How life in the wild becomes stunning landscape photography

Thunderclouds, Garnet Lake—Yosemite  National Park -- by Peter Essick from the series “Ansel Adams Wilderness”

Thunderclouds in Garnet Lake—Yosemite National Park. Photo by Peter Essick from the series “Ansel Adams Wilderness”

How do you capture in one frame, the power of Yellowstone’s geysers, the majesty in the peaks of the Mount Denali, or the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon?

It’s a feat the National Parks Service is hoping someone will master. By this summer, it plans to hire a National Parks Service photographer who will produce photographs for the permanent collection at the Library of Congress.

To find out what it would take to land the job, we looked at the following elements from six photographs with National Geographic senior photo editor Kathy Moran, who is editing National Geographic’s year-long series celebrating the National Parks Service centennial.


It has often been said that Europe has its castles and America has its national parks. Few people captured that concept the way Ansel Adams did, and decades on his work still inspires photographers like Peter Essick, whose photo appears above, to follow in his footsteps.

“It’s a mythology based in truth. They’re so beautiful that in some cases it’s almost hard to believe that they’re real,” Moran said, adding that there is a feeling of immutability in Adams’ photographs.

“But when you go back and look, landscapes change, trees grow, trees burn,” she said. “In spite of this sense of timelessness, it’s a moment in time. You can only go back and mimic this work to a certain extent.”


Yellowstone Lake – Yellowstone National Park – by William Henry Jackson (1871)

Yellowstone Lake at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by William Henry Jackson (1871)

In the mid to late 1800s, Americans were quickly settling land west of the Mississippi, but few had traveled as far as what is now Wyoming. So when William Henry Jackson’s photographs, as well as the paintings of Thomas Moran, reached the East Coast, Americans were mesmerized.

“On the one hand, with the paintings you’ve got something that’s so beautiful and so ethereal — the artist can use his imagination,” Moran said. “What you have with Jackson is the reality.”

The images were so striking, they motivated Congress to create Yellowstone — the world’s first federally protected national park, she said.

“You can say that from the very first national park we’ve ever had, photography went hand-in-hand with protection of public land,” Moran said.


Birch trees – Acadia National Park –by Michael Melford

Birch trees in Acadia National Park. Photo by Michael Melford

In contrast to Adams’ black and white images, which eliminate distractions, some nature photographs stand out for their colors, allowing viewers to see multiple layers they might have ignored.

“In this picture, there’s a palette that is initially appealing,” Moran said of Michael Melford’s work. “Then you start to see the shapes, the composition and how all of these different things are making this beautiful image. The color pulls you down the path.”


Strangler Fig Roots, Everglades National Park, Florida, March 7, 1954–by Eliot Porter (1901-1990 Dye imbibition print. 1954. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. P1990.51.2158

Strangler Fig Roots, Everglades National Park (Florida, March 7, 1954). 1901-1990 Dye imbibition print. 1954. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, P1990.51.2158. Photo by Eliot Porter

When thinking of national parks, large landscapes usually come to mind — a panoramic of the Rocky Mountains or a wide-lens view of the Grand Canyon. “You don’t think of be something as beautiful as that tangle of roots on a tree,” Moran said.

But Moran said no photographer can capture the entirety of a national park in one image.

“That’s what makes Eliot Porter’s detail of the roots so beautiful — the balance that really makes you appreciate all aspects of that landscape — what’s off in the horizon to what’s under your feet,” she said.


Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River is located just north of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Crystal Brindle

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River is located just north of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Crystal Brindle

“These [park] rangers are in these amazing places in all weather, all lights, so in a way they get to experience it like no one else does,” Moran said.

The National Parks photographer would be able to spend countless hours, days and weeks in the heart of the wilderness.

“The more time you spend in a place, the better you know it,” Moran explains. “You know if you’re on this side of ridge, during this time of day, during this month, this is what might happen.”


Wilkes' photo of the Yellow Stone Mountains appears in the January issue of National Geographic. Photo © Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic

Stephen Wilkes’ photo of Yosemite Valley appears in the January issue of National Geographic. Photo © Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic

Originality is what drew Kathy Moran to Stephen Wilkes’ photographs, which were featured in National Geographic’s January issue. Wilkes takes photographs from a single vantage point throughout the day, then stitches them together to create a single image.

“Stephen Wilkes is doing something no one else has done,” Moran said. “To see that full progression, that range of light as it moves across his images is really exciting. You see a place you think you know so well, and you’re seeing it in a completely different manner.”

While postcard photographs have their place, Moran says the person chosen to be the National Parks photographer should strive for something different.

“Everyone has seen the Grand Canyon,” she said. “These places that we know so well, how are you going to bring it alive again? That’s the challenge that any photographer is up against, especially with this iconic landscape.”

Moran said if the photographer can do that, he or she might be able to, like Henry William Jackson, inspire the country to preserve a national treasure.