Reflections on a Failed Landscape Photography Expedition

In all honesty, certain plans are bound to exploding into flames when they come into contact with the reality. It’s not a surprise. the only thing that is twisted is that we usually are aware of what’s coming but we keep going in the meantime. I was in that situation this week as I attempted to capture the Milky Way over mountains in Colorado. There’s always something to be learned from mistakes.

The story is fairly straightforward. I was looking to photograph the Milky Way for a few videos and articles to post in Photography Life. I conducted some research on the internet and came across an “moderate” hike that was rated as moderate to the mountains lake located in Colorado which looked amazing. My aim was to begin with the hike in the middle of the day to get an excellent view by midnight. (There were obviously no drop-offs on the way otherwise, I wouldn’t have tried a hike like this in the dark.)

The first step of my plan went effectively – sleep before hiking. My dismay was that the remainder of my trip did not go as smoothly. The forecast was clear, but it turned into a slog through the night and deep snowbanks encasing all of the trek. I didn’t have my snowshoes because I thought the trail would be free of snow, and each step was a sinking into my shins, or even more. It was possibly the most strenuous hike I’ve ever made and it was not the longest or coldest.

Mistake #1: Planning a hike on the assumption that the conditions for June this year will be similar to the conditions of June last year.

This winter, Colorado had an impressive snowfall. In the end, that’s fantastic news. The more snow, the more melt enough to stop the two-year drought in large regions across the entire state. In the end, the forecast for the summer of 2019 is lower risk of fires, and more secure reservoirs an extremely welcome sight.

For hikers in particular, this implies that many of the major trails do not have “summer conditions” regardless of the season. Some high-altitude routes are closed due to snow (yes even today more than two weeks into the summer). While researching the hike I had planned to hike I read the reports of previous hikers who went on the trail in June, as well as May and April. They had only a little snow in comparison to the awe-inspiring amount of snow that is that is currently on the ground.

Snowy Landscape with Distant Mountains
NIKON Z 7 + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 200, 1/13, f/6.3

There’s a lot in snow. But not a good topic or message to communicate in this video. This is among the top ones at the very minimum. (Still I’m not able to upload images that I really dislike, even though I have taken numerous photos of this kind here.)

Mistake #2:  Believing that online reports accurately depict an entire hike instead of only those that are the highlight(s).

It wasn’t just the winter conditions I had misinterpreted from my research on the internet. In addition, the photographs from the hike revealed stunning weather conditions suitable that are ideal for Milky Way photography – spectacular mountain views and lots of sky.

However, the hike itself was a bit different. Except for the final 0.5 percent, the whole hike was within an unnatural forest that had no clearings. It could be a pleasant walk during the daytime however I went through the night with the sole purpose of getting as close to the Milky Way as possible. It didn’t go as planned.

In the beginning, the dearth of good views became increasingly evident during the hike, I was tempted to turn back. However, nature, always the ultimate carnival operator was able to keep me engaged. Each time I was tempted to quit but something kept me on the edge just a little bit longer. The rain stopped and the cold drenched. The amazing Milky Way started to peek through the trees, and diminished a little. The lake at the bottom of the hike – that I was sure would be fantastic whatever the viewpoints I had seen before became closer with each step.

Milky Way through Trees
NIKON Z 6 + NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S @ 17.5mm, ISO 6400, 10 seconds, f/4.0

(Odd camera settings as it is part of a stack of multiple images – which will be the subject of a subsequent video and article)

Mistake #3: Feeling that a shot or or any photo should be captured and is worth going above your normal boundaries to capture because the circumstances are ideal.

Anyone who has ever tried Milky Way photography knows how difficult it is to get that perfect shot. For the greatest Milky way visibility it is necessary to photograph in the dead of night (beyond the astronomical or even nautical nighttime twilight) in a day that has only a few clouds and no moonlight. Also, you need to remain as free of lighting sources as you can and even in small towns. Photography of the stars isn’t simple.

However, everything coincided perfectly throughout the hike. When you add in the photos of the area I’d seen on the internet – a stunning mountain basin that had big sky views, that was the best recipe to take it too far. Yes I was in an endless forest but any decent views of the sky needed to be within reach.

It was not. The place took me several hours more time to get there than I expected. Although there was a time when the Milky Way grew truly beautiful at midnight, clouds began to appear soon after. When I finally got to the clearing near the end of my trek, I was almost sunrise but the Milky Way had disappeared.

Most importantly, the clouds disintegrated in the morning, creating an uninteresting sky once I finally made it to the (admittedly stunning) location.

Sunrise Gunnison Copper Lake
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S @ 24.5mm, ISO 64, 1/80, f/9.0

A great shot I’m quite content with, but certainly not worth the effort. Perhaps with clouds, it might have been more extraordinary.

From a perspective of hiking from a hiking perspective, it was a waste of time. I hiked for hours on difficult terrain and didn’t see any kind of scenery other than the headlamp that I was using to illuminate. From a photographer’s perspective the entire experience proved… practically useless. I took a handful of borderline-useable photographs (the ones that appear in this article) However, these have some imperfections.

One of the biggest consolation points that I can offer is that I wasn’t at risk of anything other than taking poor photos. I was armed with plenty of water and two GPSs, as well as additional batteries along with warm clothing. Everyone were aware of where I was and when I was expected to be returning. While I was tempted by intense exercise – not something you should play with I did have the necessary camping gear, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag taking a break during the journey to boost my energy levels.

It brought back memories of a hike that I took several years ago in Iceland and at the end of an abyss, I saw a massive unnamed waterfall that was visible in the distance. Instinctively focused on getting to the falls, and confident that it was within my abilities to reach it (though there was some discomfort) I continued for the remainder of the day walking to the location. When I finally made it the falls weren’t as appealing than most of other waterfalls I’d encountered on my journey. Together with the dullest lighting, I didn’t even get any keeper photos during the trip.

Unnamed Waterfall Iceland
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 5 seconds, f/16.0 Poor lighting in Iceland as well as a gruelling climb to get to this location

I’ve said before that it is important not to confuse backstory and quality, i.e. the memory of taking a picture is not as important as how great the image actually looks. The article today has a similar however, distinctly different conclusion: Before you snap a picture, in the planning phase do not think that you can do more work to get better outcomes. In the end you must make sure that you are working in the proper direction.

The final point of this piece is not evident, but it is worth mentioning Take lessons the lessons you have made from mistakes. I made a number of mistakes on the failed expedition to the landscape and not just the three major mistakes I’ve emphasized in this article. I’m not able to guarantee that I won’t make the same mistakes again however, I think that it’s more likely. This is particularly true of the amount of trust I’ll place in research on the internet. However, the practice of hunting down doomed images might be a mistake that I’m stuck with!

In the end, looking back the plan was always likely to not work. Everything was to be perfect beginning with the weather opening just at the right time to the trail conditions that allowed the normal speed of hike. It could have gone well and been successful, but it was purely luck. I’m not saying that lucky breaks are wonderful. However, you shouldn’t count on them.

However, if your plan for landscape photography is solid, nearly everything can go wrong, except for the lighting, and you’ll still be able to get a great image.