While talking with our friends and coworkers about our upcoming trip to Patagonia, we realized most people don’t know just how much planning goes into getting ourselves into the right position to create the artwork you see on this site, and that’s something we would like to share with you.
The first thing we do is look for great photographs that make us want to take our own version of it. So as we browse sites that people showcase their own landscape photography and find there are some landscapes that capture our attention. Sometimes they are in places that are relatively accessible, like the California Coast, and others seem downright impossible to get to. (I’m thinking of some stunning photos we have seen of the fjords in Greenland) And so there were a couple shots we had seen that really captured our attention, and noted that they were all taken in Patagonia, yet these sites had not been flooded with images from there (yet) thus hopefully getting us on the cusp of a potentially huge trend in landscape photography.
Once a location like Patagonia has captured our attention, a simple Google Images search of “Patagonia” can result in a couple weeks of planning, checking airfare, and finally exercising the limits of our credit card by booking our airfare, hotel, and rental car. With the bare bones of our trip planned, we know that we’ll have say 5 days in this location and 6 days in another. So at this point we have a pretty good idea of where the interesting locations are, and we start working on the more detailed plans on how to get there.
Not trying to be too pretentious, but the thing that really separates the “pros” from the “amateurs” is not equipment, experience, or even whether or not you actually make money from photography; it’s in the planning. Doing your due diligence well ahead of time allows you (assuming the weather cooperates, and much more on this later) to get into the location you want with the perfect light, taking terrain, sun position, and sometimes even the tidal schedule into account.
We want to give a good example of this process, and we figured that Mount Fitz Roy, just outside of El Chaltén Argentina, would be prefect. This is a very popular destination in Patagonia and is a hikers Mecca, so we had plenty of photos to look at to really allow us to do “pre-scouting” from almost 7,000 miles away.
The first thing we wanted to look at was the snow cover. Some photos we saw showed a beautiful, blue lake at the base of the mountains, while others showed a snowy wasteland. We wanted to make sure that we would have that blue lake if we were going to hike all the way up to the base of those jagged peaks. So that’s where we begin our journey with Google Earth.
Thanks to satellite imagery, we are able to take a look at areal images of the area from different times of the year to give us an idea of what might be
covered in snow and what might be accessible. The first photo is from what we saw on the initial imagery and made the location we wanted to get to look rather inaccessible. But looking at the date of the image, this was taken in September, where the snow is just starting to melt as they are just entering spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Obviously this wasn’t going to be telling us much.
Scrolling through Google’s imagery database, we found one image from early January 2007, which would be more representative of when we would be there. You can clearly see that the lake has thawed and the trail that goes up to the lake (down the ridge to the right of the lake) looks much more passable. Not only is the lake thawed, but to get up there we don’t have to lug crampons to the ridge in addition to the rest of our camera gear and slog through a slushy, rocky, slippery mess. So this is now officially a viable shooting location. (Though it still could be covered with snow when we get there based on seasonal conditions, at which point we ad-lib.)
The next step for us is to figure out how we are going to get to that location. For that, we have a subscription to alltrails.com which has many trails throughout the world superimposed on topographical maps that you can use to plan your hikes. It’s so nice to have a site like this where you have a one-stop-shop for hiking trails, because trying to plan hikes without this tool is a difficult proposition we have dealt with in the past. Some parks have decent maps, while others just give you a cartoonish squiggle that sort of matches the actual trail. Then gathering all that information and finding the best source is just downright exhausting. With this site they let you click through the trails and it tells you the distances and elevation gain on a detailed topo map. You’re not even restricted to following a standard itinerary and can create, and even print out, your own custom maps. As you can see from our “Fitz Roy” map, it’s a pretty decent out and back hike that will have us logging a little more than a half-marathon (13.1 miles) and we are going to gain over 4,000 feet. Based on previous experience on similar terrain. (See the Besseggan ridge hike from our trip in Norway) that will probably take us about 5 hours or so fully loaded with camera gear.
The final step is for us to figure out then when exactly we want to be at that spot. For that we use suncalc.net to give us a rough idea where the sun will be throughout the day and what its angle will be. From the sun chart (as we call it) we can see that sunrise would be the ideal time to take the picture as that would mean that the sun would be hitting the mountains from behind us, giving them that alpenglow that make for stunning photographs. This is a great tool to have for photography, as the traditional “Sun rises in the East, sets in the West” truism is sorta accurate, but as you can see, it can really rise in the Southeast in summer, and then in the winter it will shift all the way to the Northeast. That could mean the angle of the lighting can shift up to 90 degrees depending on your latitude between summer and winter. (This is also useful for planning things like a baseball game in a new city in making sure you won’t be looking into the sun for half the game).
But for scenes that involve mountains, the simple sun chart just doesn’t have enough horsepower for our needs, as the other mountains can create strange shadows that would otherwise ruin the photo. This is something we learned the hard way in Yosemite, where we figured the sun would light up certain granite faces at sunrise or sunset, only to have a mountain across the valley cast a weird shadow on it. To solve this problem, Google Earth again comes to the rescue. It has a feature that allows us to see (with a rather sophisticated ray tracing algorithm) what areas of a mountain would be lit by the sun at any given time, and where the shadows would be. It even does a good job of showing the reddish/golden light created when the sun is near the horizon showing a digital alpenglow!
And so now we know that when we are there, we have our hike all planned out and should take us 5 hours one way, the lake is likely unfrozen, and the sun will light up the mountain at 5:50am, with no weird mountains casting funky shadows across the scene. This means that in order to get the best light for the photo, we know we need to start out on our hike around midnight! (We better have our headlamps charged for this one)
But despite all this planning, as we have found out time and time again, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, we are just going to have to ad-lib. Many times we have gotten up in the middle of the night, hiked up thousands of feet, only to stare into a pea-soup thick fog when we got to the top. There is nothing guaranteed in photography, and when you travel half-way around the world to a location you will probably never get a second chance to shoot, you just have to make the best of what Mother Nature hands you. (See our adventures in Big Sur for a great example of this at work).
Hopefully the weather cooperates and we are able to post later on our own images from this site. But until then, we've got a flight to catch.