Racing the Light in the Tetons

When I planned my recent road trip with Kristen Wilkinson (of Kristen Wilkinson Photography), we mapped out various stops along the way where we could pad our computer hard drives with more photos we could take. Looking at a map, Grand Teton National Park was something that stood out to us as a place we wanted to explore. Originally, when I proposed the road trip, I proposed that Grand Teton be our ultimate destination, not the Sawtooths. But in the end, the Tetons were too expensive to spend 5 days there. In addition, we decided it would be too crowded to spend a lot of time in Jackson Hole, and we wanted to be smart about our adventures and not expose ourselves to crowds of people. Ultimately, we decided one night in the Tetons would be ok.

While being smart was the right choice, as photographers, we wanted to photograph as many of the iconic locations as we could, in the best light. We arrived on the afternoon of July 14th, around 4pm, and had to be back on the road relatively early the next day to make Rapid City, South Dakota at a reasonable hour.

Grand Teton & the Snake River

Most of the classic shots of the Tetons are morning shots. The sun rises behind you and sets the peaks aglow, while they are reflected in the Snake River or Jenny Lake (which unfortunately we didn't get to). One notable exception is the location where I made my image "Grand Teton & the Snake River". In the morning, shadows are cast across the trees in the foreground, which makes it a more difficult exposure and leaves the scene feeling unbalanced. This is the same spot Ansel Adams made his image "The Tetons and the Snake River" on an afternoon in 1942. That image was one of my primary inspirations when I decided to photograph landscapes, so to stand in the same spot he did and make my own image of the scene was a special moment for me. 

We spent the rest of the day scouting spots we intended to photograph at sunrise or just after, and I went to bed that night excited and nervous for the next morning. Excited because I was profoundly inspired by the Tetons. Nervous because unlike in the Sawtooths the previous week, I would only get one shot at a sunrise here, and I wanted it to be good.


After our scouting the afternoon before, we decided Schwabacher Landing on the Snake River was going to be our first spot. Generally, mornings are better for rivers and lakes, as they are calmer and more reflective, undisturbed by the movement of air that comes when more people are out and about and the sun warming the air causes more turbulence. I was lucky enough to find three compositions I really liked at the landing, including "First Light on Grand Teton", and "Teton Wildflowers", below.  It was a beautiful morning and the light was soft and warm. Just what I was hoping for.

We had to decide just how long to stay at Schwabacher Landing, because while we didn't want to miss the best light, we also didn't want to stay so long that the best light would be gone by the time we got to the next location. Once we both agreed we were happy with what we'd gotten, we decided to move to Mormon Row, a historic district featuring several homesteads within Grand Teton National Park, to photograph the T.A. Moulton Barn. My image at the top of this post is the result.

Once we finished at Mormon Row, we had two more stops to make. We first wanted to stop at Snake River Overlook to see what it looked like in the morning light. That was when we discovered the shadows in the foreground and decided we had gotten the best of it the afternoon before. Then we headed to Cunningham Cabin, and old cabin dating to the 1880's. The light began to get harsh there and the landscape was a bit minimal there as well, so I wasn't thrilled with my images from there. The last stop on our way out of the park was Oxbow Bend. Oxbow Bend is a beautiful spot, but with the light becoming as harsh as it was, I knew the window for good images was closed. I took a few shots just to cover my bases, but haven't edited any of them yet.

So it was a whirlwind 16 hours in the Tetons before we had to move on. We raced the light and got a lot of good images considering the short amount of time we spent in the park. I'd like to get back to the Tetons in the fall to capture the autumn color there, and hopefully spend several days exploring Jackson Hole. But that's for another adventure.