Best of the Tetons


Anatomy of a Teton Landscape


Snake River Overlook: July 30, 2013

Concepts and Features that can help your landscape images while in the Tetons

Snake River Overlook is a great place to view and photograph the Tetons any time of the year. In fact, it is one of the few places you can get close to the river during the winter months. Ansel Adams created one of his iconic images in the very spot we can shoot from now, however he did it decades ago when the spruce trees were much younger and shorter. He was able to get the full bend in his image. Even with the taller trees, it’s still beautiful!

The example image probably won’t win any awards and I wouldn’t consider it a great image. I’d like a little more “drama” and I’d have loved to caught a flock of Canada geese in formation flying across the scene. I included that hint in the Bonus Element in the middle image below. I had been photographing a cowboy all morning and stopped at Snake River Overlook on the way home. There is still some lingering fog in the middle ground, so I would suspect a few people at the spot earlier that morning got some of the keeper images I might have wanted. I chose the image to use here because it shows quite a few elements I look for—or watch out for—when deciding to shoot and when composing an image.

Some people thrive on standards and rules. There are plenty of them to choose from if you are a photographer. A tourist can simply enjoy the scene, but a photographer is forced to make a plethora of decisions. “Forced” might be too strong of a word, but decisions are made none the less. Luckily, with digital cameras, it is cheap to shoot a bunch of different images with slight changes and pick the best one later. Classically trained photographers used to paying $9 for a large format piece of film might cringe, however!

foregroundmiddlebkgOne photographic mantra is “Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background”. It is a safe slogan or statement and worthy of consideration in the Tetons. Highway 89/191 heads north out of the town of Jackson and essentially down the center of the valley floor for about 25 miles. Looking west as you travel along the highway, much of the foreground is featureless sagebrush. The Snake River basin, cottonwoods, and trees make good middle ground and the Teton range is almost always available as the background. They are the easy elements. The foreground or subject—well—that’s tougher to find! Some of the easy subjects are the Mormon Row barns, Schwabacher Landing river bottom and beaver ponds, Chapel of the Transfiguration, and Snake River Overlook. The foreground or subject could be a moose standing in the sagebrush, a runner or cyclist on the highway or trail, but most Teton Range shots need “something” other than sagebrush.

FeaturesSROforBlogBesides the foreground, middle ground and background issues, I like to add a few more features to my ideal landscape image. First, I like to see the tip of the Grand. Clouds can hover below it, but I tend to not photograph the scene with a “topper” cloud. On some days, they tenaciously cling to the peak. Mother Nature tests and teases you repeatedly by making it appear the clinger will break off, but fills it back in. Other days, Mother Nature pays off! I also like at least a few clouds. I am not greedy. Moody, stormy clouds are nice, I just need clouds! Your tastes might be different.

Often, on the mornings following an overnight rain, we get a morning fog bank. Eventually, it pulls back or gradually disappears leaving a long ribbon running the length of the valley near the base of the mountain range. It always looks good in an image. Conversely, there are a few elements that can either ruin an image or cause extra work in post-processing. At the Snake River Overlook, for example, the rock railing will cast a line across the close stand of trees.  You might not notice it while taking the photos, but it will probably annoy you later. Snake River Overlook is a great place to photograph in the hour before sunrise. You often get the pinks and purple light during the alpenglow period, and you don’t have to contend with the shadows.

Depending on where the sun is coming up on sunrise shots, it is not uncommon to cast your own shadow into a scene. I sometimes use a remote trigger, sometimes kneel down, or simply move to another spot or angle.

Technically speaking, it is also important to use a bubble level or use the “virtual horizon” feature now being included with most new cameras. I have a bubble level on my D800 landscape body almost all the time. Without it, I am often half a bubble off! Okay…no wise cracks! But, I bet you will be too if you ever add one to double check yourself. Anytime you are shooting on the side of a hill or have angled objects in the image, your senses can be affected while looking through the viewfinder. And, the Teton Valley floor is ever so slightly running down hill towards the south. I have one of my function buttons set to display the virtual horizon on both cameras and I am happy to use it when I need it, but I still like the traditional bubble levels on most days.

Just remember, rules like these are made to be broken! If everyone followed all of the “cookie cutter” rules, we’d all be looking at essentially the same images. Personal tastes vary considerably. I like to include clouds in my Teton shots, but you might find a time when a bluebird sky is a good place to add a line of text or a graphic. Editors might choose it over a cloudy one because it makes reading the text easier. There might be times when seeing your own shadow cast into a scene will tell a story or actually add to the image.  It would be easy for someone to criticize my shot here because I chose to put the Grand in the dead center of the image. For some, that is a compositional “no-no”—yet it is done successfully every day. Another popular rule is to never let a horizon line run along the center of an image. They suggest moving it above or below center or it will be a “bad” image. Maybe, or maybe not. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of rules if you opt to follow them.

Mike R. Jackson

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