I’ve learned a valuable lesson in the last few years; the things most often worth shooting are frequently difficult to get to when the light is right.
Think of all the amazing things you’ve seen in your life, then think of when you’ve seen them. Get up at 7am, out of the hotel by 8am, on the road by 830, reach your destination by 10, shoot a few photos before noon and head back into town. It doesn’t matter where you are – it could be Mount Rushmore, Angkor Wat, the Cameron Highlands or New York City; when we find ourselves out on tour, we often find ourselves out of time. If you travel with any regularity you know this is true. If you travel with any regularity with a group or with a partner, you know this to be doubly true. It can be difficult to convince another party or another person to rise before the sun to sniff out a great shooting location or to stay late, past the break of day, when there are so many other things worth doing on the road.
On a recent trip to Grand Tetons National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming I found myself thinking about time and light (yeah, my daydreams can be a little nerdy). I knew that I was going to see things while touring around the park that I wanted to photograph, but I knew that I was going to see many of them in the middle of the day, during a time that photographs simply are not going to turn out well. I made myself a promise; I decided that if I saw something worth shooting under harsh noon light, I would return, again and again, as many times as need be, to shoot under optimal conditions.
This is easier said than done, of course. Why return to one place when there are surely more stunning places to see? Grand Tetons is, after all, one of the most beautiful places in America. This is something you have to decide for yourself, taking into consideration how long you’re going to be on the road and what it is you want to include in your travel portfolio when the bags are packed and you’re heading home. For my part, I decided that the first place I would return to, over and over again, would be Mormon Row; I wanted to capture the quintessential Jackson scene in quintessential Teton light.
Bright Lights, Big Mormon.
Megan and I spent our first two nights in the Grand Tetons camping at Gros Ventre; this served as our strategic headquarters and was well-positioned for an assault on Mormon Row, Jenny Lake, Taggart Lake and a host of other shooting destinations we intended to infiltrate. After a night filled with star shooting and bear watching, we woke at 430am and took to the road. Our first destination was Jenny Lake. While the light was stunning and conditions were perfect, we were butted up so close to the mighty Tetons that we didn’t come away with anything sensational. We retooled and decided to scout out locations for future sunrise shoots.
The first place we scouted was Mormon Row; we arrived sometime between 8-9am and were greeted by the click-click-click of two dozen other photographers. Popular place, let me tell you.
This frame is from our first Mormon Row session. I don’t dislike the image but I know this is virtually no different from the frames the many people visiting the barn that morning were creating with their own cameras. That alone irks me; if I’m shooting something the same way as everyone else in the world I’d rather not shoot it. As a photographer I am by definition a creator; I aspire to create something new each and every time I pick up my camera. I knew that I wanted to return to this place the first time I saw it; I had to see it in a way no one else was seeing it.
Late Light, Early Night.
I visited Mormon Row for a second time after a sunset shooting session with some wild horses. It sounds much more epic than it actually was; I fell over a fence onto my face and was scared shitless by a horny bronco with a fancy for Canadian bacon. At any rate, by the time I arrived at Mormon Row most of the people had gone back to their campsites and hotels, the tour buses had ceased pulling into the lane and I had the barns and the mountains all to myself.
I got the clouds moving with some long exposure work and experimented with a few techniques knowing full well I would be back out here again cashing my ultimate frame.
The Early Bird…
430am. I’m driving through the Teton Valley. This road is usually saturated with traffic, but at this hour it is just me, the elk, the bears and whoever else may be watching from the safety of the darkness. This is the sort of thing I live for. This is why I am a photographer; I’m out here chasing something I may never find, something that might not even exist. That’s half the fun, of course, and the best reason to drag your butt out of bed.
By 5:30am I was in position to shoot. I put one camera on a tripod and took a few test frames then went about shooting a few things with another. I knew I had a little waiting to do. By 6:15 the light was about to be right; it was hitting the highest peaks of the mighty Tetons, glancing blows off enormous terminal faces. Yet it wasn’t altogether right; clouds were keeping the sunlight from striking the barn.
Close, but no cigar. The light on the mountains is fantastic, but the rest of the sun’s rays are blocked by a huge cloud behind me.
A trio of fellow photographers had arrived by this point and were disillusioned by their bad luck; up at this hour for such a non event! All three of them packed their bags and headed out. I stuck around. I had done all this prep and come all this way to shoot an epic sunrise; I didn’t want to give up on it so easily. Besides, what was moving on going to do for me? If there is anything worse than missing a great sunrise or sunset it is driving through one. I would wait.
So I waited. And the clouds parted. And this is what I shot. Before I clicked the shutter I knew I had found what I was looking for.
In an Absence of Light.
I put together a posse for a night shooting session and we made for Mormon Row once more. I wanted to shoot star trails this time, and I wanted to do something altogether unique. I was happy with my sunrise frame but I wanted something more; I wanted something even fewer people had seen before.
Sadly, I had left my intervalometer in our hotel room (we had migrated to Spring Creek Ranch by this time) and all I had was my cable release. I came away with a few things I liked but nothing I loved; one of the problems with pre-visualizing shots is that until you get them, everything else seems to matter for not.
The Night is Darkest…
One last visit to Mormon Row. A solo mission this time; Megan’s sister, Kristin, had just been married at Spring Creek and we had partied until the sun went down. When the sun was finally gone and out of sight I slipped away, picked up my strategically placed shooting kit and took to the country roads. I started shooting at 3am. I had one last image in mind.
This is what I had been after since the first time I visited Mormon Row; something different, something unique. I composed with the Northern Star in the frame to spin the other stars in the sky around it. I lit the barn and the foreground with one of my flashes, popping over and over again to give me the right amount of light. Then I waited. I think I remember playing Angry Birds on my iPod while the information was recording on the sensor. I was hunkered down in a field, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to learn how to use my bear spray or my $1 hunting knife on the fly.
At the end of the day, choosing when to shoot isn’t always our choice. Other factors come into play; family commitments, travel schedules, the wrath of God, etc. We can only choose to, or choose not to, work around these obstacles. This time out, I chose to work around them.
We all have visitation rights.