This single photo was well worth the cancelled flight and a risky mid-road halt. Travel photographer and writer Eric Adams shares the serendipitous account of how he snapped this photo of the Grand Tetons. As told to Alaina Haring.
Subject: Grand Tetons, Wyoming.
Camera: Sony a7R II, with a Nikon lens, all manual.
Takeaway: Follow your instincts — which may mean canceling a flight to pursue something special. You won’t regret going after a photo, but you will regret not trying.
I took this photo in Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming, near Jackson Hole and not far from Yellowstone. The area has really intense weather patterns, producing unpredictable but beautiful and dynamic conditions. This park is rare in that it doesn’t have foothills. It’s just flat, then mountainous, which sets up really unique photos.
This was my first trip to the the Grand Tetons, in October 2016. I was on an automotive press launch, test-driving a new car. It was gray and cloudy the entire time, so I couldn’t see the mountains, or much of anything.
It was before sunrise and still pitch dark the morning I was scheduled to fly home out of Jackson airport, the only U.S. commercial airport located inside a national park. As I was unloading my luggage from the taxi, I noticed stars. The sky was clear! I remember thinking that I had to make a decision and commit to something, even though I didn’t know what I was committing to.
So I went into the airport and, while checking in, found an option to change my flight. I rebooked for later that day, picked up a rental car, and made it back to the park 20 minutes later. It was still dark, so I drove around for about an hour. The night before was the first major snow of the winter. There were clouds, too. It was obvious that it would be a beautiful morning.
Usually photographers scope out an area for years and know which spot is best for camping out. Since it was my first time, I had no idea what I might find. But as I drove around one corner, I saw the scene. For the first time in my life, I actually did a cartoonish stop, brakes squealing, in the middle of the road. I jumped out with my camera and started firing.
My camera was set to capture wildlife with a fast shutter speed, not ideal for a still shot. But the perfect conditions were quickly changing, so I started shooting with the mode I had, not wanting to waste a second. I looked down at that first shot — it popped off the camera. I knew immediately it was a really special shot. I haven’t had that kind of moment since.
It was a perfect combination of blue sky and clouds revealing and hiding parts of the mountain and the snow on the trees — which, by the way, disappeared a half hour later because of the sun. Sure enough, after one shot, the sun was covered again and it was dark. The photo shoot happened in all of 30 seconds; I was back in my car literally two minutes later. If the light hadn’t changed so quickly, I might have pulled over properly and set up a tripod.
I took a few more photos, but the first photo ended up being the only good one in the sequence. Usually it’s the last photo that turns out the best. Even if it’s just ten photos, it usually takes that long to get your settings fit to that shot.
I was exhilarated. The rest of the park was dynamic in the rising sun, so I got a few other shots. It’s not often that one gets a single moment of victory, so I was going to enjoy it. I ordered a pancake breakfast at the lodge at the top of the park: It was the most delicious breakfast of my life. I watched the sun come up over the trees. I posted my shot on Instagram without even seeing it on a real computer. I later found out that it won the photo contest for the day on the photography feed JJCommunity. Even in .jpeg, the photo really pops.
I edited the photo in Lightroom on my smartphone. This one required very little editing. A little bit of contrast and shadows so the roadway, trees, and foreground stand out a little more. I darkened the image a hair. People tell me it looks like a painting, it doesn’t actually look real. It looks too perfect, like a fictitious book cover. It’s a compliment to the setting and the photo.