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What Lurks Behind You?

February 10, 2010

Many years ago, when I was just a young pup with a Canon Rebel film camera and not a clue what to do with it, I read a photo how-to book published by Arizona Highways.  I’ve since lost the book, which is a bummer because it was really well-written and full of great information.  Any way, one of the things I learned from the book was never to get so focused on what’s happening in front of the camera that you forget to turn around occasionally to see what’s lurking behind you.  It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

In the summer of 2005 Melissa and I spent almost 4 months road tripping throughout the Western U.S.  Without question, it was the best 4 months of my life.  We hiked, we mountain biked, we canyoneered and I photographed.  A lot.  A whoooooole lot.  I had a shiny new Canon 1Ds MKII and was enthralled with digital capture technology that I swore I’d never use.  Yeah, I was a film snob.  A small format film snob, but a film snob all the same.

Whilst on the road we spent the hottest night of my life sleeping in the parking lot at Badwater in Death Valley NP.  I don’t mean “hot” as in “steamy newly married couple hot”.  I mean “Death Valley in August” hot.  I got all of about 3 minutes of sleep that night, thanks to the oppressive heat.

We decided to head for higher ground the following night and ended up at the Racetrack.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it?  It’s a cracked mud playa where huge rocks slide across the desert seemingly under their own power.  Scientific theories abound but no one knows for certain what causes the rocks to move.  I think it’s awesome that with all our modern technology there are still things we can’t explain.  Rocks: 1.  Us: 0.

Sunrise at the Racetrack, DVNP

I awoke the next morning much refreshed as the Racetrack resides at around 3,700′, a whopping 4,000′ higher and much cooler than the Badwater parking lot.  I had already scouted the area for my sunrise shoot.  I unzipped the tent door and staggered a few feet with camera and tripod in hand to set up for the imminent light show.  I sat on the cool, dry earth with sleep in my eyes watching the stars disappear one by one as dawn approached.  Every once in a while I’d turn around to check for snakes or scorpions or spiders sneaking up on me, and to see if anything good was happening in the sky.  Lo and behold, in one of those serendipitous moments you don’t appreciate until they’re over, right above the mountains were a few little clouds turning as pink as cotton candy.  I snatched up my tripod and camera, ran a few feet and then turned around to hastily compose an image of the rock’s trail leading into the frame with those luscious pink clouds hovering above a distant mountain ridge.  I worked fast, my fingers hitting all the right buttons, turning all the right knobs and grabbing a grad filter from my pack all in furious motion.  I made two images and then, the color was gone.

So, I’ve told a rather long story to make a couple simple points.  First, don’t get so focused on what’s in front of you that you forget to turn around every once in a while to see what lurks behind you.  It may be pink cotton candy clouds or a stranger comin’ to do you harm.  In either case, I’d rather have a head start.  Second, you should be so familiar with your equipment that when a fleeting moment of awesomeness arrives you are able to concentrate on capturing it rather than fumbling with your gear.

Oh, and one other thing: if you’re a park ranger, and you’re reading this, I really hope the statute of limitations has expired for our illegal night of car camping at Badwater.  Please accept my apologies for breaking the law.  I wish I could say that it won’t happen again, but it will.  Just not on your watch.

Got a similar story about a serendipitous moment?  Share it with us!  Feel free to link to an image, too.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2010 10:32 am

    My story isn’t nearly as adventurous as yours, and I didn’t challenge the law 🙂 as bravely as you did Bret. I was in Mammoth Lakes, CA a couple of years ago to shoot the sunset at Minarets. It was a hopelessly cloudy and dull sky and just as we were going to leave, had the tripods packed up, we turned around and there was a gorgeous reddish hue between the mountain peaks and the cloud layer. I quickly snapped many shots (I keep my camera on multiple shots) and about 60 seconds later the color was gone. Fortunately I had mastered my user manual and knew where to put the dials (I use Manual mode and go from there). Ended up getting one great shot from it and it won 1st place in my local Art Association photo contest. Not to get carried away, it isn’t an Ansel Adams, but I felt good about it.

  2. February 10, 2010 12:03 pm

    Looking behind you is certainly good advice. I do much of my work from a small motorhome slowly traveling the backroads of the American West. I find that the slower I go the more the I am visually offered or actually the more of what I am offered I see. I am constantly amazed how often when I stop to capture a particular subject I end up shooting two or three additional shots of other things; just because I am looking at what is offered and am not traveling 70 mph.

    Additionally, a valuable lesson I have learned is to travel any interesting route in both directions. It will surprise you how different it looks and what is offered from the other direction.

    Allen Russell

  3. February 10, 2010 12:59 pm

    Thanks, Frank & Allen. Excellent comments.

    Allen: You’re right about traveling the same route in both directions. Things do look totally different. I’ll add to that by saying that traveling the same route, whether in a car or on foot, in the same direction at different times of the day can dramatically change how things look, too. Good advice!

  4. February 10, 2010 2:33 pm

    Man, I’ve got a million of these but 2 stand out. Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. Always look behind you because the view is constantly changing. If you don’t look behind you half the photo ops won’t present themselves.

    Back in the mid ’90s I went to Rocky Mountain National Park one September to photograph the elk in full rut. During an afternoon location scout I found a group of 3 or 4 trees that had fallen in one end of the meadow at Morraine Park making a perfect deadfall and ignoring park rules (I hope it’s that statute of limitations thing) I crawled into that deadfall about an hour before sunrise the next morning. The plan worked and when the sun came up I was in the middle of about 100 elk, mostly cows. The herd bull was running back and forth trying to keep all the other bulls away from his harem and I was shooting away. About 4 rolls of film into the morning the bull started heading my way and from my perspective he appeared to be staring straight at me. I didn’t think he could see me but he kept coming my way until all I could see with my 300mm was his eyeball. When he started digging the grass with his antlers and bugled a couple of times I started thinking what I should do if he decided to try and puncture me. It seemed like 5 or 10 minutes but was probably only a few seconds till he started running towards me and just before I scrambled under one of the dead trees for protection he veered around the deadfall where I was hiding and started chasing the young bull elk that had come up behind me undetected. Eventually the elk moved out of the meadow into the trees and I crawled out of my “blind” and headed back to the truck. The adrenaline didn’t leave my system for quite a while though. These days when I’m photographing any kind of critter my head is on a swivel. Here’s a link and please excuse the sloppy scan.

  5. February 11, 2010 12:10 am

    Great story, Bill! At least I’m not the only person breaking the law inside the parks. Love the rim light on that bull elk, too. Gorgeous!

    As for Antelope Canyon, last winter I spent several hours in Lower Antelope. I only shared the canyon with 3 other people in 4 hours. I walked back and forth, back and forth several times because the light changed sooooooo fast. Really cool and a great experience to be in that canyon virtually all alone.

    • February 11, 2010 11:39 am

      Hey Bret, Lower Antelope is a wonderful place and every time I’ve been there the crowds have been non-existant. When you have a few minutes pop into my site and check out the essay titled “Better lucky than good” which details my very first trip there.

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