Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s new COVID-19 guidelines mean for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible.
I’ve been a park ranger in Oregon for 12 years, stationed everywhere from the Oregon Dunes and Crater Lake National Park to the Deschutes National Forest and Rogue Wild and Scenic River. No matter where I work, visitors share one thing in common — they want to take the best possible photos. There’s just one downside to that: Some photos are so iconic that everyone wants to take them, and they end up all looking the same.
Stepping in front of the camera is one way to make any photo of Oregon unique, but you can go even further. The trick is to not just take a photograph of an interesting place, but to take it at an interesting time as well. I’ve had the luxury of waiting months for the perfect moment to take some of my best photos. It feels like something new is around every corner, and I am almost obligated to capture what I am seeing.
I still consider myself an amateur photographer because I’m self-taught and I mostly take photos for myself. I use three cameras, and they represent three very different levels of complexity. My Nikon D90 was a gift from my mother. I use it when I want the best lens and finest control of the settings. My Fujifilm FinePix XP140 is a waterproof camera with functional presets. It’s lightweight and rugged enough to live at the bottom of a backpack. Finally, my Android phone camera has the benefit of always being in my hand. The lens has limitations and it’s harder to control the settings, but the quality has improved so much that when I get home, I sometimes forget which photos were shot with a real camera.
I believe extraordinary moments can be anticipated with patience, planning and luck. Here are some of my top hacks from years of experience in finding and shooting amazing photos of Oregon’s natural wonders.
Stunning Sea Sunsets
No two sunsets are the same — and sunset photos are always more engaging with something extra in the frame. On the Oregon Coast, for example, you can capture not only an ocean sunset but the free-standing rocks as well. Getting that perfect shot of the sun behind the rocks takes a bit of planning. The sun travels east to west each day, and the exact route changes ever so slightly as the seasons shift. The coastline doesn’t run perfectly straight either, and staring out at the ocean will be a few degrees off from true west. There are three options for lining up the perfect shot not just on the Coast but in any sunrise or sunset:
- Move the subject. This doesn’t work if you are photographing a massive rock or building, but if you want the sun to create a silhouette of your family, just move them. This method has the advantage of working anywhere.
- Move yourself. Just start walking until the sun is setting behind the subject (but remember to never turn your back to the ocean). If you work fast, you might be able to eyeball it. Try using an app or solar calculator to find the angle for that particular day in advance, or go out multiple days to get an idea of where the sun is setting that week. On a shoreline like Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, you can line up a sunset photo of the distinct rock formations any day of the year.
- Move the sun. Stand in the same place and wait for the sun to set in a different place over the course of a year. If no other view will do or there is only one safe place to stand, you might have to wait for the right day. Twin Rocks south of Rockaway Beach looks different at different angles. The short window to take a photo of the sun setting between these rocks is one week in mid-October and another in mid-March.
Even if you have everything lined up perfectly, Oregon weather can still throw a curveball. Check the forecast before you go, pack a jacket and expect low-hanging clouds on the horizon even on a clear day. Sunset is a process, not a moment; colors streak across the sky for over an hour before and after the disc touches the horizon, and scattered clouds can give the light something to refract off of. If you use a large data-storage memory card to take time-lapse photos, you won’t miss a moment and can still retrieve a photograph later. The same tips and tricks for sunset on the Coast apply to sunrise in flat plains in the high deserts of Central and Eastern Oregon. Set an alarm and get up before first light to catch that predawn glow. Always practice beach safety, including staying on marked trails to avoid accidental falls.
Notes for photography buffs:
- Preset camera setting: Sunset
- Professional settings: Wide lens, low ISO settings (100-200), longer exposures and a tripod
- Low-tech hack: No tripod? Improvise. Driftwood, low ledges and takeout containers can stabilize a camera while taking long exposures or time lapse. Remember to Leave No Trace and pack out all trash. Also, be aware of the tide by checking the tide tables and never stand on driftwood since log rolls and sneaker waves can be deadly.
Accessible Animal Areas
Animals are challenging. People build entire careers around the patience and perseverance necessary for wildlife photography. It gets easier if, as with the sunset, you know where the animal will be. Occasionally animals will even have a favorite spot conveniently located next to parking and restroom facilities.
- Follow the professionals. A community of half a dozen wildlife photographers tailgates the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area visitor center each year to see peregrine falcons nest above the parking lot. In the Portland Region, Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge’s Friends of the Refuge Photo Society office is attached to a migratory bird refuge with notable bald eagles that enter the refuge to hunt from a tree directly in front of the visitor center.
- Check the web camera. You can spy on osprey via the webcams at Eastern Oregon Osprey Center and the nest above the Knight Law Center at University of Oregon. The Oregon Zoo offers live weekly Facebook feeds of its menagerie, including lizards, penguins, California condors, bats, beetles, butterflies, sea otters, golden eagles, naked mole rats and more. And the OctoCam at the Hatfield Marine Science Center lets you see the latest shenanigans of the giant Pacific octopus. Check to see if the animals are present before you visit.
- Pick something big. Larger animals can be a bit easier to keep in frame. Near Steens Mountain, you can see wild pronghorn at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and wild horses at the Kiger Wild Horse Viewing Area. There’s also Roosevelt elk at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area in Reedsport and sea lions on the docks in coastal cities like Astoria and downtown Newport.
Even when you know where an animal likes to stay, they may not cooperate. Respect the wildlife; never harass, feed or approach them. If an animal is staring directly at you, you are too close and have disrupted its feeding pattern. Keep your distance from wildlife and consider investing in a zoom lens if you’d like to capture close-up images. Stay on the trail to protect the landscape.
Notes for photography buffs:
- Preset camera function: Action
- Professional settings: Long lens, mid-ISO settings (400-800), highest shutter speed for the ISO
- Low-tech hack: A camera phone can be carefully lined up with a pair of binoculars or spotting scope. The photo will look like it was taken through a tunnel, but once cropped down, it can mimic images taken with an expensive lens.
Pleasing Plant Portraits
Plants are another changing factor to plan for in your photography. Remember the 2015 Instagram sunflower fad? Those were crops. Farms make fantastic, predictable portrait backgrounds. Know when and where plants will grow before heading out by talking to farmers and scheduling a photo shoot.
- Trees make a good vertical backdrop for close-ups. The Hood River Fruit Loop has dozens of fruiting tree orchards that bloom each spring and drop leaves each fall, with bonus views of Mt. Hood as well.
- Pick a flower farm for the brightest colors. Look for early-spring tulips at Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm in Salem (make sure to purchase your ticket online in advance), late-spring rhododendrons at the Hinsdale Garden in Reedsport and blooming buds of all hues in early summer at the International Rose Test Garden in Portland, plus many more of Oregon’s lushest gardens as a backdrop. Be prepared to crouch low to get a close-up shot while not damaging the flowers. (Note that face coverings are required at all locations, and many farms and gardens require booking an appointment in advance.)
- Photograph your whole outfit when the crop is low and sprawling. Wear a flowing dress to a Willamette Valley vineyard for a sophisticated worldly look, or wear a complementary color that will pop against the vibrant purples at the Helvetia Lavender Farm.
The only limit is your imagination and how well you communicate with the farm you visit. Crops are private property. No one is under any obligation to let you visit or take photos. Call ahead and ask first. Make your request politely and be gracious if the answer is no. Check to see if tours are available. If you do take photos, always give a shout-out to the farm on social media.
Notes for photography buffs:
- Preset camera function: Portrait
- Professional settings: Short lens, low ISO settings (100-400), medium shutter speed
- Low-tech hack: Carefully smudge lip balm along the edge of the lens for a #nofilter glow. Just make sure you have a soft clean cloth ready to wipe it clean again.
Oregon is a beautiful state full of people and places to explore. With a little time and patience, you too can capture an extraordinary moment and share it with the world. Wherever you go, remember to respect all rules (and avoid crowds) at the area you’re visiting, be friendly and kind to those you encounter, and be prepared with all the supplies you’ll need for your trip. Find more ways to Take Care Out There.