Photography is a creative field and one that tells a story. The only way I believe to truly tell that story is to immerse yourself in the frame whether it be a portrait session getting to know your subject and just talking for some time before shooting; an architectural shoot where walking through the space one, two or three days in a row before your shoot to learn light and mood is necessary; to landscape photography where you see a dark cloud or blizzard and walk towards and into the storm when every nerve and fight-or-flight instinct is telling you to go the other direction. It's that immersive experience we as photographers want to convey and the only way in doing that is to put ourselves "in" the experience and photo we are creating.
I recently worked with an awesome client out of Atlanta, Georgia who had never been to Colorado. Over the timeframe from when we first spoke on the phone to meeting in-person we spent a few months going back and forth via email and phone calls setting up what he and I were both hoping to be an epic photography trip to Colorado. Over these conversations one thing kept coming up as a requirement and simple request, both from him and one I encouraged: chase light. In the end I had my parameters to work within: no farther than 4'sh hours from Denver and no hotels, just shooting; we had 24 hours from the time I picked him up to have him back in Denver, mountains in the frame and find the best light. Copy.
After having completed one final weather and location check the morning of workshop day we set out of Denver at 7:30 am where I met Alan at his hotel in downtown Denver. We decided to head south and toward the Great Sand Dunes first stopping by Garden of the Gods. We were essentially just looking for bad weather: wind, rain, thunderstorms; you name it. Upon looking we noticed high wind advisories down south in the area of Alamosa and Great Sand Dunes National Park. We pointed our compass this direction and headed out. Keep in mind this was the first time either of us had ever met in person which is completely common for these types of trips which is awesome as you get to know and meet some really incredible individuals. After stopping for a breakfast burrito we were off.
Our first stop was Garden of the Gods to scout our sunrise location "tomorrow". As I mentioned above, we had a 24 hour window to work and the Sand Dunes are not an ideal location for sunrise when compared to other areas of the state. I suggested to Alan we scout a sunrise location near Denver since he needed to be back by 8am the following morning anyway which worked out to be perfect for our timeframe: we would depart Denver and scout a sunrise location, carry on towards the Sand Dunes being mindful to arrive early afternoon to have time to hike an scout/shoot in the best light there, hike out after sunset and climb in the car and head back north to Garden of the Gods for sunrise; it was a whirlwind trip and virtually zero sleep involved.
When we arrived to the Dunes the wind was just beginning to pick up with 35mph gusts forecasted, call us crazy?! But what I loved about working with Alan was his tenacity and sense of adventure to get the shot no matter what, even if that meant putting his camera gear in harms way. I always share techniques to best mitigate this being mindful to gear and damage, but I shared with him cameras are a tool and tools are meant to be used, there is only one way to get that dramatic and emotive image and that is by inserting yourself into that scene. We parked, looked out at the scene where he said, "damn, that is one big sand dune" which made me laugh. We got out of the car running through our checklist and checking gear making sure we had everything we needed: camera, lenses, batteries, clothing layers, goggles, headlamps, water, snacks and headed out skipping from sandbar to sandbar through Medano Creek avoiding taking our boots off.
As we hiked we discussed camera settings, composition and how to read light and why I chose this location over all the rest we had looked at and considered. I shared with him my belief dramatic light comes from bad conditions lending to (hopefully) an opportunity for a great shot. We hiked what felt like straight up and lasting over 2 hours while stopping to shoot and work along the way getting a feel for all we were witnessing and the conditions we were in. It was a blast, but also very challenging.
As we hiked to the top of the tallest Dune in the area we realized a massive dust cloud was heading our way, it was insane and had never seen anything like it. It was moving towards us so fast I said to Alan, "Sit tight, buddy, and let's ride this out. Hopefully we'll get some great light afterward!" We sat there completely engulfed in wind and sand for nearly 30 minutes when everything suddenly died down and the sun began peaking through the clouds at the most perfectly opportune moment allowing us quickly fire off a series of images creating some the most incredible photos to date. Below is a video my client captured while we rode out the storm.
In the end we spent 24 hours chasing light and seeing some of the most incredible landscapes this state has to offer all while nailing down the belief of getting "in" the craziest conditions and working harder than you ever have before to get the shot. Working harder, trusting your instincts and going the extra mile might not always yield a favorable result image-wise, but it will allow you to be in the right place should the opportunity arise. And if nothing else you will have an experience like none other.
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Good light to you!