Sleeping Giant rests on a stormy Steamboat evening late in September. The lesson from this photo: Keep your eyes open because it's really easy to walk right by a great photograph. With the bright fall foliage framing this shot in front and the rain cloud lingering over Sleeping Giant from above, this one worked out.
Steamboat Springs At times, it seemed to be a lesson a minute.
The Steamboat Art Museum’s fall colors workshop, hosted by immensely accomplished photographer Rod Hanna, required early mornings, long days and plenty of hard drive space. As important as any of that, though, may have been a good memory.
I’ll try to sum up what I picked up in four quick lessons:
Just do it
Our first day, Sept. 28, brought our first lesson. By most figures, we had missed the brilliant peak of Routt County’s fall colors. That supposedly had come the week before. One of Hanna’s favorite sayings, however, summed up the weekend and allowed us the images we captured.
“How do you know unless you go?”
Hanna repeats that almost like it’s keeping him sane. He said it when we encountered beautiful scenery, with the boastful pride of a bettor cashing in a winning ticket. And he said it when we weren’t as lucky, explaining in seven words his reasoning for climbing a mountain or setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m.
You don’t know if you don’t go, and as miserable as pre-dawn wake-up calls may be, answering them is one of those things that separates the pros from the rest of us.
Be ready to change your plans
We changed our plans the first morning, and we did throughout the weekend. Never were the alterations drastic, but the results often were. There were three great examples. That first morning, after an hour of popping away at a grove of aspens tucked beneath Sand Mountain, we drove past a roadside ditch brimming with water. A wooden fence ran alongside it, perfectly reflected, and fall color dominated in the distance. The scene prompted the ultimate weekend compliment, the true sign that we were onto something good: Hanna got out his own camera.
Later that day, a spontaneous swing past Steamboat Lake yielded a long ridge of colorful trees hemming in a vast swath of smooth-as-glass water. It made for a gigantic mirror and, coupled with towering white clouds, a wonderful photograph.
A few days later, we again were rewarded when Hanna chatted up a South Routt rancher. He invited us up to see the jaw-dropping vista from his front porch. The move caused us to miss one of the morning’s planned stops, but no one was about to complain.
Speaking of clouds
Seven photographers attended the three-day summit, and after the first day, we all learned one belief that Hanna holds dear: If prayers for a few fluffy white clouds don’t take, crop out most of that sky. Hanna lopped off vast sections of blue real estate from our Day 1 photos, making the point that if there’s not clouds there, there’s not much there at all. If you are blessed with clouds, blast away, because they add an awesome element. But if it’s just brilliant blue, keep enough to cap the mountain tops, and after that, it’s not worth the space. Nearly every photo we turned in afterward abided by those rules.
Keep the eyes open
My favorite shot came on our last evening. It was one of those times when Hanna was grumbling, “How do you know?” rather than proclaiming it. He had negotiated with the city to drive up to the quarry on Emerald Mountain. We reached that world-class vantage point just in time to see clouds sweep in over the west part of the valley, blotting out the setting sun. The spot is perfect. It’s where Hanna captured the cover shot for his first book, "Seasons of Light." In that shot, yellow and green pave the way across Emerald beneath a cloudy sky to Sleeping Giant, bathed by a few penetrating rays of the setting sun.
All of the classmates marched to spots for good views of the Giant, waiting for that light. After goofing off elsewhere, I joined, walking through a thick patch of radiant red plants. I immediately was worried all the good vantage points with that red in the foreground would be spoken for. Instead, none of them were. Storm clouds, meanwhile, had popped up over the Giant. Everyone groaned, but I snapped and snapped and snapped, earning funny looks.
The next day, when we presented those images, everyone groaned again. The photo turned out beautiful, and steps away, my classmates hadn’t brought back anything. That’s the funny thing about photography. Everyone can look at the same scene and see something entirely different. I got lucky that time. Far more often, I was on the other end, asking myself how I could have possibly missed scenes others made breathtaking.
The lessons were simple yet bear pointing out. Take your time. Move around, side to side and up and down, looking at all the different angles. Try things out, and then move on. If you get a vision, work hard to do it justice.
Maybe in that is the ultimate lesson learned in three long days shooting with Hanna: Work hard, and do it justice.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com