographing national parks other than those given within the book. Over time I may slip in some additional information on parks that were in Chris’ book.

Photography Permits

Please keep in mind that when photographing national parks, a permit may be required, depending on the size and activities involved with the photography.The purpose of the permit is to regulate the activities and help to protect the park features, as well as minimize conflicts with other persons visiting the park.

Most national parks require a permit for any still or motion photography that involves more than a little equipment and a few people. Be sure to visit the website for any park being visited to check if a permit is required for your activity.

What is a Little Equipment?

Typically, whatever a photographer is carrying and using is considered “little equipment”. If other people need to help transport equipment, and especially if cases are needed, then the amount of equipment might cause a permit to be required.

Regulations for photographing national parks do change over time. Always check the NPS web-site for the current rules.

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Gateway National Recreation Area

Spanning two states, Gateway National Recreation Area, is a long, narrow peninsula in northern New Jersey, crosses the Lower Bay and includes portions of Staten Island and Jamaica Bay, New York. Visitor Centers can be found in each segment, Sandy Hook, Fort Wadsworth and Ryan. See the National Park Service web-site for maps, events and more information.

I have not visited the New York side of this park yet, though I have visited the New Jersey portion several times.

Sandy Hook

Extending north from Monmouth Beach for several miles is the peninsula that contains the small town of Sea Bright and continues to Gateway. The park is open year-round, however there is a charge to enter the park during the summer season (between Memorial Day and Labor Day).

Once in the park, you will seem to drive for miles, surrounded by beach and bay. There are several parking areas adjacent to the beaches as well as bicycle paths throughout the park.

Along the northern beaches around Fort Hancock are a number of WWII era battery remains, as well as memorials and the Sandy Hook light house. Many of the ruins are closed to public access, however the portions that are accessible are great opportunity for portraits in fashion and casual. Depending on your project, the ruins can also work well in landscape photography.

STOP - Area Closed
Posted Restriction

When photographing on beaches throughout Sandy Hook, observe posted restrictions. The sand dunes and some of the battery ruins have been made off-limits to help protect them. There are times when closures occur because of dangerous conditions, storm damage, special events or the presence of endangered species.

Be aware that you will be sharing the beach with other people who may not want their picture taken – especially at Gunnison Beach where nudity is permitted and common. There are large warning signs in the areas where clothing is optional.

Avoid including unplanned or unsuspecting people in your pictures. Photographing children that are not your own or friends will likely cause some trouble that you don’t want.

At the northern-most portions of Sandy Hook you can see Staten Island and Brooklyn, but you won’t see the Statue of Liberty – she is at the top of Upper Bay and view is blocked by Brooklyn and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Using a good telephoto lens on your camera and a tripod, you can obtain some lovely pictures of the New York City skyline. Twilight is the best time, when the bridge and town lights are on and can be well-balanced with natural light.

New York City at Night
Panoramic view of New York City, Brooklyn skyline, shortly after twilight as seen from Sandy Hook.

Wildlife photography throughout Sandy Hook will be relatively limited to various types of seagull and a number of other North Jersey birds. There are deer located within the park, but they are not seen often and very little other wildlife is seen here.

Valley Forge

Grand Parade Grounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park - Personal supplement to Photographing National Parks
Grand Parade Grounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park

About 15 miles north-west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is Valley Forge National Historic Park. Surrounded by residential and commercial development, Valley Forge occupies about 3500 acres of fields and trees. There is no charge to enter the park. The visitor’s center is adjacent to the main entrance to the park and features a bookstore, theater and sells tickets for the trolley tours. For more information, maps and schedule of events, visit the park service website.

Many visitors will park at the main lot near the visitor center and then take the walking/bicycle trail through the park. Passing through most of the same areas as the trail is a road and a number of parking areas at feature locations of the “encampment tour”.

The encampment tour features a number of reconstructed soldier huts, memorials and historic buildings as well as a covered bridge and reconstructed canons.

Part of the park property is closed to the public due to asbestos contamination. Please observe the posted signs and keep out of those areas.

Wildlife within the park is wonderful. Birders will enjoy visuals from the typical song bird to large birds of prey. Besides the abundant existence of white-tailed deer, squirrels and ground hogs, foxes and chipmunks can also be found roaming freely in the park.

Washington Memorial Chapel is on the northern side of the park, on Valley Forge Road (route 23). There is a large parking area here as well as a bookstore and cemetery. The chapel features fantastic architectural features, including stained glass and intricate archways. When visiting, be aware that the chapel hosts weddings and regular prayer services.

This is an evolving article about photographing national parks and will be updated as I encounter other NPS locations. Check back periodically for updates.

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