Great Expectations by Ryan Stikeleather

Great Expectations by Ryan Stikeleather

Daydream with me for a moment. You’re standing on the shore of a pristine alpine lake. Glassy water reflects the snow-capped peaks of a rugged mountain. A ghostly fog moves over the surface, swirling in a faint breeze. An intense morning sun inches over the horizon behind you, casting warming rays of soft, pink light onto cotton candy clouds. As if by some miracle, a large bull moose lumbers out of the thick forest. He pauses in the best possible spot, looks directly into the camera, waiting for you to capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Without hesitation, you click your shutter. The flawless scene captured without blown highlights or crushed shadows. Satisfied with your masterstroke, you stroll effortlessly back to your car.

This has never happened to me. I’m not saying it isn’t possible. It’s safe to say an opportunity like this is a rare treat. Expecting it to happen every time I set out to shoot landscapes, or wildlife…a little unrealistic. I should have realized this when I first started dabbling in landscape photography. But, I’m stubborn. Photography is hard enough. I don’t need the added pressure of making a magical photograph every time.

This doesn’t mean I don’t dream about making my masterpiece photograph. Inspiration from photographs I’ve drooled over drives me to read hundreds of articles on various topics: composition, hyperfocal distance, golden hour, blue hour. I devour books written by some of my favorite photographers. I download eBooks and read tips and suggestions while trying to take a photograph. I wait patiently for the next Youtube video from other passionate photographers.  I gaze at glorious photographs bursting with color on my desktop monitor. Hours and hours of suggestions, settings, focal lengths, and filters. The list goes on and on. I want to come away with the best image possible. I need to prove to myself (family, friends, complete strangers) what I’m capable of doing. It’s addicting.

What’s always there holding me back? That’s right, expectations. Some of my backpacking trips have focused on capturing a specific scene: the perfect sunset, or the most brilliant sunrise. I’ll surround myself with the sublime Colorado mountains, finding complete isolation from everyday distractions. And then I’m bummed out over less-than-perfect clouds. Darn you, preconceived ideas! I’ve allowed my aspirations to dictate what is going to be a successful photograph. The setting I have in my imagination for months, or even years, tarnished because I ended up without an aesthetically perfect photograph. The desire to reach my crowning achievement is crushing pressure. And overcoming those expectations turned out to be more difficult than I thought…especially because I have an overactive imagination.

I still fight tiny voices in my head telling me I’ll never be a good photographer. I’ll come back from a trip—already disappointed—and sulk in front of my computer, rejecting everyone as a failure. If only the clouds had more color, or what if I had scheduled my trip one week earlier? “If only’s” and “what if’s” never help me make a better photograph.

It took me a long time to realize every press of the shutter draws from all those articles, books, and Youtube videos. Checking my histogram has become second nature. Setting my aperture to achieve the desired depth of field makes sense to me. I scan the edges of my composition for distractions and adjust to remove them. It’s all there in my brain; waiting to be applied and put to the test. Acknowledging my expectations and then seeing the promise of the scene before me is the real craft.

If I captured a “daydream” photograph every time, I’d be bored to tears. There is no reward in overcoming my limitations, real or perceived if I never push my shutter button. I always appreciate the photograph that I worked for—the one I made after standing in the cold before sunrise, or the extra time I spent to find an uncommon perspective. It's miserable to fill a backpack with expensive camera equipment, hike miles into the wilderness, and not have fun once you get there. But when I give myself a chance to capture a moment in time—a moment that will never happen again—that’s the true magic of landscape photography.

The “masterpiece” is out there, and it’s my job to find it. I miss it every time I hit the snooze button, leave early because the clouds don’t look promising, or I’m too lazy to scout for a new viewpoint. But, slowing down, trusting in myself, and allowing the scene to unfold—I want to focus on that. Sun stuck behind an impenetrable wall of clouds…yeah, that’s a tough one, but I’m not going to allow my expectations to get me down.

Ryan wants nothing more than to live deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, make photographs of every sunrise and sunset, and hike trails until his little heart's content. But, he still has to put food on the table…so he has a day job. When he’s not out in the Colorado backcountry or scouring maps and Google Earth for his next backpacking adventure, he manages a digital signage network for the US Army. Ryan blogs about his treks into the great outdoors, giving his readers a taste of Colorado’s stunning National Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas through his stories and landscape photography.

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