It was mid-July 2018. I stared confusedly at my new camera wondering why my images looked so over-exposed. I had just purchased my first ‘real’ camera – A Fuji x100f – a purchase primarily inspired by a huge 3-week road trip I’d soon be taking across the US and Canada.
About a year prior, while fishing for Musky in Hayward, WI, I had the chance to test out my friend Pat’s Fuji x100 and knew it was the perfect camera for me – small, portable, easy-to-understand and a retro look that was just what I was looking for. Little did I know that this forthcoming endeavor across the continent and intro into photography would have such a significant impact on my personal life and career.
I stared confusedly at my new camera wondering why my images looked so over-exposed
Our first big stop on the trip was to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We spent a couple of nights here and really enjoyed the excitement of getting to settle into the journey. My partner in crime on the trip, Anthony (pictured – Hi, Anthony!) had been working in videography and photography for a few years now and would become a great resource for me to get comfortable with proper camera settings and for creative inspiration along the way. During our time in the Badlands, we encountered some big horned sheep, prairie dogs, and stunning landscapes. If you’re not familiar with the Badlands, this land of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and prairies is the former home to the saber tooth tiger. Natural deposition and erosion in the area create a backdrop of stunning landscape with striped bands of different colors throughout the entire park. The natural beauty of our National Parks made it both exciting and challenging to try and capture that allure through my lens. Since the Badlands was the first stop on the trip, at this point this came mostly in the form of trying to mess with aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings to make sure what came out of the camera looked comparable to what I was seeing with my naked eye. As this trip went on and I became more comfortable with what these different settings did I started gaining the ability to tell a story with the camera and manipulate these settings to have its own personality.
Natural deposition and erosion in the area create a backdrop of stunning landscape
Our second big leg of the trip was spent at Grand Teton’s National Park. Both Anthony and my first trip to the Tetons, we were astonished by how this massive mountain range stuck right out against miles and miles of flatland leading up to the park. Our first day here we tried out some astrophotography with the Milky Way since our plans for this in the Badlands were interrupted by a huge storm. After some day-hiking on our second day, we found ourselves at the Mormon Barn, a popular photography spot, for sunset. While we were enjoying the views we met some new friends – Eric and Natalie. Eric is a popular photographer on Instagram, and when we were introducing ourselves, I made a joke that Anthony is Mr. Popular on Instagram not realizing at the time Eric had over a half-million followers. Natalie is a badass member of our US Air Force who has previously completed the treacherous Appalachian Trail all by herself. My favorite thing about traveling is meeting new friends and hearing their stories – we happily spent the next couple days adventuring around with Natalie. On our last day in the Tetons, we found a very challenging hike that looked to have once-in-a-lifetime views at the end. The Tetons were my first time getting to use an ND (neutral density) filter on the lens and practice some long-exposure shots. If you’re not familiar with an ND filter, it ultimately is like a pair of sunglasses for your lens. It blocks light from getting to the sensor so you can extend your shutter-speed times and get more ‘movement’ in the image. This is extremely helpful for things like moving water and sunsets, where, if you opened your shutter up for longer periods of time without the ND, your image would be bright white due to so much light hitting the lens. Having an ND filter on allows you to slow down your shutter speed to capture movement in the water or really nice sunsets that make the sun look like a crisp ball of fire and let all of the colors come out in your image.
Ah yes, the amazing glacier water in Delta Lake smacked right up against the 2nd highest peak in the Tetons. Getting here was no easy task. 100 yards into the hike we were on the trail when we heard another hiker yell down “BEAR! GRIZZLY!”. We stopped in our tracks and looked around. The first thing we locked eyes on were a pair of cubs rustling through the vegetation on our right. And then we finally spotted the mama bear to our left in a place you never want to find yourself – stuck between a mama grizzly bear and her cubs. We stayed quiet, ensuring not to startle her, and luckily after a minute or so she moved on wanting nothing to do with us. It was one of the scariest, yet rewarding, experiences I’ve ever had – not many people get to experience being that close to such a magnificent animal.
100 yards into the hike we were on the trail when we heard another hiker yell down “BEAR! GRIZZLY!”
After the bear run-in, we moved our way through a precarious climb for the next couple hours, encountering some big storms and extremely steep slopes along the way. When we finally made it to the top, we were rewarded with one of the most beautiful views you could ask for. We parked our gear up here and just enjoyed the views from our hammocks for hours before making the trip back down. I even decided to take a 7-minute dip in the frigid glacier waters.
After a few days in the Tetons, we made the short drive up to Yellowstone National Park. Although the park was overrun by tourists, we found solace in some of America’s most unique landscapes – From Grand Prismatic Spring to Old Faithful, to the magnificent Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. Yellowstone is America’s first National Park and spans an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The geothermal activity throughout this park made it feel like another planet, with geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and other strange landmarks.
Succeeding our time in Wyoming’s big parks we made the long drive to the Northwest corner of the United States, Olympic National Park in Washington state. Olympic National Park is known to be a sensory overload with the park being split between oceanside beaches, dense alpine woods and temperate rainforest. We spent our first night on the ocean and were treated to moody weather and fog over the ocean with giant rock structures protruding through the ocean surf. The rest of our time was spent exploring the dense rainforest. A perfect setting for some reality alteration, we set up our hammocks and consumed some magic mushrooms in the dense rainforest. It was a time of mental clarity and reminded me of how important our natural keepsakes are here in America. The experience made me feel even more connected to the land during the duration of the trip and I can always look back on the feeling of solitude I felt fully immersed in a foreign landscape.
After ONP, it was finally time for us to make our way north of the border to the Canadian Rockies. Before jumping right back into camp mode, we had a nice 2-day break at a secluded logging farm en route to the Canadian National Parks. It was great for us to recharge the batteries (both figuratively and literally) and provided me with my first opportunity to actually go through some of the photos I’d been taking along the way to make some edits and give myself some real-time feedback on what types of photos and settings were working best. Luckily when traveling through all of this beautiful scenery, it’s truly hard to take a bad photo, but I quickly learned that finding unique angles to showcase the depth of field and using framing techniques yielded much more memorable photography than just pointing the camera at a pretty subject. Having this chance to review my photos also gave me confidence in what I was shooting. I knew what types of framing and settings were coming out better in the camera and made me really eager to play with different exposures and framing techniques once we got to Jasper and Banff.
After the two-day reset, we found ourselves in Jasper National Park just north of the acclaimed Banff National Park. We were surrounded by giant mountains everywhere we looked and had some very intimate encounters with some local Elk bull.
One of our main reasons for working Jasper into the trip was to drive the famous Icefields Parkway which connects Jasper and Banff National Parks. The sediment in the mountains creates dust in the water that’s responsible for vibrant blue hues, and you can’t beat the backdrop the mountains make against these colors. I am truly grateful for getting to experience the land up here in Alberta, you can actually taste how fresh the air is with every inhalation.
Our last big stop was Banff National Park. Very similar landscape to Jasper but the blue waters popped out even more down here. We were lucky to visit most of the famous lakes in the area and enjoyed some more hammock time and scenic hikes and drives around the park. On our last day, we made one big hike to the top of Devil’s Thumb, an overlook that showcases both Lake Louise and Lake Agnes from the top. This is a must-do if you’re at Banff, and there’s even a Tea House halfway through the hike to stop and enjoy the views.
Following our time in Alberta, we made the long journey home across the southern Canadian border and through Minnesota and Wisconsin. When it was all said and done, we drove 6,180 mi, hiked 6.5 marathons, visited 6 National Parks, 9 states and 3 Canadian provinces. After having only met twice before the trip I have a friend for life and an experience that will last forever. I encourage everyone to do all they can to experience new places and people! It’s so easy to plan a trip like this and the challenges you encounter along the way make can make you a stronger and more cultured person.
When it was all said and done, we drove 6,180 mi, hiked 6.5 marathons, visited 6 National Parks, 9 states and 3 Canadian provinces
This trip allowed me to really connect with the land through photography and let me take back a sequential story of everything we encountered through what I captured through my camera. It was a catalyst for falling in love with photography. Sure, we can all take pictures with our phones, but those phones are connected to the outside world and can make it a lot harder to live in the moment when we’re tethered to them. Everyone is different, but I’ve personally found that being behind the camera really can allow you to live in the ‘now’ and force you to experience each place from different perspectives you could never recreate with a naked eye. It allows you to be your own artist and portray a story through the lens that mimics how you experienced a certain place or subject, and I’m so grateful it has become such a big part of my life since taking this trip! I teased this early on in the story, but once you put the time in to familiarize yourself with your camera and what different settings can achieve in your photography, you can really start to tell your own stories with the photos. You can adjust your aperture to accomplish different depths of field, you can adjust your shutter speeds to capture fast motion (fast shutter speed) or to show the movement of time in a photo (slow shutter speed, or long-exposure), and adjusting ISO or different lens filters can help you dial in proper exposure of the shot once you know what aperture and shutter speed you want your image to be captured at. In addition, I learned how much framing can make your shot have a unique perspective. Anyone can point a camera at a beautiful landscape and probably come out with a good image, but playing with different things in your foreground or framing your subjects in unique ways can really make your picture unique. This trip was just the tip of the iceberg for me and even after a year, I’m still learning valuable lessons and new techniques on photography that help me grow every time I shoot. If you’re interested in seeing more of the trip, check out the cool video Anthony put together below!