Should I Stay or Should I Go?

January 06, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

That's often the $64,000 question for those of us who work with cameras in the great outdoors. I know of one renowned photographer who says he never waits. Ever. If the conditions aren't right he moves on.

I think the answer is more nuanced. There are any number of factors which might influence whether or not a photographer opts to stay or go. 

  • Is it a location you can get to easily and often - or is this a place you might not see again?
  • Is what you're hoping to capture fleeting (i.e. autumn color or spring wildflowers)?
  • Are the current conditions changeable? What was forecast? If you're able to access your weather apps, what are they indicating now?
  • Do you know the area well enough to be able to make an educated guess as to what might happen next/soon and how long that might take?
  • How much are you trying to accomplish in the next few hours? Can you work elsewhere in the meantime before returning to try again? Is there another location nearby that might yield better results given the cards Mother Nature has dealt?
  • How cold/wet/miserable are you?

And so on (and on and on).

I'm nothing if not persistent. If I think there's a chance I might be able to make an image I've got no problem waiting. Does this strategy always produce a photograph in the end? No. But good things - sometimes - come to those who wait. 

One additional thing to consider when the conditions aren't conducive to making the image you had in mind: it might be a perfect opportunity to switch gears entirely. What other types of photographs can be created? Challenge yourself. You might end up with something better than what you envisioned.

Should you stay or should you go? Only you know the answer.

I've waited in vain. I've bailed out too soon. I've waited and been rewarded. It's never a sure thing. See below for the back stories behind two waiting games that ended well for me.

Dappled Fog Autumn New EnglandCurtain RisingRecipe for an idyllic scene: take some early morning lake fog, add a dash of brilliant autumn color, and finish with an iconic New England church.

The "Little White Church" at Crystal Lake
Eaton, New Hampshire
First up, we have a foggy morning at Crystal Lake in Eaton, New Hampshire. Driving time: 3 hours (round trip). Waiting time: 3 hours. Shooting time: just a few minutes.

The lakes in this area reliably produce early morning fog when the temperatures drop low enough overnight in early October. That's what I was after: I wanted to incorporate it into a composition featuring the "Little White Church" and colorful foliage. Upon arrival that morning when it was still dark it was obvious I'd gotten fog. In spades. It was so dense along the shore you wouldn't have known there was a lake just steps away. At dawn a fisherman launched his rowboat and almost immediately disappeared from sight. 

Extremely dense fog is unpredictable. It can take hours to burn off. By the time it finally starts to lift the sun might be too high in the sky to provide the kind of light you're after. Composition is nearly impossible until the last minute; you can't see anything and have no idea how the fog is going to behave. When it finally dissipates, it might do so very quickly.

Whether or not I would hang around that morning was never in question, though. I wanted fog over Crystal Lake and got it. Waiting for it to lift was by necessity baked into the schedule.

I showed up more than an hour before sunrise. Another hour came and went and still I could see nothing. Since I hadn't been to this location yet that autumn, I had no idea whether or not the color on the hillside behind the church was peaking. All I had to go on was my previous experience with the calendar and this spot. After cooling my heels for more than two hours I had no idea what, if anything, I was going to shoot.

At 90 minutes past sunrise I could begin to see some of the lake and the sky brightened a little. 30 minutes later the far shoreline danced in and out of sight. The church appeared and disappeared. Those brief glimpses were enough to tell me the color was spotty. 

I called an audible based on the bright red tree you see in the center of the frame. It was going to have to do the heavy lifting in terms of providing seasonal context. I abandoned a wide shot for a tighter composition. The fog would downplay distracting elements like the parking lot and too many trees which were still green. It would also soften light from the sun which by now was quite high in the sky.  

When the fog lifted it did so very rapidly but in just about the best way possible, both rising and lowering to reveal this lovely little scene.

It's not at all what I intended to capture when I set out for the lake, nor did I expect to have to wait that long before I could make the photo, but the result exceeded my expectations. 

Moulton Barn Grand Teton National ParkTurmoil AloftA strong storm creates stunning, turbulent skies and brings with it powerful winds. As it passes, the mountains are rendered as shadows by heavy rain.

T.A. Moulton Barn
Grand Teton National Park Wyoming
This image is an example of persistence, storm chasing, luck, and knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em - all combined in a single afternoon.

Driving time: Nearly 6 hours (round trip from my house plus chasing around the park). Waiting time: roughly 2.5 hours. Shooting time: maybe 10 minutes total during two storms. 

On this summer day, afternoon monsoonal moisture was forecast. I'd been watching the situation from my home in Eastern Idaho and via webcams in Grand Teton National Park; by late morning I decided to make a run over there. The sky over the Big Holes was phenomenal. Beautifully stormy. As I made my way over Teton Pass the situation got more complicated. There was some sun. There were those thunderheads, but they looked to be moving in the wrong direction. There were also plenty of benign cumulus clouds. 

Would the threatening sky I'd seen while en route continue to develop or had driving over been an exercise in futility? Would other storms form as the afternoon progressed? If so, where would be the best vantage point from which to make an interesting photograph? 

Hoping something would materialize, I decided to head to the north end of the park. Monsoonal activity typically moves from south to north through Jackson Hole so this seemed logical. It made sense on paper; in reality it was a dud. When I got to Moran the sun was shining and there was nothing even remotely stormy going on overhead. After waiting and watching for a while, it appeared there was more potential to the south. Time to fold 'em, at least as far as Mount Moran was concerned. I drove back in the direction from which I'd come.

But where to shoot? The only thing I could think of to use for a foreground were the barns at Mormon Row. The plan had its flaws; this being mid-summer (prime tourist season) I could expect a lot of people there. At a loss for a better idea, that's where I ended up.

Sometimes luck is on your side. I had to wait a while, but eventually the skies turned threatening again and ended up producing three waves of storms. The first rolled through just to the southeast with aggressive wind gusts. Not only did it create interesting imagery in the vicinity of the Gros Ventre, it also cleared all but three tourists from the area. Bingo!

The jackpot came next. This storm wasn't kidding around; the winds were violent. But it wasn't raining on me yet and the thunder was far distant so I stayed out and watched to see what would happen. It was difficult to ascertain what exactly was going on with the clouds directly overhead but I thought they might be interesting if I could expose properly for them, and I could clearly see the "curtain" fashioned by the downpour sweeping across the Teton Range. The only way to properly capture all of this would be via a panoramic. This was easier said than done given the high winds but I anchored the tripod as best I could and split the difference in terms of exposure. 

In post-processing it was obvious the camera saw spectacular detail that wasn't apparent to my eyes while on-site: the angry, swirling clouds were fantastic and turned out to be the star of the photograph. Had I been able to discern the extent of that fury up above I'm not sure I would have stayed out there, but ignorance is bliss.

Not everyone is drawn to storm imagery. I am! (This is ironic since I grew up in a tornado-prone area and developed a fear of that type of weather at a young age. You wouldn't expect me to find turbulent weather visually striking.) I have a real soft spot for this image. In an overly photographed location, I was able to capture something very unique. 

I hung around for the third and final storm, but it wasn't as impressive as either of the others and I didn't make any photographs of it. The sky didn't clear afterward so a sunset wasn't on the menu. Time to pack up.

Sometimes persistence pays off.


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