Never Eat Breakfast Before Midnight
Noted photographer John Sexton once said, “The only difference between me and my students is that I’ve made more mistakes than they have.” There’s a lot of truth in that. I have been a full-time professional landscape photographer for 26 years, so I’ve had plenty of time to learn from a long string of fumbles, failures, near-misses, and fiascos.
In this post I will share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my career in landscape photography. I’ll explain why you should never eat breakfast before midnight, why great landscape photographers have the brain of an engineer and the heart of a hopeless romantic, and why the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against you are the longest. By the time I’m finished, you’ll either be inspired to shoot sunrise from the summit of the hardest 14,000-foot peak in Colorado or be ready to sell all your cameras on eBay.
I want to assure you that despite the many mistakes I’ve made, I’m actually a talented, experienced, and careful photographer. In fact, I blame all of my mistakes on high-altitude hypoxia, sleep deprivation, and excessive caffeine.
Here’s an example. I was working on a seven-year project to shoot sunrise, or occasionally sunset, from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s Fourteeners, peaks reaching over 14,000 feet in height. My next objectives were Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak. Tabeguache is one of three Fourteeners in the state where the only practical route to the summit is over the summit of an adjacent Fourteener. I drove to the trailhead, hiked in, and camped at about 10,000 feet. On the same day, I got up at 10:30 p.m. and left camp 45 minutes later so I could summit Mt. Tabeguache at 4:30 a.m. and shoot sunrise.
I returned to camp, napped, then got up again at 11:30 p.m. so I could summit Mt. Shavano in time to shoot sunrise. On the way down from Mt. Shavano, still at about 14,000 feet, I stopped to photograph some tiny alpine flowers. As I was composing the shot, I discovered that auto-focus had suddenly stopped working. Repeatedly I pressed the shutter release halfway down, but the lens wouldn’t auto-focus. I checked the auto-focus switch on the lens. It was set to auto. I checked the camera body. The LCD readout confirmed that auto-focus was enabled. I switched lenses, but got the same behavior.
After puzzling over the issue for a good five minutes, I finally remembered that a year and a half earlier I had removed the auto-focus function from the shutter release and assigned it to the AF-on button on the back of the camera. For the past year and a half, I had always focused with the AF-on button on the back of the camera, not by pressing the shutter release halfway down. Just half an hour earlier, while shooting sunrise on the summit, I had been pressing the AF-on button on the back of the camera every time I wanted to focus. Granted, I was at 14,000 feet. I hadn’t slept properly in three days. Still, a photographer forgetting how to auto-focus? It was obviously long past time to get off that mountain, go home, and get some sleep.
This is landscape photography’s dirty little secret: it’s exciting, fun, and rewarding—and a lot of hard work. There’s just no way around this. Landscape photography requires an awful lot of getting up early and staying up late, driving hard and hiking hard. Sleep is for landscape photographers who don’t drink enough coffee. In fact, great landscape photography is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
I reluctantly reminded myself of this inspiring phrase after I hauled my 4×5 field camera up the steep sandstone slabs to Delicate Arch for the ninth time, finally captured the longed-for glow on the arch, then heard the photographer next to me remark, “That was nice! This is the first time I’ve ever been here!”
And since we’re on the topic of hard work, here’s another of my aphorisms: the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against you are the longest. For example, the most likely outcome on a morning with heavy clouds is a gray, boring sunrise. If, however, the sun finds a tiny gap between dense clouds and the horizon, the result can be some of the most spectacular light you’ll ever be privileged to photograph.
Not only is the potential reward greatest when the odds against you are the longest: the potential reward is also greater if you remove your lens cap before taking the photo. Back in the film era, I had a medium-format Fuji rangefinder. In January, 2005, I did a solo, off-trail trip into the Sangre de Cristo Range. On the first day I hiked, then snowshoed and scrambled to a campsite at about 10,600 feet. The next day I continued upward another 1,700 vertical feet and picked out a sunset location with rippled snow in the foreground and the Fourteeners Kit Carson, Crestone Peak, and Crestone Needle in the background, all of which would get sunset light.
One disadvantage of rangefinders, of course, is that you aren’t looking through the lens, which means there’s no obvious clue that the lens cap is still on. As the light peaked, I shot two rolls of medium-format film that I thought were capturing the best light of the trip.
When I finally looked at the front of the camera and saw that the lens cap was still attached, I dropped to my knees in the snow and buried my head in my hands. Then I chided myself: Glenn, you’re alone, it’s January, you’re at 12,000 feet, it’s getting dark, and you’re 1,700 vertical feet above your campsite. This is no time to throw a hissy fit. I stood up, regrouped, and saw that the clouds over the peaks were starting to light up, so I was able to make a few decent photos even though I certainly missed the best images of the trip.(more…)