Let the Landscape Lead

February 09, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

"What are you looking for?"

I've been asked that more than once when out in the field on a photo shoot. Quite often, the answer is, "I don't know."

Generally speaking, I don't pre-visualize shoots - meaning I don't have a specific photograph in mind that I'm trying to make. There are exceptions: for example, if I want to capture the full moon rising over a specific object. Then I use the Ephemeris to determine precisely the alignment between the moon and the object, what time the moon will be visible based on the elevation of the object, exactly where the moon will appear, and so on. Most astrophotography is pre-visualized and carefully mapped out, too, for obvious reasons.

[I'm not big into pre-visualization but I do pre-plan. I never go into a new area without having done my homework. I make sure I'm familiar with the lay of the land: the orientation of various sites in relation to the sun, distances between locations, information about trails, etc. I know what types of conditions to expect based on the time of year. I have a general idea about what I might be able to accomplish given the amount of time I'll be on site. And so on.]

Whether I'm somewhere new or in a place that I consider an old friend, I try to let the location guide me.

The landscape has plenty to tell the photographer who is willing to listen - and the better one knows a place, the more the landscape will have to say. Being in sync with what the landscape is trying to communicate often yields more unique images, so it's a good idea to pay attention.

Following the landscape's lead means I'm not sure where it's going to take me, which is why I might not be able to tell you what I'm looking for.

I'll know it when I see it.

Case in point: the annual autumnal foliage extravaganza. I never have concrete ideas about what I'm going to shoot.

Leaves of GoldLEAVES OF GOLDGrand Teton National Park, Wyoming The photograph above is an example of what can happen if you're mindful (slow down and notice things!) and willing to get off the beaten path. These aspens were especially vibrant the year I made this; they've not been as colorful again. It's a long line of trees but not all are in pristine shape: some dead, some just having seen better days. I kept stopping by over the course of a few days but wasn't seeing a picture.

Finally one late afternoon, the beautiful sky compelled me to try to take advantage of the contrasting colors. I wanted the trees to be the star - not the mountains - so I found a place to stash the car and hiked through the underbrush to get closer to them. I composed this for a square crop in order to eliminate the less attractive trees on either side. I positioned the little aspen with the curved trunk diagonally opposite the Grand, and then waited until a cumulus cloud moved into position to fill the space to the right of the peak. 

I was standing only a half mile (maybe less) from a popular tourist stop, but it's a nondescript area with no parking so people pass it by. Be alert and have an open mind; you never know what you'll find. 

Rocky Gorge White Mountains New HampshireRED IN THE ROCKSThe first rays of morning sunlight set the autumn foliage ablaze along the banks of the Swift River at Rocky Gorge.

White Mountains, New Hampshire

Sometimes you end up making a photograph when you weren't expecting to. This next image from New Hampshire's White Mountains is one such example. After having worked elsewhere that early morning, I decided to make a run over to Rocky Gorge just to hike the area and enjoy it. Since there were no clouds in the sky and the climbing sun would soon create contrast issues, I didn't plan to shoot anything. 

If you've never visited the Granite State, Rocky Gorge is a tourist hot spot along the Kancamagus Highway; it's busy throughout the summer and certainly during leaf-peeping season. That said, show up early in the morning and you can usually have the place to yourself, especially if you head upstream away from the waterfall.

Upstream is where I encountered this brilliant red maple, calling my name. Gorgeous to look at - I'm a pushover for red foliage - but in and of itself, it wasn't a photo. The sky was uninteresting and the tree was too tall in relation to the maples in the distance. 

The reflection, though...

There's a narrow window of opportunity in the early mornings to capture vibrant color reflecting in the water (once sun is high enough to light the trees along the shoreline of the Swift River and before its rays touch the water). So here was this great tree next to the water, well lit, contrasting wonderfully with the evergreens next to it, and it was leaning into the frame. 

Including the reflection emphasized the color, extended the shape all the way to the bottom of the frame, and allowed me to exclude the top of the tree from the upper frame for better balance. 

Listen to the landscape. It'll help you find the photographs.

In Area News

City of Rocks National Reserve (south central Idaho) last week received full certification as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. You can also find dark skies in a big way at the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, which at 906,000 acres is one of the last large pools of natural darkness left in the United States. 

Here in Teton Country, snowfall remains plentiful. Expect winter recreation opportunities to extend into April.


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