Attempting to capture the strength, beauty, and feel of a location is difficult. But, this is the challenge that keeps us intrigued with landscape photography. But how do you capture the qualities of a great place? I believe we must have some kind of experience with a particular landscape to inspire us to pick up the camera. For me, it was rock climbing, hiking, and skiing. It was snow skiing that first piqued my interest in photography.
The lifts at Alta had closed and the ski patrol had made their final sweep, which is what they do before heading home. My friend and I had been sitting under a spruce tree resting for the last time before one last powder run when the light struck. I had been watching my father chase light my entire life so I kind of knew when something was unusual, and that is exactly what this was. My friend was not a photographer, in fact, neither of us was. We were freshmen in college at the time and neither of us had a camera. I can recall so many things about that moment, the smell of the sap on my fingers from moving the spruce branches to sit down, the chill of the snow finally penetrating into my wet socks from a full day of powder skiing, the crinkle of my parka as I moved and of course the light. It struck large cornices of snow lining the summit ridges of the steep peaks on the other side of the valley and turned them pink. Dark clouds behind appeared to turn black in contrast as the light intensified. What a great memory that was! I look for moments like this every time I’m in the mountains.
My driving force has mostly been the enjoyment of being outdoors in stunning locations and anticipation. The vast majority of my experiences in the landscape have been in anticipation of beautiful moments.
Since I like, no, LOVE landscape photography now, just getting out of bed in the morning while in the great outdoors is one of those things that becomes second nature to me. There is nothing that will keep me from my boots, warm jacket, and camera bag. This is an exciting time for me when my mind is playing visions of sunbeams over reflecting lakes and silhouette Moose standing on the shore. Endless compositions are running around my brain. It is not all blind enthusiasm, rather, I spend much time preparing for the potential by knowing as much as I can about the location and weather. Here are a few things that have helped me over the years to determine just where I go when I wake up before dawn and help me decide whether to get out of bed or which direction to walk in the dark.
- forecast.io This is one of the best weather apps I have used. It is an app on an IPhone and a website for Android users. There is a very valuable display of the radar and a way to play it in motion from past to the future. This type of weather info allows me to predict if an actual rain shower is bearing down or departing. The display explains a prediction of how long it will rain or stay cloudy down to the minute!
- Photo Pills app Of all the apps I have seen and tried over the years during my commercial shoots, editorial jobs and photo workshops, This one has become my favorite! The best part is the display of the actual path of both the moon and sun, graphically illustrating where the sun will rise and set as well as the exact time according to the horizon in your location. iOS only.
- Google Earth I have found more lakes, pinnacles and new locations with the help of Google Earth than any other way. By scanning regions of intriguing areas, I have located potential vistas, and mapped out the access. There have been times when the actual intended location was not as good as 100 yards away, but I never would have found the spot without the incentive to travel anywhere near there in the first place. iOS or Android.
- Small pack with great parka – It is possible to find compositions with any lens. I usually carry 2 lenses or in some cases a third small wide or macro lens, with the intention of keeping my pack light. I used a 4×5 field camera for 15 years and all I carried were 3 lenses and 10 film holders yielding 20 images. This experience helped curb my lust to carry all the beautiful lenses I own on every outing. Of all the possible tips in landscape photography, I believe this is the most valuable. The lighter you are the more nimble you can be, allowing you to get to where you need to be to take that extra special image. And don’t ever underestimate the value of a great parka. I have used various parkas over the years made by North Face, Patagonia and Marmot, all of which have served me well in times of need. I never take this out of my pack when going into the mountains.
Things to do the night before:
- Memorize the location of everything in your camera bag. By no means do I want to give you the impression I have done this my entire career, I simply know it is very helpful when I have done so. At the least, scan through all your pockets and open all the zippers to take inventory of everything you have so that you know where to look when you only have seconds.
- Pack survival gear. Having the minimal is sufficient in most situations, such as a good pocket knife, topographic map of the area, space blanket, sun screen, water bottle and water filter and matches.
- Get a good sleep! For those for whom getting out of a warm sleeping bag in the dark is not automatic, I recommend doing a few things to spur you on in the dark cold morning that will help defeat any lame excuses you may conjure up. I remember while in a tent one morning way up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I looked at my boot laces hanging from one of my boots and thought that they looked so frayed they would probably break. Therefore, I did not want to get out of my bag and go shoot. Now I usually shove a pair of socks over my boots to cover up the laces and set my camera bag between my head and my boots.
All this stuff is simply the preparation that allows me to clear my mind while skiing, climbing or hiking and photographing. The only way to allow all these things to become second nature is through repetition and experience. Give yourself time to do what you love.
Life is short, take pictures!