I’ve been running around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington over the past week chasing the light. I’ve tried to hit places where I have never been during previous visits. It is a very large and diverse place, covered in large part by Olympic National Park. I will do a travel post on it very soon. Before that I spent a few days at Mt Rainier. I want to highlight a few lessons I’ve (re) learned that might be valuable for photographers doing trips to areas with natural wonders like this.
- While a planned route is good as a starting point, allowing you to maximize time and save fuel, you will likely be forced to abandon the plan if you expect to make the most of good weather conditions (i.e., good light). Do not try to be strict about your plan. You either chase the light, adjusting meal times, losing sleep, etc. or you miss the light. It’s that simple.
- Dealing with traveling companions can be tricky. If you’re traveling with family (or really anybody who does not live and breathe photography), you will need to find a balance. Everyone needs to have a good time and you need to get your shots. Realize that in order to get every shot you want, you will need to travel alone. I was solo on this trip. Well not truly solo, but my dog doesn’t have a say in things and so doesn’t count. But I was free to explore, double back, stay up late, sleep in shifts, etc. I’m very sure that had I been traveling with someone who is more of a casual photographer, this would have been our very last trip together.
- But even if you’re traveling solo (or with another die-hard photog.), you need to tend to that “other” person inside you. I keep having to re-learn this for some reason. I tend to become obsessive about the photos at times, but then remember I need to see and appreciate things too. The pace is often different for these two approaches. But sometimes I have the most fun when I really slow down. This, coincidentally, is usually good for photography.
Sometimes switching out of photographer to traveler mode reaps rewards. On the northern Olympic Peninsula the clouds had moved in. The light was beautiful when they came, but it promised to be gray for at least a day or two. I thought of heading down to the rainforest for moody pictures but it was a long drive from where I was. Instead I headed up to the NW corner of the Peninsula, Cape Flattery. This is the northwestern-most point of the U.S. (excluding Alaska of course) and I had never been there. My reasoning was simple and not photo-related. Fog and mist at sunset rarely do good things for a seascape at sunset. But I wanted to see the place.
As it happened I got great shots of the cape’s forest in thick fog. On the way along the rugged northern coast, bordering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the fog created beautiful patterns. The pictures I got are not of a place that most photographers think of when they visit Olympic, but they are beautiful and evocative of the lonely atmosphere of this relatively remote area. Another bonus was getting to meet friendly locals in one of the few small towns and visiting the Makah American Indian Reservation.
For example I doubled back and revisited a high alpine trail-head where I slept and then woke pre-dawn, hiking to a peak for sunrise. It was bothering me that on both occasions I did not attain the perfect viewpoint for a panorama of Puget Sound and the Cascades. So I thought of returning yet a third time, which would have involved driving back two hours late at night. But I stopped myself, thinking it was a bit too obsessive. A good night’s sleep along a river-bank was my reward.
- In getting up for sunrise, plan on rising at least a half-hour earlier than you think necessary. I have trouble getting up early. Once I’m up it’s fine of course, but this has always been a struggle for me. I’m a night person, so staying up late is much easier. For dawn photography, it’s best to arrive in the area where you’ll be shooting well before the sun rises. Use a flashlight/headlamp if you’re hiking somewhere, but try to turn it off as soon as there is enough light to see. This will allow your eyes to get used to the low light and you will see good pre-dawn compositions much more easily.
When there are a variety of clouds in the sky and light is good, those clouds will begin lighting up at least a half hour before the sun rises. This is often the best time to photograph in any direction. A brightly glowing cloud bank will cast beautiful light on the landscape. You’ll need your tripod of course.
Two examples during my trip highlight the different experience to be had depending on exactly how you set that alarm. The first was at the high point mentioned above. I underestimated the time it took to hike to the top of Elk Mountain (on Hurricane Ridge), so woke about 20 minutes too late. I knew it right as I started the 2-mile hike; color was already in the sky. Conditions were perfect, making me feel more rushed. The leading edge of a front was moving in from the west, not covering the mountains yet but promising truly wonderful light. The only good part? Hard-pumping uphill hiking will wake you up just fine when you have no time for coffee.
I had to abort and climb the ridge just short of the summit in order to catch the beautiful pre-sunrise light. It was a good viewpoint, but not the best for the east and southeast view (which affected the panorama shot). But perhaps the biggest negative was the fact I was I rushed setting up, knowing that I had missed the earliest good light.
The other example, at Mount Rainier National Park, illustrates the correct way to do a morning shoot. I slept a fitful few hours near Reflection Lakes, waking before my alarm. The stars were great so I decided to do some night shots before sunrise. The fog moved in before sunrise. Since I was already shooting, this didn’t disappoint me. Instead I found some nice foggy shots of the lake. I heard other photographers arrive up on the road but most didn’t stay long, I suppose because of the fog.
When it finally lifted there were some beautiful moments as the mountain came out. I heard them returning, car doors slamming. Meanwhile I was already in position by the lake, shooting away. This is the way to do it, letting the conditions develop before your eyes rather than trying to catch them. It allows you to experience nice moments while you’re shooting. At Reflection Lakes, it allowed me to get into a flow, rather than the abrupt, clunky transition from driving to shooting experienced by the other photographers that morning.
- I know this post is getting long but there is one last lesson I learned, and it was a hard one. At Rainier, I hiked up to a subalpine meadow area on a trail that is washed out in part. You need to hike for a couple miles along a swift glacial river across huge boulders, skirting many obstacles. But otherwise it is a reasonable, 7-mile round-trip hike. Since I was going for sunset light, I brought a headlamp, whose batteries I thought were fresh. They weren’t. Stupidly I neglected to pack spare batteries.
After shooting in the pretty meadows, it wasn’t long hiking down in the gathering dark that my headlamp began to fail. It went completely out just as I reached the rough part. I fought my way to the rocky riverbank and began to stumble through the boulders. There was no moon. I learned that while it is impossible to walk under the trees in total darkness, it is possible to use the Milky Way as a very dim source of light. Without it I would have been spending the night with not enough clothing to keep warm.
After a brief period of panic, where I fell several times and bashed my knees and elbows, I calmed myself and slowed down. Slowly I worked my way back. But there was a section of trail to reach the dirt road (leading back to my vehicle). I knew it would be impossible to traverse that trail, let alone find it in the dark. So I kept going, looking for an opening. Luckily (and I do mean lucky!) I spotted a subtle flat area through the trees. I clambered over logs to the spot and found the only place where the dirt road approaches the river. I finally got back to the van (and a very hungry dog) at 2 a.m.
So here is the lesson if you are hiking into the wilds: pack the ten essentials in your camera pack. This includes a small tarp plus a way to make fire (lighter & tissue or wadded newspaper). It also includes extra batteries for your light!
And here’s one bonus lesson: don’t strap any clothing to the outside of your pack that you would be unhappy to lose. My hands-down favorite piece of clothing is (or was) a zip-front fleece that is amazingly warm and light, with pockets that are perfect for filters. During all the ducking under big logs, falling and stumbling it had come loose from my pack. I went back the next day but could not find it.
I’m sure there are other lessons I learned, but it all really boils down to not sweating the small stuff, keeping things flexible and fun, and striking a balance. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!