I didn't appreciate just how dark the night can be until I started logging a lot of time in the wee small hours of the morning at Grand Teton National Park. If it's a new moon and there's cloud cover you might be hard-pressed even to make out the Tetons. That's saying something; a towering mountain range just a few miles away is obviously not an insignificant landmark.
GTNP isn't officially a dark sky reserve but if you're going in at night I promise you'll want a headlamp.
I've also learned to appreciate that the Teton Range is going to do what it's going to do. The mountains influence the weather surrounding them. The first order of business when I get up at 0-dark-30 for a sunrise shoot is to poke my head out for a look at the sky. In a way it's an empty exercise: what I see directly overhead isn't necessarily the same thing I'm going to see above the peaks. Whatever is (or isn't) up there certainly isn't going to keep me from heading out.
You never know what you're going to get when stepping into an inky morning in the Tetons.
There's always a heightened feeling of anticipation as my eyes strain to see the outlines of the mountains. What will the morning bring? Especially when it's pitch black the Tetons can remain hidden for a while. I sit and wait. And peer into the darkness. It's exhilarating when those magnificent shapes begin to appear.
As it lightens further I can begin to assess the situation regarding clouds. Too many? Too few? Are they moving? In what direction? How quickly?
Unless the peaks are completely socked in, I don't get too worried about what's happening above them. Things can change dramatically - and relatively quickly. You just have to be patient, see what's going to happen, and be ready to react. (Besides, there's nothing I can do about the conditions...)
I generally won't make a photograph if the peak of the Grand or Mount Moran is obscured by clouds. Other than that, it's game on.
I've seen localized showers drift from south to north over the peaks on an otherwise cloudless morning. I've been sitting in the rain yet treated to dry conditions and beautiful color two hours later when the sun comes up. Heavy cloud cover can lift to reveal a lovely scene as sunrise nears. There may be spectacular bands of low fog. Or perhaps it's a day when the sun will remain hidden - yet dreamy landscapes can be created via long exposures.
It's all part of the magic.
They say the anticipation is often more enjoyable than the actual experience. Not always true! They can both be fun. Take an early morning trek into the Tetons and see for yourself.
Morning Has BrokenShortly after sunrise, the Teton Range is bathed in warm light while the last of the morning's brief showers pass from south to north over the peaks. The entire scene is reflected in the mirror-like surface of the Snake River.
About the photographs
You never know what's going to materialize out of those pitch black skies.
The first image was made about 45 minutes before sunrise. It was becoming more overcast as the minutes ticked by and there was quite a bit of haze from far-away fires - the air quality was much worse than it had been the evening before. The clouds were moving at a pretty good clip, though, the color contrast was pronounced, and it was very still so the reflections were good. I used a slow shutter to create movement above. Without that the image wouldn't have been successful; the static sky was uninteresting. The sun never appeared and eventually it began to rain.
The morning the second photograph was made started out inauspiciously. But for a few anemic little wisps brushing over the mountains, there wasn't anything at all happening overhead. Even the wisps failed to hang around. It was completely lackluster. (I'm talking photographically. Watching the Tetons brighten with morning light is never, ever uninspiring.)
As sunrise neared, something a little more substantial had formed over the southern peaks and was moving northward. Rain! If these clouds would make it into range quickly enough - and as long as they didn't obscure the Grand - they'd be just about perfect. Even as the mountains were completely lit by the rising sun, though, this remnant shower hadn't yet reached far enough past the Cathedral Peaks to create a balanced composition. Fortunately, it drifted into position while most of the foreground remained in the shadows. I waited until the sunlight reached the bottom of the treeline on the left bank and then made the pano. The river was completely calm; not a duck or beaver was anywhere in sight to disturb the water. I wouldn't have predicted this result based on what I saw when the darkness began to lift two hours earlier.
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