Tips for finding more interesting images.
While out in the field with my gear, I have a whole arsenal of little key phrases or concepts that are constantly banging around in my head. I try to use the concepts to keep from falling into ruts and commonplace photography. Someday, I will try to do a post covering many of them, but for now, it might be best to jump right into one of my favorites: “Look for transitions, or shoot heavy during transitional periods”. Some of what I write here might be overly obvious to seasoned photographers, but sometimes it helps to hear someone try to vocalize their experiences.
Seasonal changes are probably the most obvious transitional period. The most noticeable for many would be the transition from Summer to Winter—better known as Fall. People flock to the Tetons in the Fall for the transition. Leaves are changing. The big mammals are in the rut. Geese are flying around in formation. You get the picture! It is hard to go wrong here with so much beauty and variety. I also like the transition from Winter into Spring, but not that many people are around for it. Animals move off the National Elk Refuge in huge numbers and cross a variety of terrain and hillsides with exposed areas of the valley floor mixed with patches of snow. The transition from Fall to Winter is much less defined, along with the transition from Spring to Summer. We have too many regions and changes in elevation. In the early Spring, mountain tops are still covered with snow, while the valley floor can be showing signs of green. In the Fall, a Winter storm can dust the mountains, making those images so much more powerful and interesting.
Many people get bogged down with the big vistas and broad scenes here. They are great, but the little scenes can be equally interesting. In the winter, you might find a single leaf holding onto a stem, with icy water passing under it. Leaves seldom change all at one time, so capturing one or a clump in the changeover is always much more interesting to me than a Summer leaf or a completely changed leaf. Not everyone agrees, of course. In the Fall, rather plain looking bushes can change colors and display their fresh crop of colorful berries. Fall leaves caught against the rocks of a mountain stream can easily be overlooked, but if captured well, can be very interesting. As the Summer progresses, wildflowers offer a colorful transition. Various flower species flower at different times and at different elevations. Pine cones form and birds, like Clark’s Nutcrackers move in to harvest them.
Animals are always in some sort of transition. Many shed their winter fur in the Spring or Summer. Of the transitional opportunities, I tend to let that one go a bit, but I still photograph some of them just to have them in the collection. Eventually, the winter fur clumps change to sleek summer fur and later into beefier winter fur. Some people can tell the season by the fur. Most of the animals move from one area to another during the transitional periods, often crossing streams and rivers, or across ridgelines. In June, birds migrate through the valley and add lots of color to the previously drab period of late Winter and early Spring. This is a welcome transitional period for me. I love the Tanagers, Waxwings, Buntings and Grosbeaks!
Storms can roll into the valley quickly at about any time of the year. Typically, the best time to photograph a storm is at the very beginning and just after it passes through. In the Summer and through the Fall, lightning is possible. It’s hard to capture, but when the skies are transitioning between afternoon bliss and a violent event, it’s time to head out and hope for the best. Rainbows often show up after a light rain if the sun is low enough, so capturing that transitional event can be very rewarding if the photographer is ready and alert. A good rain storm will also deposit water on leaves and berries, making them that much more interesting in a photo. Spider webs with glistening water droplets from the morning fog can make a much more interesting photo than a regular web without the drops.
Cloudy skies often have breaks in them at some point in the day. Catching the fleeting bands of light crossing the valley floor can be a challenge with big rewards. Fog can also be challenging, and it can be frustrating, but in almost all cases, all you have to do is wait it out and be ready. Moving up and down the valley floor can help find the open spots, but if you’ve found a good subject, don’t get in a hurry to leave it. As the fog pulls back and the day transitions to the normal look, mountain peaks and layers of trees and hills can magically appear.
Every afternoon, the light changes from afternoon bright white to the golden glow. Wait a little longer and the sky can change to fiery red—if you are lucky anyway. Wait even longer and the evening sky can transform to a beautiful hue of blue. For the patient group, stars sprinkle into the sky. Each of these transitions offer multitudes of opportunities. The transition from night to morning offers some of my favorite images, mainly because the Tetons look great in the morning. Just about any sunrise can be great! A good, steady tripod is a must for these photos, of course.
I didn’t exactly say it, but if you read between the lines, it might start becoming apparent that photographing in the Tetons (and anywhere for that matter) is usually most dramatic and memorable in the early morning or late in the evening. At some point in the morning, usually about the time most tourists roll out of town and into the park, the light gets bright and intense. For all practical purposes, there aren’t a lot of transitions happening between late morning and early afternoon. A big storm can roll in, but that’s more of an exception than the rule. For both visitors and photographers, the best advice I can give you is to get up long before you normally would and be out for the morning sunrise. Even better, get to a spot before the sun even starts glowing at the Eastern horizon and experience a full sunrise from Alpenglow to the bright morning light. You’ll be amazed how bright and bleached out things look on your way back into town for breakfast.
Lastly, some people are looking only for the “wall hangers”—the select, knock-your-sox-off images. To each his own, I suppose, but I think you’ll have a much better day and a much better trip to the Tetons if you keep your mind open and photograph just about everything you see. You’d be surprised what shows up while doing so, too. With digital photography, it is easy to delete shots that really didn’t turn out to be that interesting. Those “knock-your-sox-off” images don’t come around that often, so sit back and enjoy the show!