This is a wonderful time of year for sunset pictures in Montana. I don't see the deep, crimson colors that our summers bring, but there is often a beautiful contrast between yellows, pinks, and blues, with trailing clouds showing great movement anytime I can use a longer exposure.
The sun is also setting later now... a whole two minutes today according to my much-watched calendar (anyone who's grown up in the North Country knows the euphoric feeling of seeing short, winter days begin inching longer).
But even with slightly-longer days, the western twilight - that in-between time when the sun has set yet clouds remain vibrant - never lasts long. I've missed some of the best sunset shots by doing little more than turning my back. I'll look away to see what bird called or walk a few feet from my camera to toe at some rock peeking out of the ground, and watch the perfect time of the evening come and go in a matter of a few seconds when my lens isn't focused.
Recently, I was hell-bent on not being distracted and capturing a sunset along our Yellowstone River at exactly the right time. I knew precisely what I wanted, where I wanted to set up, and also that it was mostly a matter of being patient, keeping my fingers warm, and locking my stare on the upstream, western horizon. Pretty simple stuff, right?
Damn global warming! The causes aside, it seems undeniable that at least in Montana we're right in the thick of it. Warmer winters mean geese aren't going as far south, and that means unwanted distractions for someone like myself, tunnel-visioned on a river sunset picture. At first, I was able to ignore their calls, though not without some difficulty as I've always loved the sounds of geese. Again, people living north of the 45th parallel can relate to the pleasure I felt hearing them on muddy, March days as they heralded an end to winter. As evening progressed on the Yellowstone, they began flying to the places they'd spend their nights, cutting in small V-shaped formations in front of clouds lit from beneath by the rays of a sun which had just dropped below the Absaroka Mountains.
I've got time, I told myself. Swap out my wide-angle 20mm f1.8 Nikkor, flip through some menu settings, and slap on my 150-600mm Sigma OS zoom. These silhouetted geese are too good an opportunity to pass up.
I changed lenses, camera settings, tripod height, and my position, aiming that bazooka of glass in the direction the geese had been steadily coming from. And just like, they stopped. No little bunches, no pairs, no lone goose "groping" about as Thoreau once heard. The sky was as empty as before the first reptilian ancestor of these geese sprang from the ground on wings tipped with claws.
The Yellowstone was turning colors before me, its surface moving through shades of orange and yellow, peach and pink, reflecting the sky and clouds as the magical time of perfect sunset was fast approaching. I was thoroughly unprepared, angrily staring to the north, breathing heavily through my nose, attempting to will geese out of thin air.
To my left, I was suddenly aware of something flying. I swiveled my head and watched a great blue heron coast upstream, just a few feet above the river. I turned my camera, pointed the cannon-sized lens toward the heron, but was zoomed in too tight to find him in the viewfinder. I stomped my feet and realized a small flock of geese had shot over, passing directly in front of a gorgeous pink cloud.
I stared hard, waiting as night swooped in from the east, and then, like the last audible note of a high-flying flock of geese that I strain to hear but cannot, realized the sunset had come and gone and my picture count remained at zero.
I would come back the next evening and the one after, and I'd more or less get the shots I was looking for, but on that night I sat along the Yellowstone as darkness enveloped me, listening to the swish of slushy ice drifting downstream, watching distant stars turn on, feeling the cold, north wind that, geese and herons aside, spoke of January.
There are worse places I could have been.
You can find the above image, Storm Flight, for sale now. Also look for the Yellowstone sunset image, River of Color.