Expect Nothing, Accept Everything — Making the Most Out of the Light
Sunrise, sunset. The two times most photographers mob a landscape scene hoping for stunning golden light. In the mountains that light is even rarer, with weather being unpredictable. But with unpredictable weather comes interesting light, extending the typical bookends of landscape photography. During my bumpy flight into Calgary I read a quote that spoke to me and guided my photographic philosophy during my time exploring the mountains on a solo photography trip: “Expect Nothing, Accept Everything.” The power in this simple quote is significant. “Expect Nothing” — many photographers I know are immediately disappointed when the light does not bend to their will. They hope for exceptional glows and fiery sunrises only to be let down when such light does not occur. By expecting nothing, you do not bear the weight of such disappointment — a critical mindset driven heavily by the fact that one does not have the means to control the elements. “Accept Everything” — the more powerful of the two statements in the quote in question IMHO. This speaks to composition, taking your time to observe a scene and craft an engaging image. I generally do not have this skill. In wildlife photography, composition often comes second. Particularly when a lifer drifts across your lens, spray and pray is the tactic with a pleasing composition being solely driven by luck. With my particular style of shooting in mind, I explicitly decided to apply a more thoughtful approach, a borderline “Buddhist zen” mentality to the composition of every photograph, using any tool to make a composition work.
It is with no surprise then that “golden light” was a rare commodity, and yet I feel content with the images I captured from the trip. It began with a visit to the Vermilion Lakes hoping to catch an evening glow that would bathe the mountains at sunset. In order for such a glow to occur, the sun’s rays require an unobstructed path to the mountain in question. And this was just not going to happen with the weather building in the west. So with that in mind I decided to improvise and came away with one of my favourite shots of the trip - Rundle Reflection (top image).
Given the light wind impacting the scene, I was in need of a way to smooth out the shallow lake in order to create the reflection effect and so I looked to my toolkit — a 10 stop ND filter. By extending my shutter to 30 seconds it enabled the camera to smooth out the light wind and truly capture the stunning reflection that was upon the lake. Now a word on these filters — patience is required as it took a number of attempts to nail focus (Sony zoom rings are sensitive and prone to being knocked with the installation of filters!). I also took the time to be creative with the filter and found it exacerbated light & dark elements in this image — with the scene constantly being bounced in and out of shadow by the weather.
The next morning was clouded over with heavy rain so I made the decision to visit a popular tourist spot hoping the rain would drive away the hordes. Johnson Canyon is an easy-to-moderate trail following a tributary of the Bow river as it curves and bends within a canyon resulting in a number of emerald blue glacier fed waterfalls:
After being absolutely drenched in the torrential downpours of the day, I decided to venture close to my hotel in downtown Canmore that evening. Downtown Canmore offers easy trails providing stunning views of mountain peaks and the Bow river. During the evening walk I was greeted by the lovely warm light on the mountain peaks, but what truly made the moment memorable was an encounter that would stay with me forever. Only a few steps from downtown across the Bow is a large open clearing, and as I began crossing the field I heard a loud but unfamiliar sound. The bugling of a male elk. I froze instantly. Haunting in it’s pitch and complimenting the surrounding atmosphere as the sun already began it’s nightly decent. Then all at once they emerged, a herd of elk began walking across the clearing, picking away at the tall grasses and shrubs. Then the male slowly entered the scene bugling often to warn adversaries that his herd will not be taken without contest. I stood in awe, at the majesty of nature, at the size of the animals that I failed to realize that I was caught in the middle of this open space with only a small group of trees nestled in the centre. I quickly made my way to this enclave to form a physical barrier between me and the herd. I used the dying light to observe and capture the moment. The king under his mountain with his harem.
The next day broke with promise. Clouds were moving quickly with the real possibility of colour coming over the horizon. A quick drive to the Vermillion lakes put me in the perfect place to witness the sun breathing fire into the sky. In order to make the most of the composition, I positioned myself among the tall grasses to provide foreground interest and obscure the severe choppiness of the water. The moment I was hoping for came and went, and although the image captures the stunning colour, it lacks something in my view, some sort of emotion that the reflection had. I stood around and completed a few other images but made the decision to venture north. The Icefields were calling.
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic driving roads in Canada. As the weather of the day began to come in and out I made the decision to explore the various view points along this highway. My target was Peyto Lake, and this just so happened to be it’s last day of the season. The following day the road would be closed, and far more difficult to get to. Travelling to tourist spots always has it’s drawbacks, and unlike the Johnson canyon hike the day before, there was no rainfall to discourage the fickle flocks of tourists. The location was mobbed by buses and people of all ages, not obeying any directions and stomping all over wild flora. Getting a shot here required one thing — patience. I set up and waited between the crowds to get the shot.
But something nagged at me. It is a good shot yes, but you can do no wrong with this scene provided you can pickup a camera and click the shutter. The issue is that although grand as the scene is, it is not unique. Looking at the back of the camera and reflecting upon the image I paused, took a deep breadth and observed the area — and it was at that moment that a particular composition caught my eye. One that stood out of the scenery, one that encapsulated how wild this world truly is. I reached for my long lens and directed the glass @ 400MM onto one mountain peak among many. Here I noticed a rain induced torrent descending off the face of the cliff. What made this wild waterfall so special was how it was illuminated by rays of light, light that danced with the storm clouds above to create the perfect scene. This was my special moment, my special shot and the one I will cherish. Expect Nothing, Accept Everything.