In August my friend Steve and I attempted a quick four day loop through parts of Inyo National Forest. Our plan was to ascend Piute Pass, head down the other side to Evolution Valley, and loop back up Darwin Canyon through Lamarck Col to complete the loop at North Lake. Sounded pretty simple, and going through some beautiful country. What we hadn’t planned on when creating the trip was how much snow was still in the mountains from the heavy winter. Even though it was August, snow still covered much of our trail.
As our trip date approached, we saw that not only would we have lots of snow to contend with, but also some very wet weather. Monsoonal moisture was pushing up from the east side of the Sierra, looking to drench our trip. After some deliberation, we decided to push forward, hoping for at least one clear evening or morning in Evolution Valley. I’d certainly put up with four days of rain for one beautiful landscape shot to add to my portfolio.
The climb up to Piute Pass was uneventful, passing a series of lakes on the way to the day’s high point. Glaciers clung to the northern slopes of the mountains, feeding small waterfalls. We did encounter several groups of happy campers who had spent the previous night at some of these lakes. I spoke briefly to a man named John and his son Clay who looked like they braved the nighttime rains in good spirits.
As we got closer to the top, I started seeing small fields of wildflowers. It was the right time of year for this elevation, but given how much snow was still in the mountains, I hadn’t been thinking of wildflowers at all.
As soon as we were over the pass, we were treated to panoramic views of the mountains to the south. We had a short respite of flat ground, before the trail steepened and we descended into forest. As the rain started to fall, I donned my lightweight rain jacket and began to wonder if I was really prepared for potentially four days of rain. Soon we came across our first water crossing. The typical rock hop had swollen to a deep, fast flow, requiring the removal of my boots and a careful crossing. While the water was only up to my mid thigh, I began to worry about the crossings to come, knowing that some were much deeper.
Some days on the trail, the terrain wins the day. This was certainly one of those days. By the time we got to our campsite area, I was absolutely beat, and soaking wet from the five hours of downpour. Steve and I slogged around the area looking for a fire ring. Every spot that looked like it could work was under water. Between the rainfall and melting snow, there was so much water in the area that large pools formed in just about every flat space available. After about 45 minutes of searching, we finally found a place. I set up on a very wet slab of granite, hoping most of the water would run around my tent rather than under it. We heroically got a smoldering fire going, and tucked in for an early night.
The next morning, we woke to clear skies. However, everything I owned seemed to be soaked. Even my down sleeping back was wet on the outside, worrying me about warmth for the next cold night if it soaked through. We sat for a few minutes debating whether to push on, or just abandon and head back to the car. I was tired, wet, and worried about the difficult water crossings ahead. What finally swayed me was the discovery that my right boot was completely separating from the sole. This did not bode well for three more days of rough travel, much of it cross country. Time to head back to the car.
Thus, with heavy hearts we repeated the terrain of day one. I tied some twine around my boot to hold it together and we climbed back up to Piute Pass from the west. Given that we had extra time to get back to the car, we stopped and took in a few beautiful wildflower displays on the western side of the pass.
While we didn’t get to see the glory of Evolution Valley, it was beautiful country nonetheless. Even though it is always difficult when you don’t reach your goals, we still enjoyed a night out in the wilderness, 22 miles of challenging hiking, and some high elevation August wildflowers. Failed trip? Maybe. But it is hard to bemoan getting some solitude out in the natural world. It does much to replenish my soul, even when the going is tough.
On a trip to Ontario Canada a while back, I was able to spend some time photographing some of the area’s local birds, knowing that many of what I found there would be new species to me. I quickly found a few local residents, but as my time was short, I wasn’t able to get all of them without man-made elements in the frame.
The first such local was an eastern kingbird. He was perched right next to a country road, at perfect eye level with my lens, which was resting on a bean bag sitting in an open window. Often bean bags are the best supports from which to shoot from a vehicle, especially if you want the opportunity to shoot out both sides of the car. Often Kerry is kind enough to drive slowly (and as quietly as possible) down country roads while I keep the back seat to myself and move back and forth between the rear windows as required.
I usually try to capture birds in more natural environments, but there were no trees nearby, there was a perfect distant background, and I had no time to wait for a better perch.
The second bird I photographed in the same area (and yes, perched on a similar wire fence to the first bird) was a female bobolink. I saw several males in the area as well, but they stayed farther from the road and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of them. It is always difficult identifying female species as the coloring can be quite different than the males. Since males typically have more differentiating colors, species are usually described using the males’ attributes instead of the females. To identify female birds, I often troll through hundreds of photos after guessing at the species, or at least narrowing down the family of bird.
I also got some decent photos of a mute swan, and finally without distracting “hand of man” elements! Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia, but have established sizable populations in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes. I felt lucky to see one in the wild, as I’d never find one on the west coast of the US.
My last bird for the day was not a new species for me, but who can’t marvel at a beautiful osprey in flight? The local area had erected several nesting towers to encourage the birds to raise their young here. This osprey had chicks in the nest, and gave me lots of great flight shots as it flew to and from the nest.
Here the osprey is perched at the edge of its nesting tower, looking majestic.
It is always fun to travel to new areas for nature photography. While landscape photography dictates that you continually visit new areas, bird and wildlife photography can often be done closer to home. Closer to home, you often have much more time with an animal, but with traveling, nothing beats the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner.
I took this photo on the final day of a fantastic trip to India last year. I was in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India staying with my friend Frans. The village in which he grew up is just on the far side of this small lake, so I only had to travel a few minutes from where I was staying to get this shot.
I had been eyeing the sky for a few days, hoping for some clouds at sunset that would catch the last rays of the day. Luck was with me for my last evening in town, as the clouds started to build in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, I did not get the still water that I was hoping for, in order to create a reflection of the southern most expanse of the Western Ghats. In typical southern Tamil Nadu style, wind was whipping across the water at great speed, creating small white caps (definitely NOT what I was hoping for!) In fact, this area is known for its expanse of wind farms, which should have given me a clue that waiting for a calm day was likely an exercise in futility.
However, I had previously scouted a small area of lotus plants close to the shore, which helped the photo in two ways. First, the lotuses broke up the waves that the wind was creating. And second, they added some level of interest to the foreground. This was the next best option given there was no chance for a reflection.
As a side note, these plants would have been much more beautiful had any blossoms been on the plants. But alas, they were picked clean. As I was wondering about why this was, I saw a man in a canoe further along the shore, slowly making his way through the lotuses and plucking any fresh blossoms. Oh well, maybe time for a little photoshop? Just kidding of course….
Apparently, this area doesn’t see many photographers or foreigners. As I was standing by the shoreline with my tripod, many people stopped on the nearby road to watch what I was doing. That was okay – the resulting photo was well worth the extra attention.
Every day I was there, I discovered more of the natural beauty of the area’s land and animals. I will certainly return to cover this amazing landscape more in depth.
Hang around a group of landscape photographers long enough, and you’ll undoubtedly hear them talking about location scouting. As the old saying goes, understanding your subject better will improve your photographs of the subject. This is true for all kinds of photography (wildlife, architectural, portrait), and landscapes are no exception. Location scouting is the process of getting to know a particular landscape better, and is an important aspect of improving your landscape photography.
Before we talk about the nuts and bolts of how to conduct a proper location scout, let’s talk about various types of scouting and how each might bring a new perspective on an imperfect landscape.
Location scouting can be done long before the final photo is taken, sometimes even years. Anytime I visit an area for landscape photography, I not only try to create the best photograph I can at the time, but I also imagine what the scene might look like during different times of the year. Would that alpine meadow make the perfect foreground if only it were covered in wild flowers? Would those high mountain slopes pop if the aspen groves were in peak fall colors? Or if the tree line was blanketed with fresh snow?
Sometimes certain areas don’t look very good when I first visit, but in a different season, it would shine. In those cases, I make a mental note to come back in the season I think will show the area at its best, and do research to find out optimal timing for those seasonal elements. But while I’m there, I can spend the time finding some of the shots that I will eventually take, even if it ends up being years later.
In this example, I first visited Ponytail Falls in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge in late fall. The trees were bare and the moss on the river’s rocks was brown. It was still a pretty scene, but I knew that by visiting the same area in the spring, I would green up the scene, and catch the falls at peak water flow. I returned in spring a couple years later to capture the photo above. Having already scouted the area and set up my shot made the return trip easy, as I had already formulated my target compositions in my mind.
Scouting for a different time of day
Scouting an area for a future season is an extreme example of the practice. More often, we’re scouting in anticipation of different light on the scene. Examples include visiting an area in the evening in anticipation of sunrise light, visiting midday while waiting for a beautiful sunset, or even waiting for a passing squall to reveal the full glory of its post-storm light show.
The photo above was taken on a trip to Grand Teton National Park with some friends. We scouted out a beautiful aspen grove in full fall foliage with the Tetons rising behind. However, the sunset we were hoping for failed to materialize with heavy cloud cover all the way to the western horizon. One of my friends suggested that although we had been targeting this location for a sunset, it might actually look spectacular at sunrise, as both the Tetons and the aspen grove would be front lit, slightly from the left. This would give definition to both the mountain and trees, and hopefully the sunrise would reveal some of that nice fall color throughout the grove. With another visit in mind, I spent some time composing the shot above, in anticipation of sunrise light.
A couple of days later, I was rewarded by the preparation. We arrived just before dawn, and because of my earlier visit, I knew exactly what my composition would look like. I quickly reset the shot based on GPS coordinates I took the previous visit. Using the exact spot I had set up in previously, as well as my reference shot from two days earlier, I took all the guesswork and stress of finding a shot that morning. Now it was just a matter of waiting for that beautiful light to brush through the aspen grove and make those yellows and oranges glow.
The on-site scout
The last type of scouting (and often the most frantic) that I do is what I call the “on-site”. This stems from me showing up unprepared, but still needing to quickly assess the area and find those great compositions that convey the essence of the area to the viewer. This is much easier done when showing up for a sunset shoot, because you typically have a few hours of daylight in which to scout and set up your shot for the magic hour. On-sight scouting for a sunrise shoot is much more difficult, because even if you show up early, you have to wait until pre-dawn light before you can see the scene well enough. It is very hard to create compositions in the pitch black of night!
The photo above was the result of one of those rare pre-sunrise on-sight scouts. This shot was taken on my first trip to Death Valley National Park in the salt pan near Salt Creek. As I walked out onto the dried salt bed, I was surrounded by a thick salt crust. While this could make for an interesting foreground, it felt a little too overbearing to balance out the distant mountains. However, I had never been here before, and I didn’t quite know where to go. As I saw the sunlight start creeping down the mountain face, a composition suddenly came to me. I wanted to contrast the bright red of the sunlit mountains with the blues of the still-shaded salt. However, this thick crust of salt wasn’t working for me – I needed a much more delicate salt ridge pattern that gave more emphasis to the structure of the salt in between the ridges.
I quickly scanned the ground to the north and south, looking for a ground pattern that would help fulfill that vision. In the distance to the south I saw something that might work, but I had only a few minutes to get there and set up before the light would flood the salt pan itself, ruining the color contrast effect. I heaved my tripod (camera still attached) over one of my shoulders and ran as fast as I could across the pan. As I got close, I could see that this foreground would work out perfectly. Down went my tripod, already set up to the right height with the right, wide angle lens attached. Less than a minute later, the sun was just touching the lower slopes of the mountains, creating the beautiful color separation I was hoping for.
Now that we’ve gone over the various types of location scouting, how does one actually go about doing this? You’ve arrived to a spot with several hours to spare, but now what? For landscapes, there are three major elements I’m thinking about combining to create my composition – background, mid-ground and foreground. The goal of scouting is to essentially find each of these elements that you want to add together to create a potential composition. If the lighting is great while you’re there, wonderful. You may luck out and get your ideal photo of that location. But more often than not, it helps to think about other times or seasons in which to capture the scene.
1. Find your background:
Backgrounds are easy. These are the huge dominant aspects of a landscape that typically draws you to the area in the first place. In my typical compositions, this is usually a mountain, ocean, or waterfall. In the photo above, I was backpacking at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Banner Peak is a dominant feature of that area and hard to ignore. I knew well before my trip that I wanted to capture this massif at sunrise. One element down.
2. Find your middle ground:
A middle ground typically ties your foreground and background together. Every landscape doesn’t need a middle ground, but I’m always assessing the area around me to find some element that will compliment, or draw the viewers’ eyes toward the background. In this case, Thousand Island Lake itself was a no-brainer. It was a calm morning and Banner Peak cast a strong reflection, doubling the impact of the mountain. Now just to find a proper foreground to lead the viewers eye into the frame, and balance the strength of the mountain.
3. Construct your composition with proper foreground elements:
The perfect foreground usually takes some searching to find. If you see a photographer wandering around looking at their feet, this is likely what they are doing. If the angle of the lens is very wide, these foreground elements can sometimes be very small. You can often find several good options for foregrounds using the same middle and background elements. If so, shoot them all! In this case, walking along the shoreline of the lake led me to a line of rocks breaking the reflection of the deep blue sky. Perfect elements to draw the viewers eye toward the reflection and up to the peak itself. With my shot in the bag, I headed back to camp for my morning coffee.
A final word – virtual scouting
Today’s information age brings us many advantages in learning about far away places. Although I think nothing beats learning about a location like visiting it yourself, I often utilize digital exploration techniques before I go somewhere to photograph it. This helps me get my bearings and start to think about what kinds of photographs I’m going to attempt. While I won’t go into detail here, tools such as the Photographers Ephemeris, Google Maps 3D and Google Maps photo overlay help in seeing what others have captured in the area, as well as planning your own trip.
I often shoot remote mountain locations while backpacking. Every time I pull into a new campsite, I drop my pack and start scouting the surrounding area, thinking about sunset that night, and also sunrise the next morning. As I had never been to Davis Lakes in the Sierra Nevada before, I spent a good deal of time researching the area using the tools above. Based on the time of year and angle of the sunrise, I knew that sunrise light on the peak of Mt. Davis reflected in the lake would look fantastic. When I arrived at my predetermined campsite, I set about finding a composition that would lead the viewer’s eye right up to that beacon of light in the frame. In order to do this, I had to pre-visualize what it might look like the following morning. The next morning, I emerged from my tent and set up in the exact spot I had scouted the previous evening. Now I just had to wait for the light until it was perfect.
Next time you think of a new area you’d like to photograph, spend time beforehand learning about that location. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the area on foot, setting up several potential shots that might work well in the right lighting conditions. Above all, if mother nature does not cooperate with your photo endeavor, don’t despair! Just chalk it up to a valuable scouting trip!