Plucked from sweet, peaceful sleep by the sound of "Slow Rise" belting out of my iPhone, I frantically search my disheveled tent to swipe away the nuisance. As silence settles in again, I reflect on the night past. A thin piece of foam known as a "sleeping pad". Dry prickly grass and rock. Freezing temperatures. Tossing and turning. The overbearing sound of coyotes close by. Have you ever heard a pack of coyotes while camping alone? It isn't good. Maybe it was a pack of undead rabid coyotes? Yeah, Zombieyotes. My eyes begin to focus and adjust. What is that ominous glow? I unzip my inner tent, then my rain fly, and peak my head out into the brisk dawn air. "What the hell?" Sunrise is in 45 minutes but the sky is already aglow with fiery red. I throw on my jacket, load up my pack, and step outside.
Sunset the previous night was rushed, and I hadn't properly scouted the buttes. So there I was, on the verge of a colorful sunrise without adequate knowledge of the landscape nearby. I channeled my inner Galen. Rowell, that is. In other words, I began running. Or maybe it was just a jog-walk. Either way, my goal was within sight. The buttes tower above the surrounding landscape like monoliths. I simply needed to get over there, find a composition, and capture the impending light. Unfortunately, distance is not easily judged when out in the open grasslands. The buttes looked so close, but even my incredible jog-walk wasn't able to close the gap as quickly as I wanted. I was nervous, but the light just kept lingering. Maybe it was some kind of special light, or maybe that's just the way light behaves way out in the middle of nowhere? Eventually I reached the base of the first butte. In the homogeneous landscape, my first priority was finding something, anything, that could sit in the foreground of my image and help lead the eye towards the buttes. I skirted the edge of the rock wall and eventually found a field of fallen boulders. The light intensified and within minutes I was pressing the shutter to capture the image seen below. As the color finally began to subside, I packed up my bag yet again and began the trek back to my campsite and ultimately the trailhead. The Pawnee Buttes, and the Pawnee National Grassland as a whole, proved to be quite a unique and captivating location. The wide open expanses, the quality of the light, and the silence (except those Coyotes) left me wanting more, and I will soon return to explore them again.
About the Image: Creating a composition that was more than just "PLOP! Here's a cool butte." was much tougher than I imagined. The landscape consists mostly of short-grass prairie as far as the eye can see, with few defining features other than some groups of yucca plants here and there. As I scouted around the buttes and found this field of fallen boulders, I knew the potential was there. Approaching from below, I placed the closest two large boulders in the foreground of my composition. From there, I raised my tripod to provide some separation between them and the buttes, and moved left and right in order to avoid any additional overlap between the 5 or 6 other prominent boulders in the background. From there, it was simply a matter of waiting for the light. I took two exposures and blended them together. Simple enough, the light and a simple, clean composition really produced on this morning.
Techs: Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 16-35 f/4 @ 18mm. 0.8 seconds, f/11, ISO 200.