When one thinks of Western photography, Ansel Adams immediately comes to mind. A Californian photographer famous for his majestic landscapes of America’s national parks, Adams introduced the world to a rugged and wild West. But the Western United States has so much more to offer, than the curated beauty of national parks. Having lived, worked, and photographed in Europe, the Middle East, and West Africa– I am here to tell you: there is something special about photographing the American West.
It’s undeniable that the vast territory of the West boasts an incredible variety of landscapes, such as the red rock landscapes of Utah, the massive redwood trees of California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, or the alien geysers and pools of Yellowstone. These vistas offer any photographer the chance to capture unbelievable images.
However, beyond these developed tourist destinations is the lifeblood of the American West: those that call it home. The West’s human and animal residents put everything into perspective and demonstrate just how small we are and how untamed the region can be. And here is what makes photographing the West so different to me: it is unpredictable. When I pack my camera and walk out the door, I have no clue what I will find. Will the Northern Lights make a surprise appearance? Will the conditions be just right for a beautiful sunset? Will I cross paths with a wild animal? I never know, and that makes the journey all the more exciting.
Here’s how to make the most of photography in the West
- Always take your camera with you. I cannot express how many times I have missed a perfect shot because I didn’t bring my camera. Whether it is a nesting desert turtle or an incredible sunset, the West has taught me that photography is a lifestyle. If you miss the shot, however, don’t worry. The photograph is never worth more than the memory.
- Invest in the proper equipment. On your Western trip, be sure to pack a telephoto lens if you want the best images, particularly of wildlife. Take a tripod with you if you want to capture the Milky Way and the stars at night. Consider a macro lens for all of the plants and insects you might come across.
- Seize the (start of the) day! As most photographers are aware, the “golden hours” after sunrise and before sunset offer the best light for capturing stunning images with dramatic shadows and color. However, this advice is doubly important in the West, as wildlife is most active in the early and evening hours. Plus, if you want to hike off the beaten path, the cooler temperatures would be welcome!
- Be active. I want you to enjoy your time in the West, so I suggest you find activities that will make the most of your travels. Attend a rodeo. Try your hand at fishing or hunting, employing a professional guide when necessary. Explore the more unseen sites by taking an extensive hike. Camp under the stars. Book a white water rafting or horseback riding trip. Visit the national parks. Not only will these experiences make wonderful memories, they will offer you incredible opportunities to take some wonderful photos (double win!).
- Make friendships. Westerners (particularly from rural areas) are friendly people who often consider themselves stewards of the land they call home. That means that they are proud of their homeland and love welcoming others to it. Strike up a conversation and be genuine. Who knows when friendships are made?
- Be aware of your surroundings. This involves keeping the sun at your back when taking photos for the best light, but it also includes so much more. There is no telling what you will miss by not opening your eyes. Scan the horizon and the edges of the forests you cross, and you might reward yourself with spotting deer or antelope. Perspective is important, because having a human or animal subject in the photo can really demonstrate the size of the landscape. But most importantly, awareness will make you better prepared to spot the rattlesnake on your path or more aware of the cliffs around you. I wouldn’t want to have anyone fall over the edge or be attacked by an animal trying to get that perfect selfie! Which leads me to my last piece of advice…
- Be safe. There is nothing wrong with taking risks, but don’t push it. Follow all guidelines from park rangers and local guides. Unfortunately, people are hurt or killed every year by wandering from trails without proper precautions, not using the proper outdoor equipment, or treating wild animals as if they were anything but wild. I am not saying you should be paranoid, or that all wild animals are hungry for human flesh, but do take care (and do not try and reproduce the above picture—it was taken with all safety precautions and necessary protection!). After all, the West is untamed. Yet thanks to photography, we can capture a snapshot of that chaos. And it’s beautiful!
* All photos are the property of the author
Thanks for these tips! I did a photo trip out west last year on my way from New Zealand to London. I really could have used these tips then! The sunsets are so powerful, I highly recommend blocking out those hours in the morning and evening to make the most of it!