At the tail end of my recent two week Lake Superior tour, I decided to go after a shot I had been planning for quite some time. Although I had a long two day drive back home ahead of me, and I was exhausted after two weeks of shooting, driving, hiking, and kayaking, I nonetheless decided to get up at 4am and hike in the dark to Spray Falls, which plunge over the colored cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore into Lake Superior’s deep waters. Two years prior I had kayaked out to the falls in an attempt to photograph them from below, but couldn’t find a safe place to land my kayak near enough to the falls (the cliffs come straight down to the water and keep going, offering no place to stand, let along set up a tripod and camera). This time, I decided to try to find a good vantage point from above, from the beautiful North Country National Scenic Trail which follows along the lake shore. After determining that the sun was rising sufficiently far north this time of year to illuminate the falls at first light, I decided to be there in time for sunrise.
I got up early and drove to the trailhead, quickly assembling my gear for the hike. I turned on my headlamp, only to realize the batteries were near dead. No worries, that’s why I always carry a spare. I took out my second headlamp, which as it turned out needed new batteries as well. I had just enough power left to light my way for a little while, and since I new that it would be getting brighter as morning twilight set in, I wasn’t worried about getting stranded in the dark. So off I went, navigating the trail by the faint light of my headlamp, maintaining a steady pace as I hiked the first mile or so to reach the lake shore. Soon, I could hear the crashing of waves, growing steadily stronger as I got closer and closer. Once I reached the cliffs overlooking Lake Superior, I made a left turn and followed the North Country Trail for two or three miles to reach the falls.
Along the way, the light of dawn began to glimmer. I picked up my pace as I realized that the falls were father away than I had estimated, intent on reaching them for first light. I passed several nice compositions, all tempting me to stop, but I stayed my course. I really wanted to get a good shot of the falls! I finally got there, just in time for sunrise, only to wish that I had stopped somewhere else to shoot. I couldn’t find a good angle to photograph the falls, and I ended up getting something that, frankly, I would be embarrassed to ever see in print. It was a complete waste of a morning.
I had been blinded by my own pre-visualization. I had missed the chance to photograph several lovely scenes in great light, just because I was chasing a chimera that was conjured up in my own mind. I had failed to heed the call of the landscape around me, seduced instead by the Siren lure of my own imagination. It’s a lesson I have learned before, and will likely learn over and over again. It’s hard to know when to pursue your vision, and when to let go and focus on what is actually around you.
Lucky for me, as it turns out, it wasn’t a waste of a morning at all. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the hike, reveling in the solitude and the crisp spring air. And then I came upon this wonderful patch of large-flowered trillium, cascading down a sloping hillside, backlit by the still rising sun. My pre-visualization blinders were finally off, and I set about working the scene at hand.
I choose an ultra-wide angle lens for this shot, zooming out to 14mm so that I could include as many flowers and as much of the brightly lit spring trees in the background as possible. After carefully exploring the area (trying my best to avoid stomping any flowers), I found a particularly thick patch of trillium. Getting in very close to some of the showy blossoms in the foreground—I was only a few inches away—I stopped down to f/22 to ensure sufficient depth-of-field throughout the image. I used a polarizer filter to remove glare from the waxy leaves and intensify the colors. Shading the lens carefully from flare from the sun, I then waited for the slight breeze to calm before triggering the shutter. Backlighting often makes for tricky exposures, but the sun was still low in the sky, reducing the contrast in the scene sufficiently so that the sensor could capture the range of tones from light to dark in one image. The low angle of the sun and the backlighting also meant that the trillium and the forest canopy were alive with bold spring colors. Despite the cold temperatures (it had dropped below freezing at night), I soon found myself in a cloud of biting mosquitoes. I let them feast for awhile—now that I had found my shot, I wasn’t going to give it up until I got what I wanted—but when I was done I beat a hasty retreat, and began my long drive home.
So, I guess it was a good morning after all—for both me and the mosquitoes!
Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 14-24mm lens (@14mm), polarizer filter, ISO 400, f/22, 1/10 second, about a pint of blood ”donated” to the mosquitoes.