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Photographing Big Bend National Park: A Friendly Guide to Great Images

Photographing Big Bend National Park: A Friendly Guide to Great Images

by Kathy Adams Clark

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With its combination of desert and mountain landscapes, the dramatic canyons of the Rio Grande, ancient pictographs, and remnants of pioneer ranch life, Big Bend National Park presents a wealth of subjects to the photographic eye. Add early morning and late evening sunlight, summer thunderstorms, and clear, star-spattered night skies, and the opportunities become


With its combination of desert and mountain landscapes, the dramatic canyons of the Rio Grande, ancient pictographs, and remnants of pioneer ranch life, Big Bend National Park presents a wealth of subjects to the photographic eye. Add early morning and late evening sunlight, summer thunderstorms, and clear, star-spattered night skies, and the opportunities become irresistible.

Professional nature photographer and frequent Big Bend traveler Kathy Adams Clark offers this handy and beautiful guide to maximizing the photographic experience of this visually stunning landscape.

Photographing Big Bend National Park begins with a tutorial on the basics of light meters, shutter speeds, and f/stops, featuring practical, hands-on-camera exercises and answers to common questions. The chapters that follow take readers on six excursions to well-known locations within the park—the Basin, Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village, Ross Maxwell Drive, Santa Elena Canyon, and the Chisos Mountains among them. A primer on night photography (including “light-painting” and star trails) is also included.

Within each chapter are instructions for photographing various subjects at the site using simple, intermediate, and advanced techniques; information on the best seasons to photograph; and tips designed to benefit the novice.

Photographing Big Bend National Park not only provides practical information for photographers of all skill levels, it also offers a visual feast of striking images. Nature lovers, photographers, and anyone who loves this remarkable national park will treasure this latest book from veteran writer and photographer Kathy Adams Clark.

Editorial Reviews

National Parks Traveler - Revecca Latson

"Neat little book" --Rebecca Latson

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
W. L. Moody Jr. Natural History Series , #47
Edition description:
Travel Guides
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

Photographing Big Bend National Park

A Friendly Guide to Great Images

By Kathy Adams Clark

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Kathy Adams Clark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-823-9


The Basin

The basin is right in the middle of Big Bend National Park. It's roughly two hours from Marathon to the north and one hour from Study Butte on the park's western boundary.

The Basin is appropriately named because it's a bowl-shaped geologic feature on the top of the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos are the result of ancient volcanic basalt, or underground magma, that pushed up through the softer surface. That surface eroded away over millions of years to expose russet colored rocky outcrops that ring the Basin.

The largest of these basalt giants is called Casa Grande. It looms about a thousand feet above the Chisos Mountains Lodge, campground, and visitor center. Smaller mountain ranges arch away from Casa Grande in both directions and meet to form the Window.

The Window is a notch in the mountains that forms a near-perfect V-formation. Luckily for photographers, the sun sets right down the middle of that notch in the summer. There's an old adage in photography that "while photographing the sunset, remember to turn around to check out the light behind you." That holds true in the Basin. The setting sun bathes Casa Grande in golden light and gives us two main subjects to photograph every evening.

Sunset through the Window

The sunset through the Window is the iconic photograph that most people associate with Big Bend National Park. Images of the Window have appeared thousands of times in magazines, books, and calendars.

Photographing the sunset is easy. Stand anywhere along the quarter-mile Window View Trail. The trailhead is next to the Basin Store off the main parking lot. The best spots are where the park service has placed several park benches.

Place your camera on a tripod. Compose the photograph so that the lower tip of the notch in the Window is right above the lower edge of your photograph.

The notch in the Window is deep, so I recommend a wide-angle lens. An ultra-wide-angle lens in the 10mm or 16mm range will give a nice wide expanse of mountains across the bottom of the photograph as well as nice clouds or sky in the top of the photograph. A wide-angle lens in the 17mm to 24mm range will give a narrower view of the mountains and less sky.

A lens in the 28mm or 35mm range will have trouble getting the entire notch and sky in the photograph. Take your photo from the patio of the restaurant if this is the only lens you have. The restaurant is higher and farther back toward Casa Grande, and therefore gives a better view with these lenses. Note that many point-and-shoot cameras have a lens in the 28mm to 35mm range.

Simple: Point your camera at the scene and click the shutter.

Intermediate: The simple point and click yields mixed results. Sometimes the rich colors in the sky show up on the photo, but most of the time the sky lacks detail. Rich colors in the sky and a deep black silhouette of the foreground comes from getting a meter reading off the sky.

Put the camera in the manual mode. Leave the autofocus turned on but rotate the mode dial to M or press the mode dial and rotate the dial to M. The light meter is now visible in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder or along the right margin of the viewfinder. (For more information about using the light meter, read the section "How to Use the Light Meter" in the introduction.)

Point your camera up in the sky away from the bright area of the sun. Select an f/5.6 for the f/stop and rotate the shutter speed dial until the scale goes right in the middle. Continue rotating the shutter speed dial until the scale is negative one stop under exposed or -1 if your camera doesn't use a scale.

Bring the camera back down, compose the scene as instructed above, and securely lock the camera on the tripod. Remember the notch of the V in the Window should be near but not touching the bottom edge of the scene through the viewfinder.

The light meter will move to the right or left because the sun is in the scene. Don't readjust it by rotating the f/stop or shutter speed dial. We want the exposure to be set for the sky away from the sun.

Hold the shutter halfway down to let the camera autofocus on one of the mountain ranges. Click the shutter to capture the scene. You should get a photo of a beautifully colored sky with the mountains in deep, rich black silhouette.

Advanced: Balance the light meter with an aperture of f/22. Select the shutter speed that puts the light meter one stop under exposed. The f/22 will turn the sun into a star burst if the picture is taken when the sun peaks around the edge of a cloud or the mountain. Add the silhouette of an agave stalk as an added touch.

Season: The best time of year to photograph the sunset is May through August. That's when the sun goes down into the notch formed by the Window.

Casa Grande

Casa Grande towers over the entire Basin. It's huge, rugged, and made up of hundreds of different hues of rock. The changing light during the day illuminates the formation in different ways, so snap photos often.

The main parking lot outside the Basin Store is a great vantage point. The view changes a bit from the parking lot behind the restaurant. The view is dramatic from the amphitheater near the Basin Campground.

The light is best from noon to past sunset since the sun comes up behind Casa Grande and to the left.

Simple: Take a picture of Casa Grande

Intermediate: Include the restaurant or motel in your photograph to show Casa Grande in context. Don't like to include the "hand of man" in your photos? Then put an interesting foreground in your photo. Find a yucca in the parking area to put in the foreground. Focus on the yucca and let Casa Grande loom large in the background.

Advanced: Scout your vantage point in advance and be in position a half hour before the official time that the sun goes down. A well-composed photo includes foreground that leads the eye to Casa Grande, then Casa Grande, and then some sky.

From your position, balance the light meter for the scene using f/16 for maximum depth-offield and then the shutter speed necessary to put the scale in the middle. Alternative, use aperture priority with f/16 and let the meter balance on its own.

Place your focus point one-third of the way into the scene versus right on Casa Grande. A focus point one-third of the way into the scene will usually maximize your depth-of-field since the area in focus goes one-thirds forwards and two-thirds backwards. If you're super meticulous, use your depth-of-field preview button or a hyperfocal distance chart to set your focus point. (See hyperfocal distance in the glossary.)

Lock the camera down on the tripod and take the picture. A shutter release or the self-timer on the camera will ensure a sharp photo.

Season: Any time of the year is good.

* Photography Hint

A polarizing filter reduces glare in a scene. As a result, colors are clearer or even enhanced. A polarizing filter works wonders to bring out the colors in Casa Grande and enhance the color in the sky. Rotate the filter while looking through the viewfinder to find the best position for the filter. A polarizer works best with side lighting. If you rotate the front element of the filter completely and nothing changes in your photo, change your angle to the sun. Remove the filter if you don't see a difference despite rotating the filter and changing your angle to the sun.

The Window Trail

This is one of my favorite trails. The scenes at the bottom of the trail are great. The journey there is a delightful downhill walk. The trip back is uphill with the last section in the sun. Plan your trip with that in mind.

The end of the 2.2-mile-long trail contains a narrow canyon with slick walls polished smooth by years of rushing water. All the rainwater from the Basin flows downhill and eventually makes its way through the pour-off at the end of the Window Trail. The pour-off looks out on the desert and makes the view spectacular.

The best time for photography is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These are the times when all the smooth areas are in the shade. Arrive at the wrong time and half the canyon is in the blazing sun and the other half is in shadows. To add to that challenge, the view of the desert can be bright. In general, high contrast is not conducive to good photography, but this is a great opportunity for high-dynamic-range photography. Remember to pack your tripod if you're going to try this type of photography.

A wide-angle lens in the 18mm range is necessary to get both walls of the canyon in view. Wider is better particularly if you'd like to include something interesting in the foreground.

Simple: Adjust your camera so that it captures the widest view possible. Kneel down on the ground or squat so that there is some foreground in the bottom of the frame. Be sure to turn on your flash if you're going to put your traveling companions in the photograph.

Intermediate: Compose the photograph so that it is symmetrical, with both sides of the canyon filling equal amounts of the photo. A horizontal composition will show how wide the pour-off is. A vertical composition will show how steep the canyon walls are.

Advanced: Determine your composition and then put your camera on a tripod and lock it down. Texture in the smooth rocks makes an interesting foreground. Select the evaluative/matrix light meter to read all the light in the scene. Put the camera in aperture priority with an f/16. Select a focus point that allows the camera to focus a third of the way into the scene to maximize your depth-of-field. To capture all the tones of light in this canyon with complex lighting, consider an HDR photograph. High-dynamic range or HDR is a computer blending technique that works well in situations with a wide variety of tonal ranges. To capture an image in HDR, bracket five photos, from two stops over exposed to 0 to two stops under exposed, without moving the camera. Blend the images later in software designed for high-dynamic-range photography like Photoshop, Photomatix, or Nik Efex Pro.

* Photography Hint

This hike is really popular with family groups because school-age children can make the journey without too much difficulty. As a result, family groups gather in the pour-off to enjoy a picnic lunch and take pictures. Start your hike early to beat the crowds and enjoy the pour-off with just you and your camera.

Lost Mine Trail

The Lost Mine Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park. The trail is mostly uphill and culminates at a slick rock outcrop perfect for a picnic lunch, sunbathing in the winter, or taking pictures.

There are several places along the trail that offer great landscape photo opportunities. My favorite is about a mile up the trail where the view opens to include the back of Casa Grande and the low desert in the distance.

Simple: Keep your back to the sun so light is falling on your subject. Avoid shooting directly into the sun if you're on the trail in the morning.

Intermediate: Carry your tripod on the hike and try your hand at taking photos with f/16 or f/22. Those are each a small opening in the aperture of the lens, which gives the large depth-of-field. That small opening also means only a small amount of light hits the sensor and a long shutter speed is required. The resulting images should show a large area in focus.

Advanced: Hit the trail well before the sun comes up. Be in position with your tripod and camera so that you have a view of the valley at first light. Work fast with the camera on aperture priority and f/16 to capture the valley before the sun is too strong and light too contrasty. A rectangular split neutral-density filter, positioned on the front of the lens so that the line between gray and clear is on the ridge of the cliffs on the far side of the valley, helps to block the bright light in the sky. In the finished photo, there's a nice balance between foreground and sky.

* Photography Hint

At sunrise, light flows into the valley like a spotlight. The first rays of light hit the rocky outcrops on the opposite side of the valley. I use a two-stop soft-edge split neutral-density filter to balance the light from the sky with the darker foreground on the mountainside. The key is to balance your light meter in the partial or spot mode on the mountainside. This is also a good location for a high-dynamic-range photograph.

General Basin Photography

The Basin is filled with photography opportunities. Any walk with a camera yields something to photograph. My favorite trails are the Basin Loop Trail and the trail from the Basin to the campground. But a walk around the perimeter of the parking lots around the store and restaurant always yields photo opportunities.


A wide variety of birds make their living feeding on insects and seeds around the parking areas in the Basin. Cactus wren, Say's phoebe, and canyon towhee can be found perched on a yucca at any time of the day. Walk slowly and quietly to get close to the birds. Avoid walking directly up to them. Rather, take a few steps, take a picture, stand, take a few more steps, stand, and take a picture, until you're close to the bird. Most birds in the Basin are habituated to people, but take your time. If you miss one, try again with the next bird.

Watch for greater roadrunner around the rocks near the restaurant parking lot. Turkey vultures are overhead most days. Summer is a great time to see Scott's oriole, blue grosbeak, and maybe a hepatic tanager.


Wildflowers bloom on the edges of the parking lots in the Basin and along the trails. Photographs of wildflowers look best when taken from eye level with the flower. Kneel down on the ground, squat, or find flowers that are elevated along the trails. Get as close as your camera will allow to fill the frame with the blooms. Back away to include the leaves if you're going to identify the flower later. Watch that the shutter speed is fast enough, 1/60th or faster, to stop the movement of a swaying wildflower. A tripod is always helpful when working close to a subject.


High-mountain butterflies are all over the Basin in the warm months. Red satyrs flit along the trails and always stay low to the ground. They are hard to approach so be patient and keep trying. Two-tailed swallowtail and pipevine swallowtail are common summer butterflies at the thistle bushes behind the Basin Store. Acmon and Ceraunus blue might be found on the wildflowers around the parking areas. Southern skipperling, great purple hairstreak, gray hairsteak, and other butterflies are drawn to blooming beebush in the summer. California sister and variegated fritillary are found out on the trails.


Big Bend is all about geology. In the Basin, there are big examples of geology and small examples. Rocks with interesting colors and patterns are used in walkways, on fences, and in walls. Photograph the fossils in the stones that make up the restaurant and gift shop. Pour water on the colorful flat rocks near the visitor center to bring out the color.


Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, a small species of white-tail isolated in the high mountains by the last ice age, come out to feed in the open areas around the parking lots. Walk slowly and avoid yelling, and they will let you get fairly close.

Javelina, or collared peccary, come out into the parking lots to feed. Many people think these pig-like mammals are dangerous, but they aren't. They are near-sighted, though, so they startle easily. Once again, be quiet and approach quietly for good photos.

Rock squirrel live among the rocks that line the top parking lot for the restaurant. They are about as big as a small house cat and have a gray body with darker head. Look for them on rocks and listen for their loud alarm call.

Gray fox and striped skunk come out at sunset. Watch for them behind the hotel rooms in the evenings. Striped skunks usually won't spray a person unless threatened. Keep your distance and don't make quick moves.


Panther Junction

Panther Junction is the park headquarters. It's made up of a visitor center, ranger station, restrooms, post office, and administrative offices. Panther Junction is the starting point for several photography outings.

Panther Nature Trail

There is an accessible, paved nature trail adjacent to the visitor center that is perfect for macro or close-up photography. Most visitors zip through the trail in two or three minutes but photographers can spend an hour or more on the trail.

The trail is a great way to learn the common plants, cactus, and shrubs that you'll find in the park. Each is labeled, but it's best to buy the trail guide. The guide gives common name, scientific name, and a little information about each plant.

Simple: Figure out how close your camera will focus. Hold your hand in front of the lens and move your hand forward until the camera will no longer auto focus. Photograph blooms and plant details at this distance while concentrating on filling the frame with the subject. Take some photos of the entire plant for variety.


Excerpted from Photographing Big Bend National Park by Kathy Adams Clark. Copyright © 2013 Kathy Adams Clark. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

KATHY ADAMS CLARK, who owns The Woodlands–based photo agency KAC Productions, is past president of the North American Nature Photography Association. Her photographs have appeared in numerous magazines, books, and calendars, including Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Highways, Birder’s World, The New York Times, and National Geographic books. She leads photo tours worldwide and provided the photographs for Enjoying Big Bend National Park: A Friendly Guide to Adventures for Everyone (Gary Clark, Texas A&M University Press, 2009).

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