Late every summer, nature photographers flock to the Pacific Northwest with the hope of capturing the majestic beauty of Mount Rainier and its gorgeous subalpine meadows. After much obsessive planning and conversations with photographers around Washington State, I was able to make my first trip to the region this year. My biggest concern was whether I would arrive on time to catch the peak wildflower bloom. The area experienced a warm spring and summer, and thus the wildflowers emerged earlier than expected. But, as luck would have it, that shouldn’t have been my primary worry.
As the locals will tell you, the Seattle region is pretty notorious for its amount of precipitation. I wasn’t too worried because by all accounts, Rainier had seen a beautiful sunny summer. I didn’t realize that when I arrived in the park, the first morning would be the last time I would see the summit of the 14,409-foot tall mountain. What followed was a miserable week of record rainfall during which the peak was completely covered by clouds the vast majority of the time, every now and then partially peeking out and taunting the photographer without revealing itself in all its glory. I suddenly realized the name for the peak makes sense, and moreover, thought “Mount Rainiest” would be more fitting.
Therefore, I had no choice but to take a page out of my most recent entry for the Sigma blog. One of my favorite places to shoot at Rainier turned out to be the Reflection Lakes in the Paradise area. As the name suggests, on windless mornings one can capture a perfect reflection of Mount Rainier with the summit illuminated by sunrise light. Waking up just after 4 AM, I went to the lake nearly every morning – unless it was pouring, which it was about three mornings in a row.
On one completely overcast morning when it looked like nothing was going my way, I suddenly witnessed a partial clearing in the sky to the east. With my camera pointed towards Rainier which was completely obscured, I changed to my Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM wide angle lens and framed the reflections of the gentle pinkish hues of the clouds and clearing sky in the lake. I included some of the rain-covered grass and Rosy Spirea flowers, details that are very well resolved by the Sigma SD1 Merrill at my chosen aperture of f/16, in order to add interest to the scene. The floating driftwood also adds to the composition as it leads the viewer’s eye towards the background. Because of the extreme intrinsic dynamic range of the scene, I bracketed five exposures one stop apart, and later blended the images manually using Photoshop. When I blended exposures, I was striving to avoid the mistakes so many make – overprocessing, oversaturating and making the foreground lighter than the sky, which is not ever seen in nature.
Several moments later, the swirling clouds enshrouding Mount Rainier started slowly clearing as the warm sunlight broke through the dense clouds blanketing the eastern horizon. I quickly recomposed and snapped several more sets of bracketed shots. Just minutes later, the magical scene before me was back to the state I had found it with nothing seen above the pine trees lining the lakeshore.
Given the extensive location research prior to my trip, the images I came away with from that morning were unplanned and unexpected, and given that the very summit of the mountain was still covered by clouds, not exactly what I was hoping for. However, they let the viewer experience the scene that unfolded before my eyes that Monday in August, a moment in time unique to this alpine landscape that will never repeat in the exact same way. That is why these captures are so meaningful. I remind you to not give up when the conditions, whether in your control or not, don’t go your way. There is still beauty to be conveyed if you channel adversity into creativity.
Alex Filatov is an internationally published professional nature and city fine art photographer. More of his work may be found on his website.