Dean M. Chriss

Capturing a Landscape Photograph
It's not often this easy
December 25, 2020

Waiting for Sunset - photograph of the area
"Waiting, it's what we do."

Every photograph has a story. My memory is not the greatest, but I can remember the story of nearly every photograph I have ever captured upon seeing it. Few of those memories recall happy accidents, where happenstance puts me at the right place at the right time. Although I will always gratefully accept happy accidents, most of my memories begin with location scouting, the personal discovery of an amazing place, and envisioning an image that would hopefully convey the essence of that place to others. I do that scouting and determine when (season and time of day) the right lighting will occur during the photographically unproductive midday hours. That saves morning and evening hours for the fun and hard work of capturing previously envisioned images.

Some memories of image capturing recall sleepy 3 AM journeys to remote spots to capture a scene in warm sunrise light, or capturing a photograph at sunset followed by a difficult nighttime hike, or overnight bivouacs for similar purposes. Most of memories recall repeating one or more of those things many times before a successful photograph is captured. Sometimes it takes decades. No matter how much time, effort, energy, and money one invests, success is never guaranteed. While most good photographs are much more than happy accidents, they still depend on nature and a considerable amount of luck. This story recounts a typical evening on one of my photo trips. It was my second attempt on that same trip to capture a particular photograph that I had previously envisioned. If it was as unsuccessful as my first attempt, it would be another year before I could try again. The only unusual aspects of this particular evening were that I accomplished my goal on just the second attempt, and I unwittingly captured a couple of extra images that work to illustrate this story.

Traveling to this spot required a couple of hours in a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle followed by a hike through an area where no trails exist. Along the way I saw quite a bit of cloud cover with some patches of blue sky, and also noticed that the sky was completely clear toward the west. That gave me hope for the sunset photograph I had envisioned. Clouds in the east were welcome because my photograph needed warm sunlight reflecting from them. No clouds would mean no photograph, as would too many clouds if they blocked out the sun. If the western sky remained clear enough it might all work out. I arrived about three hours before sunset. My preference is always to be early so it is possible to explore different compositions and vantage points before I need to start doing anything in earnest. In this case my excitement made me leave a little too early so there was time to kill. After hiking to the spot my view to the west was completely blocked by a long ridge. I could only hope the sky conditions would remain favorable. The early March evening was chilly and breezy. I explored a bit, settled on a vantage point and composition, and set up my camera. I occasionally captured a few shots when the clouds looked interesting, while dining on a peanut butter banana Clif Bar, drinking water, and basking in the scenery. Even if my best photo that evening was no better than the initial postcard shot below, at least I got to spend some time alone in this desert paradise.

Sunlit Temples in Paradise, Early Evening

(Click image to enlarge)

The clouds gradually got heavier. The monuments would sporadically go dark and then be illuminated through gaps between clouds that I could not see. As the time passed the illumination became less and less frequent. My sense of optimism about the approaching sunset dimmed and brightened along with the monuments. I knew the monuments would not be illuminated at sunset because the same ridge that prevented me from seeing the western horizon would block any direct light from falling on them at sunset. I was counting on the warm and shadowless post-sunset glow to softly illuminate the monuments. For a brief period while that was happening there should still be some direct sunlight on the clouds high above the monuments. I've seen this happen dozens of times in other places, but clouds on the western horizon could mean there would be no sunset at all. The inability to see what was going on along the western horizon was frustrating. With the sky so cloudy and the monuments dark so frequently this long before sunset, I had a bad feeling about how the evening might unfold.

Cell phone shot through camera viewfinder

Drabness in the Desert and Time to Kill

Cell phone photo through camera's viewfinder

After an hour and a half or so the clouds became much heavier and more angry looking. The cool breeze became a cold wind that occasionally blew sand into my face and eyes. Grit crunched between my teeth. There were occasional bursts of large raindrops and a few distant claps of thunder. I was no longer basking and this was no longer paradise. I thought about leaving more than once, but without anything better to do I stayed and hoped for something miraculous to happen. I captured the photograph below just as the last direct sunlight of the day left the enormous stone monuments. Looking carefully you will notice that only the most distant monument is still fully illuminated, and light on the closer monuments was already dimming when I made the exposure. Within a few seconds the clouds extinguished the sun and the scene became dark, dull, and drab. I was cold and miserable, and kept hoping that I would not get drenched. That would mean being more miserable, and could also mean spending the night and possibly longer in my vehicle. The area's primitive clay roads are often impassible with any type of vehicle after a heavy rain.

Temples of Clouds, Wind, and Thunder

(Click image to enlarge)

The clouds eventually grew so dense that I wondered if I would be able to tell when the sun was setting. If I couldn't, the darkness following that event would certainly tell me I was an idiot for staying. That happens more often than I would like, but staying always gives a photographer the best odds for success. Leaving before the sun is down guarantees you will get nothing. As it turns out on this occasion, I was easily able to determine when the sun was setting, but there was little warning. Since everything was set up and ready, just a little reframing was needed to capture the photograph below. It is better than what I had envisioned, thanks to the dark background provided by the unexpected storm. As I mentioned earlier, happy accidents are always gratefully accepted!

Temples of Light

(Click image to enlarge)

As the day's last light faded I was overjoyed to have experienced and photographed this sublime spectacle of nature. Instead of calling me an idiot, the darkness that slowly enveloped the place informed me that staying was a brilliant decision. As I hiked back to my vehicle in the twilight, the grit between my teeth didn't seem so bad anymore, and though I was still cold, it didn't matter.

Happy capturing,