Tuesday, May 8, 2012
A View From The Top
Think about the sun to plan your time in the mountains, and you’ll get your most inspiring shots from the summits
Summits are magical places. Reaching the summit of a high peak gives me the exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring experience of being a tiny speck on top of the world. To me, mountaineering is almost a metaphor for the human condition. It embodies, in concrete form, the way we reach for the sky, yet can only climb so high. In the spring of 2006, I began working on a series of images I hoped would capture these powerful emotions.
Most summit photographs I had seen were rather boring. How could that be, I thought, when the experience of reaching the summit is so enthralling? Then I thought about when those photos were taken: at noon, in midsummer, when the sun is as high in the sky as it will be the entire year. Most summit photos taken at that time of day show distant, hazy peaks almost lost in the white glare of the midday sun. In an attempt to give my images an impact that matched my experience, I decided to try shooting sunrise from the summits of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks.
Instead of camping on the summit, I began climbing peaks in the dark, with only the wind and stars for company. I started with 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, and immediately realized that I had set myself an enormous task. My initial estimate that I could do all 54 Fourteeners in two years quickly proved laughable. To reach the summit of a Fourteener before sunrise, starting from the road or a high camp, usually requires getting up at midnight or 1:00 a.m. Doing one peak at a time was exhausting; doing two or three in a row left me utterly wasted. But taking a rest day between climbs seemed like a waste of time, with summers so short, the list of peaks so long and the pile of work back in the office so pressing. Faced with these challenges, I've done sunrise Fourteener shoots in spurts, as time, energy, injuries and two back-to-back spinal surgeries have allowed. So far, I've done 40 shoots on 27 peaks. I'm now 54, and acutely aware that I won't be able to do these shoots forever.
Fundamentals Of Summit Photography
The view from any Fourteener summit is so overwhelming that it's easy to forget the fundamentals.
Foreground still matters. It's all too easy to make images that look like aerials, which often feel emotionally detached or aloof. Our natural assumption when viewing an image is that we're looking horizontally, not down into an abyss. The best way to convey a feeling of height is often to include a foreground ridge that starts at your feet and leads your eye down into the valley below.
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