Sunset at the BarnA beautiful sunset fills the sky over the Moulton Barn with fiery color. As there was a herd of bison not too far away, tourists bypassed this stunning scene in favor of the animals - leaving it to be enjoyed in solitude. (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)
National parks can be challenging locations in which to shoot: stunningly beautiful, yet often-photographed. How to make a unique image?
First, there's what each person sees and how they choose to convey it. Drop a dozen photographers in the same general area at the same time and you'd be surprised how different the photos they make might be. Where do they choose to position themselves? Do they shoot from eye-level or closer to the ground? Do they go for a wide shot, or a tighter framing? What lens(es) do they use?
Next, the conditions. The same spot can look vastly different from season to season, morning to night, hour to hour. Interesting weather, or light, or color, will change a scene - sometimes dramatically. The photo one makes is driven in large part by conditions (forecasts aren't always accurate!), and one's ability to work within those constraints.
Finally, a little bit of serendipity can be helpful. Especially when a photographer is familiar with an area, a nudge can sometimes be provided - setting the table for Lady Luck to step in if she so desires.
The landmark Moulton Barns in Grand Teton National Park are examples of iconic locations to which a lot of photographers flock. Earlier this month, though, I made a picture there one evening as the sun went down that is one-of-a-kind.
The sky that day had been quite active as cumulus clouds constantly formed and moved through the area. Not just hovering over the mountains, they appeared in every direction. For a while in the late afternoon, it looked as though it might rain - though the clouds retained their interesting shapes and never transitioned to flat white. The threat of rain passed. But would there be a colorful sunset? Too many clouds and the western horizon might be obscured.
I thought about where to go to wait it out and see what would happen. Where could I make the best photo if there was going to be color? It had been a very windy day; therefore, any shot involving reflections in the water wasn't going to work. I was going to need a location where I could use a wide shot to emphasize the cloud-filled sky. I drove over to one of the Moulton Barns, watched the sky for a while, then opted to scope out the situation from a vantage point closer to the mountains. Off I went to a little log-constructed chapel sited at the base of the Cathedral Peaks. After perusing that scene, I decided I needed more flexibility in terms of how to compose the shot given the changeable nature of the sky. Back to the barn.
How many people was I going to have to contend with? The wide shot I had in mind wouldn't work if there were scores of photographers lined up nearer to the structure.
That is where serendipity (and my past experience) stepped in. I've found that people are much more inclined to shoot the barns at sunrise rather than sunset. Also, at this time of year it's not uncommon for a herd of bison to be in the general vicinity of the barns late in the day. Exceptional tourist and photographer magnets, the animals appeared about a half mile down the road an hour before sunset. Each time a car passed by I held my breath and wondered if it would stop - but no, not a single vehicle even slowed down to see the amazing things that were beginning to happen up above. They had a singular objective: the bison!
I set up and shot the changing sky until well after the sun went down - and had the place all to myself.
So while there are certainly many other images of the barns, the one I made that evening is unique: the conditions will never be duplicated in exactly the same way, and I was the only one present at that location. It's still possible to make a photo that is truly your own even in a place that is well-traveled.