Spontaneity Wins Again

A friend from Salt Lake and I recently met out in Fruita, Colorado with hopes of shooting some landscapes around Colorado National Monument. For the couple of weeks leading up to the trip we scoured photography sights and Google Earth searching for potential photo locations. In addition to that, we’d kept a close eye on the weather hoping for interesting storm clouds to make for those gigantic and dramatic skies common to the desert. We even plotted our tentative photo locations on the Photographer’s Ephemeris just so we’d be sure to have unobstructed lines to the sunrises and sunsets. We made note of sunrise and sunset times and quasi laid out each day so we’d have plenty of time to get where we wanted, find a composition and get our cameras set up. This is so unlike both of us since we’re both kind of laissez faire when it comes to trip planning, but again, with limited time, we thought it might be a good idea.

All that planning and naturally it didn’t even come close to what we thought.

In short, it was way hotter than the forecast predicted and was actually quite miserable. There wasn’t a “dramatic” cloud to be had anywhere for three days. The places we thought we could get the best shots were mediocre at best and always left us scrambling for alternate compositions. And those exploding sunset colours common to the desert sky? Yeah, never materialized.

We eventually got a few sunrise exposures in the Monument we thought were acceptable, but certainly nothing “portfolio” worthy. However, by total accident, I got one photo that I’ve become quite fond of. Not an award winner for sure, but it’s grown on me and taught me a bit of a lesson.

On the very first evening we were out near the Kokopelli Trail in Loma (CO) hoping to get the classic desert sunset shot of the surrounding mesas using the Colorado River as the obvious leading line into what we hoped was going to be an amazing, colour vomiting sunset. My buddy eventually found a composition he thought would work and I too flailed around for about an hour until I thought I had something myself. Again, nothing revolutionary or all that unique, but it was something. It was honestly one of those obvious shots probably millions of mountain bikers had made millions of times before…but damn it, we were going to shoot it anyhow.

While we waited for the light, with cameras mounted on our tripods ready to go, we’d chat with passing mountain bikers and try desperately not to lose the incessant battle against some ferocious mosquitoes. As I alluded to before, the light stunk, no clouds for background interest, no brilliant colours and my composition was average at best, but I took the shot anyhow. I then looked at the back of my camera, said “meh” to myself, then began packing my stuff away. I wasn’t really all that disappointed because the elements just weren’t there.

As I was leaning over my backpack to put my camera away, a mountain biker was approaching rather quickly. For some reason I quickly lifted my camera (it was literally just inches from being completely in my bag), pointed it at her and activated the shutter. I hadn’t made any adjustments to the “landscape” settings from my sunset attempt so I figured they’d be all wrong. Also, I had the camera in the single frame mode instead of rapid fire mode so I figured my chances were probably nil for even getting her in the frame in a single shot. It was a total reactionary move to point the camera her direction so I had ZERO expectations at all. I honestly didn’t even look at the screen to see if it worked and just crammed it into my bag and kept packing away for the dark hike out.

When I got home and downloaded everything into Lightroom, I immediately deleted about 75% of everything “landscape-esque” I’d done. The majority  of them simply weren’t all that interesting. I might even say “boring”. The one that surprised me though…you guessed it…the random reactionary shot of the mountain biker. Award winner? Not even close. Portfolio worthy? Probably not. Fine art? A laughable thought. But I liked it, a lot.

For days I’d glance at it and the more I did, the more I liked it. Not sure why, but it became one of my favourite photos of the weekend.

I think the unintended consequence of the photo was that it reminded me to never try and control the situation but adjust my creativity to the moment at hand. Yes, I can plan a trip, look at weather forecasts and even line up my compositions with the Ephemeris, but that in no way will ever guarantee it will work the way I think it will. I don’t live my life that way so I shouldn’t expect my photos to work that way.

My favourite photos always come from spontaneous situations where the moment came to me, not me going to the moment.

Climb high. Ski fast. Live simply.

Challenging Myself to Get Better

Transitioning back to ski mode after a long climb.

Later this year I’ll be returning to the Himalaya, this time to join a handful of professional photographers where we’ll spend three weeks photographing the cultural treasures and mind blowing landscapes of northwestern Nepal.  Having been to this region before, it’s hard to overstate my excitement to be returning to such a physically demanding and sensorially overwhelming part of the world.

I consider myself a semiprofessional/avid hobbyist photographer where I sometimes sell my work to individuals or publications, but my primary income isn’t from photography. More than that though, I truly love the art of photography and I’m constantly striving to learn and expand my skills. I know traveling with a group of professional photographers from all over the world will be a treasure trove of information, and I honestly can’t wait to immerse myself in it, but it also brings a certain level of pressure, real or perceived.

Much of our trip will be trekking at altitudes well above 4,400 metres (about 14,000 feet) with a couple of days over 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) and I think it’s safe to say the physical demands of this trip will be a given. Partner that with frenetic markets, language challenges and every other challenge that comes with international travel and the idea of trying to be “creative” all of a sudden becomes a little more daunting.

There is no way to eliminate all the physical and cultural challenges, but what I can control is my proficiency with the tools of the trade. I’m pretty comfortable with my camera and it’s controls, but in the time I have leading up to my trip, I’ve dedicated myself to reviewing the basics, gaining efficiency with functions I don’t use as often and digging into some of the things I’ve never used but always thought would be helpful. When I step off the plane in Kathmandu I want my camera to be something I know so well that whenever creative photo opportunities arise, I’ll need to spend a minimal amount of time faffing around trying to figure out how to make it do what my creative mind wants.

To help start getting myself used to more stressful shooting situations, I decided to give myself a little “pop quiz” in adversity during a photo assignment. I wanted to stress myself physically while simultaneously putting pressure on myself to cover all the photo basics necessary to make a competent photograph.  In other words, I wanted to see if my procedures for composing and capturing a photo were second nature enough to where I could do it instinctually and not have to think too much.

This was my challenge:

  • I would go to my local ski area well before sunrise and climb up to an observation point high on the continental divide. I wouldn’t be allowed to stop other than to adjust the risers on my bindings for the steeper parts of the climb. The point was to make sure I was physically “stressed” when I arrived.
  • I would “reset” my entire camera to the default settings in order to force myself to think about every single step in making a photograph.
  • I could meter in aperture mode but had to shoot in manual mode.
  • I had to hand hold the shot.
  • I had to shoot using f1.4 and compose to maximize the bokeh effect
  • I could use no flash even though it would be extremely low light (partly why I chose f1.4)
  • I would have a five-minute time limit to compose a photo, get my camera settings done and make the photograph…and only take one shot (complete pass or fail).
  • Finally, I had exactly one hour to complete the whole challenge…car door to car door.

I’m a pretty strong climber on skis, but I’m certainly no hyper speed randonee racer, therefore I knew I had to push the pace a little going up, but I also knew going too fast would redline my heart rate given I was already starting at about 3,350 metres (11,100 feet) to begin with!

In short, I was able to climb to Ptarmigan Roost in about forty minutes. It took me a few more minutes to get situated, get a sip of water, strip the skins off my skis and make sure nothing would blow away since it was super windy. After that, I started the clock on my five minute “photo” allowance.

I found a composition I liked fairly quickly, but because I was physically stressed and cold, I really had to stop and think through each part of my camera settings a little more carefully, which took time. Once I had the settings where I wanted, I quickly retraced each step since I only had one chance to get a “good” photograph, then I hit the button.

I barely looked at the screen on my camera to see if I got anything worthwhile because remember, I still had to ski back down to meet the one-hour time limit. I quickly (but carefully!) crammed my camera back in my pack, glanced at my watch and saw that I had about 6-7 minutes remaining. I hurriedly clicked into my skis and let it rip. When I hit unlock on my car’s key fob, I still had three minutes remaining.

The photo I took? Well, I was pretty happy given the circumstances.

 

 

Maybe these challenges are silly, but it truly helps put me in situations where I’m not 100% comfortable and forces to me to fall back and reaffirm my knowledge of the basic skills.

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.