Scouting for Landscape Photographs: Beyond the Basics
December 14, 2012
You're more likely to win the lottery than you are to stumble across a great landscape subject just as the light is peaking. Usually you have to scout potential subjects in advance, and that means flexing a lot of boot leather.
Your first task when scouting for landscape photographs is to evaluate the photographic potential of the scene immediately in front of you. Usually, you're looking for a compelling foreground that integrates seamlessly, in a compositional sense, with a great background, and where there's potential for beautiful light. That task is important, but it's not your only task. In addition to studying the ground ten feet in front of you, look up and try to identify potential new vantage points. Some may be a hundred yards away; others may be across the valley. For that task, a pair of binoculars is vital. For years I've carried an 8x monocular weighing just four ounces in my scouting bag, right next to my USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps and a compass. I also keep a pair of full-size binoculars handy in my truck.
Binoculars make it possible to examine distant subjects that may be difficult or time-consuming to approach. What's that splash of color high on the hillside above? If it's a dense group of wildflowers, it may be worth the time to climb up for a closer look. Here's another example. A number of years ago, I began searching for a grove of aspen in fall color that would be backlit at the moment of sunrise, so the leaves would glow like stained glass. I used binoculars to study groves of aspen high on Steep Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park before deciding to make the long hike in for a closer look. Although those groves had potential, I also took advantage of my elevated vantage point, which I had not previously visited, and used my monocular to examine some aspen groves across the valley on Beaver Mountain which I'd never noticed before. They looked still more promising, so the next day I hiked an hour and a half to those groves. The photographic situation at those groves proved to be extremely promising. When I returned at sunrise the next day, I was able to make Sunrise Aspen, one of my all-time best-sellers.
While driving up the west side of Kebler Pass in late September one year I noticed a small grove of what appeared to be startlingly red aspen at the base of Marcellina Mountain. Examination with binoculars persuad-ed me the leaves were indeed red, not just brown and backlit. A little map study revealed that the grove should get moment-of-sunset light. After two skin-shredding bushwhacks through dense thickets of gambel oak, once to confirm what I thought I was seeing and once to return at sunset with my 4x5 field camera, I was able to make the image I call East Beckwith at Sunset.
One of the greatest joys of scouting is the way that each new vantage point leads onward to still more discoveries. In fall 2012, while hiking towards the summit of Stealey Mountain, near Ridgway, I came to a clearing that offered a view northeast toward Owl Creek Pass and Cimarron Ridge. As I examined the ridge north of the pass with my monocular, I noticed a grove of aspen growing right on the ridge crest with a rocky knoll rising above it. A quick map check showed that the knoll should offer a spectacular view of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain and that the foreground grove should get moment-of-sunset light. Put warm light on a warm-toned subject, and you're bound to get spectacular color. There was no time that afternoon to check out the new possibility, so I continued to the summit of Stealey Mountain and shot the image I call Stealey Mountain Sunset. The next day it became clear that the 2012 aspen season was fading. No matter: I already had an exciting objective for the fall of 2013. It took another three years and several attempts, but in 2015 I was finally able to capture a satisfying image from that new vantage point. I call the image Courthouse Mountain from Cimarron Ridge.
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