“Peaks & Waterfall at Sunset”

Peaks & Waterfall at Sunset, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

Mount Oberlin and Cannon Mountain can be found along the Going-to-the-Sun Road which traverses Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. These two peaks cradle the remnants of an old glacier that feeds Bird Woman Falls, visible between the two peaks. In this 1996 image, I was on a very rushed one-day tour of the park with a friend when we spotted this sunset scene. I had no way to compose the image with a strong foreground object as I would have preferred as I was on the opposite side of the steep valley from the peaks, so I utilized the two trees seen here to act as a sort of framing device and to divide the image into thirds to create a more pleasing shot in my mind. The fact that one tree is dead and the other thriving was incidental to my decision to include them, but they do provide a contemplative aspect to the image, especially how the waterfall seems to feed the living tree on the right, while the dead tree on the left signifies day’s end as it contrasts with Mount Oberlin’s brightly gilded face bathed in the dying day’s last light. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50).

“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)

“Mountain Reflections at Saint Mary Lake”

Mountain Reflections at Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

In August 1996, I made a trip to Montana to see my buddy Jeff. While I was there, we visited Glacier National Park, a sprawling piece of heaven along the northern border of the state. We didn’t have much time—only one day to spend in the park—so making images was a challenge as I was at the mercy of the clock. In the late afternoon of this day, we drove past Saint Mary Lake and, upon seeing the spectacular reflections of the clouds and peaks on the water’s surface, we stopped for a few minutes and I ran across the road and set up my tripod. I wanted to capture the mountain and cloud reflections along with the shaded rocks in the immediate foreground, so my trusty 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens was used. The lake was nearly mirror-smooth, and the clouds were sublime. I like the understated personality of the foreground rocks and the overall blue tones of the image. Glacier National Park can’t be experienced properly in one day—indeed, it would take a lifetime to explore—but I did the best with what I was given and I have some good memories of the day. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Old Stump & Island at Sunset”

Old Stump & Island at Sunset, Flathead Lake, Montana (c) Mike Utley

W53-1(S)—Old Stump & Island at Sunset, Flathead Lake, Montana
During my trip to Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota in 1996, my buddy Jeff and I visited Flathead Lake, the largest natural body of freshwater in the western U.S. This resulted in one of my favorite images. There’s something so stark and mournful about this scene. To me, the stump resembles an animal crying out in pain to the oblivious heavens. This was shot on color slide film but the lighting conditions rendered it almost completely black and white, which lends a surreal touch to the image. I could have used a graduated neutral density filter to hold back exposure on the sky and give it some color, but it was dusk anyway and the sky was a faded, washed-out blue which appears almost devoid of hue in the final image, an effect I prefer for this scene. The water wasn’t completely calm but the long exposure removed all traces of wavelet movement and produced an almost mist-like appearance. My friend Jeff and I were at the same spot at the same time, and his image of this stump was completely different from mine. It’s fascinating how people can interpret the same scene in vastly distinct and personal ways. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Cascades on Weeping Wall”

Cascades on Weeping Wall, Glacier National Park, Montana (c) Mike Utley

NP34-2(S)—Cascades on Weeping Wall, Glacier National Park, Montana
This weeping wall of cascading falls stands along Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana. A slow shutter speed rendered the water as silky gossamer threads against the black rocks. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)