Don't Cut and Run!
June 1, 2013
My friend Owen Murphy and I were looking for wildflowers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It was a dreary afternoon at the height of the summer monsoon, and we had just spent an hour sitting under a sheltering spruce in full rain gear as we waited out a powerful thunderstorm. When the rain and hail tapered off to a drizzle and the thunder and lightning ebbed, we ventured above timberline and found a small creek surrounded by marsh marigolds. Snowmass Mountain, a Fourteener, rose in the background. The scene was enticing, but the light from the heavy clouds was dismal blue. I set up my 4x5 field camera and waited. The almanac time of sunset arrived with no hint of a break in the clouds. It looked certain that sunset was going to be a bust. "Not good enough to justify shooting 4x5 film at $6 per sheet," I said to Owen, and I began the laborious process of breaking down the 4x5.
Suddenly Owen interrupted me.
"Is that good enough?" he asked. I turned around and saw that at the last possible moment a shaft of sunset light had miraculously broken through the clouds and cast a red spotlight on Snowmass Mountain. I began frantically yanking gear back out of my pack and barely had time to set up and expose two sheets before the light faded once more.
The experience taught me again something I should have learned at the very beginning of my career as a landscape photographer: don't cut and run! Nine times out of ten, if there are heavy clouds obscuring the sun ten minutes before sunset, there will still be dense clouds blocking the sun at the moment of sunset, and you'll get skunked. But on the tenth occasion the sun will somehow find a hole against all odds, and you will be privileged to photograph a rare, fleeting, and spectacular display of natural light. You don't want to witness something spectacular from the door of your tent, far from your carefully scouted foreground, as I did on Uncompahgre Peak, or in your rear-view mirror as you drive away from your shooting location, as I did while shooting the full moon setting over the Flatirons near Boulder. On Uncompahgre I was able to grab a few frames hand-held, but the composition was far from ideal and the sharpness was marginal. In Boulder I was able to turn around and get set up again in time to capture something attractive, but I probably missed the best color.
As these anecdotes show, this is not a lesson I learned once and never forgot. On practically every shoot I seem to get tempted to leave as soon as success seems unlikely. I have to remind myself repeatedly of one of my favorite mottos: the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against you are the longest. As I stand there waiting, often a bit chilly and aching for a good night's sleep, I try to ignore the demons of doubt, who remind me of the times I made the opposite mistake. There was an incident in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness when I sat in the pouring rain for at least an hour as the time of sunset came and went, hoping for a break so I could shoot some flowers. It was so obvious that only a complete idiot would sit there in the pouring rain above timberline as night fell that two passing hikers concluded I must need help and stopped to ask solicitously what they could do. I assured them I was physically intact and let it go at that, without trying to explain my obsessive pursuit of landscape images. And in truth my losing battle with the summer monsoon that evening cost me nothing but a dark, muddy hike back to my tent and a slightly delayed dinner. Waiting until the last light fades may waste a little time; cutting and running can cost you the best image of your career.
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