Improvisation

June 29, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

RipplesDAYDREAMShoreline aspens reflected in the gently rippling water of Taggart Lake

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Regardless of how much pre-planning is involved, landscape photographers often end up playing things by ear. 

There's always an element of unpredictability with nature; the conditions cannot be controlled. Beyond that, how often do we know exactly what kind of photograph we're going to make ahead of time? Speaking for myself, it's almost never. 

In advance of another shoot last week in Grand Teton National Park, a friend asked what I was going over there to photograph. 

Broadly speaking, it'd be the same thing I've been shooting since late May: visual representations of what I refer to as Green Season. This time of year the valley is painted in emeralds and limes and moss greens thanks to the runoff, and wildflowers are in bloom. But what exactly does that mean in terms of images?

All I could say was, "I'll know it when I see it." 

Much of landscape and/or nature photography is impromptu. It occurred to me how many similarities there are between photography and musical improvisation.

Although improvised music doesn't employ a specific, pre-determined musical text, it's created within some sort of structure or framework i.e. chord changes, meter, length, and what other instruments are playing simultaneously. Based on knowledge of this structure - and then listening to what's going on in real time - the musician makes quick decisions, thinks ahead, and produces music spontaneously. 

Sound familiar?

There's basic structure to nature photography, too. The framework includes mastery of and familiarity with the capabilities of our equipment and a solid understanding of compositional elements and techniques. Also fundamental is knowledge about the location and an understanding of weather patterns, clouds and other environmental indicators. 

Like the musician, photographers strive to be "in the moment" - to get in sync with the environment. This equips us to notice things, to come up with fresh ideas, to anticipate, and of course to adapt to the inevitable curveballs Mother Nature tosses our way. 

That session in Grand Teton National Park I referenced earlier is a good example of a shoot that required a lot of improvisation. None of the forecasts were remotely close to being accurate. Upon arrival I encountered unexpected, persistent winds. Then the skies became flat and uninteresting. Not a productive day. I opted to try working with the wildflowers first thing the next morning, hoping it'd be calm. 

Then this happened overnight:

Chilly temps had been forecast, but 25 degrees is not chilly. It's cold.  

I'll bet you can guess what happens to wildflowers when it dips that far below freezing:

The poor things were all limply hanging their heads. (They couldn't believe this had happened in late June, either.) The wildflowers would obviously be a no-go. There wasn't enough time to get anywhere to compose a sunrise shot, but that didn't matter since the sky was completely clear. So much for the partly cloudy prediction. While watching the mountain peaks light up as the rising sun warmed their faces, I thought about where to go and what to try next. 

I settled on Taggart Lake. At 6am, it'd be nearly empty, and there are a few stands of good-looking aspens along the way on the hike in. This was a plausible idea, until I discovered those trees had taken a beating over the winter. They were clearly not ready for their closeup. Scratch the aspens.

On to the lake - which was beautiful and peaceful in the early morning, as always. The water was like glass. I spent some time looking for unusual compositions in the reflections until the breeze picked up and disturbed the perfect mirror images. With the sun climbing higher and the water no longer calm, I figured that was about it. Making one final scan around the lake, something caught my eye. There were fantastic colors and shapes in the ripples immediately below one small section of shoreline populated mainly with aspens. Once I found a composition I liked, I kept tripping the shutter. Because of the gentle movement of the water, every shot is a little different. You can see the one I chose at the top of this post. 

I had zero intention of being at Taggart Lake that day. I wasn't going to be anywhere near water. Abstracts weren't what I had in mind. But the conditions necessitated a radical change of plan.

By the way, the hike into Taggart is one of my favorites. The first half of the trail climbs steadily and takes you through a wooded area. About halfway in, you'll approach a clearing, come around a corner and are treated to a spectacular view of the Cathedrals. The lake is roughly three quarters of a mile beyond this.   In Local News

The Mammoth Hotel inside Yellowstone National Park re-opens this Saturday, July 1st. It has been closed since the flood in June of 2022, so this has been a long time coming. 

A ruptured sewer line is what forced the closure. The line ran along the road from Gardiner to Mammoth which was badly damaged and in some sections, completely destroyed. A new wastewater system was built to service the hotel and Mammoth campground. Once the campground is connected to the new system, it'll be back in business, too. 

With the July 4th holiday right around the corner, I thought I'd close with a little pyrotechnic trivia. Where will you find the largest Independence Day fireworks show west of the Mississippi? Right here in Idaho Falls. It's held along the banks of the Snake River, and is produced by fifth-generation pyrotechnicians at Western Display Fireworks. 


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