Every photographer worth their salt takes good images on a regular basis. These are the kind of images we are quietly pleased with and will probably post to a social media page for people to go “wow” or “amazing” and give the thumbs up emoticon. However, such images are quickly forgotten about and then sit on a dusty hard drive, stored at the back of a cupboard never to be seen again.
The next step up in the hierarchy of shots come along only occasionally, and these are the ones which you get openly excited about, maybe even get you dancing around as though you desperately need the toilet. These are the kind of shots we proudly add to our portfolio or gallery page, and when we post them on the same social media sites, people add lots of exclamation marks after the “wow!!!!!” and “amazing!!!!!”. Other superlatives which rarely see the light of day suddenly start popping up everywhere, and the odd request to buy a print makes an appearance in the comments.
These kind of images may only come along once or twice in a year, and often less frequently. We call these images “hero shots” and these get carefully placed on their own special hard drive which in itself is then placed on the top shelf. If we get a request from a commercial customer looking for an image which is needed to sell whatever is associated with it, we say something along the lines of “sounds like you need something from the top shelf”! This implies that the image is very special and will come at a specially inflated price.
Very occasionally, maybe only a few times in a lifetime or a career, comes the opportunity where multiple top shelf images are captured in a single day. This is the equivalent of getting a royal flush in poker, or finding a partner who is not only a devil in the bedroom but a magician in the kitchen. First of all you need to be in a location which offers numerous subjects, viewpoints and compositions, combined with the perfect conditions to bring the scenes to their absolute potential.
Such a situation presented itself during our recent photo holiday to the Italian Dolomites where we had five customers from various areas of the world. We were staying in one of the mountain refuges which gives us the chance to be in the best locations for dawn and dusk light - something which wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in village hotels.
We boarded the cable car under cloudy skies, ascending to the summit of 3100 metres. Upon arriving at what seemed like the top of the world, the views were epic. The previous day of heavy snow had carpeted the peaks in their fresh winter plumage and had cleared the air to create the most amazing clarity. Mountains 20 or 30 miles away still showed full contrast and revealed detail often eaten up by impurities in the air. There was, however, a complete cloud covering which was preventing the afternoon light getting through. The forecast was optimistic though, and we could already see clearer weather approaching from the west, so panic was kept at bay.
When clarity is this good, scenes can work perfectly well in diffused/overcast light.
So amazing were the views, it didn’t really matter what light they were under, they were working regardless. As we traversed the southern ridge, the views to the south were stunning, as though the peaks had been positioned purely for the satisfaction of photography. At the very back of them was Il Pelmo, the first ever Dolomiti mountain I photographed way back in 2004. Also known as God’s Armchair, it’s the perfect mountain to sit proudly yet modestly at the back of the stage. Although there were many other views in every direction my eyes kept being drawn back to Il Pelmo.
Il Pelmo - the titan of titans.
We shot in every direction, at every focal length before heading back to the refuge bar to warm up with a coffee. We knew the best light of the day was yet to come, so there was no hurry. Usually I would use this time to find compositions, but it was obvious that they were everywhere we looked, so it was just a matter a waiting for the light before taking full advantage of what was in front of us.
Group member Ali framing up a potentail shot for later. The refuge can be seen perched atop the rock face to his left.
A couple of hours prior to sunset, the light suddenly came good and lit up the peaks in hues of yellow and orange. As the sun sank towards the horizon, the air temperature started to drop and low level clouds started to form in the valleys below. It looked like we were going to witness an inversion layer. There is no better condition to have than to be above the clouds with just the peaks of neighbouring mountains protruding from a sea of fog.
Low level clouds building as the Sun sinks to the west.
Sunset provided some amazing light, and usually we would have been more than content with the images we had shot, but the promise of what was to come had taken priority in our minds. On the short journey back to the refuge we had to keep stopping as the views of the fog forming below us in the fading twilight were too good to walk past.
Twilight view just after sunset.
After dinner, we went outside to check on the conditions, and things were looking good. The cloud cover below us had built up nicely, and above it was a totally clear sky lit up by the Milky Way. It would have been a crime not to capture this, so we set up the cameras for some long exposures.
It became apparent that the Dolomites are clearly under a major flight path, as several planes were overhead at any given time. We needed to wait 20 minutes or more to get a clear shot which was free of air traffic. Although not apparent to the naked eye, light from the towns in the valleys below was backlighting the cloud, giving a very otherworldly appearance - perfect for a shot of deep space. We retired to bed happy in the knowledge that good images had been exposed, and that better was probably to come.
Planet Earth in all its glory.
Alarms were set for 50 minutes before sunrise, but few of us needed them. The first hints of daylight seeping through the curtains is usually enough to wake eager photographers. A quick look out of the window confirmed we were in for a treat. A total covering of slow moving low level cloud sat heavily in the valleys, yet the dominant peaks sat proud in the most amazingly crystal clear air. These are the conditions photographers wait a very long time for.
The scene waiting to greet anyone willing to get out of bed.
We all lined up at a suitable viewpoint which gave uninterrupted views to the south, and once again Il Pelmo was right there taking all the glory in the centre of the frame. It was perfectly placed at sunset, and now it was perfectly placed for sunrise too - a good place for an armchair. The pre-dawn glow was now looking electric, with hues of neon blue and orange dominating the sky. The light was changing by the minute, and just as we thought it couldn’t get better, somehow it did.
Eventually the first slither of the sun’s golden disc revealed itself over the eastern horizon. I changed the aperture to f/16 to create a starburst effect and zoomed out to 12mm to include the sun in the frame. Once it had gained a little altitude in the sky, the shadows inched down the peaks and the direct light began to illuminate the tops of the clouds below us. This helped to emphasise the texture, so I retook all the same shots again in case these ended up being the best ones.
The first glimpse of the Sun.
There wasn’t a lot of talking in our group. The usual jokes were being put on hold as we knew this was one of those special occasions which doesn’t come round too often. Although the temperature was well below zero, even the lure of a warm environment and a hot cup of coffee only a few metres away couldn’t tear us from our viewpoint. We continued shooting for an hour after sunrise before we were confident that the best of the light had passed.
Cinque Torri standing proud of the cloud.
A couple of hours later after breakfasting on Biscotti and Nutella, we were waiting for the cable car to take us back down to our minibus somewhere below the sea of clouds. The sight of the cables disappearing into the abyss had to be taken, but we needed a cable car in the shot to provide a focal point and tell a story as to what the cables were for. This meant missing the next ride down and having to wait another 15 minutes for the following one, but we weren’t going to be in this situation again, so convenience and comfort were put on hold.
Into the abyss - cable car to another world.
Once back in the car park below grey skies, we were a world away from the scenes we had witnessed up in the heavens, yet we would have never known we were missing anything had we not been at altitude.
As far as we know, we are the only photo company who uses such mountain refuges as its main accommodation in the Dolomites. To take full advantage, why not join us in what must be the most photogenic mountains on the planet - the Italian Dolomiti.