We humans love to discover new things. Whether it's a new star in a distant galaxy, a new species of fish from the ocean depths, or a new holiday destination we've never visited before, the allure of discovering something to excite our senses and maybe even enhance our lives is one of the things that makes life worth living. That wide-eyed sense of wonder we had as kids is still there within us all, even if we might try and convince ourselves that the worries of the world have blotted it out.
For the landscape photographers among us, the prospect of discovering a new and exciting scene and capturing it's beauty on camera is what drives us forward. There's always a risk that our efforts will come to nothing, but that's part of the challenge. If we put in the hard yards and our efforts are rewarded with some great new images, then victory is ours!
It was with a keen sense of wonder and anticipation that I recently found myself hurrying along the hiking trail to Wrights Lookout in New England National Park. It was pitch black beyond the beam of my torch and I was puffing clouds of dragon's-breath into the near-freezing pre-dawn air. All I knew of Wrights Lookout was gleaned from a few general descriptions and some happy-snaps I'd found on the internet. There were obviously some great views to be had, judging by the mountains receding into the distance behind grinning snap-shot faces, but whether this would translate into good landscape photo opportunities, and whether I'd be able to see anything through the mist that had shrouded my first two days in the Park, remained in question.
Forty five minutes after leaving Thungutti camping area, I scrambled up through the last remnants of forest and onto the relatively flat, rocky expanse of Wrights Lookout. Track markers pointed the way between low shrubs and through the swirling mist, and led me straight to the edge of the escarpment. By torchlight, the view consisted of a foggy, grey void, so I took off my pack and began searching around for likely photo locations should the fog lift as sunrise approached.
By 6am, there was just enough light to get around without a torch, but the views were still veiled in a thick fog. Every now and then, treetops would briefly appear through the mist, giving a sense of the depth of the valley below me. Off to my left I began to make out what I thought was a high cloud bank, but then the mist parted for a few seconds and the massive form of Point Lookout emerged. I managed to fire off a couple of shots before the mist closed around the peak again.
I set up my tripod right on the edge of the escarpment and pointed my camera in the general direction of Point Lookout. A small, flowering shrub would add foreground interest, and a just-visible jagged rock pillar below me helped fill the mid-ground. Now it was just a matter of waiting for Point Lookout to emerge from the gloom again.
Half an hour later, after much pacing and rubbing of cold hands, I'd still seen no more than a vague glimpse of the peak and had not taken a single image. The sunrise time of 6:30am had come and gone with only a hint of colour through the mist. By 7:20 I knew I'd probably missed the kind of light that makes sunrise such a great time to be out taking landscape photos, but I figured that the fog had to lift sooner or later and I was at least going to get a look at the view for future reference.
Then without warning, the sea of fog in front of me parted and lifted. In the space of 30 seconds, the outlook changed from a dense grey soup to one of the most expansive and grandest views in this part of Australia, bathed in brilliant, white sunlight. The most amazing example of 'god-rays' I've ever seen rained down on line upon line of mountain ranges extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The majesty of the scene almost brought me to my knees, and while I can't say for sure, I might have heard a fanfare of trumpets and a chorus of angels!
Fumbling with the tripod and camera controls, I began framing portions of the view in front of me and firing the shutter almost randomly, in case the spectacle should suddenly disappear. I'd taken 5 or 6 shots before I realised that I hadn't even checked the focus.
Those of us who spend a lot of our time chasing landscape photographs like to believe we know what we're doing, know our equipment inside out, and will react calmly and professionally in any given situation. It's kind of nice to realise that pure, instinctive, child-like wonderment can still carry us away, and override the restraint and composure we've learnt over the years.
But I did eventually calm down. The rays lasted for more than half an hour and were still visible when I finally packed my camera away. But not before I'd fired off well over 100 shots including a variety of multi-shot panoramas that would be stitched together later, and exposure-bracketed versions of many of the scenes....just in case! As I hoisted my pack to begin the descent from Wrights Lookout, I remember thinking that it didn't matter how well the photos turned out, they would only ever be a two dimensional reminder of the experience of actually being there.
It's great to find new places to photograph. It's also great to get to know a location well and build on previous experiences and images. Whether your chosen location is new to you or not, and whether it's in some far-flung corner of wilderness or down at your local beach, approach it with child-like enthusiasm. Every day is a new experience and every moment is what we make of it.