“Bear Grass & Peaks”

Bear Grass & Peaks, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

While traveling through Glacier National Park in 1996 along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, this meadow came into view. I’d never seen bear grass before and had no idea what this unusual flower was at the time. The conditions were a bit tricky: contrasting lighting, a bit of a breeze, a slanting hillside, long-stemmed flowers and very slow slide film. In order to record this image, I had to make some choices.

First, due to the breeze, I needed a faster shutter speed than I’d usually use for such a shot with my 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens (which I typically closed down to f/22 for such images in order to achieve the most depth-of-field possible). This meant opening up the lens aperture a bit to allow more light to hit the film, which in turn meant a more shallow depth-of-field. Thus, I had to let the distant peaks go slightly out-of-focus and zero in on the bear grass, which was fine since that was the purpose of image anyway, and it caused the flowers to stand out more against the background. Depth-of-field (the amount of a scene—near to far—that’s in sharp focus) is inversely proportional to shutter speed at any given exposure setting: the more DOF, the slower the shutter speed, and vice versa

Second, the contrast between the subdued lighting in the meadow and the brightly lit clouds and peaks required the use of a two-stop soft-edged graduated neutral density filter in order to hold back exposure on the brightly lit sections and allow for a more balanced exposure overall. This slowed the shutter speed even more.

Third, the breeze had these flowers moving constantly and it was a struggle to wait for a lull during which I could expose a frame. Patience is crucial in nature photography since so little is under the photographer’s control—he’s at the mercy of the environment and must wait for the proper conditions to manifest before pressing the shutter button.

Fourth, I had to hold the rectangular graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens by hand since the filter mount was not made for wide-angle lenses and would end up darkening the corners of the frame (vignetting). This was more than a bit awkward and can be hit-and-miss and require several exposed frames to get one that works.

And fifth, all landscape photography requires a level horizon for proper orientation and a natural appearance. When shooting an ocean sunset, for example, it’s easy to use the horizon line as a level since all water lies horizontally. Or. If shooting a copse of trees, the vertical tree trunks can be a level indicator. But sometimes scenes have no obvious level indicator and can confuse the viewer. The slight slope of the meadow caused a problem here, and the solution was to make sure the vertical stems of the bear grass were clearly visible to act as an indicator of a level shot. Better quality tripods have built-in levels, but mine lacked this feature and I had to use environmental objects to imply a sense of proper level orientation.

After all of this, it was a matter of waiting for the breeze to die down enough to fire off a shot. And finally, once the slides were developed I checked my wild flower guidebooks to identify the bear grass. All in all, it took about twenty to thirty minutes to make this image, but it was time well spent. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

54 thoughts on ““Bear Grass & Peaks”

    1. Thanks, David. I appreciate it. Still plugging away here, waiting for the words to return. I’m tempted to try some poetry prompts to see if that would kick-start my writing again. 🙂

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    1. Thanks a bunch, trE. It was a fun experience despite all the waiting around for the breeze to stop long enough to fire off a shot. The bear grass blossoms were exquisite–so unusual and delicate. Glad you liked this one. I appreciate your kind words. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much. Yep, I wanted to go into a bit of detail about the process this time. It’s not a perfect image–the clouds on the upper left and the snow on the peaks are blown-out and have no detail–but it was a good example of trying to figure out what to do to compensate for sub-optimal circumstances. I love those flowers, too. Fascinating blossoms, and so unusual. Fun times. Thanks for the kind words as always. I appreciate it. 🙂

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    1. Thank you kindly, Grace. One of the joys of nature photography for me was always discovering new things. These flowers were startling in their beauty and I really wanted to capture them in their natural habitat. It was sort of magical. Glad you enjoyed this one, my friend. 🙂

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  1. An amazing shot considering the conditions Mike. I started laughing when you described hand holing the filter…I It sounded a lot like me making do with whatever is at hand. I have even had my wife hold a piece of cardboard nearby to cut the wind on a plant for a shot. Love the backstory on shots like that.. You could probably write a book called “Make do” (How to get the shot if it’s not there) with lots of stories.

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    1. Thanks, Gary. Heh, I agree–it was a humorous experience trying to get this image on film! My Cokin ND grad filter mount just wasn’t designed for any lens wider than about 35mm in focal length. I’d had some shots ruined previously by using it on my 24mm lens (vignetting), so I learned the hard way, and resorted to the hand-held method which is incredibly awkward (and silly). It’s not the first time I’ve had to hand-hold that particular filter (here’s another image where I hand-held the ND filter: https://silentpariah.com/2022/02/27/rock-sheep-mountain-trout-lake/ ). It’s true, though–sometimes you’ve got to use whatever’s on hand at the moment. In the past, I’ve used twigs to support and stabilize long-stemmed flowers (jam one end in the dirt and place the other end against a flower stem outside of the image). I couldn’t do that here since there was a cluster of flowers and I needed to show the stems for a level reference. I’ve made makeshift windbreaks before, or had my young nephew stand and cast his shadow onto cactus flowers to eliminate any harsh contrasting lighting, or even had my mom hold a reflector board to bounce lighting onto the subject when I used to photograph the local Little League baseball teams. I think it adds a lot of fun to the process when you must trouble-shoot and jury-rig stuff to get a shot. This image isn’t perfect–the contrast was just too much to hold any detail in the clouds in the upper-left and the snow on the peaks, but there really wasn’t a lot I could do. Slide film has such a narrow exposure latitude, and if you lose highlight detail on slide film, it’s gone forever. “Expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may” is the mantra for slide film. Nowadays, post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software can eliminate a lot of exposure problems, but back then, we had to use ND filters and hope for the best. I love the stories behind images–some are pretty funny, and all are enlightening. I’ll keep that prospective book title in mind! 😀

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    2. If you’re ever in this area again. be sure to check out out Trout Lake. It’s my second-favorite spot on Planet Earth (behind Heceta Head Lighthouse on the central Oregon Coast). It’s about ten miles from Telluride, CO, and nestled in a bowl surrounded by several peaks. Lizard Head Peak is nearby, as is one of Colorado’s more than fifty 14ers, Mount Wilson (elevation 14,252). .

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  2. I’ve never seen bear grass before, thank you for taking this shot and introducing me to it. It is truly alluring and a beauty to look at, also thanks for the very descriptive process of taking this one picture. You’d make a great book out of your photography’s including the background stories I should say. 🙂

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    1. Thank you kindly, Daphny. I was inspired by one of your recent comments to go into more detail on how I made an image. This one was a good example of the thought process involved in dealing with contrasting lighting and a breeze blowing the subject around. It seems like every time I went out shooting, I’d see something new, and it was so much fun. I’d carry plant, flower and wildlife guide books in my backpack so I could identify what I’d seen. This place was so different from my area and there was so much to be discovered in the one day I had up there. I think the bear grass flowers rank near the top of the good memories I have of that trip. Delicate and beautiful and unusual. I love sharing the background stories of these photos. It allows me to relive the memories. Even the less-than-pleasant experiences I had while shooting (gnats, mosquitoes, fatigue, bitter cold, heat, high winds, tumbling down rocky hillsides, etc.) are still good memories for me when I look at the resulting images. I’m glad you liked this one. Many thanks! 🙂

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      1. So glad you went on with it, it’s nice to know how a picture was taken in which angle and at what point it should be. It is a stunning one to look at and I agree it is quite different. Every memory made is a good one I guess. You’re most welcome, Mike! Keep on sharing with us. 🙂

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  3. The in-depth explanation made me run out of breath. Haha! Great capture, Mike. Thanks for sharing something I had no idea about. Photography takes a lot of patience and precision. The bear grass looks so soft and cuddly. You must have such a lovely and huge collection of photos. That’s wonderful! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Terveen. Yes, I got sort of long-winded on this one. Recently, a dear blogger friend of mind suggested I go into more detail to describe what my typical approach was like when making an image, and this image popped into my mind as one that required a little bit more work, so I thought I’d dive into the details a bit more. The flowers were so delicate and unusual, and tall–this cluster was 3-4 feet in height. I’d seen plenty of mountain flowers before this trip, but nothing even remotely close to these. I was able to get only a couple of shots in the limited time I had, but this one brings back some cool memories. I’m happy you liked this one. Much appreciated. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much, Xenia. Oh, the color of the bear grass was so unusual–understated, yet seeming to glow–and it complemented the green of the meadow perfectly. The bear grass has such a delicate structure. The plants can grow up to about five feet in height. It was a delightful discovery, and exemplified what made nature photography so much fun for me. Glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks so much for your kind words. 🙂

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  4. Hi Mike, I have never seen those flowers before. Very cool. I also really appreciate your explanation of the conditions and challenges of the photo. I don’t know any of that stuff so it was really interesting. Great job again!

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    1. Hey, Mark. Thanks for the nice comment. I thought I’d dip into some of the details since this shot had some obstacles to overcome. I learned about photography by studying books by nature photographers like Galen Rowell and John Shaw. They always included little stories that described their images, the gear they used, any obstacles they had to deal with, what their mindset was like, etc. Galen Rowell had a monthly column in Outdoor Photographer (I had a subscription to this incredible magazine back in the day), and his stories about each photo were so intriguing and filled with so much easy-to-understand technical info (camera body, lens, tripod, film, shutter speed, aperture setting, filters used, etc.). It made it easy to learn. He was such a great teacher, environmentalist, mountaineer and photographer, and was world-renown (he was good friends with the Dalai Lama and Robert Redford, for example). Anyway, I thought it might be fun to tell a deeper tale of how this shot came about. Glad you liked it. I had a blast with it. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jeff. Your kindness means a lot to me. Glacier is a wonderful place and well worth a visit (watch out for the grizzlies, though). This meadow was like a faerie land with all the bear grass and those peaks in the distance. Glad you enjoyed this one, and thanks so much for your constant support. You’re very much appreciated. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much, Reena. I’d have an idea of an image in my mind, and the rest was finding a way to achieve that image. It didn’t always work out (and sometimes I’d end up with something even better), but it’s sort of like putting a puzzle together, knowing where the pieces are and how to interconnect them to get the final result. But I do agree–ultimately, it’s the vision of the person behind the lens (or the paintbrush, or the sculpting clay, or the pen, or the keyboard). A good working knowledge of the technical side of things is necessary, but without that vision, nothing matters. This image has its flaws, but I was pleased with it anyway. Thanks for your kind words as always. 🙂

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    1. You’re too kind, Filipa! I appreciate your wonderful words so much. I think you’ve been in some amazing places as well, judging by your own photography! Glad you found this one appealing. Many thanks. 🙂

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    1. Thank you kindly, Peggy. Oh, I hope you can make it up to Glacier. It’s SO worth it! I’d love to return sometime. One day just isn’t enough time to even scratch the surface. Thanks for your kind comment. 🙂

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  5. Glad how you used your photojournalism skills and personal effort and experience to capture this scene. It certainly speaks to the heart. What with me that when I see flowers I just break into a smile 😃? Oh I love this. The way the flowers stand in groups facing the hills sounds like different groups of the human race lifting up their hope to a mutual source of happiness. Look at how cool the hills are, as if they are going to send forth rain to the flowers any soon. Amazing!

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    1. Thanks, Lamittan, for your always-inspiring imaginative reviews. It does indeed look like a gathering of flowers lifting up praise to the distant peaks. It was so unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Flowers are nature’s poetry, and this scene is a veritable poetry anthology. Such beauty in those blooms and peaks! Thanks for your kind and enthusiastic appraisal, good sir! 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much. It was a delightful surprise seeing these flowers. They were unlike anything I’d come across in my travels. I was fascinated by them, for sure. They can grow up to about five feet in height, yet their blossom are so delicate and intricate. Really cool flowers. 🙂

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    1. Thank you kindly, Simone! To be honest, the scene took my breath away when I saw it, too, that vast, sprawling meadow filled with those unusual flowers, seemingly watched over and cared for by the peaks in the distance. What a thrill it was, and this image takes me back to that place and time every time I view it. Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad this one appeals to you. 🙂

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    2. Thanks, Simone. I had so much fun during my nature photography years. There’s nothing quite like immersing oneself in nature and feeling the worries of the world slip away for a while. It was my way of imposing order on my chaotic world, and each of my images has its own tale to tell. My desire was to capture the peace and tranquility of nature as well as the beauty of the natural world. Sharing my photos here has been so pleasant and fulfilling to me. I truly appreciate your kind support. 🙂

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      1. I can imagine! Sharing any form of one’s personal art is refreshing and offers comfort. I’m glad to be here and get to see your beautiful pieces 😃 Keep em coming!

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  6. Pingback: “Bear Grass & Peaks” – MobsterTiger

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. I thought I’d describe a bit of the thought process I went through when setting up a shot since another blogger friend was curious about what goes into making an image. 🙂

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    1. This strange flower is called bear grass, or sometimes Indian basket grass. It’s such a unique flower and one I’d never seen before visiting Glacier National Park. It’s pretty fascinating. 🙂

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