Over the years, I have done a ton of hiking. And as long as I can remember, I have had a camera handy, just in case.
But I’ll tell you what — hikers and photographers are different breeds and, although it’s probably not PC to say it, they shouldn’t be allowed to fraternize.
A hiker pulls out topos, figures out the best way to get to The Thing That Must Be Seen, packs as little as he can considering factors such as weather, length of the hike. And off he goes.
On the other hand, the photographer spends an awkwardly long time contemplating what fraction of his gear can go on his back. Camera body, assorted lenses and filters (hopefully well-suited to whatever he might encounter), lens cleaner, extra batteries and memory, tripod. What doesn’t fit on the back could be put into hip packs, chest packs, or carried on the shoulders.
Seemingly as an afterthought, he finds a spare corner for maps, a sandwich, apples and water with the expectation that all this can be carried long distances.
As a mixed breed, I hike with both types of people. But I make sure to leave behind most of my camera gear when hiking with hikers. They are focused on the goal, glare at me if it isn’t attained, and won’t invite me back if I had anything to do with the failure of the expedition.
For the photographers, the PROCESS is the goal. You hike in a teensy bit, and if there are elk or baby mountain goats, you might spend the whole day there feeling utter satisfaction.
It’s sort of like the deer that meander past our house, who hunker down for the afternoon. They’re not in a hurry. They’re not “going” anywhere. This is it! They live “everywhere”. They have arrived, and there is nowhere else to be. The process IS the goal!
Since Ron picked up photography again, after losing interest toward the end of the film era, we have become hiking photographers rather than photographing hikers, and as a result my “good shot” hit rate has gone up, no longer needing to snap quickly as we trot past a bear delivering twins. We almost exclusively shoot using tripods and cable releases. And although we try to impress each other with our trophy shots afterward, our different visions keep us humble. Ron kids that if I were a journalist sent to shoot a house fire, I would return with photos of ants hurriedly crawling on the hot brick walls, whereas I insist he would have not only a shot from a block away, but also overhead shots of the neighborhood. And it’s true. Being an ex-scientist, the “how” invariably fascinates me. I love to get in close and closer, learning the behavior.
But I digress.
I wanted to talk about what it feels like to go on a photo shoot.
One morning, long before it was bright and early, we set out on the Inlet Trail out of Grand Lake, Colorado. Backpacks weighed close to 20 lbs, and if I had a sandwich with me, I don’t remember. We had on headlamps that illuminated trail or woods equally well as we made our way toward the lightening horizon where we planned to shoot the peaks at sunrise reflected in the river.
About halfway there, around a bend, appeared not just one moose, but a whole handful of them, silently munching their way through the willows. Gigantic, shadowy figures, all legs and antlers. Graceful, at peace with their world.
Some passed along the trail, antlers of others were visible behind bushes, and beyond that we could hear still more rustling.
As we dropped tripods from our shoulders, we began mentally sorting through our gear. I could set the ISO to 800, which should give me some flexibility with the shutter speed and aperture. If they lay down, I could increase the depth of field, but if they’re on the move, I’ll have to use a faster shutter speed. Maybe I can go to ISO 1600 without the shots being too grainy and not have to compromise so much on shutter speed. Can I focus well enough before the sun is up to allow a narrower aperture?
Piece by piece we assembled our optimal configuration for capturing the feelings evoked by these tremendous animals, all the while keeping left brain engaged, and an eye on their discomfort with us.
First one click, as one of us recorded what we saw. More clicks. Each change in position, every step, every head movement. Interactions between animals. This being the digital age, we were not impeded by the 36-shot limitation of film. We could snap now, sort later. No need to erase that last shot we knew was bad. Move on.
Now that we had documented the moose, what could we do to convert them to art?
The sun was sleeping in, the mist slowed down our thoughts. What if we stood over there, by the clearing? Maybe several moose could be caught dancing if they continued in that direction. There wasn’t a creek, but maybe we could catch layers of moose — one in the foreground with antlers to feet visible, one behind the first row of willows, head visible; and behind him just antlers of a third one poking out. Could they be lined up cutting a diagonal across the frame?
We wait, they move, we snap, then reposition, trying to anticipate their next move. Becoming one with the nature they inhabit, coming to understand them better by just a little.
It was an hour or more that we were permitted to be part of their herd, an hour or more that cleansed our minds of the clutter imposed by humanity, allowing us a glimpse of a life no more complicated than the pursuit of food in this moment alone.
Our heartrates surely went up coming around the bend so long ago, an eternity had passed, and as the sun rose, we emerged from this baptism with new understanding, with a calm spirit, a contentedness reaching deep into our core that would last.
At least until we emerged from the magic of the forest and returned to our car.