The Morning Commute


Waking up is the hardest part of winter landscape photography. Whether it’s the frost that formed on top of my sleeping bag overnight, the ice sickles forming around my nose, or the fact that the sun was sleeping in (kind of like your boss); one thing is certain, the grind is real! The old phrase “up hill both ways, in driving wind” comes to mind when I think about photographing in the winter… Even if you manage to thaw your frozen bones and get your butt out of the tent in the morning, odds are that you’ve only managed the easy part. Trudging through new fallen snow can be as brutal as it is rewarding, especially when it gets deep. There are tools like cross country skis and snow shoes that can help with this, but I am a danger to myself on cross country skies and I haven’t justified buying a pair of snow shoes… yet (something that is going to change). Anyway, let’s say I’ve made it out of my tent and can still count to ten with my fingers, and I even managed to hike to my desired photography location…(pats self on back). I now get to stand in place and pray the weather men and women actually knew what they were talking about yesterday… … oh and it’s just now 6am and 15 degrees out.


Perhaps the location I was photographing was only an hour commute from my warm and cozy bed. I woke up nice and toasty at 4am, put a pot of coffee on, dressed in my finest winter apparel, poured said coffee into a thermos; then grabbed my keys and set off to the trailhead I had determined to hike the day before. I still had the early morning drive, and had to trudge 2miles through the snow ( which as long as you are dressed appropriately and it isn’t too deep, is the most peaceful experience imaginable) in below freezing temps, but standing around waiting for my photograph is much more enjoyable with a warm brew to sip on.

Such was the case on this fine morning when Anna and I hiked to some semi-local hot springs before the sun came up. Our drive to the trailhead was nothing crazy, and the snow from the previous night still covered the ground once we exited the highway, According to multiple weather apps and websites, the area we were headed would be getting snow until 3pm. However, as we drew closer to our destination, I couldn’t help but notice the blue tint that the morning sky had. It seemed like the sun would rise at any minute unhindered by any cloud cover and quickly blow out the scene I was hoping to find. In my mind, I was anticipating a snowy, overcast morning where the clouds acted as a giant soft box gently illuminating the terrain in front of me. This realization that there were far fewer clouds than predicted added a sense of urgency to my stride as we parked the car at the trailhead. I did not want to arrive to the location to find the scene bright and blown out from the sun. I wanted to capture the calm and intimate nature of the area, and needed atmosphere to accomplish this. I am happy to report that I was lucky, and the few clouds that were in the sky above managed to stave off the sun long enough for me to get my desired photographs. It helped that I arrived to the hot springs before the sun rose, so I had time to frame my compositions without battling an encroaching sun.

The first imageI took was a 30 second exposure at ƒ11 using a Lee Big Stopper (10 stops) filter. For my first image, I wanted to capture the hot spring with a bit of the surrounding environment to give a sense of scale and place. I also wanted to create a soft, almost creamy texture to the water, and a long exposure coupled with the rising mist created that desired texture.


The next image I drew myself in a bit closer and focused on the most interesting subject; a small cascade with 3 distinct drop points. The scene before me reminded me of a chocolate lava cake from The Cheesecake Factory and I found myself getting hungry at the thought. The turquoise water that flows through this area is incredibly mesmerizing and I found myself simply smiling and enjoying the view instead of clicking shot after shot. Sometimes in locations like this, it is easy to get carried away and become trigger happy, but the calm scene before me also calmed my mind and I was able to really focus on my desired story.


After i had taken in the above scene for a while, I made my way farther up the stream to a spot that had two pools of the beautiful turquoise water. This photograph was the most trying of the shoot, as the space was small, and a fallen tree was right where I wanted to photograph from. I sent up my tripod from a contorted position something vaguely reminiscent of the limbo, and rested the lens between two branches of the tree. This image is actually a panoramic image of 3 separate photographs taken very carefully from the afore mentioned position. After 90 seconds of holding my combo like position, I managed to come away with this image.


I stretched my back, repacked my camera and headed to the main hot spring area a little ways up the hill. The main hot springs, posed their own set of unique challenges. The first challenge was getting myself and my camera into position for the photograph below. The rock is incredibly slippery and even standing still my feet would slowly slide apart from one another. I had to do the splits with my tripod to get it close enough and low enough to photograph the overflowing bird sized bathtub in the foreground of this image. The small tub was a different color than the surrounding pools and made for a nice focal point to the image. The flowing water led the eye upward to the other pools in the distance. .

The second challenge was the steam. The wind was blowing the steam directly at my camera and fogged the lens, making it impossible to take a sharp image, so I had to wipe my lens dry with the equivalent of a sham wow for photographers, and hold the cloth on the lens, click the 2 second timer, and remove the fabric just milliseconds before the shutter clicked to take the image. The lens began to instantly fog again, and I hurriedly dried and covered it again. After a few of these chaotic attempts at an image, I managed to capture the ethereal nature of the place, and moved on (being careful to clean off all signs of moisture from my equipment).


Feeling a bit like a soggy dog in a sauna, I backed away from the hot springs a bit and created an image showing their tiered nature. I was amazed at how their color stood out against the snow and was so happy to be experiencing this location with only my wife and myself as witness.


We spent a few more minutes soaking it all in (see what I did there ;) before we made our way back down the trail to our vehicle. I couldn’t help but take one more image on the way out showing the first view I got of the springs as we came up the mountain earlier. The sun was beginning to dissipate the menial cloud cover above and started flooding into the canyon. Knowing the nature of sun and snow, I knew the trip was done from a photography sense, so we put away the photography gear and casually hiked out, recalling to each other our favorite moments of the hike and how excited we were for future hikes to the area.


Nature is amazing! Help keep it that way and remember to leave places like this better than you found it. Take a bag to pick up trash left by careless hikers, and be careful to minimize your impact on the surrounding landscape. There are a lot of us on this planet and as our desire to be outside and see these amazing places increases, so does the risk of permanently damaging them as well. With proper wilderness ethics, future generations will be able to visit these extraordinary places in the same fashion as we do.

Thanks for reading! Come back often to see what’s new!