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Never Eat Breakfast before Midnight

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

Noted photographer John Sexton once said, “The only difference between me and my students is that I’ve made more mistakes than they have.” There’s a lot of truth in that. I have been a full-time professional landscape photographer for 26 years, so I’ve had plenty of time to learn from a long string of fumbles, failures, near-misses, and fiascos. In this post I will share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my career in landscape photography. I’ll explain why you should never eat breakfast before midnight, why great landscape photographers have the brain of an engineer and the heart of a hopeless romantic, and why the potential reward is always greatest when the odds against you are the longest. By the time I’m finished, you’ll either be inspired to shoot sunrise from the summit of the hardest 14,000-foot peak in Colorado or be ready to sell all your cameras on eBay.

Sunrise from 14,252-foot Mt. Wilson, Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado
Sunrise from 14,252-foot Mt. Wilson, Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado

I want to assure you that despite the many mistakes I’ve made, I’m actually a talented, experienced, and careful photographer. In fact, I blame all of my mistakes on high-altitude hypoxia, sleep deprivation, and excessive caffeine.

Here’s an example. I was working on a seven-year project to shoot sunrise, or occasionally sunset, from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s Fourteeners, peaks reaching over 14,000 feet in height. My next objectives were Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak. Tabeguache is one of three Fourteeners in the state where the only practical route to the summit is over the summit of an adjacent Fourteener. I drove to the trailhead, hiked in, and camped at about 10,000 feet. On the same day, I got up at 10:30 p.m. and left camp 45 minutes later so I could summit Mt. Tabeguache at 4:30 a.m. and shoot sunrise.

I returned to camp, napped, then got up again at 11:30 p.m. so I could summit Mt. Shavano in time to shoot sunrise. On the way down from Mt. Shavano, still at about 14,000 feet, I stopped to photograph some tiny alpine flowers. As I was composing the shot, I discovered that auto-focus had suddenly stopped working. Repeatedly I pressed the shutter release halfway down, but the lens wouldn't auto-focus. I checked the auto-focus switch on the lens. It was set to auto. I checked the camera body. The LCD readout confirmed that auto-focus was enabled. I switched lenses, but got the same behavior. After puzzling over the issue for a good five minutes, I finally remembered that a year and a half earlier I had removed the auto-focus fun