On consecutive nights last week I had the good fortune to witness two memorable non-photographic events: Last Wednesday I watched on TV as Matt Cain pitched Major League Baseball’s twenty-second Perfect Game (and the Giants’ first ever); on Thursday night my wife and I went to see the touring Broadway production of “Wicked.” Both events were amazing, but only one moved me to tears. If you know I’m a life-long baseball fan who harbored Major League aspirations all the way through college, you probably guessed which one.
I’m not sure what this has to do with photography, except that I think it’s the unexpected component of sports and nature photography that moves me. The understanding that nothing is promised, and that no matter how hard we work to to do our absolute best, we ultimately have no control over the result and just about anything is possible. When something truly special does happen, an event we’ve never witnessed before, it feels like a gift.
The tears that well up after witnessing a Perfect Game or Olympic Gold performance are stirred by empathy—I’ve had similar dreams and understand some of what the athlete must be feeling. But other people experience a physical response to great theater (and are bored to tears by baseball). My response to a magic moment in nature is actual chills and hair-raising goosebumps—different, but no less emotional (or controllable).
The morning I captured this sunrise on Mono Lake, I was there because it was the last day of my Eastern Sierra workshop and that’s where I take my groups for our final sunrise. No divine insight or lofty expectations guided me—simply a good knowledge of the area and prior experience that told me this is a nice spot in any conditions. I certainly never expect (and try not to even permit myself to hope for) something as magic as what we got that morning.
We rose in the frigid, predawn darkness, navigated a network of rutted dirt roads, and walked a trail-less half mile by flashlight through heavy sand and (ultimately) shoe-sucking mud to get here. The morning brightened to reveal a perfect mix of herringbone clouds and blue sky. The air was utterly still and the lake surface spread before us like an infinite mirror. We started with silhouettes, using the shoreline shapes as foreground elements, and when the color arrived we found shots in all direction. As the color faded, but before the sun appeared, I made sure everyone was ready for the brief opportunity to capture a sunburst as the sun peaked above the horizon: We dialed our apertures down (f16 or smaller) and prepared for the difficult light by pulling out graduated neutral density filters (my choice) or setting up bracketing to allow post-exposure blending. When that was over we still had a few minutes of exquisite warm sidelight. One of my responsibilities during these shoots is to remind everyone to stop being photographers long enough to appreciate what they’re witnessing—it seems counterproductive, but I truly believe tapping these goosebump feelings inspires the best photography.
Just as not everyone who loves theater has a Tony, or everyone who loves baseball has thrown a Perfect Game, not everyone who loves nature has people clamoring for their photos. But I’m pretty sure that those who have risen to the highest level of their profession have chosen something that touches them in ways they can’t completely understand or control.