Olympic National Park is located on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, which is just west of Seattle across the Puget Sound. Olympic is home to some of the most unique and raw wilderness in the park system. It is home to some of the best-preserved temperate rain forests in the world, rugged coastlines dotted with sea stacks, and glaciated high peaks.
It’s one of my favorite national parks and I’ve been visiting it for photography and backpacking for 8 years now. This spring marked our first Backcountry Journeys workshop to the park. Kenton Krueger and I were excited to lead this one and we were both looking forward to it for a long time.
Spring is an ideal time for Olympic National Park. Although mountain access is limited, it is prime time for the coast and temperate rainforest – so that was our focus for the week. In spring, the rainforests are a lush green and new growth pops up everywhere in the form of ferns, mosses, and new trees.
Tides and sun position are also great in spring, as is weather. Yes, it still rains a lot, but by great weather, I mean the chance at getting good light and a break in the weather because that’s when some of the best light develops. Over the years, it always seems spring brings the best chance at dramatic light (that’s my own anecdotal experience), but like everything photography, you have to wait out the bad to get the good sometimes.
Olympic offers a great balance though. The forests are actually best when it is cloudy, overcast, and/or rainy. The coast is best when you get those sunny days or a break in the clouds. That makes it a great landscape photography destination because you can literally shoot all day with the right conditions.
During the workshop, we photographed the forests in the morning and the coast at sunset. I’m going to break down the trip in forest and coast sections, as well as share some tips on important things we focused on for each landscape, since they are very different.
The temperate rainforests are one of the major draws for photographers in Olympic National Park, and it’s where we spent every morning of our trip. The Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Bogachiel valleys are home to some incredible temperate rainforests. These forests actually once extended from southern Oregon to southeast Alaska, but their range has drastically been reduced.
The recipe is actually fairly simple – lots of rain, moderate temperatures, old growth, and few other important biotic elements like mosses and Roosevelt elk.
During the workshop, we visited the Hoh, Quinault, and Queets rainforest. We only spent a brief period of time in the Queets. It is spectacular, but its best sections require a strenuous multi-day backpack.
The Hoh and Quinault have absolutely amazing forest scenes – I’ve been so many times and find something new every visit. There are sub-sections within each forest that offer a variety of scenes too. Areas where bigleaf and vine maples dominate and others where giant, old growth spruce and hemlock tower over you – both share a similar forest floor of ferns and mosses, which can be great foregrounds.
The forests are stunning to the eye, but offer many challenges when it comes to photography. It is one of the most difficult places to photograph, in my opinion, which makes it an ideal spot for a workshop.
The major challenge is taking an extremely complicated scene and finding a way to portray in a simplified fashion. If you think about all the best forestscapes you’ve seen, I bet there were fairly simply, had good flow, depth, and limited distractions. I also bet that the photographer shooting that scene was enveloped in a very complex forest and worked hard to produce that ‘simple’ image.
So, we focused a lot on simple forest scenes – and to me, that really just means a lack of distractions. I like to approach simplicity in a few days. One, using a wide-angle lens to emphasize a foreground element, like ferns or mosses. Two, using a longer lens to capture the layers or details in the forest – like a focused image on the mosses that drape the Big leaf maples in the rainforests of Olympic. And sometimes, you get lucky and walk into a perfectly orchestrated forest scene, where you can just press the shutter button.
An essential piece of gear for these forests is a circular polarizer. We always had polarizers on when we were in the forest. They cut through the glare on foliage and really bring out some nice saturation. There is a night-and-day difference between a polarized and unpolarized forest scene.
All in all, we had a great week in the forests. We caught some sun stars on clear days, and enjoyed the lush greens during/after rainfall on other days. We even caught some waterfalls and streams too. We spent two full mornings in the Hoh and Quinault, respectively.
Each evening of the workshop, we focused on the coastline of Olympic National Park. The park has 73 miles of contiguous wilderness coast. It’s maybe my favorite section of coastline anywhere. The sea stacks just seem taller and more rugged here, and it is undoubtedly a remote area.
We visited Kalaloch Beach, Ruby Beach, and Rialto Beach, with multiple sunset visits to Ruby, which is probably my favorite easily accessible Olympic beach. Ruby and Rialto are dotted with sea stacks and arches, while Kalaloch is a flat beach with interesting coastal scenes.
Tides are ever important when on the coast, as they can drastically change what’s available to shoot. We had a high tide that aligned with or close to sunset during our trip.
I love a higher tide for Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach. There’s a lot to work with for foreground at both beaches, lots of big smoothed over rocks and of course the tide coming in and out. The higher tide pushes you a little further off the stacks at Ruby and Rialto and sets up for a really nice perspective. The tide coming in produces waves that can offer some nice splashes and movement around the scattered rocks.
Weather on the coast is always tough. During our trip we had it all. One night was totally overcast with rain, a few others were totally sunny, but we also had some really nice light. Like I said, you have to take the good with the bad. The sunny days were actually great though. The evening light on the ocean is so nice. We were able to shoot telephoto images of waves breaking with light crisping the tops. We also were able to get a lot of nice sun star images. Our two nights at Ruby Beach were definitely the best, we had sunny conditions, but also a mix of nice clouds too.
The toughest challenge with shooting the coast is handling the dynamic range. At sunset, we were always shooting directly into the sun and the sea stacks were back lit. We tried ‘exposing to the right’ or simply exposing for our highlights and recovering the shadows during post, but we also bracketed exposures (taking multiple exposures with varying brightness levels) for combination in Lightroom or Photoshop during processing.
As a polarizer is essential in the forests, a ND filter is essential on the coast. When shooting into the sun, it is very difficult to get a slow shutter speed that gives water that really nice smooth effect. I like 1 second to 1/5 second (for more texture). Those speeds are only achievable with a ND filter when shooting into the sun. I was using a 6-stop ND filter during the trip and routinely shot around f/8, 1/5s, ISO 64 for my coastal shots.
As always, we had an excellent group of like-minded, passionate individuals who were really serious about their craft. One of my favorite things about leading workshops is being surrounded by people who love photography and are passionate about getting great images – whether that means enduring bad weather, chasing the light, or hiking a bit for the best possible spot.
We came back with a ton of images. I know it’ll take me a while to sort through and process all the images and videos from the trip. When conditions are right, you can seemingly shoot forever and we did that on this one. I think this workshop marked the most images I’ve ever taken during a week-long trip – so you know it was a good one!
The temperate rainforests of Olympic truly are special and unlike anything I’ve seen in other forest systems. The coastline is also one of my favorites. Olympic is just a park that I absolutely love and I already can’t wait to return for photography.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com