Friday Foto Talk: Dealing with Crowds   9 comments

Woods Lake in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Woods Lake in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Shot just this morning, virtually all the aspen leaves have fallen. So there are no other photographers in sight, and only one other guy who was giving his dog a walk.

As you might be able to guess from some of my previous blog posts, I am someone who does not go from one well-known spot to another.  Often called trophy-hunting photography, it’s not really who I am.  That’s not to say I don’t ever visit popular spots.  I just have to be in the mood for it.

If you’re anything like me and think nature photography and crowds don’t exactly go together well, you might go about photography in a similar way.  In this post I’ll try to relate the different ways in which I approach visits to popular destinations for landscape photography.  Two recent examples illustrate my approach:

Aspens hold on in south-central Colorado.

Aspens hold on in south-central Colorado.

Adjusting Expectations: Deadhorse Point

The first example, a visit to Deadhorse Point State Park in southern Utah, happened a few weeks ago.  It was dark when I decided I was too tired to continue on to Colorado.  nstead, I turned off of Interstate 70 and headed south toward a viewpoint I knew was both nearby and potentially spectacular at sunrise.  Next morning I arrived at Deadhorse Point to find plenty of other photographers.  Fortunately it is a place with plenty of room to photograph from, so I wasn’t worried.  I was walking along the rim in the dusk, looking into the chasm formed by the Colorado River, when a bright light hit me in the face.

A relic of Colorado's rich mining past.

A relic of Colorado’s rich mining past.

At first I didn’t know where it came from, so I stopped.  When it happened again, this time briefly hitting me square in the eyes, I looked over to see a photographer with a flashlight.  I asked him to please lower the light.  He responded that I was in his photograph and to move.  I couldn’t believe it.  Passive aggressive behavior followed by rudeness, and this before sunrise!  He didn’t seem to realize that I was (A) moving along, and (B) even if I stayed I was quite easy to remove on the computer.  I walked up to him and told him in no uncertain terms that I was not going to put up with passive aggressive behavior from him.  I also pointed out that cloning me out took seconds on the computer.  I don’t think he expected to be confronted forcefully on this, but there wasn’t enough time to have a chuckle about that.

I shot the Animas River as it goes through Durango, Colorado just before dark.

I shot the Animas River as it goes through Durango, Colorado just before dark.

I moved on and actually met several people who were going out of their way to be polite, adjusting their positions so they were not in other people’s photos.  A couple times I told people not to worry about it, that I could always clone them out later.  It really does take only seconds to do this on the computer, after all, in Photoshop or whatever software you are using.

I didn’t stress about getting into the “perfect” position, did not worry about whether I was getting “the” shot.  After sunrise, I walked over to my vehicle, made some coffee, and chilled out.  There was a bus with a large group of older folks toting cameras.  Speaking to the driver I found out it was a photo-oriented tour.  Photo tours and workshops are one of the main reasons popular spots get crowded.  But instead of getting annoyed at this unavoidable fact, I saw it as a chance to talk with others, perhaps find out (from the driver) about less-popular places.  This is the way I often deal with crowded places.  Instead of getting competitive and nasty, as my friend with the flashlight did, I lower my expectations about the images I’ll get and use the occasion as a chance to socialize.

Silver Falls in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Silver Falls in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

It’s similar to when I lived in Alaska and the salmon ran up the Kenai and Russian Rivers in summer.  You might have heard of “combat fishing”, where people are lined up shoulder to shoulder.  I have had the best fishing experiences in my life in Alaska, but not combat fishing.  On several occasions friends and I would go to the Kenai during big runs, leaving home after work and arriving very late.  We would fish in the middle of the night when most other fishermen were asleep.  Then we’d crash in the grass back from the riverbank and sleep until noon.  Afternoon and evening was spent grilling the fish in the open-air and consuming large quantities of beer.  While hardly a quality fishing experience, especially compared with what is possible in Alaska, we had great times.  The fish were plentiful, fat and tasty, and there were some crazy goings on.  Fishing was an excuse to party.

Engineer Mountain in Colorado's San Juan Mountains from a lake at 10,000 feet.

Engineer Mountain in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains from a lake at 10,000 feet.

Had to look twice at this sign to get the New Mexico Highway Dept's humor.

Had to look twice at this sign to get the New Mexico Highway Dept’s humor.

The tourist train that runs between Durango and Silverton, Colorado is authentically steam-powered.

The tourist train that runs between Durango and Silverton, Colorado is authentically steam-powered.

Alternatives to the Herd: Maroon Bells

The other way I handle photographer crowds is illustrated by my visit to Maroon Lake, a popular spot near Aspen in the Colorado Rockies.  The spectacular Maroon Bells overlook the subalpine lake.  I deliberately avoided peak time, which is late September when the aspen leaves turn gold.  This is a common myth among not only with landscape photography but travel as well.

People search on the internet while doing their research, looking for the best time to visit/photograph a given place.  Very specific advice is given, directing everyone to herd up at the same time.  It’s ridiculous.  I’ve traveled and photographed extensively and believe me, this is bunk.  While there might be a “best” time to visit a place with respect to weather or fall color or…   But it is never, never a good idea to take that to mean it’s the only time to visit/photo.  Great times can be had, great images can be made, by visiting at any time.  You can actually throw a dart at a wall calendar and be just fine.

The Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colorado was built in 1879.

The Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colorado was built in 1879.

Back to Colorado.  I arrived at Maroon Lake on the 11th of October at night, at least two weeks after the supposed “best time” to be there.  Next morning before dawn I was not the only photographer.  It happened to be a weekend.  If it had been last week of September there would have been photographers staking out spots along the lakes with their tripods, in some cases from the previous night!

There was a cluster of other photographers in one spot on the lakeshore.  I suppose it offered what was considered “the shot”.  Instead of joining them or getting mad, I teetered out onto the beaver dam, where nobody would dare risk getting their feet wet in the freezing temps.  I got an interesting shot with the beaver dam partly in view, plus the photographers off to one edge (easily removed on computer).  It was clear so the light was not the best.  The best part was I managed to keep my feet dry!

The Maroon Bells stand over the lake of the same name in the Colorado Rockies.

The Maroon Bells stand over the lake of the same name in the Colorado Rockies.

After all the “serious” photographers had packed up and driven off, I was still loafing around below the lake, drinking coffee and shooting a beautiful beaver pond with aspens still in full leaf.  It was a couple hours after sunrise, well after golden hour, when a moose showed up and entered the pond.  It was pure luck!

This illustrates more than good luck.  It’s part of how to handle these types of places.  You can simply slow down, chill out, stick around after the “good” light and see what you get. Combined with visiting on other than peak times and looking for compositions that differ from the norm, it can result in a much happier experience.  It can also, as happened with me at the Maroon Bells, result in your best image.

Mama moose takes a drink with the Maroon Bells in the background.

Mama moose takes a drink with the Maroon Bells in the background.

Do it Your Way

You may choose to handle crowded photo. spots in a different way than I do.  You might not, like me, want to miss some “must-sees” while traveling and taking pictures.  This is purely personal preference.  Part of my style as a photographer is generally avoiding the over-shot compositions.  The image at bottom is typical: on the way to Great Sand Dunes N.P. is this dry lake bed, abandoned by all until next spring, and even then no serious photographer would bother with the famous dunes close-by.  Of course I don’t necessarily avoid popular subjects.  But you might not want to skip places as I often do.

However you choose to photograph at popular locales, do it in a way that matches your style.  But realize there is definitely a wrong way.  And that’s the way the flashlight guy at Deadhorse Point does it.  To be so fixated on getting a certain shot at a specific (over-popular) spot is a surefire way to have a horrible time doing photography.  It leads to “combat photography”.  The whole purpose for being out there is defeated.

A simple mountain portrait: New Mexico's highest point, Wheeler Peak.

A simple mountain portrait: New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak.

Hope you enjoyed this selection from the Rockies of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  If you’re interested in one or more, please contact me.  They will soon be uploaded into my galleries (which you can access by clicking on any of the pictures) but I’m happy to accommodate any request.  Thanks for your interest.  Have a great weekend!

A dry lake bed just west of Colorado's Great Sand Dunes, the Sangre de Cristos Mountains in the background.

A dry lake bed just west of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.

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9 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Dealing with Crowds

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  1. Marvelous photos and post. Your anecdotes and advice are thoughtfully presented, with just the right touch of humor. Well said. You could guide an anti-tour tour for photographers. I bet it would be fun.

  2. Great tips and beautiful images.

  3. It was interesting to hear your personality coming through in all the ways you deal with this. The sign was hilarious! Despite there being a moose in one of the photos, I think my favourite is the last one though you really nailed some good ones here.

  4. Wonderful narrative. And gorgeous images!!

    I can imagine nothing less relaxing than jockeying for a position from which to shoot……but then I live in a part of the Midwest where I’m competing only with cows, horses and insects for the best views :).

  5. Beautiful images as usual. I love the scenery in this part of the country. By the way I am going to Africa next summer, 10 days in Botswana.

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