Despite having grown up around photography all my life (thanks, dad) and then starting my own commercial portrait business in 2009, there is one small little thing I'd never done before, silly as it sounds. I have never, ever shot in snow. Born in the Caribbean in 1975, then briefly living in Miami before settling down in Houston in 1979, I have truly never experienced real snow. But all that changed for me recently in Salt Lake City and Albuquerque - in January.
I arrived in Salt Lake City right after the new year, and Albuquerque two weeks later. Curiously, both cities experienced a reasonably significant snow storm 24-48 hours before I arrived, so I had more than enough frozen water crystals covering the landscape to keep me wide-eyed. This was going to be interesting for me, to say the least.
Salt Lake City
SLC was first up, and included a drive up a mountain into temperatures this cold wimp never knew before (3F/-16C). Walking around proved difficult enough, and I don't even want to talk about how much my feet hurt from going nearly numb. Having never traveled north of Dallas in the winter time, I was like a 5 year old showing up at Disneyland. I'll say it plain and simple: I am clueless on how to deal with snow. I know my story is hilarious to northerners who deal with this sort of weather every year, but at least you can enjoy a good laugh at my experiences.
With scenes in every direction that looked like all the winter time postcards and screensavers I've seen all life, Salt Lake City, Utah left a serious impression on me. I was plastered against the window of my friend Nic Green's car as he drove me around the city, gawking at the staggeringly beautiful landscape, and even more so when Lyman Winn drove us in his SUV up the nearby mountain to a vantage point you simply don't see in south Texas. Oh, and we may have brought model Brooklynn Mooney with us so I could have a go at portrait shooting in this amazing snow covered region.
Curiously, I was moderately shocked at the light temperature (white balance) up there. Despite the beautiful, bright, cloudless sky that afternoon, my usual midday light temp setting (5200K) wasn't working for me in camera. Of course I could change it later in Capture One, but anyone that knows me knows I prefer to see as final of an image as possible on the back of the camera while on set. After just a few shots, I found I had to move the light temp to 6500K and sometimes nearing 7000K to get the tones I am accustomed to getting outdoors. I asked Nic and Lyman about this while I stood there with a boot full of snow slowly becoming a boot full of chilled water, and they both just chuckled at me. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to cover my bases, in my head, to see if I had overlooked some small detail about the light temperature. After awhile, I decided it was what it was, and my frozen toes furthered my desire to wrap shooting sooner than later despite loving every moment of this experience.
Just like the time I literally lost consciousness for a brief moment while kneeling in a hot parking lot to shoot a classic Ferrari (in the insane summer in Houston - in August), I found the physical aspect of the weather in Salt Lake City to be 500% more difficult to manage while shooting than I had anticipated. I had reasoned that some chilled fingers and a runny nose would be my biggest concern out there, but quickly realized that (for my unaccustomed self) I had trouble staying mentally focused on the task at hand, and often. The cold was simply too much for me after awhile.
Sure, I felt my hands hurting, and my feet going from painful to totally numb, and I didn't particularly enjoy either, but I couldn't predict the mental lapses. I wasn't in any danger due to them, mind you, but I definitely would go to change a setting on the ol' 6D and would find myself staring at the LCD, totally clueless as to what I had decided to do 2 seconds earlier. This happened many times after we had been on the mountain for a couple hours and wandered into the shady areas to shoot different scenes than just "sunny snow", where the modicum of warm-ish sunlight had totally vanished. I laughed it off, but definitively noticed my mental cognition was hindered.
On the drive back down the mountain, as my feet thawed, I reviewed my shots and immediately realized I didn't totally remember specifically doing a lot of what I did. I was not only physically and mentally distracted, but I also still had the novelty of the whole "snow" thing making me further discombobulated. It made me realize what a challenge this would have been had it been a client project, and I was glad I experienced it. After all, you can never be too prepared, and nothing prepares you like experience.
My next snow outing came in the form of the Sandia foothills and peak outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our first day out gave me a false positive, as it were, because the snow coverage was far more tame than in Salt Lake City. The scene was beautiful in every way, and just as awe-inspiring, but since there were huge patches of dirt and exposed grass around me at the base of the mountain, I reasoned this would be a far easier shoot than anything Utah threw at me.
There was only one exceedingly challenging aspect of this excursion: cacti. Way too damn many of them, and ranging from "a zingy little sting" to "ah fuck someone gave me a tetanus shot just now" in terms of pain level. I especially enjoyed the bits that stayed embedded in my leg for 3 days after. Stupid as it sounds (and is), I kept finding new and better ways to impale myself all afternoon. Funny how you stem from a lifetime of roaming south Texas but still end up feeling utterly clueless outdoors in a new environment.
I also found I was woefully disinterested in using a strobe out there. Something about the natural light look all around me just made the strobe sound so...blah. I did one set with strobes, and then I stopped.
Location shooting is something I've been focusing on only for the last year, and most intensely in the last 3-4 months. Rather than roam around the alleyways and side streets around whatever given studio I happen to be at in whatever given city I happened to be traveling to, I reasoned it was time to start extending my workshop trips a day or two so I can really explore amazing locations to work in in the various towns I visit 2-3 times a month.
So of course I agreed to a sunrise shoot, the very next morning, at the Sandia peak, where I was told it would be pitch black at 5am, cold as hell, and with more snow cover than anything Salt Lake City threw at me. What could possibly go wrong?
Eventually the sun peaked, as evidenced in the BTS shot with Sofia above, and the whole experience became what I was hoping it would be: amazing.
This was an experience for the books, in my world. The drive up the mountain, before the sun even considered trying to go near the horizon let alone break, was so traumatizing for this flatlander that I have zero behind-the-scenes images of the journey. Absolutely pitch black, windy, curvy road more or less covered in snow and ice for what felt like 1,000 km. I actually handled it decently, all things considered, until we stopped at what seemed like a decent location near the peak. My good friend (and driver that day), Clay Parker stopped the vehicle, turned it off, killed the lights, and we all jumped out in eager anticipation. What we found instead was an immediate wall of frozen blackness and dead silence. Enough of both to make me take pause and reconsider my decisions in life that led me to this point. (A very brief and unclear video of some of this exists here, but it's not much to look at, to be honest.)
My friends Rebecca Britt, Alex Ventura, Tiva Feltman and Clay Parker had decided to make the Albuquerque visit a road trip, and as we crossed the New Mexico border from Texas, we realized that was a totally awesome decision. Three of us had never seen so much snow, let alone the mountains in every direction. Sure, Denver is impressive as is Seattle, but something about the fringes of the American Southwest just take your breath away, even in January.
I don't have any final images from Albuquerque to post yet, and plenty more are still unpublished from my Salt Lake City trip, but I wanted to make mention of these travels and travails for one main reason: I hope I can convey how important it is to get out there and dive into new challenges, willfully and without a client at the other end initially, so you can get your feet wet (or frozen) on the many and varied potential adversities you could face on location. I know I learned a crap ton about snow, and cold, and did I mention high altitude?
Insanely hot coastal climate out in field? Check. Perfectly temperate tropical beach? Done it. Moderately cool rural countryside? Been there. Dry summer heat on a racetrack? Yep. Big city downtown in a humid rainstorm? Yessir. Magazine shoot in the Pacific Northwest with an cranky yacht captain piloting said boat in an insane manner after way too much premium vodka? Forty nine billion mosquitoes (and requisite bites) while in 103F in southeast rural Texas? Those are full stories for another article, but, "Been there, done that."
But now I can add "Toe numbingly cold and covered in snow" to my bucket list of locations, and I can't wait to go at it a third time. I also chronicled some more behind the scenes from Salt Lake City and Albuquerque on a recent episode of The Backyard, which you can check out below:
(And for you northern types who read all of this while snickering and sneering, I welcome you to join me on an outdoor shoot in Houston, this coming August, then we can see who's chuckling then!)
What's been your biggest location challenge?