During a recent trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, I met up with some readers and fellow writers of Improve Photography. The trip began with three straight days of cloudless skies, making for beautiful hiking weather, but relatively boring conditions for photography. With no clouds to filter or reflect the harsh sunlight, we were mostly limited at sunrise and sunset to waiting for the first or last light of the day to bathe Glacier’s jagged mountain peaks in an orange glow. While this certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world to see, I rarely find myself with a week of uninterrupted time in the mountains, so I was itching for some dramatic skies and epic light to chase.
Eventually, the cloudless Montana skies gave way to a persistent weather system that settled in over the park. The campsite I was staying at was in a relatively flat area just outside the eastern entrance to the park, which gave me a clear view of the eastern side of the Northern Rockies that ran in a north-south direction through Glacier. For two days the skies over the campsite stayed relatively clear while the mountains in the park a few miles away were visibly shrouded in clouds, rain, and snow, and were being battered by gale force winds. While this made photography inside the park difficult, it meant there would be a chance of the early morning sun shining dramatic light on those stormy clouds once it crested the eastern horizon.
Beginning at the eastern edge of the park, Glacier's famed Going-to-the-Sun Road runs for 11 miles along the shores of Saint Mary Lake. On the northern shore of the lake, the Going-to-the-Sun Road passes an iconic viewpoint from which the small, 100-foot-long Wild Goose Island can be seen poking out of the lake’s surface. The view of Wild Goose Island from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, flanked by mountains on both sides, is one of the most iconic in the park, so I was hoping to photograph the scene when there was a possibility of a memorable sunrise.
On the fifth day of the trip, I woke up to sounds clearly indicating that the strong winds blowing out of the park and through the campsite had not subsided. Standing outside to survey the scene, the park was still visibly shrouded in clouds, and a few snowflakes were whipping into the campsite with the wind. After discussing plans for sunrise with fellow photographers Gioacchino Rizzo (Rizzo’s Photos) and Jeana Caywood (JCaywoodPhotography), we decided to brave the wind and head to the Wild Goose Island viewpoint, all while promising Jeana, who lives in the hot Arizona desert, that sunrise would be followed by hot coffee, warm breakfast, and probably more hot coffee.
Despite how many days I’ve worked or photographed outside in challenging conditions, volatile weather always seems to test my abilities to stay focused. The rain and wind from the past few days had changed the organization of my camera bag from a neat, logical library of gear to an incomprehensible jumble of equipment stuffed in random pouches and pockets however space allowed. After choosing my spot overlooking Wild Goose Island and setting up my tripod above the shore of Saint Mary Lake, I had to run back to my rental car twice to find the random accessories that I would need in order to capture the shot I was hoping for, keep my gear stable, and, most of all, keep it relatively dry. When we first arrived at the viewpoint, we had only strong winds and cold to contend with, but sheets of precipitation were visible in the distance over the far end of the lake, so I had a feeling rain would be in our near future.
After Gio, Jeana, and myself set up our cameras, we waited stubbornly, with the wind in our faces, for the sun to crest the horizon. Eventually, a tinge of orange began to show on the clouds just off the top right part of my frame, and I felt a wave of relief knowing we would get a least a little color on the clouds to make the early wake up worthwhile. After a few minutes, the orange glow brightened and spread over most of the clouds in front of us, and I pressed my shutter release over and over until the color began to fade.
Knowing I was happy with the shots I had already gotten, I recomposed my frame slightly and grabbed a new SD card with more available space. I was hoping to shoot a timelapse sequence of the fast moving clouds over the lake. After trying two different spare cards, I realized that in my sleep deprivation I had forgotten to backup the photos I had taken so far during the trip, so I couldn’t find an SD card with space for more than 136 new photos. Depending on how many still frames I used for each second of video, I knew I could get a 4 or 5 second timelapse clip out of 136 frames, so I decided it was better than nothing and started setting up.
Once a layer of more dramatic clouds moved towards us, I had my camera start capturing 136 consecutive frames and let nature do the rest. I don’t run timelapses very often, but I enjoy shooting them because the process gives me a chance to step back, slow down, and enjoy the scene in front of me while the camera does the work for me.
I set up my Nikon D750 to take a shot every 3 seconds. So, for just under 7 minutes I watched through cold, watering eyes as sheets of rain moved over the lake towards my camera, eventually culminating in a double rainbow perfectly placed just to the left of Wild Goose Island. By the time the rainbow appeared, I was giddy with excitement and absolutely could not feel my face. The face numbness could potentially be a symptom of surprise double rainbows, but more than likely had to do with the cold, raw wind I had been standing in for the previous 20 minutes. I’m happy to report that I have since regained feeling in my face.
My only regret from that sunrise at Saint Mary Lake is that I didn’t have extra space on my SD card to get a few more frames of the rainbow in the timelapse. Even if I had, the sheets of rain responsible for the rainbows were soon in our faces, blowing mist onto my camera lens and obscuring my view of the lake, so I only would have been able to extend the clip by a half second or a second at most. Regardless, between the challenging conditions, beautiful view, and great company, that morning at Wild Goose Island isn’t one I’ll soon forget. Check out the video of the timelapse below, and be sure to watch in HD for the full effect.