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The intersection of moisture and light in Grand Teton National Park

Landscape photographers often talk about "chasing the light," but I tell people that we should be chasing the clouds instead. Actually, to be more accurate, we should be chasing moisture. Water in the air makes clouds, which can light up with color at sunrise and sunset, as well as rainbows, fog, and morning mist clinging to the surface of a lake (oh, and it makes the lake too). Water reflects the world around us. Water, freshly fallen, saturates the colors of spring and fall foliage and bedews flowers with liquid diamonds. Water forms ice and snow, its beauty delicately etched into an endless variety of crystalline structures. Water enhances mood, filters light, and can even transform mundane scenes into something special.

During a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park, I awoke one morning to find the mountains obscured by thick fog, the result of rain the day before and rapidly cooling temperatures at night. At first, I thought that the fog would completely ruin my morning shoot, so I decided to drive away from the mountains to see if I could find something else to photograph. Luckily, as I got farther away, I found that I was able to see the mountains above the fog, with breaking storm clouds passing behind the peaks. I pulled over and set up my camera, taking photos in the blue of early morning twilight.

I zoomed out as the Teton Range emerged from the clouds during the morning twilight. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 35-150mm lens, ISO 100, f/8, 4 seconds.

The clouds and the fog rolled in and out while the mountains played hide-and-seek. I tried different compositional variations, zooming for tighter or wider framing as the scene quickly changed. Then, a veil of clouds descended over the peaks, completely blocking them from view. I could only wait and hope that the clouds would lift again in time for the first light of sunrise.

I opted for a tighter framing when the clouds started blocking my view of other peaks in the range, instead isolating only those peaks still visible. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 150-500mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.4 seconds.

Because that’s where things get interesting, when water and light meet head-on. Each water droplet acts as a prism, and nothing bends, reflects, refracts, magnifies, or distorts light quite like water. Light will pass through water, but it does not come through unchanged, and moisture in the sky will have a profound effect on the color, intensity, and character of light. To put it more simply, nothing lights up with color quite like clouds, and as the clouds started to glow with golden light, I was hoping they would lift just enough to see the mountains. And then, the moment I was waiting for happened, and my patience was rewarded with a stunning intersection of scenery, weather, light, and color.

When these three peaks emerged from the clouds, with their tips just beginning to catch the golden light of dawn, I knew I had the moment and composition I had been waiting for. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 150-500mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.

Once again, I tried different variations as the scene changed, zooming out when the entire Teton Range was visible, zooming in when the clouds obscured everything but a single peak. The clouds above the mountains were bathed in the warm light of sunrise, while the fog below was still in shadow, rendered as blue in the final photos. The contrast between shadow and light, and warm and cool tones, was simply stunning.

I zoomed in tight to capture this moment when just the rocky summit of Grand Teton was peeking above the mist. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 150-500mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/60 second.

So, the next time you are out hunting for stunning landscape images, keep your eyes on the prize: water, whether it be in solid, liquid, or vaporous form. Where water and light collide, photo magic is likely to happen.

Grand Teton National Park sunrise
I cropped this photo to create a panoramic image. PRO subscribers can learn more about how I processed this image in the video below. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 35-150mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30 second.

Grand Teton processing tutorial

In the video tutorial below, available to PRO subscribers only, I share how I edited this last photo from start to finish using Adobe Lightroom/Camera Raw and Photoshop. A PRO subscription takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.

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