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From sea to shining sea: This photographer shot every national park in just one year

“Now, more than ever, we need to support these incredible natural treasures.”

Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, in 1872, 58 more were created – symbols of some of the United States’ most beautiful and important natural resources. The parks are governed by the National Park Service, which celebrated its centennial last year.

In commemoration of the NPS’ 100th birthday, a former National Geographic staff photographer, Jonathan Irish, and his wife, Stefanie Payne, embarked on a yearlong road trip, visiting and photographing all 59 parks. The experience is documented in Irish and Payne’s website, The Greatest Road Trip. (Interestingly, two filmmakers we spoke with recently, Jim and Will Pattiz, are set to do something similar.)

Digital Trends recently spoke with Irish about the experience – the logistical challenges, an encounter with a grizzly bear, as well as which parks are his favorites.

Digital Trends: Shooting 59 national parks in 52 weeks – how did this idea come about?

Jonathan Irish: I grew up exploring the outdoors, and have always had a deep love for natural places of beauty. My grandfather was a national parks junkie, as well as a passionate photographer, so I think I inherited these traits from him.

”The hardest shooting challenge was the nonstop, yearlong need to be creative on a daily basis.”

I had already visited and photographed about half of the parks well before this project, so I was familiar with their grandeur and the need to protect these sacred lands. When I learned that the National Park Service, those men and women employed in the conservation of these wild places, was having a 100-year anniversary, I too wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. It took a year of planning and strategizing, and there were times where I didn’t think the project would actually get off the ground, but we eventually partnered with some amazing organizations – Fujifilm, National Geographic Travel, Airstream, etc. – to make it happen.

What were some of the logistical challenges?

The logistical challenges were monumental. Looking back, I realized I was always living in three different realities: the past, present, and future. At nights, I would be living in the past: editing images I shot in previous parks, trying to push out the content to our website and social media channels. It’s one thing to photograph a park beautifully, but if you were not sharing on a regular basis then no one would follow the project.

During the day, I would be living in the present – exploring and photographing in whatever park we were at currently. With an average of five to seven days in each national park, I didn’t have the luxury of slowing down, and had to be very strategic on where I would be and when to get the very best shots.

And then there were the moments of living in the future: securing campsites, planning driving routes, and researching shooting locations for upcoming parks. It was a massive juggling job. Add weather, unforeseen circumstances (like flat tires), and sheer exhaustion from never slowing down or taking a break, and you can see how busy I was the entire year. It was, without a doubt, one of the hardest, and most enjoyable, things I’ve ever done.

How did prepare yourself to shoot in some of the extreme conditions?

We tried to stay away from most extreme conditions, as we planned our routing to take advantage of the best seasonality. Now, it wasn’t always possible to hit a park in the best season, as some parks have such short windows of “best weather.” In those cases, we took the view that anytime is a good time to explore a national park and tried to bring out the best of whatever we were seeing.

What were some of your favorite national parks to shoot in?

I get asked this question a lot and it is always hard to answer. I truly believe that all the parks are beautiful and special in their own right, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I favor some areas of the park system.

“Being mindful to slow down and take the time to see where you are, is key to capturing the heart of a park.”

I’ve always had an affinity for the southwest parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce, etc.), as I think their geology is always interesting to not only learn about but to also photograph. We spent most of the summer in Alaska, and I have to say some of the lesser-known parks (Lake Clark, Wrangell St Elias, Kobuk Valley, etc.) absolutely blew me away. Lastly, I will always love, and never tire, of exploring the upper intermountain parks (Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, etc.).

But again, I honestly believe every park is exceptional, and exploring each one of them to figure out why, was more fun than anyone should have in one lifetime, let alone one year.

Were there any interesting stories from the project?

The answer to this question could take days! Stefanie, my partner in crime on this project and my partner in life, is a really great writer – and photographer, although she would never admit it. We worked very hard to not only showcase each park through photography, but also through written stories, fact boxes, and interesting tidbits.

One thing that I always found funny that might not be very well captured on the individual park pages, is how I traveled and shot with this incredibly tall 27-foot tripod. The Fujifilm cameras allow me to connect to and control them with my iPhone, and there were times where I was in a very busy area using this gigantic tripod to take a photo, and the crowds would be photographing me and this crazy contraption instead of the scenery in the park. It was always funny, and sometimes a great icebreaker to meet new people.

Any contact with wildlife?

Our experiences in Lake Clark National Park were some of the most memorable of the trip. I remember one time, we were standing on one side of a small stream photographing a mother and three cubs fishing for salmon across the stream. We eventually took our eyes off the mother and cubs for a second, turned around to get something out of my camera bag, and realized a very large male grizzly had snuck up behind us and sat on his hind legs about 15 feet away, watching us. It was totally unnerving, but also really special. He meant us no harm – he was simply curious. He stayed there for about 20 minutes and eventually ambled away.

Tell us about the photographic challenges.

The midnight sun in Alaska provided some serious challenges, as you had to really be up in the middle of the “night” to be able to catch the golden light. Hitting some parks in snowy weather did make for some challenging shooting conditions, as a lot of the roads were closed and we had to hike to get to places. We ran into torrential rain in the Hawaii parks, but there would always be some moments of cloud clearing that would usually provide us with brilliant rainbows, so we didn’t mind too much.

Copyright Jonathan Irish 2017

I think the hardest shooting challenge did not really deal with weather, but was experienced more from just the nonstop, yearlong need to be creative on a daily basis. On most shoots, there is a downtime where you can rest your creative juices and recuperate before the next shoot. We literally never had this rest and recuperation period last year, which really started to wear us down at some points. However, whenever that happened, simply going on a big hike and being outdoors would always refill our creative cups.

What are some tips for shooting some these types of landscapes?

I always carry two camera bodies, as we had no time for repairs should one break down (which, thankfully, never happened). A lightweight carbon fiber tripod was an essential piece of gear, as we were sometimes hiking long distances to get to remote areas.

I also think the tendency on a project like this is to try and rush to get shots, but that is not usually how you are going to get the best shots. Being mindful to slow down and take the time to see where you are, and not what is around the bend, is key to capturing the heart of a park.

Lastly, be sure to get out of the car and onto the trails, and to spend a night or two camping in the woods. That is usually where I did my best work.

What camera gear is in your bag?

I have been a Fujifilm X-Photographer for four or five years now, and I just really love the Fujifilm equipment as well as the business philosophy of continuously supporting (through firmware updates) its cameras and lenses. Plus, the design and quality of the gear is just top-notch.

I have two X-T1 bodies [one as a backup] as well as a full range of XF lenses. I particularly love the XF16mm f1.4, the XF16-55mm f2.8, and the XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6. I also have the aforementioned MegaMast 27-foot tripod, two Really Right Stuff Carbon Fiber Tripods, and the Lee Filters system. Of course, there are many more bits and pieces that are in my bag, but those are really the heart of what I shoot with.

What’s something you’d impart from your experience?

Go do it! Pick a park or two, make a plan, and make it happen. Now, more than ever, we need to support these incredible natural treasures.