The Making of an Image – Forest of Ghosts, Wyoming

September 14th, 2010 by Bret Edge

Some call me obsessive, others call me compulsive and I admit to both.  Over the last decade I visited Yellowstone National Park at least a dozen times.  Each time, while driving through the park, I passed a forest of ghostly trees whose trunks were bleached and faded from acidic hot spring runoff and intense alpine sun.  Each time I thought, “Hey, that’s a really cool location and one day you should stop and see about making an image of the place.”  I’ve had this image in the back of my head since my first visit almost ten years ago.  It has gnawed at my brain for damn near a decade.  Finally, a couple months ago, I decided to do something about it.


Early June, 2010 I decided to pack up my truck and head north for a two week road trip in the greater Yellowstone area.  This was my opportunity to make the image I’d been visualizing all those years.  It would require an overcast day, ideally some mist or fog, and a little luck in finding a successful composition.  Why luck? This forest is literally right off the road.  The shoulder is about a foot wide, then it drops a couple feet into a meadow that is filled with runoff from hot springs where the rangers and common sense tell us we shouldn’t walk. If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone you know that any person with a camera on a tripod attracts the attention of motorists, many of whom are driving rented RV’s that they aren’t used to driving.  When your butt is hanging over the fog line and you’re peering through the viewfinder with cars and RVs speeding by, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky to find a composition and avoid becoming roadkill.

When I arrived at the location I parked my truck in the only pullout I could find nearby which ended up being about 1/4 mile away from the ghost forest.  A short walk later and at last, there I was, standing before these beautiful but wretched trees with camera in hand.  The sky was uniformly grey but there was no mist or fog lingering amongst the trees.  Win some, lose some.  I scoped out the area and tried several compositions.  There was a small creek doing a gentle “S” curve through the trees.  Nice, but not it.  Then I found a section where the trunks were more spread out and the water was deep enough to catch some reflections.  Cool but still not what I had in mind.  I zoomed in, I went wide angle.  I just wasn’t feelin’ it and I was starting to get frustrated.  I had to keep telling myself that the image was here and that I just hadn’t yet found it.

After 30 minutes or so I started walking back to my truck with my head hung low.  I had failed.  The image wasn’t there after all.  Surely if I were a better photographer I would have realized my vision!  As I passed the end of the ghost forest I looked back over my shoulder for one last farewell glance.  What did I see?  The image!  Given a bit of distance the trees seemed to huddle closer together, presenting an almost abstract form.  There were the strong vertical lines, the somber color palette and seemingly infinite assortment of stark tree trunks.  I knew a longer focal length would compress the scene and make the trunks really appear to be stacked one on top of the other.  I quickly set up my tripod and went to work composing an image.  It didn’t take long and I had almost exactly what I’d been after all this time.  I made the image with the intent of cropping out most of the foreground to create a panorama, which would also contribute to the semi-chaotic and abstract nature of the trunks.

What’s the lesson here?  First, keep good mental notes.  If you see something that has potential but you don’t have the ability to work it right away, remember it.  Better yet, keep a “wish list” in a notebook, on your laptop or in your iPhone.  Second, don’t give up if at first you don’t find what you’re looking for.  Keep at it.  Dedicate yourself to working the location.  Lastly, when you do give up, don’t forget to look over your shoulder as you walk away.  You just never know when the photo you envisioned is going to decide to reveal itself to you.

You can learn more about Bret, view his wonderful images, read his blog here:  Bret Edge Photography

You can find out more about Bret's workshops here:  Moab Photo Workshops



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