Picturing Canada's national parks

Three landscape photographers share their photos from a special book made for Parks Canada's 100th anniversary — as well as their shooting tips.

Tips and tales from three landscape photographers whose work appears in a special book made for Parks Canada's 100th anniversary

In 1988 landscape photographer Dale Wilson travelled to Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park for the first time, where he found a perfect vantage point looking out over Bonne Bay.

"I was awestruck … absolutely floored," Wilson said. "I thought, ‘I want to do a book about national parks in Canada.’"

That book, Canada’s National Parks: A Celebration, was published last November, more than 20 years after Wilson's initial inspiration but just in time for the 100th anniversary of Parks Canada — being celebrated on May 19. The 256-page book features stunning images taken in Canada’s parks by Wilson, as well as many of the country’s top landscape photographers.

Wilson, the book’s photo editor, also combed through the Parks Canada archives to find images of the parks’ past. He said he viewed 75,000 images during his "initial look" for photos of Canada’s parks, before paring that number down to around 1,200.

"That’s when the gloves came off," Nova Scotia-based Wilson said with a laugh. Wilson, along with the book’s writer and designer, selected the final images to span the country from B.C.’s Gwaii Haanas islands, to Quttinirpaaq at the country’s northern tip, to Atlantic Canada’s shorelines.

Most of the images come from the portfolios of professional photographers — none were commissioned specially for the book — but some were shot by amateurs like helicopter pilot Geoff Goodyear, who had his aerial black and white image of the Torngat Mountain range in northern Labrador published.

And, as Wilson is happy to point out, every photo has a story.   

Ian Coristine: Eye in the sky

Ian Coristine has flown ultralight airplanes since the 1980s, but didn’t catch the photo bug until a 1992 flight over the St. Lawrence Islands — an area often known as the Thousand Islands, found between Toronto and Montreal.

Photographer and pilot Ian Coristine poses on his ultralight plane in the Thousand Islands, on the St. Lawrence River. ((Submitted))

"It was one of those transformational things," Coristine said. "I never knew they existed."

He would soon learn to fly with one eye patrolling the sky for other planes and hazards, and the other peering into his camera.

Shooting from above the air allows Coristine to capture a different view of the islands, one he said is often "hiding" if you’re working from the shoreline. One of his images included in the book shows rays of sun bursting through dark clouds, casting a golden glow over the St. Lawrence River and silhouetting its many islands. 

When he took the picture, a film crew was making a television documentary on his flying career.

"I saw this magical moment and I needed to manoeuvre better to get it," Coristine said, chuckling as he recalls happily ruining the television shot by racing ahead and pulling out his camera.

"This is a magical shot that’s probably not going to come again in this lifetime."

Coristine’s main advice to photographers hoping to capture the beauty of national parks is to get out there.

"Don’t get into the technical stuff with me … it’s about being there," he said. "I put myself in the way of it, and the rest nature takes care of."

Daryl Benson: Surprise cover boy

Photographer Daryl Benson stole the cover, with a shot of Mount Rundle and its reflection in the Vermilion Lakes of Banff National Park while the sky turns into a swirl of orange, white and purple.

Photographer Daryl Benson's picture of Mount Rundle graces the book's cover. ((Canopy Publishers))

Banff was established as Canada’s first national park in 1885, which predates Parks Canada. Benson — who has published three books of landscape photograph and is represented by the Masterfile and Getty Images agencies — took the cover shot on a morning he initially thought unremarkable.

Benson set up his camera and left the shutter open for 15 minutes, then started wandering around. "I was thinking ‘Aw, this is a waste of time.’"

When the image finally appeared on the screen of his digital camera, Benson was shocked to see what a special scene of nature he’d captured.

"It’s very difficult to impose what you think you want to photograph … you don’t control these things," he said.

Benson’s advice to photographers is to keep their lenses to their eyes as they search for a good vantage point. "I hate tripods," Benson said. "I like getting the camera off the tripod and just poking around … get down on your belly."

And while he’s travelled through many of Canada’s national parks, Benson still often wakes early to shoot the fog and dewy spiderwebs the morning presents in his backyard near Edmonton.

"I truly enjoy doing this," Benson said. "I’m no fan at getting up at 4 a.m., but it’s such an incredible time to photograph. I’ve been very lucky in life to be able to make a living doing this."