"If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm"
- Frank Lane
As a landscape photographer I learned early that becoming successful was not going to be easy. Patience and perseverance was going to be key. I knew there would be storm clouds as well as sunny days along the way, and that how I handled them would define me as a professional. I can honestly say I am still learning and there is a lot I still don't understand, but as the quote above says, on the other side of the storm there is always sunshine. Storms come in a multitude of ways, physical, tangible storms and those that are less obvious, the emotional ones. I am going to touch on both of these in this post.
So, lets talk about weathering the storm. For me personally, every Fall I have about one month of pure photo bliss where I am running around capturing great images left and right. Some days it seems almost too easy. Then all of a sudden Fall gives way to Winter and the landscape becomes harsh and unforgiving. My creativity, which was cranked to eleven for 30+ days seems to come screeching to a halt for a few weeks, and I find I don't even pick up my camera sometimes. This creative fallout is normal and enters a realm of psychology I don't fully understand, but I have learned one thing. When this creative fallout happens to you, simply embrace the storm.
I find the best way to get out of the dark and back to the sunlight is by creating a personal project, something that will get you searching again for that perfect photograph. If you are like me and don't have access to winter snow for more than maybe 3 days of the winter, perhaps it is a good time to focus on shooting the intimate landscape around you. Focus in on the details. Your project could be: photographing patterns in the ice at a nearby lake, the way frost lays on the trees in the morning, forest images enveloped in fog, the possibilities are endless. Its up to you to come up with one that suits you.
This past Winter I was in Ohio, a state with little in the way of diverse landscapes and no mountains. There are however many lakes and hidden places that make it special. Knowing this I gave myself the challenge of photographing old tree stumps during the morning fog. I had to get the weather perfectly right, as well as get up extremely early. Winter fog can disappear quick, so being in the right place at the right time takes planning. These are the two beautiful images that came from this personal project.
Halfway through the winter last year my wife and I picked up and traveled to Salt Lake City. The landscape there is much different during the winter, and I found my creative blocks lessened dramatically. I still had personal projects I created that I wanted to work on and one specific one came directly from my Ohio project. I noticed the way morning light reflects off of ice. Something I really just took for granted in an image before, became the focus of my photography for a while. I was next to the Great Salt Lake which was the perfect opportunity to capture the image I envisioned. So over the next couple months I took multiple trips to different parts of the Salt Lake to try and get the image I wanted. A great thing happened, I got out. By doing so I created many images I was happy with, all while searching for the one image for my project.
There was still a few weeks of winter left when I finally found the image I was looking for and it turned out to be one of the most spectacular mornings of my photography career. The entire world around me turned an orangish pink for about 15 minutes.
While I was searching for the perfect image to complete my ice project, I came up with a small project I called Isolation. This project was in no way a new or unique concept, but it was still something I decided I wanted to pursue. I wanted to isolate a single element of a greater landscape and make it the focus of the image.
This has become an ongoing project. One that I find myself working on, on a regular basis.
Now that I've touched on creative storms and a way to get back to creative bliss, lets talk about the more literal take on Frank Lane's quote.
While out shooting, you will inevitably run into storms along the way. Mother Nature loves to throw wrenches in our plans for perfect sunrises and sunsets. I like to think that she is testing our willpower to persevere. And if we pass the test we are awarded with some simply magnificent, stop you in your tracks, lighting conditions. While you are waiting for the storm to pass, don't do it from the confines of a vehicle or building, embrace the conditions and photograph through them (exceptions apply). Some of my best photographs have been taken while waiting for the storm to pass. Here are a few short stories from my personal experiences while weathering the storm.
Kure Beach, North Carolina
All the weather looked perfect for the morning I arose to take the photo on the right. However Mother Nature had other plans. I stood on the beach alone in the cold, getting absolutely dumped on. I was soaked to the bone from being pounded by the surf, but I was determined to get an image from the experience. I had driven through the night expecting to find the storm just barely out at sea when I arrived. That was not the case, but I had made up my mind, I wasn’t going home empty handed. I photographed the image on the left thirty minutes before sunrise and tried to tell my story through the image. I had taken precautions to protect the camera, but let the elements control the image. It was impossible to keep the tripod steady, so I didn't try to. Water was splashing around everywhere, so if it hit the uv filter I had on the camera, I left it there. The light was non existent and the color was almost completely monotone, so the image is in black and white. Understanding that the weather was going to settle on the area for the day, I got my image and continued trying to find new compositions. I took a few more images that I enjoyed, but this one was the strongest.
The weather never got better that day and for the next 3 days the storm lingered along the coast. The third day I casually glanced at Meteo Earth on my phone and saw that a similar weather pattern was arising for the following morning. So my wife and I left the night before and headed back to the same location as the first image. We camped overnight to the sound of heavy thunder and the dense, almost unbearable humidity that forms when a storm settles on the coastline. In the morning we arose before the sun came up and headed to the beach. I was worried we would run into the same situation as a few days before as a light drizzle was still coming down. However as we waited, we realized that the storm had moved out to sea, which was exactly what I wanted a few days before. The second image was taken a few feet left of the first image and is one of the greatest sunrises I've witnessed on the coast.
Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
As hordes of people (many photographers included) were scrambling to return to their vehicle in an attempt to get away from the approaching storm, I calmly removed my rain gear from my camera bag. I put on my camera and camera bag protection first, then put my rain jacket and pants on. I continued to prepare for the approaching storm, added a remote trigger, and lowered my composition, getting my tripod low to the ground and in a safe spot so as not to get blown from cliff. As I waited there with my wife, (the only other person left in the area) I captured the image on the left. This image is one of a kind. No one else can claim an image similar. The storm blew through fast and within a half hour had passed. A few photographers started coming back to the cliff in hopes of still capturing a sunset image. The image on the right I captured 5 minutes before the sun went down when it created a beautiful star burst between two passing clouds. I was walking past a well known photographers gallery a few weeks later and thought I saw my image in his window. It turns out he had come back from his vehicle and captured his image 100 feet to the left about 15 seconds from when I took mine. I love both images I captured that day, but when asked which one I think is the better I strongly believe the first one. It is my own and no one can claim a similar one. Had I not battened down the hatch for the storm I would have left the location with only one image, an image that another photographer had also taken, rendering it less unique. Yet another reason to weather the storm.
Longs Peak, Colorado
Recently I was in Rocky Mountain National Park during an early season cold snap. Temperatures plummeted to well below freezing and many of the tourists stayed in town and didn't venture into the mountains. I headed up the popular trail to Nymph Lake, which was eerily deserted on this particular day, to capture an image of Longs Peak with the new fallen snow. It was a few hours before sunset when I took the image on the left, and I could have thrown in the towel then and gone back to the warmth of civilization. However the top of the peak wasn't visible and I felt like the image needed it. So, I hung around in the cold for another 3 hours with my wife, waiting for the peak to show itself. During the last possible minutes I had to photograph the peak, it showed itself before disappearing completely along with the remaining light. I took my photograph and was extremely happy I had stayed. Had I left while the winter storm was still hitting the mountain, I would have felt an emptiness every time I looked at the image, wondering if I had taken the best possible one. That feeling can really tear you apart as a photographer, and it is a feeling I try to avoid at all cost. Partially frozen and definitely wind burnt I returned to the warmth of my hotel, content that I had taken the best image I could have.
Storms are inevitable. It's how you manage them that will define you, not only as a photographer but in life as well.
Until next time....
Upcoming Post: The emotional strain of being seen in landscape photography