A couple of years ago a friend joined a New Zealand photo workshop and found that his leaders had never been to New Zealand. In lieu of scouting, these leaders had done a lot of googling, studied some maps, and read a few guides. During the workshop, they were still trying to put things together without firsthand knowledge of drive-times, the length (or difficulty) of the hikes, where to find the best views (not just the popular ones), the best photography conditions for each location, and how early to arrive or long to stay. Yikes.
Though I can only speak for myself, I can’t image that this is common practice—I believe most workshop leaders are both responsible and prepared. But this story did get me thinking as Don Smith and I started planning our own New Zealand photo workshop. Even the most thorough armchair research can’t prepare a leader for how to respond to the unexpected: extreme weather, a sudden closure or detour, or even a simple cloud that obscures a planned moonrise.
Which is why, before adding a workshop, I do a lot of scouting. A lot of scouting. Not just for my customers’ benefit, but for my own mental health. This might have something to do with being backup obsessive (compulsive?)—whether it’s data, batteries, keys, or photo locations, I just can’t sleep without knowing I can handle an unexpected loss without a hiccup.
At first this was easy because I started with workshops in locations that I’ve been visiting my entire life: Yosemite, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierra. These spots are all just a few hours from my home, so scouting was mostly a matter of double-checking to confirm what I already knew, maybe revisiting under certain conditions.
But when I started adding workshops a little farther afield, at locations where I didn’t have a lifetime’s knowledge, I had to do cram courses to get up to speed. I started with the standard internet searches, map scouring, and guide reading, but any photo-related activity that anyone can do without getting out of the recliner is hardly photography. Armed with this background knowledge, I was ready to put my money where my browser was, and follow-up with multiple, lengthy visits to my new location.
I started doing these scouting trips thinking that I’d just be confirming the knowledge I’d gleaned from my recliner. How wrong I was. As important as this research is, recliner-knowledge pales in comparison to the insight gained by interviewing (pestering?) locals, and simply driving/hiking around constantly asking myself, “What’s over there?”
Another thing I’ve learned is that the priorities for a scouting trip are different than the priorities for a photo trip. I certainly take my camera, and do my best to get as much quality photography time as possible, but a necessary frustration of a scouting trip is the inability to land at every spot at just the right time. Sometimes it’s because I don’t know the right time until I’ve actually put my eyes on a spot, but usually it’s just that there isn’t time to put my eyes on every location at just the right time.
On this month’s New Zealand scouting trip with Don Smith, one spot we’d targeted was Lake Matheson, just outside the little town of Fox Glacier. After seeing the pictures and reading the reports, we knew Lake Matheson offered striking reflections of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook that made it a possible sunrise or sunset spot for our groups. But our long day had started several hours away at Lake Wanaka, detoured east (away from Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson) on an unpaved road through a mountain valley, before finally meandering up and over Haast Pass to New Zealand’s west coast. Further distracted by an unexpected abundance of photo opportunities on Haast Pass, Don and I didn’t pull into Fox Glacier until 90 minutes before sunset.
Checking into our hotel, we learned that that the best views at Lake Matheson were at the back of the lake, about a one-mile walk from the parking lot. Since this was a sunset candidate for the workshop, as tempting as it was to go straight to our room and then to dinner, we bolted for the lake. We arrived with just enough time to hike out to the views, but hadn’t anticipated the rainforest and how beautiful the hike itself would be. With little time to spare, we were forced to race by many lush, intimate scenes that would have justified the hike even without the views, but that’s why we scout—next year, when we return with our groups, now we know to arrive early enough for everyone to enjoy the rainforest as much as we longed to.
We ended up setting up shop for sunset at what we’d learned was the final, and consensus “best,” mountain view on the two-mile lake loop. For a first visit this was probably the best choice, though I think in future visits I’ll make an effort to find something a little less conventional. Though we didn’t get much in the way of clouds, we enjoyed beautiful light on the peaks right up until sunset. As the air chilled, a thin layer of radiation fog formed above a meadow just beyond the lake, and a few wisps of clouds formed beneath the crest.
As nice as the warm light is opposite the sun just before sunset and after sunrise, I’ve always preferred the soft pink and blue pastels and shadowless landscape of the pre-sunrise and post-sunset alpenglow. Some locations are great for this, and others aren’t so much. Mt. Whitney, with its serrated peaks that jut high enough to make it into the pink part of the pre-sunrise sky above the Alabama Hills, is the alpenglow poster child that I judge all other locations against.
As revealed by this image, this evening’s visit was enough to demonstrate that Lake Matheson offers sunset alpenglow potential to rival Mt. Whitney at sunrise. That means we’ll need to make sure the group comes armed with flashlights so we can keep out a little longer than we would if we wanted to get them back to the van before dark.
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