When it comes to landscape and travel photography, there are some locations that you quite literally just walk up to with little to no planning needed (think Tunnel View in Yosemite, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, etc). Then there are locations that aren’t so straightforward, like Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies.
Sure, you can fly into Calgary, plug “Abraham Lake” into your GPS and within 4 hours you’ll be there. The thing is, Abraham Lake is 20 miles long and 2 miles wide. The lake is famous for the methane bubbles that get caught near the surface as the water freezes in the winter, but the bubbles are in different spots every year (and they only last a certain amount of time). On top of that, if you go too early in the year the ice may not be thick enough to support your weight, so you have to know which time of year to visit as well. Once you know all that, and you’ve arrived at the lake, now you have to know which part of the lake has clear ice where you can see the bubbles, and where to park along the 20 miles of coastline to get to them.
This, my fellow Sony shooters, is where scouting comes into play...
At just about every location I photograph I’ll see at least one photographer who just shows up right at peak light. He then spends the next several minutes scrambling to get his gear set up and then the next several minutes after that scrambling to find a good composition or location to shoot. The thing is, peak light doesn’t wait around for you to get ready, and more times than not, the best light is gone by the time these guys/gals get ready to take their first shot.
My buddy Mike and I set aside one night to photograph Abraham Lake during a short 5 day trip to Banff. That gave us one sunset and one sunrise opportunity. To make the most of it, we got to the lake in the early afternoon the first day. We were meeting three local photographers the next morning to photograph sunrise and they had told us to meet at a location on the north side of the lake that they had photographed a few weeks earlier and found some really good bubbles beneath the ice. We could have just taken their word for it and met up but since we had ample time, we decided to check it out and at least get some exact locations geotagged to shoot in the morning.
To our surprise, the entire north side of the lake was unshootable. The ice was white instead of clear and you couldn’t see anything beneath the surface. Bummer!
We then spent the rest of the day scouting other locations up and down the shoreline until we found a great spot just north of “windy point” on the south side of the lake. We then went back to that same location to scout it more at night. By the time sunrise came around, we knew exactly where to go and had our spots picked out well before the sky started lighting up.
Sure enough, right before sunrise, a couple of photographers showed up along the shoreline. Unfortunately, they didn’t have crampons (spikes that attach to your boots) so walking out on the ice was out of the question. They could see that we were photographing bubbles but there was literally no way they could get to us or the bubbles. They spent the rest of the morning walking up and down the shoreline (instead of shooting) trying to find an easy way onto the ice but eventually they just gave up and left.
Hopefully, the moral of the story here is clear, but just to be safe: Be prepared. Come early. Scout as much as you can. Reap the benefits.
Image shot with my Sony α7rII and Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS lens. 20-sec., F7.1, ISO 320
See more of James Brandon's photography and find out about his workshops at jamesb.com