High Country News covers environmental and social issues in the American West. I’ve always enjoyed their articles, and a couple summers back I worked with them on a cover feature about Bristol Bay salmon. To my surprise, they recently asked me to photograph a story on a timber mill reopening in Saratoga, Wyoming. Photojournalism isn’t my specialty, but the assignment sounded fun so I said yes. After scheduling the shoot with the mill owner, I learned that it’d have to take place the next morning, and I’d have about one hour on the premises. I’m used to taking weeks or months to get camera trap shots, so I was a little intimidated.
I tried to get as many shots as I could outside of my short window at the mill. I buzzed over the Snowy Range before dawn to get some photos of beetle-killed trees at sunrise and bumped into a pair of foxes right away. I was tempted to spend the whole morning capitalizing on my lucky critter encounter, but I had a 9am meeting at the mill so I had to split.
I got to the mill 20 minutes early and scouted for places to shoot one of my deliverables, a portrait of the mill owner. I found a nice stack of stained beetle-kill wood as a backdrop and dialed in some lighting by shooting myself with a remote shutter and my camera on the tripod. I had great conditions for outdoor lighting; the sun was low enough that it wouldn’t overpower my strobes, but it would provide a free fill light. I used a PCB Einstein in a PLM umbrella as my key light, ambient as fill, and a Lumopro LP-160 as a kicker, zoomed to light the wood in the background and fall off towards the edges of the frame. I love using ambient as fill because it’s often nicer light than what I can make with flashes and I can easily adjust it by changing shutter speeds. Once I had the shot dialed in, I quickly grabbed some ambient light shots of wood products in the area and then headed over to meet the mill owner, Clint George.
Clint gave me a nice tour of the mill and we talked about forest ecology. I told him I needed a shot of mill activity, so he took me to a large building where the logs are processed. I got a pang of stress when we walked inside: the room was extremely dark with harsh fluorescent lights, terrible conditions for freezing the fast-paced activity of the workers. I didn’t want pop flashes at people operating dangerous equipment, so I bumped my ISO way up and worked at around 1/60s, the fastest shutter speed I could get with the lens open to f/2.8. I knew I was getting blurry shots so I had a new thought; embrace the blur and take a long exposure on a tripod. I was feeling pretty slick until I realized the entire mill was vibrating from all the heavy equipment. I tried turning on image stabilization and hoped for the best. Luckily a few shots turned out sharp enough for print.
I wasn’t able to nail every shot like I had hoped, but I was happy with the collection of images I was able to create in such a short window of time. Plus I got to scout some new camera trap spots on the West side of the Snowies during the drive. The images here are outtakes, the full article is on the HCN website.