Photography Workshop, Glacier National Park, June 2004

I had never participated in a photo workshop. When I read Montana Magazine was sponsoring a photography workshop in Glacier in late June, I decided to check it out. The instructors would be Chuck Haney of Whitefish, MT, and John Reddy of Helena. The group would be limited to 20 participants and focus on landscape photography. A couple of pros for instruction, a reasonably small group, and Glacier approaching the peak of wildflower season. I started writing checks.

The workshop would shoot locations on Glacier's east side. Glacier west entrance is only 70 miles (115 km) from my home, but driving the length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road would add another 90 minutes to the commute. In June, just after summer solstice, the days are long and sun appears early. This would require being on location around 5:00 AM, and I had no wish to start driving every day at 2:00 AM. Local lodging would be required.

Glacier Trailhead Cabins, Babb, Montana, U.S.

My temporary home at Glacier Trailhead Cabins, Babb, Montana, U.S.

Unlike Glacier's west side, there are few lodging options on the east side. I chose Glacier Trailhead Cabins; I'd stayed there before and found it quite comfortable. From my own experience in the park, I was fairly certain we'd be shooting sunrises at St. Mary and Swiftcurrent Lakes, and these cabins are conveniently located between them. A cabin at Glacier Trailhead is only U.S. $10.00 more than one in the St. Mary campground, and is both more comfortable and includes a microwave and refrigerator. This allows for keeping food, preparing dinner, and packing lunches for the trail.

The group met later at the St. Mary Lodge near the park's east entrance. Introductions were made, along with decisions about how to divide the group among the instructors. Chuck asked for a show of hands: how many in the group were beginners, defined as those who'd used only point-and-shoot or fully automatic cameras. He then asked how many considered themselves expert photographers; if there were any, none would admit to it. In the end, John took the group of beginners, and Chuck had the group of seven more experienced students.

We wrapped up the evening with a critique of our prior work. We'd been asked to bring 20 prints or, if shooting digital, a laptop for viewing. It was very helpful to hear Chuck's comments about my work and that of the others. There were some very nice photos—I'm happy this wasn't a competition! I'd thought I'd be the only film shooter there, but surprisingly, only two of us were shooting digital.

In the field: Day One

I was in bed before 9:30 that first evening. I awoke an hour later and heard rain on my cabin's metal roof. No problem, I thought. It's not yet 11:00. I awoke again around 3:00 AM. Rain on the roof again. OK, maybe a wet morning. I got up for the day around 4:15. Still raining. Fortunately, there are no bad days in Glacier.

We met at 5:00 just outside Glacier's Many Glacier entrance, and continued in to Swiftcurrent Lake at Many Glacier Lodge. It was dark, raining, and a bit windy. We attempted some photos of a little waterfall at the end of the lake, but it there was no chance for a clearing and good sunrise light on the lake and mountains. Chuck decided to move on to a little known lake near Many Glacier campground. Fishercap Lake is no more than a 10 minute walk through some boggy ground from the campground parking area. The lake is protected by the surrounding mountains and is often very flat, making for good reflections. We spent 90 minutes or so looking, listening to Chuck's instruction and pointers, and shooting. The sky was, unfortunately, “just white,” a photographer's nightmare. It's difficult to eliminate the sky from photos of mountain reflections! This is a very nice spot and I will return again and again looking for the good light and photogenic sky.

From there we drove back toward the park entrance at St. Mary, and a short distance down the Sun Road to a great wildflower area known as the Golden Stairs. Little more than a cliff face along an inlet of St. Mary Lake, the Golden Stairs has the potential for great morning light on the rock, giving the area its name. No great light this morning, but there was no breeze, and the unmoving flowers were stunning. Abundant Indian paint brush, larkspur, death camas, and a variety of other flowers set the area aglow with color, not at all harmed by the flat, gray light. Again more instruction from Chuck and the opportunity to look through his viewfinder as he worked on composition. I can't overstate how valuable this was for me. The image in Chuck's finder was right off the page of a magazine, and there was the scene right in front of me. Great stuff.

Difficult footing at Logan Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Difficult footing at Logan Creek Falls.

One of the challenges in a spot like this is getting eight people in and out and having them wander in search of their own images, without damaging the flora. The rocks were a bit slippery and the soil muddy; no question we did some damage. A brief lesson in the ethics of nature photography from Chuck surely helped keep that to a minimum. Mindful of the adage, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”, we did our best.

This wrapped up the morning, and we were on our own until the evening session. Normally this would be held fairly late at this time of year, but because of the weather we decided to meet again at St. Mary Lodge at 5:30 PM. This gave us the rest of the morning and afternoon to get some sleep, explore more of the park, or do whatever needed doing to camp, equipment, or bodies. Drying out was high on my list, as was an early dinner before the evening shoot.

The evening session took us to a waterfall above the Sun Road just west of Logan Pass. Chuck had scouted the area the day before, and had climbed up alongside and eventually behind the falls for an intriguing picture. We climbed the west side of the falls looking for interesting compositions. The sky had brightened and the sun made an occasional appearance. The slope was steep and slippery with mud and loose rock. There were no level spots to stand or set up a tripod. It may not have been wise to make that climb, but there was the potential for some interesting shots.

In the field: Day Two

Our group met at St. Mary Lodge on Saturday morning at 5:00. In the rain again. When light and weather turn bad, you shoot intimate landscapes and close-up or macro pictures. There would be no grand scenics this morning. Today's hike required dropping a car at our trail's end, and taking everyone in two vehicles to the trailhead.

We set off at a brisk pace and soon reached Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek. Still raining and quite muddy, we set up under some trees looking for good compositions. The low light would require slow shutter speeds, rendering the falls a white blur on film. This can be good or bad, depending on the desired effect in the photo. The rain became a fine drizzle, allowing us to move around the falls a bit with fewer concerns about water on the lenses.

Group photo in the rain, Virginia Falls, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Group photo in the rain.

From there we moved on to St. Mary Falls, again climbing around the area looking for good shots. As always, Chuck was helpful in pointing out interesting scenes and making suggestion for exposure and composition.

Virginia Falls, at left, would be our last stop of the morning. This is a large fall and can be seen high up the mountain from the Sun Road. We spent some time in the area, again looking for good shots and getting instruction from Chuck. The march out to the dropped car was all business, and we were back to the road within half an hour. Some shuttling brought back all the vehicles, and we were then on our own until evening.

During the afternoon the weather began to clear. The evening session was spent at Sunrift Gorge, photographing the falls, the rock walls of the gorge, and the moss and flowers growing there.

Later was social hour at the St. Mary Lodge. It was an opportunity for both Chuck's and John's groups to mingle, have a few drinks, and just enjoy the evening. John and Chuck have done a couple of “coffee table” books together, and these were vailable for purchase and signing. I enjoyed chatting with John, as I'd not previously had the opportunity to do so. I was in bed much later than usual, but got up early Sunday morning to make up for it.

Day Three: Winding Down

After a night with no rain, we met at 5:00 AM as usual and drove the Sun Road to a turn-out overlooking Wild Goose Island in St. Mary Lake. We had an interesting sky for a change, and the promise of good light for the classic shot of the lake and mountains ablaze with the light of sunrise. The lake was a little choppy; we would not have mirror-like reflections of the mountains, but there was still a chance we'd have great color in the water. We set up quickly and waited. As the sun broke the horizon, out of our view, the tops of the mountains began to glow. We waited, and the mountains became redder. It was still a bit too soon for good color in the water. A few minutes more, and we'd have the magic light. Just a few minutes more. Anticipation ran high, and shutters clicked so we'd at least have records of having been there. Just a few more minutes…. and a large cloud moved in and obscured the mountains. This happened with amazing swiftness. We could see the mountain tops washed in orange light, but much of the lake was hidden. Perhaps another time.

Just up the road, however, was the Golden Stairs area, and the good light was there. Most of our group moved there for another chance at great color in the rock and wildflowers.

We wrapped up the workshop just inside the park near a bridge over the St. Mary River. The sky had become more cloudy, but the light wasn't bad for some close-up work in the flowers near the river's edge. After a few group shots, we said our farewells, and I headed for home. I returned the way I'd come, on the Sun Road to the park's west side. I stopped several times for photos, and also stopped along my route south through Creston, MT and along the east edge of Flathead Lake.


I felt I was “seeing” more and better, and was excited by the prospect of making better pictures. Although the workshop was only a couple of days, the near total immersion in photography for that period, along with Chuck's instruction and the views through his camera, had a remarkable impact. I've made the drive from Glacier to home, along that same route, many times. But on that Sunday morning I saw things I'd not noticed before, saw the light in ways I'd not before, and was very glad for the time I'd spent with Chuck and our small group.

A great group it was, too. Everyone paid attention, worked hard, asked questions, tried Chuck's suggestions, didn't complain about the weather (very often), and generally had a great time. It's not often one has the good fortune to be part of such a group.


August 2008

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