So much of being a nature photographer involves being in the right place at the right time. I would trade all the technical know-how, all the best equipment, and every ounce of artistic interpretation that I possess for the luck of being “there” when something happens. If there’s a formula for predicting the events that, without needing more than framing the scene, produce the photographs that keep me plugging away at this endeavor, I’ve not found it. About all that I’ve figured out is that it consists of countless excursions into country of possibility, hundreds of foot miles with faith that just around the next bend lies the perfect landscape lit at the perfect time of day, and an understanding that sometimes magic happens when I least expect it. The fickle nature of the perfect moment is that it can come and go in a heartbeat, and the best I can do is attempt to be prepared.
That said, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my photos from 2019, reliving the times when, at the end of the day, I had something that I wanted to share with the world.
I love the night sky and the soft glow of billions (literally) of stars. I love thinking about the size of this universe, contemplations that bring equal parts awe and a wonderful sense of connectedness and importance. Here we are, in this beautiful sea of galaxies, during moments that will never repeat. What will we do with our gifts of time?
This image, Three Clear Nights, shows the stars in the Northern Hemisphere seemingly spinning around the night sky, circling the polar axis of Earth. In reality, it’s our home that’s spinning, whirling through the solar system, giving the illusion that the stars circle us. I captured this photograph by driving an iron bar into the ground, bolting a ball head to it, and clamping my camera securely enough to that so that I could, for three consecutive nights and battery changes, record the sky. I used a down coat wrapped around my camera, hand warmers attached to the lens with Ace bandages to prevent frost from forming on the glass, and, by taking 40-second exposures with only a tenth of a second pause between each, stacked more than 2000 individual pictures into a final scene of smooth star trails.
In First Winter, a pronghorn antelope fawn surveys a snowy, Yellowstone National Park during a frigid morning of frost and snow that it blends with as seamlessly as the falling flakes. Two steps one way or the other and this yearling would be lost in heavy sage brush, but for an instant it froze in front of me, washing away on a still morning when it and the world aligned to show cold and hope, evident in the calm eyes of this young animal, at the same time.
Spend enough time in good enough country, and I promise you will see things worthwhile. For Frost Bows, I’d hiked a snowy path to Montana’s Lava Lake, high in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. I nearly turned around two or three different times, plowing through drifts up over my knees, but I’m glad I stuck with it. As the sun fell behind rocky peaks, its rays shining through crystals of frost hanging in the below-zero air, arcs of sun dogs appeared cradling the frozen lake. I shot a fast, three-row panorama at 70mm, taking 24 photos that, when stitched together, showed one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in the winter wilderness. I tell people that our world, particularly off the beaten path, still holds wonders well worth seeing.
I didn’t think that this coyote, cruising a frozen land of buried grass, would stop far enough away from me to get a photo. I sat motionless, training a 500mm telephoto on him, waiting for him to realize that the lump on the snow ahead was human, one of his few mortal enemies. On he came at the mile-eating trot he’s capable of holding far longer than any long-distance runner, until, when he was just 20 feet away, I whistled. He gave me a puzzled look, his face filling my frame, and then, more annoyed than afraid, swerved around me without breaking stride. Song Dog was immortalized with the press of a shutter release.
The cruelest of months for all living in the North Country, March should be spring but it never is. It does bring signs of changing seasons, but only the optimist spots them.
The core of our Milky Way galaxy rises above the horizon in our northern hemisphere during the very early morning hours of early March. For Cold Night On The Yellowstone, I woke at 3am and spent an hour and a half along the river when it was eleven below zero. I was rewarded with a scene of lovely mist, pulsing stars, and an arcing, galactic panorama – a sliver of the group of stars and planets where we make our home.
Sometimes I do plan my shots. Knowing that the March full moon would crest the horizon while there was still plenty of light in the sky, I set up more than a mile away from this beautiful, Central Montana homestead, waiting for our moon to rise above its roof. Using my 500mm Nikon f4, I captured this black and white image in a single photograph. I don’t often shoot black and white, but the stark beauty of an abandoned home contrasted against the well-lit moon spoke to me in shades of monochrome. Super Moon is the result.
I spent four mornings on the Yellowstone River waiting for the sunrise I wanted for An Arch And An Oxbow, listening to the quiet rush of water, the occasional redwing, and twice a group of coyotes serenading the dawn. On the day I took this panorama, I was interrupted three times by small flocks of geese, their raucous celebration of our changing seasons adding warmth to the cold air.
The evening I captured Sphinx Mountain Rainbow, I was cruising the backroads of Southwest Montana without any particular destination in mind. As the sun began to sink below the Gravely Mountain Range, a spring rainstorm gave way to the beginnings of an enormous rainbow, shooting into the sky above Sphinx Mountain. This Madison Mountain Range landmark is one of my favorite peaks, and I was fortunate to catch it here standing beneath this color for a few moments.
The western tanager is one of Montana's most colorful birds. It's parrot-like, tropical appearance is definitely incongruous with the Rocky Mountains where it spends its summers. It arrives from Central America in small flocks each May, often spending time in cities and villages before retreating to the woods to raise its brood. The males have brilliant orange heads, the result of their diet of berries and insects far to the south. This one played hide and seek with me in a flowering plum tree for a long time before I took the photo, Peek-A-Boo.
Across the United States, in my hometown of Irasburg, Vermont, the ruby throated hummingbird, arrives in time each spring to greet blooming apple trees. Here, in the light of late afternoon, a male guards choice blossoms, his tropical feathers and intense eyes giving a reptilian appearance, proudly proclaiming, “I have dinosaur DNA.” Apple Of My Eye shows a spring-green background, a gorgeous ruby throated hummingbird, and colorful apple blossoms.
On the longest day of the year, Pine Creek Lake, high in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, was still almost entirely covered with ice. I’d hiked through fields of blooming glacier lilies, spring beauties, and twice crossed a creek bank-full of snowmelt, only to find a scene more fitting of December than the summer solstice. As evening slowly faded and storm clouds gathered in the east, I decided a photo nearly devoid of color best showed this alpine environment. Thin Ice is lovely proof that nature won’t be rushed and contains beauty at all times. By remaining open to what we find rather than what we expect, we sometimes discover wonderful surprises.
Looking Into The Future was the result of pure luck and patience. I’d spent two hours lying near a small mud puddle in the Gallatin Mountains, taking macro shots of insects. There were several kinds of butterflies, many bee flies, ants, and a lone dragonfly. As my back cramped and my eyes blurred from looking through my lens, this caterpillar appeared, slowly crawled across the scene, but stopped to examine a silvery blue. They stared at each other for a brief second, both approximately the same distance from my camera, caught here as present and future.
It was a tough, sloppy, seven-mile climb to Elbow Lake in the rugged Absaroka Beartooth Mountains. I had visions of this alpine country at sunset, glorious peaks reflected in crimson-tinted water, but by evening, when summer storms persisted, knew I was out of luck. I was soaked to the bone, had knocked loose a crown from one of my teeth when I slipped and smacked my cheek on a boulder, and was more than a little concerned about the fresh grizzly bear tracks I’d seen along the trail. I’d been turned back from a waterfalls above the lake by unstable snowfields, and, resigned to another day without a good photo, was packing up for the long walk out when the sky at the lakeshore cleared partially. I took a thirty-second exposure of the next squall descending, sheets of rain dropping down to kiss the Earth. Examining the photo, I decided it looked more like the gathering of souls than falling waterdrops. Souls Of The Absaroka was born.
On the day I captured Calm Before The Storm, I’d forgotten mosquito repellant and had been eaten alive. Swarms of the biting insects rose from this damp, alpine ground with each footstep, happy to rid me of my blood by biting me everywhere from between my fingers to my eyebrows. I’d hiked thirteen hard miles when I stopped to shoot a three-panel panorama of this impending storm, ominous clouds contrasted against a field of wildflowers. Within minutes, I found myself caught in the most violent thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced, lightning striking several times a minute all around for more than an hour. As the electrical storm subsided, the torrential rains gave way to grape-sized hail that pelted me until it lay six inches deep on the ground.
In the middle of August, a hailstorm devastated Montana’s Big Lake Waterfowl Refuge. Chunks of ice larger than baseballs, propelled by 70mph winds, killed thousands of birds. With a heavy heart, I journeyed to what’s always been one of my favorite sites, ready to chronicle the harsh side of Nature. Yes, death abounded, but I was more struck by how much life I found. All among the battered sweet clover along the lake, there was a multitude of insect life on a scale I could hardly imagine. Spiders and locusts, dragonflies and butterflies, mosquitos and gnats literally filled the air. The whir of their wings came from every direction, and, rather than focus on dead waterfowl, I found myself taking macro photos of this celebration of life’s tenacity. Mirror Image shows a pair of northern blue butterflies on either side of wheat grass, their soft shades of blue glowing with light from within.
On the final day of August, again in Bear Basin in the Spanish Peaks of Southwest Montana, the day faded over a small beaver pond. Here in the alpine country, where frost touches the land 12 months out of the year, the nearby meadow where I’d photographed wildflowers before the storm a month earlier was brown and dry, but along this pond blossoms still graced the land. At the onset of fall, only a couple of weeks before heavy, autumnal snows blanketed this scene, a warm day came to a close with the reflection of lavender clouds and craggy peaks in a tiny body of water. As I often do, I stopped several times while taking this photo to simply look around and enjoy where I was. Late Summer Reflections is one of my favorites from 2019.
Like a giant forest in a magical kingdom, this is the scene along the banks of Hyalite Creek in Montana’s Gallatin Mountains. While water runs smooth in the background of this long exposure and curls of green moss stand in the foreground, a variety of mushrooms grabs center stage. I shot this photo with my Nikon 200mm macro, setting up about 10 feet away, stopping down to f22 to increase my depth of field, always shallow with a quality macro lens. A one-second exposure in the deep shade of these fall woods helped produce a dreamy sense of some fairytale world, hence the name Once Upon A Time.
Young maple trees show off their fall colors in this wide-angle panorama taken in Northern Vermont during the last week of September. Fall Ferns is a combination of six photos taken at 24mm, panning across green ferns and crimson leaves. By shooting low to the ground with a lens capable of remarkable depth of field, even at close focus, the resulting photo combines color, depth, and detail in a way that almost does credit to the real scene.
If there’s a prettier place than Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom during the first week of October, I’ve not seen it. In a display of unrivaled color, hardwood trees prepare for many leafless months by turning shades of peach, crimson, gold and orange. Growing up surrounded by this seasonal beauty, I took a certain degree of it for granted, always struck when I return now by what a remarkable phenomenon these changing leaves are. Here, in Autumn at Pageant Cove, the shore of Crystal Lake stands in fall splendor while a cold rain clears before dark.
At 4:1 macro, raindrops stand like huge, crystal domes on a fallen aspen leaf. Depth of field was less than 2mm during this shoot, requiring a focus rail and image stacking to produce this photograph all focused properly front to back. I love taking these in-depth looks at Nature, revealing her hidden beauties, often being surprised myself by what the enlarged world around us looks like. I was able to capture this image, Rain Catcher, using a reverse lens technique, screwing a medium-wide-angle prime onto my 200mm macro in reverse. It comes with dramatic loss of light gathering, miniscule depth of field, but extreme magnification.
In Montana, the world slides back into winter during November. Heavy mountain snows fall, temperatures drop to below zero, and everything in Nature grinds to a halt. For the next five months, the Earth lives in suspended animation, waiting patiently for the spring thaw. As the days grow shorter and shorter, the sun finds the land from lower angles, producing some beautiful lighting along mountain streams. In Upstream In November, Montana’s Pine Creek cuts through a wintry scene of patchy light, snow and ice.
One of my favorite mountain ranges to photograph in Southwest Montana is the Crazies. At the edge of the plains, they often stand beneath dramatic cloud formations, rising from the prairie into billowing curtains of frozen rain. On this morning, I caught a train passing along below them during sunrise, approaching a willow I’ve photographed many times during different seasons. East Bound is an example of just happening on the right scene. The vibrant color of the train’s engines is the perfect addition to this November picture of dry grass, snow, and pastel clouds above tall mountains.
Sometimes I’ll have an idea of the photo I want to capture in my head when I set out. More often than not it doesn’t materialize, though I sometimes come away with something entirely different. Ice Blue is an example of finding precisely what I hoped for, a scene of mineral-rich ice hanging over a swift creek flowing through winter. It’s another wide-angle panorama, shot at 20mm, composed of two rows of overlapping images that combine to show a large portion of my view. The blue in the ice, lit by low, afternoon light, is the result of minerals trapped within.
Last Light At Lone Peak shows one of Montana’s iconic ski mountains as snow squalls lift during the absolute final seconds of light. I shot this from several miles away in the Porcupine Creek Drainage of the Gallatin, using Nikon’s 300mm f4, slowing my shutter to give a wispy sense of motion to the flowing clouds. The color is not enhanced in any way and is simply the result of filtered sun low on the horizon and far to the south. This was a wonderful way to wrap up my year of shooting, an image perfectly winter during a beautiful and quiet time of the year.
Jake, I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it was to be able to peruse your beautiful photographs this morning. In truth, the blurbs you write about them add as much joy to my experience as the artistic creations themselves. I am so truly grateful for the extra dimension you have added to my world this morning. You bought me outside “the box” into some amazing places I will never be able to view for my self. Thank you for this wonderful gift. Your talent never ceases to amaze me.
Interesting backstory and visually stunning results! Anyone who thinks nature photography is easy and anyone can do it should read this. ;-)
I love love your work and it was a pleasant journey from my everyday life today. I have your photograph of Irasburg in my living room…so I get to see it everyday. Happpy 2020 .
Jake, you are brilliant. The world is a much richer place with you in it and sharing your soul.
What a lovely celebration of 2019. Thank you for this gift, and may 2020 provide you with many more wonders to share!