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Epic Conditions

Off the Beaten Path
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Personally, I find this expression somewhat trite, and perhaps a bit depressing—although suffering must sometimes be endured, it isn’t exactly the kind of thing I get excited about. Nonetheless, I must conclude that every nature photographer should write this expression on a scrap of paper and staple it to their forehead. Yes, I know, stapling something to your forehead is quite painful, but that’s the point—it’s not likely to be something you easily forget!
Frankly, we all need this reminder when conditions turn foul, and the temptation to throw in the towel creeps up on us unawares. Wind, storms, snow and rain, extreme cold or heat, gnarly back-country terrain (such as on my 2-week trek in Patagonia), hordes of biting insects (such as on a recent trip to Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains)—these are all things that make us want to pack up and go home. But think of it this way: these are also the things that separate the wheat from the chaff, and that bring to mind another famous expression: “if it was easy, everybody would do it.” Taking the easy way out leads only to somewhere safely in the middle of the pack. Taking the road less traveled leads to greatness.

So, when the going gets tough, I remember that note painfully stapled to my forehead, and I force myself to get going. For example, one day while photographing Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, gale force winds roared through the area, whipping up blowing sand into a frenzy. Almost everyone else visiting the dunes that day, photographer and tourist alike, stayed well clear of the churning sandstorm. Not me.  Instead of turning back, I narrowed by eyes, squared my jaw, and purposefully strode into the howling maelstrom, trying my best to look the part of a Hollywood action hero in order to impress the scattering of onlookers. Brave? Perhaps. Stupid? Definitely. Either way, I endured a wicked sandblasting: each gust felt like sliding down sandpaper, mercilessly tearing hair from my arms and legs, and screams of pain from my lungs. I can assure you that they were extremely manly screams, not high pitched girlie-man screams as some scurrilous rumor-mongers have alleged. Well, so much for looking like an action hero.  

In the end, however, it was worth braving the elements. I was able to photograph plumes of sand arcing gracefully hundreds of feet over undulating dune crests, backlit by the setting sun. For the photo below, I made sure to shoot into the sun for creative effect, thereby adding color, contrast, and drama to the image. To me, the photo captures something of the wild essence of the epic conditions I experienced that day.        

Sand Star

By the way, there’s a great picture taken by Joseph Rossbach (of Wilderness Warrior fame, from the June 2010 issue of OP), on the bio page of my website, showing me climbing the dunes during the sandstormWhile I was high up on the dune crests exposed to the full blast of the sandstorm, the “Wilderness Warrior” was hiding down below out of the wind, sipping piña coladas. Okay, so maybe he was teaching a private workshop client and therefore had a valid excuse for not going into the sandstorm, and maybe he and his client still endured some fairly wicked winds at the bottom of the dune field, but in my version of the story he wimped out and decided to enjoy mixed drinks at the bar instead.        

Perhaps I’ll replace the “going gets tough” quote with a new one that has a somewhat more positive spin: “Epic conditions produce epic photographs.” Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Now if I could only remove this painful staple in my forehead. Maybe next time I’ll try super glue instead.   

 —Ian Plant                 

 Chasing the Light: Essential Tips for Taking Great Landscape Photos: A 62-page downloadable PDF eBook filled with informative text, stunning full-color images, and plenty of insights and inspiration.             

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