There is SO much light before sunrise and after sunset. Correction: there is so much magical light before sunrise and after sunset. And so many people never get to see it.
I understand this. When a person is a tourist on a family vacation dealing with kids and multiple voices all saying, ‘let me sleep in,’ it’s can be hard to get out of bed early and arrive in Glacier National Park in the dark before the dawn. But it is so worth it. Sunset is more popular than sunrise, but even then, I see so many people leaving just when the light is getting good. After a full day of exploring, with little ones tired, and feet hiked out, the pull to say ‘we’ve seen it’ and go is strong. But to miss out on Glacier in the dark is to miss an essential piece of it.
In the dark Glacier is a scary place. If you are prone to an over-active imagination, like me, then ever noise in the dark is a potential grizzly bear and while the light of the stars is glorious, it’s not enough to shake the fear that reminds you in Glacier, you are not the top of the food chain. In the dark Glacier is a more wild place. With the lack of fellow humans I go and feel like I’m the only person alive. I actually love the solitude that Glacier provides. In the dark, Glacier has an unexpected level of light if you’ll let your eyes adjust. Especially in the winter. The snow-capped peaks reflect the light of the stars and the moon and stand out starkly against the deep, dark skies. Glacier has a quite and a stillness to it and you don’t have to go very far to get to place away from other people and truly alone.
I love Glacier for the chance to be so wonderfully alone. Then again, I’m an introvert.
On Thursday, 30 January, I went up to Lake McDonald in West Glacier at sunset, just because I was near and had the evening free. I never expected the sunset that I got. It’s now almost a week later and I have finally gone though all of my images from that night and am sharing a few here. I’m sharing these in chronological order so you that the progression of the light can be seen.
I wish for two things: One, I wish I had brought a tripod with me. Perhaps I would have been tempted to stay even longer. Two, I wish I hadn’t been all alone at the end. As the dark started to creep in, I was off the trail and away from all people and getting scared of the gathering dark. I did not have a flashlight and I did not have bear spray so I needed to get back to the trails before it became pitch black, but part of me wishes I could have stayed longer. Glacier never disappoints. NOTE: My lack of preparation on this evening could have been disastrous. Failure to prepare a place this wild can lead to death. I’m lucky nothing went seriously wrong for me this night. It could have. I could have fallen into the water multiple times. It would take much to freeze and/or drown. And I didn’t see any bears but I certainly heard some noises that made me shudder. Be more prepared than me. Please.
My location: For these photos I arrived at Apgar Villiage and then hiked northwest along the lakeshore past the Village Inn at Apgar and around by the cabins that run along McDonald Creek. I went to this spot specifically because I didn’t want the exact same shots as the other photographers who were out. Also, there is a pile of rocks that jut across the creek and I really wanted to go stand there. Photographers love this spot and you’ll see hundreds of instagram photos of a bride and groom or family walking over these stones with the famed mountains in the background. I wanted to photograph those rocks in particular.
My gear: Nikon D850, 17-35 f/2.8, 28-70 f/2.8, 50 f/1.8, 80-200 f/2.8 and yacktracks (the pro kind with the velcro strap that fits over my shoes).
When I came to Glacier I had seen the clouds on the western horizon and honestly expected a lackluster sunset. But I had come anyway, just because it had been too long since I had spent some time in the park. I arrived to this intense light on the peaks, quickly snapped this photo, and then watched sadly as the intensity faded. I really thought this first photo might be the best of the night. I was SO wrong.
When the light becomes less magical that’s no reason to pack it up and go home. That’s a reason to stay and work your own magic. You can see in this photo how the mountains have become dull compared to that first shot. So I switched to my wide angle lens and started thinking about compositions.
Get low! This photo was taken at just inches above the shore. The light is improving on the mountains a bit, but I am still looking for compositions to make stronger images. I almost stayed at this location for the sunset. I really liked these rocks. But I like solitude more. From this point I could still hear others, and could be seen, and I really wanted all of those distractions gone. And Glacier will give any visitor who seeks it that incredible sense of solitude, you just have to hike a bit.
One more compositional photo. Photojournalism has taught me to look for unexpected angles and frames. The goal is a collection of photos where not every shot looks exactly the same.
This is that pile of rocks I mentioned. It does not fully cross the creek, but it is a great place to walk out have a lovely view of the lake. It’s also a great place to put a person you want to photograph and then shoot them with a telephoto lens so that they and the mountains are dominating.
The next photo shows this better. A couple or even a family could stand on these rocks and then they have this amazing shot of the majestic Mount Vaught behind them.
At this point, the light and color started to get good. This was not what I expected. It’s like that line from the movie Finding Forester: “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift, at an unexpected time.”
Here is the magic moment! This is the one I came home and edited and shared first on facebook. I went with a slightly low angle so I could have the rocks in the foreground show up in the reflection of the sky. I have already had three people order a print of this one and I think this will be one of my all time favorite images of Glacier — from a night when I expected nothing.
“Blessed are they that expected nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.”
This photo is so simple and clean it would be boring without the sunset. The light is doing all the work. I’m following the Rule of Thirds so that I have more sky in the frame, but even that I didn’t follow fully because I wanted more reflection. Sometimes, you just stand back and let God do all the work.
This is where it starts to get fun for me. You can see that the light is hitting just the very tips of the tallest peaks, but the snow keeps them visible as the sky deepens into more intense colors.
Keep changing lenses. 50-55 is considered normal. So get that shot. Switch to your telephoto and focus in on just one mountain, make that a composition. Switch to your wide angle and the mountains will get smaller, but you get to see the whole landscape is lighting up.
It used to be a rule that you had to remind photographers to shoot vertically. For ages horizontal was the go-to composition because of the power of the sweeping landscapes of cinema. I think this rule may be fading for young people. I actually had a college age friend tell me that he was more likely to shoot vertically because the photo worked better on his social media platforms. So maybe now we need to remind people to shoot horizontally. The important thing is the photograph whatever way you normally don’t. Get out of your creative ruts. Use the camera as means to see the world in a new way.
These last images are the all about the coming night and the way the peaks still reflect so much light. I want to share these so anyone who wants to visit Glacier can think about coming up early and staying late. Glacier is truly spectacular. It’s wonderful in the day time, but for me, the intensity ramps up in the dark. In the dark, I have to overcome my fear and make myself stay. I don’t think my fear makes my images stronger, but it certainly makes me proud of them.
Here’s wishing you a gorgeous Glacier moment all your own.