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Old Patriarch

Artificial Light for Photography in Grand Teton National Park

The Times They Are a Changin’!

How about borrowing a line from Bob Dylan’s 1964 title song? 

The days of adding artificial light in Grand Teton National Park (and all National Parks for that matter) are coming to an end. As it turns out, the regulation has always been in GTNP’s rules—they just weren’t being enforced. In essence, it states that no artificial light can be used for night time photography. You can use a flashlight for navigation and safety, but not to light a subject.

The issue is actually twofold: (1) You can’t use a light at any time to spotlight an animal. (2) If you need artificial light for a photo or film project, you need a Commercial Photography Permit—but even that permit does not allow a photographer to use artificial light between dusk and dawn in GTNP.

Note: When I originally uploaded this page, I purposefully left out all of the legal mumbo-jumbo. After thinking about it for a few days, I added it to the page in the section below. You can read the official information for yourself, if desired, but for some, the information could be very important.

Here’s the Legal Stuff

2017 Superintendent’s Compendium

(22)e”Viewing of wildlife with any type of artificial lighting is in the park and the parkway. This prohibition conforms to Wyoming State Law (W.S. 23-3-06).

The Superintendent has determined that prohibiting the use of such devices is necessary for the protection of wildlife.”

WY Statute 23-3-306:

“No person shall take any wildlife with the aid of or by using any artificial light or lighting device.”

1.6(f) GTNP Activities Requiring a Permit include:

5.5 Commercial Activity: Commercial photography when utilizing props, models, or support crew.
Grand Teton National Park Commercial Filming and Photography: Application Form
“Commercial filming means the film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other recording of a moving image by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience with the intent of generating income. Examples include, but are not limited to, feature film, videography, television broadcast, or documentary, or other similar projects. Commercial filming activities may include the advertisement of a product or service, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props.”
Notes: In my direct conversations with enforcement and permit officials, I was told numerous times that using artificial lights and strobes also initiated the Commercial Filming and Photography requirements. Also, when applying for a Commercial Filming and Photography permit, I was told that even with the permit, artificial lights are not allowed between dusk and dawn.
Currently, Grand Teton National Park’s regulations and Superintendent’s Compendium do not specifically address “light painting”.
However, Hovenweep National Monument & Natural Bridges National Monument recently added this statement to Form 10-114 
16. Light painting – Light painting activities are not authorized under this authorization. Light painting, or light drawing, is a photographic technique in which exposures are made by moving a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photograph, either to illuminate a subject or to shine a point of light directly at the camera, or by moving the camera itself during exposure.


Photographers have been shining flashlights and popping strobes on trees, barns, footbridges, wagons and so forth for as long as I have been doing digital photography. I heard about “light painting” for a few years before I ever tried it. The concept is simple: during a long exposure, the photographer shines a light on a subject, usually slightly from the side. After that, it’s simply a matter of practice and finesse.

March Snowman

Over the years, I’ve asked if it was okay to use a flashlight in the Park, and have always been told it’s fine as long as I don’t shine the light on wildlife. I’ve had rangers come up while I was light painting, and each time said I was fine. One time, the Ranger chatted with me while I was light painting a snowman at one of the turnouts. He chuckled at the setup and drove off. As it turns out, I was probably breaking two regulations that night…more on that later.

Schwabacher Landing

One year, a Ranger came down to Schwabacher Landing to check on me after someone called Dispatch. Apparently, the highway passerby thought I was in distress and signalling for help. After the Ranger determined I was okay and “only light painting”, he suggested I call into Dispatch and let them know I was going to be light painting on future nights. I did just that quite a few times before a Dispatch ranger told me I didn’t need to call in.

Old Patriarch Tree

Over the years, I’ve light painted a lot of the valley. Some require a bit of hike, like this one to the Old Patriarch Tree. In 2015, I added a page about light painting here: While Most People Were Sleeping: and I’ve sprinkled dozens if not hundreds of them into the Daily Updates and Journal pages. If stars are visible, I typically go out at least once each month during the new moon phase.

Oxbow Bend

In 2009, there were probably hundreds or even a thousand people lined up along the bank to take morning photos at Oxbow Bend. By the time I took this image, most of them were at home, back in a motel, or having a late dinner. I most cases, night time photographers have the park to themselves! Within the current enforcement, a shot like this one will not be legal.

John Moulton Barn

Best of the Tetons Mission Statement: “What I would like to know, and need to know, if planning a trip to the JH and the Tetons”.

The middle part of that statement, the “need to know” portion is really the focus of this post. To be honest, I don’t know how strict the Park Service will be on this topic. It is apparent the policy adjustment is working its way through they local system. When I first heard of the change, I called Park Headquarters to get clarification. They had received numerous similar calls at the time and were already dealing with the issue. Sure enough, the rumors were true—NO ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS IN GTNP FOR PHOTOGRAPHY!

A few weeks later, I attended the CUA Permit Holders Meeting at the Craig Thomas Discovery Center. At the Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) meeting, we were all told NOT to use artificial light for photography purposes on any tour. Royce Bair told me the Park required him to sign an affidavit stating he will not use artificial lights during his night time photography workshops. He has already been dealing with the issue in the Utah Canyonlands and Arches Parks.

Just last week, I applied for a Commercial Photography Permit. Not long ago, a book publisher contacted me about some photos for a book about fly fishing the areas smaller, and lesser known waters like the Hoback, Ditch Creek, Gros Ventre, Buffalo Fork, Cottonwood Creek and so forth. When a “model”, props, and/or artificial lights are needed, a Commercial Photography Permit kicks in. Even with a Commercial Photography Permit in hand, strobes and artificial lights are not permitted from dusk to dawn. In other words, having that permit will not give a photographer the green light to light paint in the park anymore. Even though the Ranger didn’t give me a hassle, I was probably breaking the rule about using a snowman “prop” in the Park without the permit. FYI, the Commercial Photography Permit is $325 for a year plus $50 per daily shoot. Video Photography requires a different permit. You need a permit to record sounds in the Parks, too! Park weddings require a permit, but the photographer’s activity (including using strobes) is included within the wedding permit.

Licensed Guides can be found on this page: GTNP Current List of CUA Holders. (Mine is listed at Golden Era Studios dba Teton Photo Excursions.) I include the page here possibly for your protection! If you are coming to GTNP and your tour operator is not listed, the odds are high they are bootlegging the tour. If they do not know the new rules and are shining lights all over the barns, they’ll likely get busted and your trip may be truncated! If their trips are advertising light painting in GTNP, that should throw up a big red flag. Check the list!

Headlights on the Barn

Occasionally, a vehicle’s headlights hit the barns at the right angle and the right duration for a unique shot.

Enough of the Rules Already! Get Back Out and Shoot!

DronesOkay, we’ll survive without artificial lights! It might take a couple of years for the rules to be enforced and accepted. Currently, there are signs up at various locations that state the use of drones is illegal and I would assume we’ll see similar signs for artificial light and strobes.

Other than the CUA Permit Holders that attended the meeting, I am not seeing any indications that anyone else knows the rules. There are no signs at any of the prime spots, and as far as I know, these rules are not in the summer newspaper.

Milky Way

The challenge going forward will be to find places where adding light might not be that necessary. Still water can reflect stars and heavenly bodies.

Milky Way

Newer cameras like Nikon’s D5 and Nikon D750 are great for high ISO photography. Software like Adobe Lightroom is getting better at revealing details in the shadows. I didn’t do it in the photo above, but we can now expose the same scene two or three times at different exposures and then combine them into a single image.

Stars with Tetons

Silhouettes and familiar subjects can help with foreground subjects to accent the heavens above. In most cases, the stars and clouds are the star of the show, but sneaking in a hint of the Tetons can add to the image.

Stars At Slide Lake Feb1

Currently, I don’t know of any restrictions on artificial light outside Grand Teton National Park. There may still be a lot of opportunities on the outskirts.

String Lake

Traditionally, Milky Way photographers prefer the “new moon” period each month and tend to shy away from periods with a partial moon. You might find the faint light from the moon to be an asset on some shoots. I’ve always liked the “blue light” period. Full moon nights can be a bit harsh and can cast strong, unnatural shadows. The Milky Way is less visible with a full moon, too.


Get Creative!

If the times are changing, night photographers will need to change, too! Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. I expect to see new and creative images stemming from the loss of direct lighting. Since I first heard of the news, my head has been spinning—thinking of ideas that fit within the guidelines. Tents in some of the back country could still be photographed with a light inside. They add a foreground subject and some light to the scene. The Park official I spoke with told me photographers should still be able to photograph a person doing what they are normally doing in the park, such as a fisherman, biker, hiker, and so forth (as long as they are not imported models) without needing a Commercial Photography Permit. (The trigger would be whether the person would need a model release if used for commercial purposes). So, a person in a scene could be carrying a light, right? If you know the rules, you may still be able to get unique and compelling shots within them!

Tipi and Stars

Additional Feature Post: Light Painting Without Lights

Artist's Point

This post offers a few suggestions and techniques in Lightroom and Photoshop that might be of interest to night time photographers! Light Painting Without Lights

Other Related Resources:

If you like this post or know someone that might “need” to hear about it, please share it on your favorite sites! MJ

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Comments (14)

  1. Very informative information. I had no idea that light painting was an issue.

  2. Tom

    I’m trying to understand the reasoning for not permitting light painting in GTNP. I can understand forbidding light shining on wildlife but I don’t understand what harm is done shining a light on the old barns. Has light painting become so common that the park service now sees this as a problem that has to be stopped?

    I think resources could be better focused on stopping the graffiti and vandalism that sadly, appears to be increasing in our National Parks rather than someone turning a flashlight off and on.

  3. Tom, I am just the messenger! Since this is a change in the enforcement of an existing law, most people will not know about it.

  4. You’re right Mike. We will just have to get a little more creative. Creativity is an essential trait for any good photographer. The obvious and easy shots almost everyone can capture. It’s always enjoyable to try new things with our equipment. Putting in the time to explore and research possible images leads to a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Outstanding Milky Way captures by the way!

  5. I had the same question as Tom – who or what is being destroyed/disturbed by light painting, but then I started to think, and in Arches NP light painting has become so common, that it is almost impossible to visit Balanced Rock, Double Arch or Delicate Arch at night and not have anybody light painting it. Is is destroying anything? Well, it does not destroy anything, but some visitors might find it annoying. Personally, I used to light paint and I still do in areas where it is not forbidden (yet), but it is also possible to do a little “creative editing”, and photograph an object in moonlight (preferably rising or setting first or third quarter), then photography the night sky after the moon sets, or before it rises, then montage the two shots. I feel it is not “cheating”, because nothing was added or taken away, just two images from the same spot with the same setup were taken a few hours apart, then layered together. Nothing different from the film era when photographers “sandwiched” two slides together.

  6. Judit, I suspect you could buy into the notion that people are “loving our parks to death” and apply it to this subject. Proportionally, night time photographers are a microscopic slice compared to the rest of the daytime visitors.

    Quite honestly, most night time images don’t look “natural”. Most photographers push night time reality in almost every direction, right? Astronomical midnight skies are really neutral, dark gray and the milky way is never as bright as we see it after a long exposure capture. Our eyes can’t really see a full rainbow of the Milky Way, but we can capture it using panoramic stitched images. When looking at a light painted scene, you could be asking…”Where’s the light coming from?” Why is it there? Some of the best images were probably captured with multiple exposures, but if all the gloves are off already, I can’t see any issue. Many of the images are striking and captivating. If that’s the end game, few people care how the images were created.

  7. Marion Dickinson

    Sounds like a bureaucratic solution looking for a problem!

  8. Mike, To me, if I’m doing night photography in GTNP, I’m going to be constantly searching for bears with my flashlight. Whether I’m doing that while my shutter is open or closed, or where exactly I’m looking for bears by shining my light *for safety* is my prerogative

  9. Rick

    Never really thought of this as being an issue until I visited some of the parks in the southwest last summer. While at Bryce Canyon I walked down the trail below Thor’s Hammer after dark to try to shoot the Milky Way and stars with the rock formations silhouetted against the sky. I was out there for nearly two hours and found it nearly impossible to get a 30 or 45 second exposure because there were a half-dozen other photographers down in the canyon constantly lighting up various formations. So in that sense I have zero problem with that regulation, and I dismiss the argument that it doesn’t “harm” anything. People are there to enjoy the park, or to shoot it as it is, not to see your lights all over the formations. Put another way, I wasn’t happy at all that MY photos were constantly being ruined by THEIR photos. I might have been less grumpy about it if they did a couple of shots and then moved on, but like I said, it was nearly constant for hours on end.

  10. Kathy Harrison

    Can non-commercial, non-permit holders such as regular tourists use artificial light for night time photography?

  11. Hi Kathy, NOT if you follow what they are saying. I’ve read through the current rules and don’t see any text saying it is illegal. The only thing I can see is the line about not lighting up wildlife. I could have missed it, and it could be in another document.

  12. Oh!!Wow this is so pretty.I may be travelling US then I must visit teton park. This cool place like heaven.

  13. Joe

    Is daytime use of fill flash on wildlife allowed? Or does the also invoke the “commercial” clause?

  14. Joe, in 12 or so years of being out in the park on a regular basis, I haven’t actually seen rangers telling people not to use flashes, even on wildlife. People aren’t using them as much in the past few years…I’d suggest because the software is getting so good at recovering details in the shadows. I haven’t needed them in a long time. Even with a commercial permit, that allows for strobes, you still couldn’t use it on wildlife.

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