Finding out what a poor photographer I am…

jasper, dan jurak, alberta, astrophotography, failure, stars, winter, snow, moon,

I’ve been shooting landscapes off and on, mostly off for just over forty years. A part of those forty years was spent in the studio doing editorial fashion and food photography and before that a smattering of advertising photography.

What I do know about myself and am not afraid to admit is that although I am not the smartest or fastest learner I am persistent and after a time can usually master what I attempt. Everyone is different. Every one of us is unique. There is an innate ability in all of us to be creative. For some it happens almost automatically. For others it means working hard at it.

For a few years when I first returned to landscape photography I stumbled and fumbled and meandered until I found my niche. The golden hours around sunrise and sunset were the best at getting the kind of results that I liked.

Early on mornings seemed to be better than evenings. Evenings although they can be very colourful lacked something that some mornings had… fog and mist. Those two things along with the light being low or close to the horizon combined at times to produce almost magical images.

Eventually I stopped taking photos in the evening altogether and would diligently watch the weather forecast for the conditions that made for the best photos, a sky with mixed or light clouds, lots of humidity and little to no wind. It became almost routine to get dreamy morning landscape photos and after a while, it became boring. Too routine. Too predictable.

All of last year was an experimental year. Instead of doing the morning routine I found myself driving through the country side during the middle of the day experimenting and having fun doing both infrared and long exposure landscapes. Each outing brought new experiences. Some days could be called failures and others successes. I say “could be called failures” because although I didn’t bring back images that I was happy with, each “failure” pointed me more in the direction that I wanted to go. Like I wrote earlier, I am not the most talented, or quickest learner by being observant of what works and what doesn’t work I know that I will eventually get there.

Night time or astrophotography is still very new to me as is panoramic photography. Still being very new to it and making mistakes along the way I decided to head out to the mountains and give it a try.

The plan was to get what I had hoped would be a dramatic image of the centre of the milky way rising out of a frozen mountain lake and soar over a mountain next to the lake.

For that to happen it meant knowing where the milky way would be during this time of year and night. Check.

Having a clear and cloudless night sky. Check.

And more I found out. UNcheck.

The weather around here lately has been very unpredictable. The forecasts even three days ahead have been changing frequently. What was forecast as clear days and clear nights would be replaced with cloudy and a chance of rain or snow.

My favourite astrophotography weather website, runs scripts that most times accurately predict the weather every twelve hours. By Thursday morning the weather for the night skies of Jasper were supposed to clear off by midnight. With it being only twelve hours ahead it was with a fair degree of confidence that I decided to pack the Rav and make the drive to the mountains.

On the drive out the skies were heavy and moving quickly which had me hopeful of doing a few long exposure photos of the mountains before night time. Such great luck, I thought. By the time I got the national park gates three hours later the sky had turned to heavy, white, even skies and it was seriously raining. Ew. No pictures until after midnight when the skies cleared.

To kill a few hours I drove to the lake that I had planned to be at just to see what the conditions were like. Being higher up in elevation, the rain turned to snow as I got there. Lots and lots of snow remained, soft and wet. Tonight would be magic.

Back to town, walk around, grab a bite to eat and then find a place to park and sleep in the back of the little Toyota. It made no sense to rent a motel room only to get up at 2:45 a.m. and drive to the lake. So at 10:00 p.m. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and went to sleep or so I had hope. I tossed and turned and tossed and turned some more. No sleep. Looking at the clock it was now 1:10 a.m. The plan was to get up at 2:45 because the centre of the milky way was visible around 3:30 a.m. Back to sleep, I thought and still no sleep.

At 2:30 a.m. I decided enough laying and the sleeping bag and not sleeping so I got dressed and made the drive to the lake. As I started to make my way I looked up at the night sky only to see… CLOUDS.

Maybe it would clear up in the next hour or so?

Arriving at the lake I noticed the moon over my shoulder. It was a waning gibbous which to me meant that it wasn’t full and it was supposed to set in a couple of hours. I would have called it a quarter moon. That much was lit.

Doing a test photo one thing was apparent. THE MOON WAS BRIGHT!!! The lake and mountains looked like they were in daylight! The portion of the milky way over the mountains looked like only points of light. This wasn’t going to work.

The plan was to stick around and take a few photos and see what resulted.

Now I had a new plan. While in town and listening to the local radio the forecast was for morning fog and mixed skies. PERFECT!!! I could salvage the trip by getting bunch of golden hour landscapes.

I stayed at the lake until 5:00. By then it was obvious that the skies weren’t going to clear. I could drive back to town, sleep for an hour and do some daytime photography.

Twenty minutes later I was in town and tucked into my sleeping bag. Half an hour later sleep had still not come. Grrrr.

Better to grab a cup of coffee and muffin from the shop that opened at 6:00 a.m. and look for pictures. By the time I left the store I looked up to the skies and guess what? All the clouds had gone. Clear skies usually make for horrible landscapes. Oh yeah, there was no fog either.

This wasn’t what I had hoped for. It was then that I decided to make the three and a half hour drive back home.

I gassed up at the next town, Hinton and made my way east towards Edmonton. Forty minutes later I was driving into a wall of white. The fog was so thick on the highway that I was forced to slow down because I couldn’t safely see far enough ahead to do the speed limit and it started to rain.

Less than an hour later I made my way into Edson which is a little over 200 kms from where I live. Catch some sleep here until the fog lifted and then head home I thought. Except that for as tired as I was, sleep didn’t come.

Back on the highway an hour later and the fog had lifted a bit to where it didn’t seem dangerous to do the speed limit.

Two hours later found me at home with the dog wondering where I had disappeared to and my wife surprised that I was back so early. Ugh. Should I tell her what happened?

I made a fresh pot of coffee, had a soak in the tub and eventually emptied the Toyota of my gear.

Was this trip a failure? Hell no!

I learned so much about astrophotography that night. It was time well spent because even though I am not the smartest person on the block I am smart enough to learn a lesson and benefit from it down the road.

It is humbling to have things not go your way when you are used to it. It’s nice to be brought down to earth and be reminded that most good things in life come from hard work and dedication. I am not a gifted or particularly talented photographer but I do dream and enjoy working to make my dreams come true.

Here’s to another successful photo trip!

Happy shooting,


~ by Dan Jurak on April 8, 2017.

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