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One of the last places I wanted to visit during our Canadian Rockies trip was Vermilion Lakes. Of all the places I’ve explored in the Alberta Rockies, I’ve never loved this spot. The photos from this area are beautiful, and because of the way clouds and atmospheric conditions work in Canadian mountain parks, it’s one of the finest sunrise locations you can frequent. Images from this location usually depict a tranquil, serene scene. The calm lake, soft morning light illuminating the clouds and glowing behind distant mountain peaks, waterfowl swimming on the lake. You get a sense of the wildness that exists in this place. Or, rather, existed in this place.
These days, if you’re lucky, you’ll arrive in the morning and park with only a couple dozen other eager landscape photographers. If you’re unlucky, a couple of tour buses will unload their passengers as the light begins to get more inviting. You’ll walk six steps from the asphalt road and set up your tripod beside a complete stranger. Sometimes you connect, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s so quiet you forget that the nearest Tim Hortons is a 4-minute drive away, and other times, not so much. At the end of the morning, you’ve all taken the same photograph. We leave knowing that most of us will post it to Instagram and share stories of our magical wilderness experience with our followers.
Why do I share this? Do I hate this location that much? No, as you can see, it’s a beautiful scene. When I compare my experiences at Vermilion Lakes with my experiences in more remote locations (and not really even THAT remote), I’m left feeling sad. Saddened that I’ve seen so many boast about the difficulties and hardships they endured to get this or any other shot as if they were unwelcome or unwanted parts of their experience. Saddened because I know that some of the finest experiences I’ve had come with difficulties, rarely finding that meaningful experiences come during easy, ‘fun’ activities (like at a location like this). When I look at my favourite images, I’m reminded that most of those photographs were taken in some level of discomfort, when I allowed myself not to take a photograph, or when I gave myself time to become immersed in a location. Or, more bluntly, when the experience drives me, not the photograph.
So, no I don’t hate Vermilion Lakes. In fact, it’s one of the spots I’ve visited most frequently in the Canadian Rockies over the years. It’s painless, quick, and convenient, and if you understand how light works in the Alberta mountain parks, an easy way to come home with a pretty photo. However, even though I’ve seen incredible conditions here in the past, I have no meaningful memories of this place. It’s simply a location I visit on the way to somewhere else where I’ve planned a more meaningful experience, a place where the experience drives the photography.
I fear that this is the story many landscape photographers share. That many don’t know what they are forfeiting by keeping landscape photography an easy, safe endeavour. The great joy of sitting alone with your thoughts while quietly watching the sunrise; watching wildlife interact with each other and the landscape; taking time to consider the timeless grandeur and beauty of the grand and small scenes before you, and your insignificance in all of it; letting go of the feverish, goal-driven characteristics of day-to-day life; discovering your ability to persevere through adversity. Experience-driven photography can be a vehicle to restore balance in our busy lives.
I can say all of this because I’m just starting down this path myself. For years I chased photographs and easy locations like this one were high on my list. If you’re reading this and don’t have many of these experiences in your photography, please consider moving towards experience-centred photography. It can be a very rewarding path.
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