Chasing the Light

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“Fire and Rain”

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

This sunrise image from the Mesquite dunes is one of my favorites from my recent Death Valley trip, but it almost never happened. There’s a familiar adage among landscape photographers for getting great images: “f/8 and be there.” F/8 is the lens aperture setting (which may or may not be the right setting, of course, depending on the circumstances), but the be there part is something that I almost had to learn the hard way on this morning.

Wind and rain had been drubbing my tent for much of the night before, and when my alarm went off at 4:50 am, there was a steady rain falling and no hint of a break in the sky. I dozed on top of my sleeping bag for a while, thinking there would be no good light for sunrise and no reason to head out to the dunes as I had planned. Maybe 30 minutes later I sat straight up with the thought, “Dang, I’m stupid! I need to get out there and at least give it a shot.” Sure enough, as I quickly collected my gear and jumped in my 4Runner, I noticed a very thin sliver of clear sky on the horizon where I expected the sun to rise. I raced down the road toward the dunes, about 25 miles away, worried that my delay might have already caused me to miss a great opportunity.

When I got to the parking area near the dunes it was still raining, but my pulse quickened as I saw faint sunrays start to filter through the distant break in the clouds. I hustled out onto the dunes, noticing the lines of footprints of two other photographers. It’s still a bit of a hike from the parking lot out onto the main area of the dunes, and I knew I didn’t have much time. I had scouted this area the previous evening, and saw now that to capture the rising sun, get a good composition of the dunes, and stay out of the frame of the two other photogs, I would need to quickly hike around their back flank to the far side. The dunes were starting to take on a surreal glow as I scurried around to the spot I thought would work. The wind was picking up, the rain was still coming down, the horizon was starting to explode with a sweet filtered light, and my quads were burning as I sprinted up the last steep dune with my heavy gear, wet sand flying in my wake.

I got to the crest of the dune and stood stunned for a moment by the sublime scene of “fire and rain” before me. Then I noticed one of the other photographers on top of a dune in front of me (and lots of unattractive footprints), disturbing my planned composition. (AAARGH!) Sometimes it’s nice to include a human element for scale and impact, but this wasn’t going to work. So, I looked around quickly to assess my options, then dashed over and up to the top of the next dune, which seemed to be the tallest one around. I imagine I would have been a comical sight, particularly if replayed in slow motion, desperately sprinting the final yards to the crest of the dune while simultaneously extending and adjusting my tripod legs and attaching my camera.

I positioned the tripod and camera as quickly as I could, awkwardly struggling to stabilize it in the sloped sand, trying to keep the rain off the front element of the camera lens, and quickly adjusting camera settings and composition. I started firing off bracketed exposures, quickly at first, then slowing down as I began to just take in and savor the amazing scene. The EXIF data from my exposures tell me the good light lasted less than 5 minutes, but it was the kind of experience where time stood still for me.

I started to reorient myself to my broader surroundings, and had a sinking feeling as I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to whether there had been any lightning around. I was, after all, standing at the top of the tallest dune in the vicinity, holding on to a metal pole (tripod), in a rainstorm. I had been so focused on the sunrise and golden light in front of me I hadn’t thought to TURN AROUND to see what I’d been missing: a giant double rainbow that was so close I could practically see the wee pots o’ gold on each end! (Duh… why didn’t I think of that earlier? Sunrays coming right at me through the rain?) I spun around and clumsily tried to get a decent photo, but 24mm wasn’t even close to being wide enough, a good composition eluded me, and the rain was hitting me straight on anyway. I resigned myself to just enjoying the moment. The hasty snapshot (of one end) doesn’t do it justice, but what was really interesting was that because I was high up on the dune, the arc of the rainbow wrapped around nearly 270 degrees (all the way around above me, and partially below me). It was like I was up in the middle of a rainbow circle.

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The light show ended moments later, and even though I hadn’t noticed any lightning, I decided to head for lower ground. I spent a good 20 minutes back at the car “chimping” at the images on the small display screen, and hoping my processing skills could do justice to what I had just experienced. Most of all, I was just happy to be there on this morning. And if you’re wondering: yes, my aperture for “Fire and Rain” was set to f/8. 😉

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The Best Season is (Always) Now

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“Remember then: there is only one time that is important–Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”
— Leo Tolstoy

Do you find yourself looking forward to a particular season of the year? For landscape photographers, autumn’s kaleidoscope of color is pretty hard to beat. As my kids are heading back to school this week, I started thinking about the great photographic opportunities I’d like to pursue this fall. Zion National Park (pictured above) is always high on my list. I’m also committed to capturing more of the autumn color in Utah’s high country this year. And, I scored an online lottery permit to visit “The Wave” (Coyote Buttes, Northern AZ) in October(!).

By nature I’m a very future-oriented kind of guy. I’m really good (gold-medal Olympian good) at setting goals. Not as good at achieving them. My whiteboard at work mocks me daily as the unfinished projects and as-yet unattained goals stare down at me in disapproval. This strong “future bias” has worked its way into my photography, sometimes in unhelpful ways. For example, spending too much time thinking how great my photography will be when I get that dream lens (maybe the sweet Canon 24mm L tilt-shift lens?!), or when I own a $900 Gitzo tripod, or after I’ve purchased all the Guy Tal ebooks on photography, or…. (I could go on for a while).

We’re probably each vulnerable to different forms of the “I’ll be happy when…” trap. Maybe it’s: when I get that raise, or when we get a new house, or when I get my teeth whitened, or after my boss retires, or after I retire. For some, the issue is more one of dwelling unhealthily in the past: revisiting disappointments, second-guessing choices, suffering from the abuses of others. Much of the work done in my business of clinical psychology is about helping people develop a healthier orientation to the past and/or the future.

Recently (in the past year, particularly), I’ve been focusing a lot more on savoring the present moment. I still work hard toward my goals and still let the past inform my current decisions and actions, but being fully present and engaged in this moment has made a big difference. One of the men I admire most in this world, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, explained it this way:

“The happiest people I know are not those who find their golden ticket; they are those who, while in pursuit of worthy goals, discover and treasure the beauty and sweetness of the everyday moments.”

It’s made a big difference practicing this kind of present-moment awareness on a regular basis. Savoring the infectious giggling of my 4-year-old daughter as I tickle her, appreciating that I have a healthy body that can climb mountains with relative ease, watching my wife while she’s not looking and seeing that she’s more beautiful than ever, studying with fascination the veins on a leaf, feeling thankful for air conditioning while my car is stuck in traffic, recognizing that my current camera gear is much better than I deserve…. Even during the inevitable mundane and difficult tasks that are part of life it’s possible to “make room” for the distress or discomfort, “connect” with the moment, and move forward, acting in the present in ways that benefit the future. Someone who has cultivated the habit of making the most of every “now” can look back on a past of great moments lived, and has ensured the best possible future for themselves.

I’m still looking forward to the great photographic opportunities this fall, but as far as life goes, my favorite season is always NOW.

JSW

P.S. Resources along these lines I’ve found helpful in the past year:

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Living in the Now by Gina Lake

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zin

And one more quote for good measure:

“Present-moment living, getting in touch with your ‘now,’ is at the heart of effective living. When you think about it, there really is no other moment you can live. Now is all there is, and the future is just another present moment to live when it arrives. One thing is certain, you cannot live it until it does appear.”
— Wayne Dyer

Why Photography?

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A number of people have asked me how I got interested in photography. For a few, the question has an unspoken emphasis: “How did you get *SO* interested in photography?”  My family and a few close friends know that I’ve gone through some mini “obsessions” in my life. Here are a few that come to mind:

1) BYU football (longstanding, ongoing, and perfectly appropriate)

2) Running (ended after completing a marathon, thankfully)

3) Landscaping (including a strong fascination with Japanese maple trees, snuffed out after our dog, kids, and winter killed off most of my precious trees)

4) Home design (still have a dream home floor plan on the back burner – waiting to see if we can ever afford to build it)

If you know me well, feel free to add to the obsession list in a comment.

But in answering the “why?” of my photography “obsession” there are elements that show me why this will be a lifelong pursuit.

The story starts simply enough: A couple brothers-in-law had pretty nice dSLR cameras and I was interested in the creative possibilities of photography as well as documenting the life of my family. In May 2010 I bought a Canon XSi and started reading a few books on exposure, light, technique, etc. It was super interesting and fun, and family and friends liked the photos I was taking. An old friend commented that I had “the eye” :). I also found that my kids’ sports events were even more enjoyable when I was on the sideline taking cool action photos that they and their friends liked using as facebook profile pictures. Photography seemed like a much more productive interest for me than video games or fantasy football.

But there was a fundamental shift that happened when I discovered landscape photography. First, there were a couple very special experiences during visits to Utah national parks (that I’ll describe in greater detail in future posts) that really opened up for me a stronger connection with the wonders of nature and the miracles of creation around us. It’s very hard to describe here, but these experiences helped me feel a much stronger appreciation for life and creation, my connection to everything else in this world, a better awareness of my limited perspective, and the importance of savoring this moment of life.

Many of my landscape images are of impressive, unique, and iconic locations that inspire awe and wonder. These are really cool places to visit. Although I’m relatively new to landscape photography and I have a lot to learn, I resonate with Ansel Adams when he said, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” I hope my photography motivates others to get off the couch and get out into nature, to feel a stronger connection with the Source of all creation, and to seek out and appreciate all the goodness in life.

I’ve also found myself looking at my everyday environment in a different way, frequently looking for moments and scenes that would make a great image. And that’s the thing: in paying closer attention to what’s going on around me, I’ve noticed more and more the wonder inherent in simple, everyday moments. What I’m learning, and what photography is reinforcing for me, is that there are miracles of creation all around us, that every moment has within it the seeds of wonder, and that inspiration is waiting in a tree leaf in my backyard. (And it’s interesting that Photography has taught me to do this better than Psychology.)

So, my best answer to “Why photography?” is that it is a great reminder for me to savor life. Guy Tal, a landscape photographer whose work I greatly admire, stated it better than I can:

“A life of sustained fulfilment, discovery and beauty is far more satisfying than one of mundane meanderings interrupted by the occasional moment of fleeting bliss.”

I hope you’ll follow my photography blog posts and we can practice savoring together.