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A Failed Landscape Photography Expedition

To be brutally honest – some plans are doomed to erupt in flames the moment they meet reality. That isn’t a surprise; the only twisted part is that we almost always know what’s about to happen, yet keep chugging along anyway. I found myself in that position last week while attempting to photograph the Milky Way over mountains in Colorado. Still, there’s always something to learn from failure.

The story is quite simple. I wanted to photograph the Milky Way for a few articles and videos to publish on Photography Life. I did some internet research and found a “moderate” rated hike to a mountain lake in Colorado that looked pretty stunning. My goal was to start the hike late in the day and get to some good views by midnight. (There were, of course, no drop-offs along the way, or I’d never have attempted such a hike at night.)

The first part of my plan worked stunningly well – take a nap before the hike. To my dismay, the rest of the trip didn’t go as smoothly. The clear forecast turned into a rainy nighttime slog, with deep snowbanks covering the entire length of the hike. I didn’t bring along my snowshoes, thinking the path would be mostly clear, so each step meant sinking up to my shins or more. It was perhaps the most grueling hike I’ve ever done, despite being nowhere near the longest nor the coldest.

Mistake #1: Planning a hike with the assumption that this year’s June conditions would be the same as last year’s June conditions.

This past winter, Colorado had an impressive snowfall. Overall, that’s great news. More snow means more snowmelt – enough to end the two-year drought across large parts of the state. As a result, the outlook for summer 2019 is fewer wildfires and more stable reservoirs, a welcome sight indeed.

For hiking, of course, it means that many of the main trails are nowhere near “summer conditions” despite the time of year. A number of high-altitude roads remain closed due to snow (yes, even now, almost two weeks into summer). While researching the trail I planned to hike, I read reports from last year’s hikers in June, and even May and April. They experienced only minimal snow, in comparison to the astonishing amount present this year.

Snowy Landscape with Distant Mountains
NIKON Z 7 + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 200, 1/13, f/6.3
Lots of snow, but no great subject or message to convey here. This is one of the better ones, at least. (Still can’t bring myself to publish images I genuinely hate, though I took many such photos here.)

Mistake #2: Believing that online reports accurately represent an entire hike, rather than just the highlight(s).

It wasn’t just the snow conditions that I misinterpreted from my research online. Even more importantly, people’s photos from the hike showed beautiful conditions for Milky Way photography – spectacular mountain views and a lot of sky.

Yet, the hike itself was very different. Other than the last 0.5%, the entire thing was in a forest with essentially no clearings. I’m certain it would have been a very pleasant hike during the day, but I was going along at night with the sole goal of seeing as much Milky Way as possible. That certainly didn’t work out.

As the lack of good views became more and more obvious during the hike, I should have turned around. But nature, ever the perfect carnival operator, knew how to keep me hooked. Every time I was tempted to cut my losses, something kept me going just a bit longer. The cold rain let up. An amazing Milky Way started to peek through the trees, which thinned out a bit. The lake at the end of the hike – which I knew would be great, regardless of the views beforehand – grew nearer with every 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 because this is part of a multi-image stack – the topic of a future article and video)

Mistake #3: Feeling that a shot – any shot – is a must-capture, and that it is worth going beyond your normal limits to photograph because conditions are perfect.

Anyone who has tried Milky Way photography knows how difficult it can be to get the perfect shot. For maximum Milky Way visibility, you need to shoot in the dead of night (beyond nautical and even astronomical twilight) on a day with minimal clouds and no moonlight. Plus, you have to be as far away from light pollution as possible, even small towns. Photographing the stars is not easy.

Yet, all those variables lined up perfectly during the hike. Combined with the photos of this location I had seen online – a spectacular mountain basin with big sky views – it was the perfect formula for pushing it too far. Sure, I was in a seemingly endless forest, but some good view of the sky had to be close.

It wasn’t. The destination took several hours longer to reach than I had expected. And although the Milky Way grew truly beautiful around midnight, some clouds started rolling in shortly after. When I finally made it to the clearing at the end of the hike, it was nearly sunrise, and the Milky Way had vanished.

Worst of all, the clouds faded away again at sunrise, making for a bland sky when I finally did reach the (admittedly very beautiful) destination. 

Sunrise Gunnison Copper Lake
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S @ 24.5mm, ISO 64, 1/80, f/9.0
A nice shot to have, and one I’m relatively happy with, but not worth the absurd effort. Perhaps with clouds it would have been closer to something special.

From a hiking standpoint, the whole thing was pointless. I walked for hours through difficult terrain without seeing any scenery at all, except what my headlamp illuminated. From a photography standpoint, the whole thing was… nearly pointless. I got a few borderline-usable photos (the ones in this article), but even those have some major flaws.

One big consolation, at least, is that I was never in danger of anything except taking bad photos. I had plenty of water, two GPSs, extra batteries, and warm layers. People knew where I was going and when I would be back. Although I flirted with heavy exertion – not something to trifle with – I did carry a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, allowing some rest along the way to keep my energy up.

It all reminded me of a hike I did many years ago in Iceland, where, from the edge of a canyon, I saw a giant, unnamed waterfall in the distance. Stubbornly focused on the goal of reaching the falls, and knowing it was within my capabilities to make it there (though not without plenty of discomfort), I spent the rest of the day hiking to that spot. When I finally reached it, the falls were less interesting than almost all the others I had seen on the trip. Combined with the dullest of dull light, I didn’t get a single keeper that day.

Unnamed Waterfall Iceland
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 5 seconds, f/16.0
Bad light in Iceland, and a ridiculous hike to get to this spot

I’ve written before that you shouldn’t confuse backstory with quality – i.e., your memory of taking a photo with how good the photo actually is. Today’s article has a related, though distinctly different takeaway: Before you take a photo, during the planning stage, don’t think that more effort will lead to more results. At a minimum, you need to put that effort in the right direction.

The other point of this article is beyond obvious, but it still bears repeating: Learn from your mistakes. I made several on this failed landscape expedition, more than just the three big ones I emphasized here. I can’t say for sure that I’ll never make the same mistakes again, but I do think it’s less likely. That’s especially true in terms of how much credibility I’ll give to online research – whereas the art of chasing doomed photos may be a flaw I’m stuck with!

After all, in hindsight, this plan was always going to fail. Everything needed to go perfectly, from the weather opening up at the right moment to trail conditions allowing a normal hiking speed. It could have worked out, but any success would have been pure luck. Don’t get me wrong; lucky breaks are great. But you can’t rely on them. 

Instead, if your landscape photography plan is rock-solid, nearly everything can go wrong – except the light – and you’ll still get a good shot. If I manage to meet that standard next time around, I’ll have some Milky Way content to publish on Photography Life soon. But if it does end up being another failure… hopefully, at least, it’s another failure that starts off with a great nap.

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