Iconic landscape locations are iconic for a reason. They are epic, mind bending places that absolutely defy the imagination and The Wave at North Coyote Buttes is certainly one of those dream places for most landscape photographers. But there's a twist which adds to the mystique of the place. You have to win a permit in order to hike the Wave. Ten permits are awarded four months in advance through a lottery and ten permits are awarded one day in advance at the visitors center. I had one free day in the area so I applied for a permit and unbelievably won a spot among 550 applicants! Better to be lucky than good as they say.
But how do you approach photographing such an iconic location, a relatively compact location that has been photographed so heavily? Do you look at work that's already been done or not? Some photographers absolutely do not want to see others' work to avoid any preconceived ideas that might cause them to repeat what's already been done. Do you pre-visualize what you'd like to create, either single images or a series of images? Do you have a list of images you want to walk away with? And then there's the pressure of coming back with some really strong images and trying to cover a location in a limited amount of time. These are just some of the questions that run through your mind when you approach photographing an iconic location, especially one that you've never been to before.
So what's the best way to approach a place like the Wave? Well, when it comes to a place I've never experienced I typically start by doing a lot of research. Are there any photographers that live near the area and have an outstanding portfolio? It doesn't bother me at all to see the work of others. In fact, that's generally how you find out about a location to begin with. I'm definitely inspired by the place itself but also by the work of others. I'm there for the experience and to respond to the place in my own way. So, I really want to be in the right place at the right time and be safe of course. I'm looking at maps, plugging in GPS coordinates and learning as much as I can about the location, the weather conditions and using that information to make decisions about time, place, and gear. Preparation and planning are an important first step.
I don't really have a shot list and have a hard time pre-visualizing what I'd like to create in advance. In landscape photography, so many things can happen with weather, light and other conditions that you have to be flexible to what nature has to offer. And you run the risk of passing up some great images by being too focused on a preconceived notion of what you're looking for. I much prefer to go in with an open mind and be flexible to my own emotional reaction in the moment of being there. Being flexible and open is a key to having the right mindset.
And how to deal with the pressure? Most landscape photographers have limited time and resources to be out in the field shooting so there is some amount of pressure to work out some portfolio quality images, especially from a location that is so well known and photographed. The best mental approach for me at least, is to not get caught up in trying to shoot everything at any given location. Plan and expect to return in the future. If you try to shoot everything it's very easy to just shoot the obvious, the surface images and there's not much of a story or depth to the images. The best advice is to try and slow down, pick fewer subjects and shoot with more depth.
So here are the take aways:
1. Don't be afraid to throw your hat in the ring, you just might get lucky
2. Plan and prepare carefully
3. Be inspired by the work of others. Stay true to your own vision and reaction in the moment.
4. Slow down and shoot with depth. Don't try to shoot it all.
Find some of my images of the Wave at:
Information on the Wave at North Coyote Buttes: