It’s early in the morning; so early that it is still dark out. Your alarm starts beeping at you with an annoyance that is indescribable. Every part of your body is telling you that you should still be asleep, curled up nice and warm with your significant other. You, however, are a nature photographer. You know that early morning light is one of the most important aspects of getting great shots. Your love of the outdoors and what potential dramas may unfold this morning are the driving force behind pushing away sleep.
You get your equipment together and jump in the car. At this point there is only the slightest hint that the sun is actually going to rise. You get to your favorite location which my be in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Maroon Bells, Arches, Zion, or Yosemite, and you pick a spot that is going to allow you to capture this location in all its glory. You have composed your first upcoming image with the care that a surgeon takes. You have the perfect foreground element, dew-covered shrubs alternating with lichen covered boulders, and this leads your viewer to the majestic snowcapped peaks in the background. The coming dawn illuminates the clouds hanging over the peaks, as if to congratulate you in being one of the first to greet the day.
As the sun rises, more and more photographers begin to set up near you, attempting to capture the same exact shot, and you question your choice of locations. Not wanting to capture a clichéd image, and unsure of what to do, you decide to shoot anyway. The light is amazing, the images are spectacular, and it is one of the best days that you have had photographing. When you get home and edit your shots, you decide to do a search on the Internet to see if anyone else has images similar to yours. You type in the location, and up pops hundreds of images. Frustrated, you slouch back in your chair, all memories of the glorious morning gone.
I know the feeling – I was there…
I grew up 25 miles outside of New York City; wilderness consisted of small patches of greenery that my friends and I dubbed “the woods”. I had never camped, never really traveled except along the Eastern Seaboard. I was in fact a tried and true city boy.
The year was 1992. I was about to walk across the stage and accept my diploma for a Bachelor of Architecture degree. I was firmly on my way to becoming the typical East Coast member of society. Get a degree, then get a job, then a girlfriend, a wife, kids, a house, join the country club, etc. I was raised by two fairly creative parents, who never really pursued what they loved for their careers. Art was for the most part for the lazy person who did not want to work. I was mandated to attend school for a major that I was not really into. Little did my parents know that true architecture had really nothing to do with engineering and drawing houses, but everything to do with art and being creative. So as I walked across that stage and accepted my piece of paper that stated I had completed what I was supposed to, I decided a change of venue was in order. The old adage “go west young man” ran through my head. A month later, with a $1000 in my pocket, I packed up my Jeep and followed a wagon trail that was now paved in asphalt.
Colorado was my destination. I truly don’t know why, maybe because I knew people there, maybe because, most of the state was a mile above sea level and there was very little humidity. As I hit the plains just before Denver, I saw my first glimpse of what was going to be a major adventure that would span 15 years and beyond.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with my surroundings. I soon realized that I should buy a camera to start recording all of the amazing places that I was finding on my weekend camping trips, hikes, and mountain bike rides. I took some photos, most of which were not very impressive, but hey, I was out there falling in love with the wilds – it didn’t matter. Then in 1995, a girlfriend gave me a book titled Light on the Land, by some guy named Art Wolfe. This book changed my whole perspective of photography. I wanted to capture what he illustrated: color, composition, light, and drama. Lots of drama. This lead to purchases of many subsequent photography books: how-tos, inspirationals, environmentals, anything and everything about the subject. I was hooked.
I now live smack dab in the middle of Colorado. There are mountains 360 degrees around my home. I am 25 minutes from one of North America’s biggest ski areas, 2 hours from Denver, and closer than that to Aspen and the Maroon Bells Wilderness, one of the most photographed locales in the world. Yes, as far as scenery goes, there is not one ounce of anything, missing. I have sprawling landscapes, 14,000-foot summits, rivers, meadows, birds, mammals, flowers, trees, you name it, and I can walk out my door and photograph it. There is nothing missing from my photographic candy store. There is however one thing out there in as much quantity as the subject matter, and that is competition.
When I finally reached pro status and I realized that I was competing with really amazing local, national, and international photographers, I had to figure out what I was going to do to get ahead. I needed something extra. I returned back to the work of the man who I consider one of the landscape masters, Art Wolfe. In Light on the Land he wrote in his intro, “The camera has become my passport to unfamiliar ground. While painters use a brush and authors use a pen, the photographic image is the vehicle with which I express emotions and convey experiences. My photographic style is to seek out and isolate, using small vignettes that, when seen together, give my impression of the greater whole. By omitting extraneous detail, I strive to strengthen the visual impact of what I choose to include, the analogy of being, “The fewer the words, the stronger the statement.”
I committed these words to memory for inspiration and to remind myself why I wanted to continue to be a professional photographer. I was on a mission to find the landscape, and to make it my own. I used all of the passion and emotion that would build up inside of me when I ventured into the wild, and then I redirected those emotions into the viewfinder and onto the image that I captured. This was a good start, but I was not creating different enough images. I needed a new perspective. While it was great to head to amazing locations such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or Maroon Bells at the perfect time of day and frame the “perfect” image, I began to notice something that was common with what I was doing; many others were doing it too. So I began to look
at the others and where their cameras were pointed. Mine was pointed in the same direction. Not good. I was still shooting with the “cattle mentality”; where one goes, so do most of the rest.
The cattle theory was clearly evidenced one morning when I was on the shores of Maroon Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, just before the perfect sunrise was to take place. A gentleman politely asked me to move one of my tripod legs from the water, because every time I pressed the shutter it was disrupting his reflection and the reflection of the 25 other photographers standing in line waiting for the perfect moment. As their shutters began to click, something clicked in my brain, and I packed up my gear and went home.
I returned the following weekend when the skies were stormy and the mountains shielded in clouds to try something completely out of the ordinary. There was not a photographer in site. If everything I was doing with my photography to this point wasn’t setting me apart, I needed to change it to do something completely different. The water was rippling ever so slightly from the storm that was brewing on the 14,000-foot peaks in the distance. The peaks were draped in clouds, and everything, including the beautiful peaking fall aspen trees, was covered in snow. I was going to have to work to pull something off that could be used by a magazine, stock agency, or company. I was a little nervous, a little apprehensive, and quite frankly a little lost. I sat down on the ground and thought about leaving, about retiring to the truck where it was warm, and it was at this moment in time that the epiphany hit. I dropped my camera to the ground and focused on the snow-covered rocks in the foreground with a wide-angle zoom lens. I got to within inches of them and looked through my viewfinder. I started hearing the canons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – success! I wanted to shout out and run around. I was on to something. I realized that when clouds are all around, I should look to the ground.
This day lead me to start shooting photographs with that attitude of not waiting for something to happen but to make something happen. It was a true turning point in my career. I started using different ideas no matter where I was. I went to Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park and lined up with all of the other photographers, only this time I turned my camera in the opposite direction and photographed a fog-laden sunrise with the calm and meandering lines of the Oxbow bringing the viewer’s eye to the peaking aspens and mountains in the distance. Another success!
I was now beginning a creative streak. I decided that I wanted to redeem myself at Maroon Lake when the fall conditions were going to be perfect, I wanted to see if I could pull this one off. This time I parked and walked the few hundred yards to the lake’s edge to find even more people than the previous time. I stumbled upon a map of the trail system and discovered a second lake, Upper Maroon Lake, only about a mile away. I threw on my pack and walked as fast as I could to this second surprise lake. Once there I found perfect tranquility – empty wilderness, not a person around, and a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by grey shale boulders. I set up a low angle shot with the boulders leading the viewer’s eye to the majestic 14,000 peaks in the distance now lit up by quickly rising autumn sun.
I was now enjoying every minute of my photographic adventures. The other caveat was that my work was selling more than ever. I was starting to find my landscape. I began incorporating everything that I knew about photography, silhouettes, reflections, distortion, and even macro into the landscape. I realized that even when I was not consciously thinking about photography, it was still on my mind.
Working more and more on my vision and what I wanted, I started pushing my gear to its limits. One night close to my house in Eagle, I only had a wide-angle zoom lens, a tripod, and a camera body with one roll of film. The sunset was shaping up to be pretty spectacular and I wanted to do something with it that I had never really seen. I was in a fall aspen grove and knew that with the minimal equipment that I had there was no way to get the aspens in all their glory while maximizing the sunset. So I tried something that I use almost every time that I shoot landscapes these days. I got really low and turned the camera up towards the sky. There it was – a distorted view of the trees silhouetted against an amazing sunset. Now I use the same technique with a neutral density filter, and the result is clouds streaming out across the top of the image like they are banners blowing in the wind.
Finally, after many trials, errors, failures, and successes, I have found my landscape.
Sidebar-How to find yours:
1. Take those shots where everyone else is standing, in those popular places, but then look around, even opposite of what everyone else doing, and see what the possibilities are. You will be surprised at what you have been missing.
2. Hike to locations that others are not willing to venture to. Sometimes even short distances will yield something few have ever seen. I also use a 4WD to travel to locations that many photographers are not willing or can’t get to. I ski and mountain bike to locations with a camera, traveling fast with just one lens and a couple of filters. I backpack to locations high in the hills with my family, not only so we can bond around the campfire, but I also to shoot locations that many don’t.
3. Get low to the ground and focus more on the foreground. Turn your camera to the air; try to distort your current surroundings as much as possible. This can yield perspectives that have never been seen before.
4. Shoot in rain, snow, fog, and wildfire smoke. One of my favorite images I have taken recently is of the Madison River in Yellowstone when wild fire smoke turned the western skies into a deep crimson. Clearing storms are also a great potential for powerful colors, rainbows, and shade and shadow elements.
5. Don’t be afraid to focus on what I call the intimate landscape – the lines within your closest surroundings. I have an image of a boulder at the edge of a lake in which the water is lit up by the reflections of surrounding peaks and silhouettes of fir trees that were in the vicinity. It is almost abstract in nature until you start to look at what is really there.
6. Research your locations. I love looking up a place that I am going on the web and seeing what amazing photographers have captured there. I use those images for my basis of what is available in the area; I take very similar shots, and then I expand upon it.
7. See how many images you can take in your local region. Shoot the same area with multiple lenses, stand in different spots, and then take what you have learned on the road whenever you head someplace new. Digital allows you to review your compositions in the field and make adjustments to acquire the strongest images.
8. Use a telephoto lens where others have used a wide angle and vice versa.
9. Study other creative disciplines: painting, architecture, graphic design, web design, music, movies and more to find your creative soul.
10. Enjoy what you photograph and the surroundings that you are in. Cherish every minute of your time there and never forget all of those amazing experiences. That emotion will transfer to your photographs.
Jay Goodrich is a photographer and writer living in Eagle, Colorado. He teaches intimate workshops in his home state and beyond. To learn more visit his website at www.jaygoodrich.com