Sometimes It’s Good Enough

Its not first light but the lighting this particular morning along Fern Creek at Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park still looked pretty good. I had a photography tour client out with me this morning and while he was a little disappointed to put all the effort into getting to Odessa Lake for sunrise, not catching alpenglow and first light due to clouds was quickly forgotten once the sun did break through the cloud cover this morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

Whether you are a beginner when it comes to landscape photography, or a seasoned veteran of the craft, we’ve all been there. You have a location you’ve been dying to photography for months or years and the stars finally align and you have now arrived at the said destination.

You’ve played the scenario through in your head multiple times, you have all your camera gear dialed in, you know just what lens you need to use, you’ve been working out and training so you can make the long difficult hike before sunrise and the weather forecast looks promising.

You’ve now done it, you’ve arrived. Only problem is you’ve arrived to find clouds blocking the first rays of sunlight over the landscape. How could this be?. You’ve put in all this time and effort and now that you are standing behind your camera and tripod waiting to trip the shutter the light is not cooperating. Those dreams of alpenglow hitting the mountaintops, while the sky turns pink and red at sunrise will now remain in your imagination only.

For landscape photographers, this scenario plays out all the time. Having a sunrise or sunset busted by by light or no clouds or other weather related factors that take away from our perceived bias on how the scene looks is one of the most frustrating parts of being a landscape photographer.

While I have no actual numbers to base this claim on, I would bet tarnished expectations is one of the leading causes of burnout amongst landscape photographers. There’s no doubt about, putting all that time, effort and money into making an attempt at capturing a dramatic scene can begin to feel like a fools folly when it doesn’t work out.

As a professional photographer and a photography guide in Rocky Mountain National Park I see this scenario unfold often when I have clients out in the field. I’m rooting for my clients to get killer light and conditions more than anyone and when it doesn’t happen I feel for them and empathize with them as I’ve been there as many times in the exact same situation.

For many landscape photographers, the perfect window of light is the 15 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. No doubt about it that this is the most dramatic window of light during the day. One can build a career off being in the right place at the right time while the light breaks and the landscape is filled with dramatic otherworldly lighting. The truth however, is this happens quite rarely.

When I have photography tour clients out in the field with me in RMNP, I try to manage their expectations and keep them in a positive frame of mind. Sure, we may not get that perfect image of Dream Lake at sunrise, but the light thats appeared a half hour after sunrise once its cleared a cloud bank to the east is pretty darn nice as well.

One of the things I constantly like to reinforce with my students and photography tour clients, is that you can’t only hit homeruns. Sometimes you need to hit singles, doubles and triples to set the tone or in our case our portfolios.

Just last week this very scenario unfolded. I had a client out in Rocky Mountain National Park for a sunrise photo tour. This client was hoping to capture some great images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek at sunrise. We started early with a 2:40 AM departure from the Boulder area which culminated in the 4.3 mile long hike into Odessa Lake for sunrise.

Conditions looked promising this morning and there were clouds hanging over the divide and Rocky Mountain National Park. All landscape photographers love to have clouds in their composition unless they are blocking the sun. After our moderate hike into Odessa Lake long before sunrise, this is exactly what happened.

6:25 AM came and went and there was no alpenglow on the landscape. No fire red clouds over The Little Matterhorn or Notchtop Mountain. My client while enjoying the experience, the location and the hike in was disappointed that the sun was not shining. I tried to assure him that I thought the sun would make an appearance and while it might not be exactly the light he had envisioned, even the light a little after sunrise can look really good when you are framing Odessa Lake, The Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain through your camera viewfinder.

Finally, after about 35 minutes past sunrise, the sun started to shine down on our location. While there was some disappointment, going through the motions of shooting the scene in front of you can quickly change ones mood. We spend the next 15 minutes photographing various composition at Odessa Lake until we once again lost the sunlight behind the clouds.

The light was moody once it did make an appearance and I could tell that we would be able to capture some really nice images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek. While it wasn’t exactly the light my client had hoped for, he was very pleased with his images once he was able to get back home and get them downloaded on his computer.

As I try to reinforce with my clients, photography is all about the light. Sometimes the light may not be exactly what you had hoped for, but sometimes the light is just good enough to work.