Spring and summer are prime time in the National Park Service. That goes for photographers, as well as just about everyone else in America, which means the parks can get crowded. Don't let the crowds deter you, though. Once you're inside the park, it's easy to get away from the throngs of people simply by hiking a little distance from the parking lots or main roads. Making the effort is a win-win since you'll be able to find more unique images away from the low-hanging fruit of the scenic overlooks anyway.
A few years ago there was a sudden uproar in the photo community about regulations for photographers. Fear drove the conversation and whipped nature photographers into a frenzy as people commented in forums about being hassled for simply setting up a tripod. Rumors flew as it seemed like any photographer with a camera more sophisticated than a point-and-shoot model would be required to have some sort of permit or risk a fine or worse. The paranoia on the Internet surged past the facts. Here are the facts taken directly from the NPS website (www.nps.gov/applications/digest/permits.cfm):
Commercial Filming And Still Photography Permits
Lands of the United States were set aside by Congress, Executive or otherwise acquired in order to conserve and protect areas of untold beauty and grandeur, historical importance, and uniqueness for future generations. This tradition started with explorers who traveled with paint and canvas or primitive photo apparatus before the areas were designated as a national park. The National Park Service permits commercial filming and still photography when it is consistent with the park's mission and will not harm the resource or interfere with the visitor experience.
When is a permit needed?
All commercial filming activities taking place within a unit of the National Park system require a permit. Commercial filming includes capturing a moving image on film and video as well as sound recordings.
Still photographers require a permit when
1 The activity takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed; or
2 The activity uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location's natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or
3 Park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor the activity.
If you think your photography might run afoul of these requirements, you could always check directly with the park to confirm whether or not you need a permit. If you're not doing some sort of elaborate shoot with a crew, chances are, you won't need any kind of permit at all. And contrary to the rumor mill, using a tripod doesn't automatically require a permit.
There are now 59 national parks (the newest one, established in early 2013, is Pinnacles National Park located near Salinas, California), and a total of some 398 units that the National Park Service oversees. For us, as nature photographers, this system gives us more than 84 million acres to capture with our cameras.
While you can buy a single- or multi-day pass at each park entrance, annual passes are available online. The pass costs $80, and it's good for a year from your date of purchase. Seniors over 62 years of age can get a lifetime pass for $10 (plus a $10 fee for processing the application if you buy it online). Members of the U.S. military and their dependents can get a pass for free, as can citizens with permanent disabilities and some federal volunteers. Go to www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm to see the details.