Warm tones of summer a few weeks back as the first rays of light hit the rushes on the shore of Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes. I watched the mist scatter off the lake surface and drift into mountain hemlock and black spruce on the far side of lake. The crisp alpine air has layers of pollen soaking it. It’s visibly dense, fragrant and alive. This is a classic cascade summer scene at the base of paradise valley looking on the mountain. I use it as a starting point for my rainier tours for all levels as it has great views and accessibility.
While I was selecting a clump of rushes to use for my foreground I noticed some dark forms that turned out to be salamander nymphs just under the waters surface. On closer inspection I noticed they weren’t coming up for air and all of them had a frilled mane on either side of there heads. They had external gills. little fellas look really interesting with their lung tissue frilled out on either side of their heads. It’s a compelling sight from an evolutionary standpoint as you are literally seeing a modern version of the transitionary mutation that occurred in ancient aquatic organisms as they adapted to life on land.
The nymphs look a little like amphibian lion fish with gaudy vascular manes emitting from the sides of there heads. Lol These guys are likely long-toed salamanders or cope’s giant salamanders both fairly common in the park with the latter retaining it’s gills into adulthood. It’s good to see healthy amphibian populations in the wake of the chytrid fungus. In terms of overall threat to biodiversity, chytrid fungus has been called the worst infectious disease of all time. Nearly 6,000 amphibian species are susceptible to the fungus, which causes to skin infection in frogs and salamanders and impairs their ability to breathe.
For me the salamanders bring the lake image to life and give it texture. The difference between snapshots and images people can connect with is often narrative. I try to employ photography as a means of story telling. This isn’t the case for most of the people I teach or shoot with. They are looking for fantastic images that depend on attention to detail, mechanics, timing and individual artistry. I use and depend on these precepts as well but I’m also interested in the inner game of nature photography. I want to understand nature, connect and step deeper into the canvas as a naturist. I don’t see either route as inherently superior to the other. I love and value artistry for art sake however the meta stories of the outdoor world is a looking glass I’m drawn to.
Considering the ecology of my shoot before departure helps me immensely to create context around my material and generate a sense of place and purpose. If I’m shooting wildlife I want to be knowledgeable about my subject in it’s environment and observant of behaviors on display while I’m shooting. If I’m shooting landscape I want to know about the region, it’s ecology, geology, cultural history and weather patterns (especially if I’m camping there … lol). The next layer I consider is myself moving through the environment how the space or subject relates to my life experience and perhaps more importantly how it makes me feel. I try to be still, listen, take in the space and let my thoughts awaken.
Mechanics, timing and attention to details are of course critical and you have to love geeking out here. Spend as much time as possible scouting the shoot site for foreground, background, atmospheric elements and exposure variance. Determine if the dynamic range of the shot is beyond the scope of your sensor and set your bracket based on those findings. No your details. Is the site best for sunrise or sunset, will wildflowers be blooming, fall color showing at your elevation, will the tide be at the right level for your foreground elements, are clouds predicted to give you good atmosphere and or the milky way rotating in the proper position. Those are key details to your success. Being on site early will allows me to shoot through the warmest light tones, see color on the clouds and vibrant reflections refracting from water surfaces. It’s also the best time to see sunbeams piecing clouds, shadowy silhouettes, wildlife, sunbursts and vapor rising off the lake surface free of harsh sunlight. I have a short time to witness these events and record their beauty (as dusk and dawn are forever fleeting).