Expect the Unexpected
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, January | February 2002

Outdoor photography may be one of the least predictable pursuits on the planet. The art of getting great nature images on film consumes decades of highly intelligent people’s lives, never to be fully mastered. Predicting chance encounters in nature can’t be learned in photography schools.

I’ve taken on urban assignments that make the uniqueness of outdoor photography skills crystal clear. When I was hired to help shoot a book on the 1997 presidential inauguration, the world’s best photojournalists prepared to shoot candid moments on fast films, while a portrait photographer set up a mini-studio to make large-format formal shots of celebrities at the inaugural balls. I began my day wandering the streets of Washington in the wee hours of a subfreezing January morning in a dirty down jacket and Sorel boots, looking more like a homeless person than a political photographer. I shot the inaugural dawn from within the Lincoln Memorial as I would a mountain landscape, using slow, fine-grained film with a graduated filter to hold shadow detail. It became the book’s frontispiece.

Though I did not make the cut for a coveted position on the elevated press stand perched above the crowd near the inaugural podium, I did obtain a messenger’s press pass that allowed me to walk in and out of other areas without an assigned position. As Clinton and Gore were sworn in, I slowly walked the steps a hundred feet from the podium with a 500mm f4 lens and 2X teleconverter as if I were stalking grizzly bears. I set down my tripod just long enough to catch a crisp Gore family shot that graced another book page.

My outdoor working style was clearly more flexible than that of my more specialized peers, who did great making the kind of shots they were expected to make. I’d observed the same thing while shooting seven previous “Day in the Life” books, with up to 100 chosen photographers covering a whole nation in a day. Behind the illusion of a remarkable range of candid imagery was a web of narrowly focused assignments. The books were high quality and sold well, but the concept would have fallen flat for “A Day in The Life of the Serengeti.” Existing images shot by nature photographers marching to their own drum have already created far more compelling books than what any mass of photographers could hope to bring back on one assigned day.

The diversity of the natural world is so great that going anywhere with a single type of image in mind shuts off other possibilities. When headed for a lake before dawn last summer to catch the sunrise with one wide-angle lens and ISO 50 Fuji Velvia, I had no hope of making a decent image of the deer I passed drinking from a stream. Days later, while tracking a mountain lion with a zoologist using radio telemetry, I had no hope of doing justice to an incredible pocket of sage wildflowers with my hand-held Nikon 80–400mm VR lens.

I normally try to plan for as many eventualities as possible when venturing into the wilds with my camera. Unless you’re prepared to expect the unexpected, you’re likely to miss capturing nature’s finest moments. If those specialized urban photographers who covered the inauguration came across an outdoor photographer’s dream situation, such as a grizzly ambling across a flowered meadow beneath an incredible sunrise, they’d probably blow it. While they might get a record shot that validated their experience–distant bear, grainy bear, or shadowed bear–they would be far less likely to create an image worthy of a nature calendar than a good amateur outdoor photographer who had the mind-set and equipment to render all the disparate elements as a magical moment on film.

However, some talented outdoor photographers choose to greatly limit their potential in order to up the odds of limited success. For example, shooting captive wildlife in a game park offers much of a portrait photographer’s control of subject, situation, and lighting, but speaking for myself, I find it hard to celebrate a great image of a wild animal that isn’t wild.

While there’s no way to turn that game park photograph into a wild scene (except by not disclosing the circumstances), there was a way to return to that spectacular patch of truly wild flowers with the right lens, which is exactly what I did the next morning.

Similarly, though I failed to photograph the lion on the day I found the flowers, I returned again with a Department of Fish and Game tracker and stalked the animal with radio telemetry to where it slept beneath a tree in dark shadows. At this point, I was no longer a passive observer. My actions could govern whether the cat slipped away, charged, sat still for a portrait like a captive cat, or displayed some wild behavior. I spent an hour stalking the last 200 feet of brushy slope without a noise. I thought the cat was gone until what appeared to be a bird fifteen feet away through shadowed sagebrush twitched into the unmistakable shape of an ear. Retreating to thirty feet, I set my 80–400mm VR lens at about 200mm and snapped a twig under foot. The huge cat stood up and glowered at me with one eye behind a branch. And then she was gone.

Though I was expecting the unexpected, until the final second I had no firm idea what kind of image, if any, I might create. This time my result was technically successful, hauntingly wild, and splendidly unpredictable. Whenever I head into the wilds, I make one of three choices. Either I carry gear for a broad range of unexpected subjects, or I take more limited special gear for something specific, or I just scout for a better day.

Later last summer, I couldn’t imagine what could be worth photographing in hazy, midmorning light on a twelve-mile run up a closed 4WD road to the top of 14,246-foot White Mountain Peak. I agonized over whether to take a camera at all, even though hundreds of people would be on the usually empty trail because they could drive closer to the summit than normal on the annual open-house day of a high-altitude research lab. At the last moment, I stuffed my Nikon N80 and 28–70mm lens into my chest pouch and set off, passing a veritable circus of hikers and mountain bikers in flat light. On the summit, I asked a veteran mountain biker if he could ride the last fifty feet of the rocky grade as close to the edge of a big drop-off as possible. It took him four tries to stay on his bike long enough to ride into my frame, several feet back from larger rocks near the edge.

Then a group of unicyclists rode up the final grade and began amusing themselves riding circles on the roof of the tiny summit lab. The best rider, , Kris Holm of Vancouver, had been the subject of a movie about his adventures riding down 18,000-foot Orizaba in Mexico, over 17,000-foot passes in Tibet, and across cliff tops in Canada. He was more than willing to ride where I’d asked the mountain biker to go, and I could hardly believe my viewfinder as it showed him hopping uphill from boulder to boulder on the very edge at over 14,200 feet. When he mentioned he could ride down smooth trails faster than a runner, I said, “Want to race?”

By avoiding switchbacks and plunging down scree slopes I was well ahead until Kris passed me with a big grin on a straight stretch before the final downhill. I sprinted, cut the last big curve, and won by ten seconds–just in time to shoot him first frowning, then laughing.

And I had almost left my camera behind. It’s that wild chance of an unexpected encounter with an animal, a wildflower display, a rainbow, or a unicycle that continues to fuel my passion for outdoor photography decade after decade.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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