Always be open to dumb luck.
Yesterday, I went up to Rocky Mountain National Park to make some photographs. It’s the end of the foliage season and I love being up there when the elk are down in the meadows.
It was a magnificent Fall day in Denver. Equally nice in Boulder, where I dropped off some food and school supplies at my son’s CU dorm on my way up to RMNP. And, as I came across Lake Estes into Estes Park, the sun was shining on the Stanley Hotel just beyond a backlit grove of golden Aspen trees.
… and then it started to rain.
I couldn’t believe it. Just as I was entering the park!
The weather report was for a mostly sunny end of the day and then a clear evening, but I kept a positive attitude and tried to will the rain to stop.
4:30p - - - 5:30p - - - 6:30p - - - sunset - - - still raining.
I sat in my car watching two groups of elk moving around the field in Moraine Park. Two hawks were riding the 20 mph winds. I imagined the photographs I would be making … if it weren’t raining and I was out roaming around.
I know some of you are wondering why I was such a baby about the rain. Admit it … I know you are. Well, the truth is … I was unprepared. There … I said it. Happy?! I was prepared for the cold, not the rain, and I wasn’t confident enough in my gear’s weatherproofing to risk getting it soaked. (Ok … get it all out … “wimp!” … “amateur!” … etc. Yup, I deserve it.)
Anyway … getting back to the matter at hand …
The rain stopped a few minutes before 7p … just as it had gotten too dark to photograph (of course!).
As I was leaving Moraine Park, I came upon three cars stopped just before the exit intersection.
There, about 75-100 feet off the road, was dumb luck, sporting a 10-point set of antlers (or 12 … not sure if you count those little nubs).
It was perfect except for two minor inconveniences — there was barely enough light to see the elk, and no one was getting out of their cars (for fear of spooking the elk).
But this was dumb luck! I can’t just leave - at least not before making a ridiculous, hail-mary attempt at a photograph … right?
I rolled down the passenger-side windows of my Subaru (yep … still driving that ol’ jalopy!), contorted myself into a human tripod, and lined up my shots with a 400mm lens. In the process, I chose not to be bothered by the fact my first exposure was displaying 12800 ISO, 1/20 second shutter speed at f/5.6 (wide open for this lens). But the fact the elk was moving around … that was a problem.
When I teach photography, I talk about the process every photographer goes thru in creating any photograph. Part of that process is recognizing and adapting to the limitations of your scene and scenario.
In this situation, the primary limitations were composition (i.e., I couldn’t change my position) and shutter speed (it was really really dark).
Photography, by its very nature, is about moments. Typically, that means a moment that offers something visually or emotionally compelling. In this case, I was after something much simpler - a moment of physical stillness.
While I’m the furthest thing from an elk expert, I do know that elk get pretty still when they bugle. That would be my moment … and it was!
Other wandering elk in the vicinity blocked my subject for much of the 10 minutes I was there (before they strolled away), but I did wind up with a few frames that weren’t spoiled by either my movement or my subject’s.
The whole experience left me with a couple of thoughts.
First, camera technology today is amazing.
The second of the two images here (with the house in the background) was shot at 1/4 second. It’s not razor sharp, but it’s good enough. I can only imagine what it would be like were it not for image stabilization! And, it was literally so dark by my last shot that I was going off blind faith that my subject was in focus. I have no idea how my camera managed to acquire focus!
The other thought goes back to what I wrote at the beginning, there’s just no substitute for dumb luck!
For those of you who have the opportunity, do head up to RMNP and enjoy the elk. It’s one of the annual treasures we get to enjoy as Coloradans. And, if you do make it up there, I wish you plenty of your own dumb luck!