The following was taken from a daily handwritten journal I kept while on a recent photography trip from Iowa to California and back. It is meant to provide insight and dismiss suspicions that this is a carefree occupation of no work and all play. (Click here for the introductory post.) I’ll be the first to admit that I am still learning, and the last to claim I have it all figured out. This is simply the story of my experiences, a day by day account of what it’s like to be a nature photographer out on the road…
September 23, 2014
My alarm went off at 4:45 and it was all I could do not to roll over and go back to sleep. It was still dark and cold and would continue that way for at least two more hours outside the tent, but snuggled deep in my sleeping bag I could stay nice and warm. I mean, this is supposed to be a vacation, right? Shouldn’t I prioritize personal comfort, rest and relaxation?
Wrong on all counts.
This isn’t a vacation, I have work to do. That work includes putting myself in the best possible position to photograph the beauty of my surroundings, and this morning that meant a very early hike up to Dream Lake. I forced myself out of the sleeping bag, dressed and gathered my gear as steamy breath appeared like fog before the concentrated beam of my headlamp. Then in a final declaration of commitment I tugged at the tent door, letting the high pitched whiz of the zipper break the silence of the night.
Outside I continued the preparations, walking to the bear locker to retrieve a bag of food I’d put together before bed. I didn’t have a set plan for the day, just a number of options to be determined and ready for on the fly. A lot of this would be dictated by the weather. The forecast said it was supposed to be sunny, but the mountains always write their own script. Even this morning, standing in the dark this was apparent as stars could be seen directly overhead but faded and disappeared looking toward the south. Though you couldn’t yet see the peaks in that direction, this was a pretty solid hint that they were engulfed in clouds. If the sky cleared I might hike from Dream Lake and spend the entire day exploring the high country; but if it was raining in the mountains I would hope for better conditions at lower elevation. Time would tell, but I needed to be ready for either scenario.
With this in mind, I also needed to be prepared for a pretty significant temperature shift. I would be arriving at Dream Lake about an hour before sunrise, and knew it could be a very cold wait along the alpine lakeshore. I couldn’t dress too warm yet, however, because the problem would be compounded if I broke a heavy sweat on the trek up there. Furthermore, if I was able to stay out and hike into the afternoon hours I might encounter summer-like conditions. All considered I might endure a temperature variation of forty degrees over the course of the day with activity levels ranging from sedentary to strenuous. I decided it would be best to carry my backcountry ULA pack that was able to accommodate all of the clothing, gear, food and water that I could need rather than my (much smaller and lighter) photo specific day pack. Anyone who has spent anytime hiking in the mountains probably knows how agonizing such decisions can be- you never want to carry so much as an ounce more than you have to- but at the same time it’s better than being caught unprepared.
I started my car and eased out of the campground hoping not to disturb anyone. About three miles from camp I caught glimpse of a shadow approaching my course and slowed to watch a coyote trot through the shine of my high beams. I’ve long felt a connection to these animals, and in all of my travels have always revered coyote encounters as signs that I am on the right path. With a smile I continued toward the trail.
There were already a number of vehicles present at the Bear Lake Trailhead, and I hoped they belonged to more overnight backpackers than early morning photographers. I knew Dream Lake was a popular sunrise location and expected to have some company, but wasn’t sure how early I’d need to arrive. Sunrise was listed for 6:50, and it was 5:30 when I pulled into the lot. It would only take me twenty to thirty minutes to hike up the trail, but space was at a premium along the fifteen yard stretch of narrow shoreline that seemed to offer the best photographic compositions. I felt a bit of anxiety as I shouldered my pack, clicked on my light and hurried into the woods.
I was about halfway up the trail when I heard footsteps from behind and noticed that mine wasn’t the only headlamp illuminating the path. I was struggling a bit with the altitude, and was moving extra slow now hiking in cloddy insulated boots and carrying a heavier pack. I moved over and stopped to catch my breath while allowing the other hiker to pass.
“Morning,” I said as the figure came near.
“Good morning,” replied a male voice from beneath the approaching headlamp. “Where ya headed?”
“Alright, me too,” said the young man as he stepped by.
You never really know what kind of personalities you’re going to meet out on the trail, especially in these situations where two photographers are heading to the same place with the same goal in mind. Some can be standoffish, some can bristle with competitiveness, and some will make it their defining purpose not to let you get there first.
That’s not really what I’m about, and thankfully, neither was this guy.
He politely slowed to continue the conversation, asked me where I was from and said he was from New York. We talked for a minute, but I was growing more winded by the step and it was a bit embarrassing to know I was probably holding him back.
“Ah, this elevation is getting to me,” I admitted, slowing to a rest. “I’ll see you up there.”
Taking my cue the young man said okay and continued effortlessly out of sight. I scanned the trail below for telltale flashlight beams that would reveal more photographers on their way, but the forest was dark. I caught my breath, took a drink of water, and continued on to Dream Lake.
I could hear voices as I made my final approach to the lake, and was relieved to come into the clearing and discover there were only five or six photographers in place. There wasn’t much room left along the prime stretch of lakeshore, but I could still get a spot pretty close to the place I had selected on yesterday’s scouting mission. I said hello as I neared the group of strangers standing behind their tripods and found my way to cross a log that spanned the small outlet stream. Then I almost made the entrance truly grand by slipping on a rock and stumbling headlong toward the lake. (Fortunately I caught myself before I wiped out somebody else’s setup or wound up taking an ice cold bath.)
As mentioned it was about an hour wait until sunrise. I don’t have a lot of experience hanging out and shooting around other nature photographers and will admit I’m still a bit intimidated in these situations, but luckily it was a pretty cordial group. The guy beside me was from Texas and was heading out on a multi-day backcountry trip, so we talked a little about his route. New York was to his right, and a few others filled out the space beyond. At the far end was an older gentleman, I assume a local pro, that seemed to be giving a private lesson. This was all great and fine and I listened closely to try and gain a few pointers, but I think he kind of crossed the line when he started telling others (non-students) around him how they should compose their shots. That’s something that is a highly personalized decision to be made by each individual photographer, and even in such often shot locations those who are serious about the craft try to capture a vantage that is uniquely their own. When he turned to the person beside him and said, “Now from where you’re standing you should probably go vertical and blah, blah, blah…” he immediately went from helpful local to pushy know-it-all, and I was happy to be standing at the opposite end of the line.
As sunrise approached the group fell silent. Shutters began to click with the first sign of light. The clouds hung low and heavy, which isn’t always a bad thing. You definitely want some clouds in the sky to catch the color and add elements of interest and uniqueness to your photographs. These were a little too heavy though, concealing the peaks across the lake. The wind kicked up, robbing us of glassy reflections on the water surface. After twenty minutes of shooting a drizzle set in. Someone down the line declared the sunrise a bust, and I noticed the local expert was among the first to leave. One by one, photographers packed up their gear with a shrug and the understanding that despite their early morning commitment, sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
I was the last one to throw in the towel. The wind was blowing pretty strong and I clung firm to the hope that it might bring a clearing and some added drama to the sky. I watched little holes trying to break open in the cloud cover, but it just couldn’t quite develop.
Eventually the drizzle became a driving down pour and I had no choice but to grab my things and head for lower ground.