“Twilight erupts over an ancient bristlecone pine. I may have ‘accidentally’ pointed Steve Turner in the wrong direction, causing him to miss the beautiful color.”
As a professional landscape photographer, I’m finding it considerably more difficult to write this article than I had planned. Conditions here on location are extreme, which makes the mere task of typing arduous, and the head trauma I suffered during this morning’s treacherous shoot is making thoughtful words challenging to come by.
Actually, that’s a lie. All of it. I’m not a professional landscape photographer. I’m a cookie-obsessed commercial airline pilot observing my middle-aged waistline get larger and my hair grow cheerfully in all the wrong places. The only injury I’ve sustained today is a cut to my nose from shaving—which I didn’t even think was possible. Like most of you, I’ve found something that I love in the simple act of clicking the shutter and then going completely Frankenstein in Photoshop.
While I don’t Facetube or twerk or tweet or whatever it is the kids do these days, I’ll occasionally gather up enough courage to post a picture on a photo-sharing site with a “behind-the-scenes” look at the adventure and calamity of it all. On one occasion, while exchanging sunset pleasantries with a fellow landscape shooter, I was shocked to hear him proclaim that he actually had heard of my name and was following me on 500px. I turned to him, eyes narrowing, cookie crumbs dribbling, and said, “So you’re the one.”
If I’m merely an enthusiastic, yet bumbling amateur, what pearls could I possibly bring to this magazine that would be of value? Because many of you reading this will be enormously more talented, less scared of snapping turtles and rogue meteors, and much better at delivering instruction than I am, I fear a “how-to” article would end up being literary Ambien. So, in the spirit of the educational mission of OP, I’m prepared to share with you the most precious of the multitude of gifts this maddening hobby has bestowed upon me, and that’s the discovery that you can weave together some of the cherished friendships of your life with the thread of a shared love of landscape photography.
I’ll concede that it can be very Zen experiencing the massive natural beauty of the outdoors alone and without any interruption, and one can intrinsically learn an enormous amount about oneself through these endeavors. For example, I’ve discovered that I can carry on a three-sided conversation with myself, and also that it’s entirely possible to get poison oak between your cheeks (not the ones on your face).
For reasons beyond the scope of this article, however, great people are lured to the creative endeavor, and this shared passion can form a bond as strong as oak. Sunsets seem richer when you can spew expletives to a companion about the amazingness of it all. Taylor Swift songs feel much more radical when you’re bumping along with a buddy on a long road trip. The alarm clock isn’t quite as jarring when you know you’ll soon get the immense satisfaction of sticking your tripod directly in front of your friend’s thoughtful composition, blocking his or her shot. At least that’s how it is for me. I’d like to introduce you to some of my best photography friends, who have grown into essential components of my life.
It has to start with Steve Turner. During my photographic infancy, online ogling led me to a profound appreciation of Steve’s talent behind the lens. A whirlwind of events later, and I found myself bombing south with my new friend on a 10-day photographic journey. If you haven’t experienced this before, I can assure you, it’s not done without trepidation. What if he snores? What if I snore? What if he makes me listen to country music?
Before I could make up an excuse to bail out, we were prattling along through the chilly 4 a.m. air. We hadn’t left the neighborhood before Steve reached into the center console and pulled out a bag of Famous Amos cookies his sweet wife Debbie had stashed for us. “Breakfast?” he inquired. Excellent.
“Conditions lined up perfectly over the Kilauea Volcano on a tour with Bruce Omori and Tom Kuali‘i.”
Steve’s kindness literally knows no bounds. After scrapping and fighting to secure a permit to the elusive Wave, my tripod ballhead completely failed just as the light was beginning to peak. You may find it strange to hear that the Wave doesn’t have a camera repair facility on-site, so I was bursting with appreciation when Steve assessed the situation and announced he had a solution. Diving into his bag, he reappeared with a cloth diaper, which he proceeded to wrap around my ballhead to give it support. Of course, this begs the question, “Why was Steve carrying a diaper? And what if he suddenly needed it for its original purpose?”
As one would expect, I repay his kindness every chance I get. You see, Steve is color-blind, so he relies on his shooting or hiking companion to alert him to epic light. On a particularly wild night high in the Eastern Sierras, I screamed to Steve that the color was going crazy and then pointed him 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Steve immediately started shooting frantically and came home with some fascinating images of bland gray skies over the ancient bristlecone pines while I, shooting toward the good part of the sky, filled my memory card with pink twilight. Friendship solidified.
One of the great blessings of my life is that I’ve been lucky enough to witness an active volcano. Everyone should experience the glory of watching the newest land on earth being formed. Everyone should smell the rubber of your shoes melting. Everyone should experience the horror of turning around and watching the umbrella that your guide lent you burst into flames because you put it down in the wrong spot.
The most consistent volcano on earth is Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. You don’t just trot up to a flowing lava field and hope for the best. You hire an experienced guide, and there are none better than Bruce Omori and Tom Kuali‘i of Extreme Exposure Gallery and Tours in Hilo—kind, generous, patient and obscenely talented. I’m forever grateful for the perilous adventures we’ve had together.
Hiking out to an active lava flow in the middle of the night is legendary. As we approached the ocean entry for the first time, I was entranced by the glow, the sulfur and the explosions rocking the coastline as water shot into the intricate lava tubes. After miles of hiking, this was it. I was finally going to lay eyes on liquid rock. Bruce turned to me and said, “From here, it gets rather dangerous. I need to know if you want to continue closer.” Being old, fat and slow, this gave me pause. “I want to go closer if it’s safe!” I squeaked. Bruce tried again, “Well, do you want to stay safe, or do you want to get closer?” Oh.
“Ryan Dyar introduced me to Glacier National Park, where this image was made, and there’s nothing more satisfying than bagging a decent shot on the day that he decided not to show up. He was not pleased.”
We stepped forward into the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed, and a friendship that I’ll cherish forever. Over the years, I’ve watched Bruce and Tom do incredible things to ensure their clients get great shots. They meld courage, professionalism, knowledge and experience into what certainly must be considered one of life’s greatest adventures. If they were dinosaurs, they would be Megabraveasauruses.
Spending time on the road with other photographers is a melting pot of sleepless nights, downtime, fast food, camping and a few minutes a day of completely spazzing out over good light (if you’re lucky). Adventures are more fulfilling when the glue of common interest creates a bond with your travel companion, but that doesn’t guarantee an agreement on a plan of action. You’ll find out quickly with whom you’re truly compatible during a photography expedition. When that synergy exists, the excursions are priceless.
“On a recent excursion, Ryan wanted to explore the less popular area upstream of Palouse Falls. This shot was taken shortly after I accidentally ran him over due to his decision to come to a dead and immediate stop due to a snake on the trail, which turned out to be a rock.”
I’ve generated enough stories with David “D Breezy” Thompson to fill this entire magazine. I found myself picking cactus quills out of his backside with a pair of tweezers and a day later confessing in a biblical panic that I had lost the car keys somewhere in the remote desert near the Kofa Mountains, only to have him remind me that I had given them to him several hours earlier.
It was a trip to Iceland that cemented our relationship forever, providing an infinite supply of memories. I was there the night David got to experience his first true display of the aurora borealis. This is a beautiful and moving experience, which brought him to tears, and I was honored to spend that moment with him. After awhile we stopped shooting and just soaked in the dancing night sky together. Turning to make a sensitive comment, I bumped my tripod with my foot and watched my camera fall face-first onto the rocks in slow motion, shattering my 14-24mm lens. So then we were both in tears.
“These ‘teddy bear’ cholla cactus looked much less beautiful when I was tweezing them out of David Thompson’s backside.”
Finally, we come to my mentor, friend and confidante, Ryan Dyar. The perfection of his imagery is overshadowed only by the brilliance of his personality. I have no idea why Ryan was willing to take me under his proverbial photographic wing, but nearly everything I know about taking pictures and processing them in Photoshop was gleaned through his tutelage. Along the way, I’ve learned the following things:
1. Someone else’s snoring can be comforting in the middle of the night in bear country.
2. Someone else’s snoring can be horribly obnoxious when one is under a tree in a wind storm in a tent that’s small enough to allow ice chunks to strike one’s face all night.
3. You’ll be laughed at if you try to act cool around an attractive hiker of the opposite sex while forgetting wet underwear is hanging from your backpack.
4. I’m not the only one who gets furious at the universe when the light fizzles to nothing after a long day of hiking.
5. A maple bar after a strenuous morning photo outing is awesome.
6. Two maple bars after a strenuous morning outing may cause you to vomit and make you forever hate maple bars.
I could go on for days, but at the core, the most valuable thing I’ve received through photography is my friendship with Ryan Dyar.
Many of you probably already have photo buddies. If you don’t, take a workshop or photo tour. Join a photo club. Or, simply strike up a conversation online with a photographer you admire. You may find that the most valuable piece of equipment on your next photo adventure is a new friend.
Miles Morgan is a freakishly tall, quite pale, increasingly chubby commercial airline pilot residing in the Portland, Oregon area. The son of professional photographer Hank Morgan, Miles was always exposed (pun intended) to cameras, but didn’t develop (pun intended again) a passion for shooting until 2009, when he became hooked after attending a landscape photography workshop. See more of his work at milesmorganphotography.com.