Making The Best of Conditions

As a photographer, it’s difficult to make something out of nothing, and in times past I have been paid good money to do just that, in terrible locations with no light, while on commercial shoots.

Normally, we pre-visualize, plan and pack in the hopes of venturing out into a wild and beautiful location to photograph, then something unexpected occurs, causing us to rethink and in some cases postpone our plans. Big evil storms and wildfires are two potentially derailing obstacles in a landscape photographer’s path.

Over the years I have come to realize that these unusual conditions can create incredible and sometimes unique images. The challenge is to find that aspect of the seemingly sour conditions and reveal the excitement, or as they say “make lemonade from lemons”. In many cases, exciting weather conditions are easy to spot and most landscape photographers recognize something potentially beautiful. I think most of the extremely dramatic conditions I have photographed in, caused wonderfully exciting photos, and when the weather was happening, I felt quite confident that I would capture something exciting and pleasing. On the flip side, I have been in certain situations where the conditions were at first sight, terrible, such as the smoke from a wildfire or intense and persistent clouds.

Here are two images created in times when at first I considered just putting the camera down or not even venturing out.

Santa Ynez Valley, Milky Way, California

This milky way image was created in an area near my home, just 1 hour away, where there is quite a bit of light pollution. For many years I never even considered attempting a milky way image near my hometown, due to the lack of the real dark skies I so love for stargazing. In addition, when the milky way was potentially visible because of a new moon or no moon, the coastal marine layer would obstruct the view. Then one early morning while training for a triathlon a few years ago up in the mountains, I was blown away at the clarity of the stars. I had to stop running and gaze into the heavens. It took me a few minutes to realize that as I was above the marine layer and could see the stars that the reason the sky was so dark was due to the marine layer, now below me, blocking the city light pollution. Now that I understand these quite unusual conditions and where to go, images like this are possible!

When wildfires create a thick smoke that fills the normally clear mountain air, it’s very difficult to look past or even consider creating the type of landscapes I am normally working on. While up in Tuolumne Meadows this past June teaching a workshop, we headed out to Olmsted Point to photograph the sunset and were faced with a thick plume of smoke. The light was quite dramatic, but the sky was obviously filled with smoke over the main subject of the intended image, Half Dome. Practicing my rule of always turning around to see what’s going on behind me, I noticed that the smoke had cast a very warm cast on the landscape giving colors I could not help but photograph. This image was only possible, because of the warm glow the sun made after passing through the smoke from the wildfire!

Keep your eyes open.

Life is short, create pictures!

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