As photographers, we often strive for that “perfect” image. Those who are most proficient in their art, in one way or another, pre-visualize the final photograph and strive to exercise the most possible control over all the variables involved in achieving the desired end result. The reality is that outside of the studio and particularly true in nature photography, all bets are off. The extensive planning and meticulous research performed prior to photographing a never before visited location may prove useful or lead to a near-fruitless and frustrating trip. The landscape artist cannot control light and precipitation and is always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Sometimes you have to come to terms with the fact that the iconic shot you saw in someone else’s portfolio will probably not be in yours. This is where you have the chance to prove your worth as a photographer by using your imagination and compositional skills to improvise and make the most out of the presented opportunities.
As an example, my first ever visit to Glacier National Park in Montana presented an unanticipated difficulty. Almost simultaneous with my arrival was the unwelcome appearance of wildfire smoke, blown in from southern Montana and the neighboring states. The smoky smell in the air heralded reduced visibility in the valleys and alpine regions of the park. Gone was the clarity of the air, with omnipresent haze enshrouding the glacial peaks from sunrise to sunset. But, as the saying goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” One evening at the oft-photographed Wild Goose Island Overlook, I tried to do just that. While the fine details in the snow-covered mountains of the Lewis-Clark Range were obscured and transformed to silhouettes by the smoke that hung in the air, the haze picked up some of the sunset light, yielding a magical glow reflected in the calm waters of the St. Mary Lake.
As the sun was setting, I used the Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM lens to zoom in and underexposed to create a stark contrast between the golden sunset colors and mountain silhouettes. I then changed lenses and searched for foreground elements to anchor another composition, finally finding some interesting rocks that paralleled the peaks in the distance and led the eye to them. A single exposure with the Sigma SD1 Merrill and the Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM wide angle lens to take in the entire breadth of the landscape captured the subtle tones and hues of that smoky sky fantastically. I was pleased that while many disappointed by the seemingly bland sky folded up their tripods and left, I went home with a couple of keepers.
Next time you find yourself in the field faced with conditions beyond your control, do not give up. The importance of persistence, patience and determination in nature photography, qualities that become particularly important when that “perfect” image cannot be captured due to unfavorable conditions, cannot be overemphasized. One should not become discouraged and instead, accept the unplanned circumstances as a challenge to make original, truly meaningful photographs.
Alex Filatov is an internationally published professional nature and city fine art photographer. More of his work may be found at his website.