My goal with these weekly topics is to cover things that are not covered well in other photo blogs, but which nevertheless must be faced and dealt with by every photographer. So many photography blogs tend to be a little too technical (hello, it’s an art form!) or at the opposite extreme so filled with attempts to elicit chuckles that you wonder at the end if there was anything useful to take away.
When I first started taking pictures there were a few photography classes (which I couldn’t afford), and that was it. Sure, a few photo how-to books were on the shelves, but I wasn’t into reading books on how to take pictures, I was into taking pictures! Nowadays of course there are a bazillion ways to learn about photography. The dirty little secret? There is not all that much to learn (in a hushed voice); the rest is gained by doing.
So with that little dig directed at the photography education “industry” I will talk about something near and dear to my heart: disappointment. Last Friday’s topic was on technique, this one isn’t (I like variety, what can I say).
If you are just getting going with photography, particularly landscape and/or nature photography, you will soon be very familiar with disappointment. You’ll realize being skunked when you go out to get that epic shot is a more common occurrence than being blessed with a special image or three. The key is to give yourself permission to be disappointed, but not to feel discouraged.
As you go along, you’ll naturally want certain pictures, and it’s often very specific light, foreground, etc. that you imagine capturing. I live in Oregon and though I have 50 or 60 of my framed photographs on the walls, I don’t yet have a picture of Mount Hood. Sure I have good shots of Hood, but I haven’t captured Oregon’s highest mountain in its snow-clad, alpenglow-tinged, crystal winter-light magnificence. I might print and frame a shot of some monastery high in the Himalayas that is merely good. The exotic location makes it worth framing, despite minor flaws. But I somehow can’t allow an iconic mountain so close to home to be displayed in any other way than pure excellence. Some days the mountain never crosses my mind; on other days it’s all I can think about.
That was the case today when I saw the perfect weather conditions developing. I wanted a snowy winter portrait of Hood with plenty of clouds in the sky and the kind of light pervading the atmosphere that only cold weather can provide. I drove up in the afternoon and parked near a trail that heads up to a frozen lake directly southwest of the mountain: Mirror Lake. The exact viewpoint I was headed for, being halfway up a steep slope, is not one used other photographers. A similar photo can be captured higher up at the top of Tom Dick & Harry Mountain (nice name, huh?), and this is a fairly popular place with local photographers. But my hopes were for a better foreground. Since the sun sets south of west these days, and since the snow gave easier access to the bouldery slope, I was destined to be in the right place at the right time, just before sunset.
I donned cross-country skis and set out. I climbed up to the lake, took a few shots, and continued up the steep slope behind the lake. It got steeper and steeper, and I struggled a bit. All the while, I noticed the mountain was peeping in and out of dramatic clouds. I had high hopes. Just as the light started turning golden, I grunted up the last few yards before it leveled out. I’m not one to wax on about great dangerous adventures while taking photos, but the avalanche danger was definitely very near my comfort limit.
I began to notice some clouds coming in. It had been showing signs of clearing, so I ignored the ominous grey blobs in the sky. But as I crested the top, it began to snow, and I looked over to see…nothing. Actually there was something, a dull grey expanse where there should have been a mountain. I could even see, peeking through, swatches of perfect magenta light on one ridge of Hood. But the clouds formed a very effective shroud.
I waited for a miracle, but it didn’t happen. I had been clouded out. After having spent time, money (for gas) and sweaty effort, I had nothing to show for it – zip, zilch, nada! I had little time to sulk though, because it began to get dark. I quickly realized my vulnerable position and skied back down to the lake. A dozen or so nice powder turns was my reward, and this was certainly something! After all light had gone but a dull red glow on the western horizon, the clouds quickly dissipated and the mountain came right out. So typical!
Here is the lesson you might have learned already. Unless you set up lights and can control most aspects of the shoot (except for which side of the bed your model woke up on), you will be forever at the mercy of capricious mother nature. You will do best to get the pictures you can, but there is no avoiding the desire to capture some favorite subject in a specific way. That’s when you are set up for the big D. Just as with life, it is important to take all of your photography disappointments in stride too. Get a few pictures if you can, but learn that you can live to fight another day.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. Return to that spot again when the weather conditions are dynamic and unpredictable. Do not return when the skies are impossibly clear and there is no chance for getting clouded out. Why? Because that will not give you the picture you really want. You see, what we really want is something on the edge of being there and not there. This diaphanous thing will only exist one day out of a hundred, and only for a few minutes at that. Remember that persistence will eventually give you a picture that is worthy of hanging on yours or anyone else’s wall. And most important, you will have earned it through your own dogged determination, all the while having the odd adventure and more than one brush with disappointment.