One of the things I love about photography is trying to make my shots look different from the typical shot. Over the years, I’ve probably received the most compliments on my shots that were a little a little bit different from what somebody might quickly snag with a phone while walking through. I think those are the shots I’m usually proudest of because I know I took an extra couple of seconds to move around and see if I can get something distinctive in a shot (at least it’s seconds in my mind – those traveling with me may disagree!).
I’ll use our recent trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park as an example. I’ve been to this park probably 10 times now and it never gets old – there’s always tons to photograph and each time I challenge myself to come home with shots a little bit different from what I’ve taken in the past. Sometimes that works out, other times it doesn’t – there’s just so many different variables in play, with where we decide to hike and the weather conditions being 2 of the biggest.
Weather was certainly a big factor in this year’s trip. While the conditions were gorgeous for hiking and camping, they were a tad less than ideal for photography because there were quite a few clouds hanging around at the prime lighting times of day. (Figures!) I tried to make the best of it by simply moving around to frame my shots differently to try to get something interesting in my bucket of pictures.
On the morning of our first full day in the park, we hiked out to the south on the dunes to avoid the holiday crowds. Looking to the north, nothing but a low-lying shelf cloud hanging over the high mountains and making things just look blah. I know the view well and have taken many a shot standing up, but on this morning, I decided to get down and dirty… flat on my belly on the sand to focus on some grasses making them the focal point rather than the “typical” scenery:
The stubborn cloud hanging around made for boring backgrounds and flat lighting all morning, but by going low, I was able to change it up a bit and make something else other than a cloudy sky the focus. While I would’ve preferred a gorgeous cloud-dotted blue sky in the background, I was able to make a little something out of a “meh” scene otherwise.
Pushing and stretching myself wasn’t limited just to my pictures this trip. Whenever we go to Dunes, we try to do at least one hike we’ve never done before. This trip, that meant making our way up the 4.5 mile trail to South Zapata Lake just outside of the park. We’d heard over the years that the lake is gorgeous and well worth the trip, but in looking at the trail details before we left, we saw it was pretty steep (over 2800 ft. of elevation gain over those 4.5 miles!). Not the easiest of hikes, but we felt confident enough to give it a go.
Turns out, it’s one of the hardest hikes my husband or I have ever done because the entire way is a steep grade. (I did the math – it averages 11.5% incline over the course of the trail, with most of it much steeper than that.) As we slowly made our way up towards the lake, we were starting to wonder if we’d ever find the dang thing. Based on our pace and distance, we had covered the miles, but still no lake. Getting hungry and seeing weather possibly coming in over the high mountains, we kept pushing because we had to be close.
We hiked our way through a little meadow area between mountains. By all accounts, it looked like a lake should be there! Still, no dice and more hills ahead. We crested one hill thinking we’d find South Zapata Lake, but all we found was another hill. We debated stopping for the day and calling it quits, but decided to go over just one more hill and see. Luckily we went up that hill because – lo and behold – there was the lake!
Though tired and hungry, we were happy to see the lake. After a spot of lunch, I got around to picture-taking – which is precisely when the storm clouds started rolling in and blocking out the sunlight in waves, making photo conditions tricky. I pushed on and did get some shots in the small amount of time I had, though it wasn’t nearly the bounty I had hoped to bring home.
On our last night in camp, I got another good reminder of why I should always look behind me while shooting because there can be good stuff to shoot everywhere. We were treated to a mule deer roaming through the campground around dinnertime. Since the holiday was over, the campgrounds were less crowded, and he hung around for a bit. I wasn’t able to get a shot of him during his first meandering through the campsites because a dog barked and spooked it, but I kept my camera out at the ready just in case he came back.
An hour or so later, sure enough – he was back… just as daylight was fading quickly! I got a single shot before he toddled off, but it was blurry and not worth keeping. Just then, my husband calls me and tells me to turn around. My jaw dropped. It was one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen at Dunes:
I started clicking away framing up whatever I could in the waning light, but still trying to think my way through the shots before taking them. I was moving all around the campground as quickly as I could, even climbing a split-rail fence momentarily in lieu of a ladder to get myself up just enough to see a little more of the dunes and the valley to the west. It’s that bit of climbing that led me to get the shot above.
So, my takeaway from this trip – turning around, climbing things (safely and within reason!), and getting down low to get shots really does pay off!