The Stories Behind the Images: Top 10 of 2014

It has been a wild year here at Paul Zizka Photography, with opportunities to shoot throughout the mountain parks and in remote destinations on the other side of the world. This collection comes from images I have posted on my Facebook Page. I don’t often have the chance to tell the stories behind the images, and the process is a far cry from “point and shoot”. So, for this round-up of top images from this past year, I have written out the stories behind each one. Thanks for taking the time to view and read, and I appreciate all your support the past year!

Each of these images can be purchased as a print. Please review your options on our Prints page.  

1 – Cryophilia, Haffner Creek, Kootenay National Park

Cryophilia, Haffner Creek, Kootenay National Park

Cryophilia, Haffner Creek, Kootenay National Park

Let’s kick it off with one from the first few days of 2014. It’s perhaps the Paul Zizka photograph that got the most attention this year.

I had gone out to Haffner Canyon, Kootenay National Park, at night the week prior with a couple of friends to have a look at its astrophotography potential. We got snowed on the entire time, but came out of it totally enthralled with the photographic possibilities, and determined to return on a crystal-clear night.

On January 5th, the proper conditions allowed and I went back to the canyon with my friends Jonathan Fox and John Price, with a few ideas in mind. It was a cold night but the sky was filled with stars, and the moon was just setting behind the dead trees that ring the canyon when we arrived.

The hour that followed was extremely rewarding creatively. Mother Nature played nice, Jonathan and John hung in there (for exposures up to 30 seconds long) despite the cold, and I figured out that for me the fisheye was a great tool to convey a sense of depth in canyons – something I’d struggled with for a long time.

I knew upon getting home there was no way I was going to bed without editing a few shots. This was my favorite of the bunch, especially after noticing that, luckily, the Andromeda galaxy had shown up directly in the middle of the frame, beside our own Milky Way galaxy. It’s one of the only silhouette shots I took that night but I liked the added sense of mystery and vulnerability in the end.

I decided to name the series “Cryophilia”, which means “to thrive at low temperatures”, and have added a few images to it since.  I am looking forward to adding to the astro-climbing collection this winter.

2 – Emerging Icon, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park, Alberta

Emerging Icon, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park, Alberta

Emerging Icon, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park, Alberta

I began the year wanting to experiment a little more with underwater photography, particularly here at home in the Rockies, and I’m happy to say I got out with the housing quite a few times. I’ve found the genre to be rather technically challenging, but finished the year with a handful of “over/unders” that I liked, including this one, from perhaps the most photographed place in Banff National Park.

I went out to Vermilion Lakes one morning with a friend and while the morning was not very colourful, it made for a “colder” image in the end. It was taken in late January after all! Thankfully, because of nearby hot springs there’s always open water available at third lake for immersion.

I had the waders with me that time, but have found that in order to compose properly, one has to have his eyes at water level, making the process a chilly affair in the end regardless. Once I found this cool foreground rock, I took a series of handheld shots (f/4.0 due to low light available underwater) while racking focus, and stacked them in post to retrieve detail in the background.

3 – Cosmic Curtains, Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta

 Cosmic Curtains, Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta

Cosmic Curtains, Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta

We did not get much aurora activity in Banff this past year, we there were a few memorable nights out there watching the lights dance.

Like anyone doing aurora photography, when I was started I was thrilled with any image that showed some green, no matter how lacking the composition or other technical aspects. Now that I’ve been fortunate to shoot the phenomenon many times, much time is spent running around, and much more trying to find a composition that I feel works, no matter how crazy the sky is getting. As with other types of photography, I’ve found that one magical element alone does not make a strong image, so I try real hard to ignore what the sky is doing until I’ve come up with a composition I’m happy with.

This image is not from the best show of the year (and it’s not the best part of that display either), but I liked the composition better. It is one of many 10-second portraits taken on August 26th (using the intervalometer). I kept the one that had the best combination of subject sharpness and aurora magic.

4 – Edge of the World, Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Waterworld, Tikehau Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Waterworld, Tikehau Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

In February, my wife, Meghan J. Ward, and I decided to take our one-year-old, Mistaya, to the South Pacific for three months – our first big family adventure abroad.

Seventeen flights, a dozen islands over four countries, a very mobile baby, foreign cultures; it was all the makings of a circus, really. It did become quite the juggling act for Meg and I, and one rollercoaster of a trip (and also a great family bonding experience)! Although time for photography was limited, I did sneak out on the odd night to so some astrophotography and enjoy some of the world’s darkest skies.

I took this one on my very last photo outing, on the remote atoll of Fakarava. There’s a really odd feeling that comes with standing on the edge of a reef, on a very dark night, looking out towards the blackness and knowing that the next strip of land is many hundreds of kilometres away. An “edge of the world” feel.

This was taken on a very dark night out. I liked the simplicity of the composition, how the Milky Way mimicked the rock, and how the person (me) bridged sea and sky. I could only hear the waves but could not see them, which is daunting when one wants to get close to the edge but is not used to shooting seascapes! Thankfully, although the odd wave covered the strip of rock I was standing on, the tripod hung in there… I took a few self-portraits (using an intervalometer) at f/1.4, ISO 1600, 15 seconds (30 seconds made me too blurry due to incoming waves), and then proceeded to take a few more shots, with focus closer to the camera, to stack in post as a way to add a little more depth of field.

5 – Waterworld, Tikehau Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Edge of the World, Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Edge of the World, Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Another favourite from a most exotic place, back in April. Out of the atolls that we visited in the middle of the South Pacific, I think Tikehau was my favourite. Secluded, unbelievably beautiful, and boasting the highest density of fish in all of the Tuamotus.

After photographing sharks and rays for a while (they are everywhere in that area), I bobbed around for quite some time trying to get this image. Composing properly is a challenge when one can’t touch the ground. I also don’t swim very well, and didn’t have fins, so either my shots were incredibly crooked, or the fish got scared and went away. It’s also difficult to see the viewfinder with the setup I have, so I “sprayed and prayed” in this situation!

Thankfully, a couple of shots had it all and were worth editing. I swam back to that rock that night for this self-portrait. Shortly after, a ray brushed against my leg in the dark and I called it a night!

Each of these images can be purchased as a print. Please review your options on our Prints page.  

6 – Adrift, Self-portrait, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Adrift, Self-portrait, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Adrift, Self-portrait, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Questions poured in when I shared this photograph back in May, so I figured I’d share a little more about how the moment was captured.

It’s always exciting when the Moraine Lake road reopens in the spring. One can reunite with an old friend without breaking a sweat. I went up to the lake that night with no specific shot in mind, but upon reaching the shore I got excited about possibilities once I saw ice floes hugging the base of the Rock Pile, and a sky filled with stars. I had shot that type of scene before at the lake, though, and decided to include the human element to get something a little different. So I went back to the car to fetch my hip waders, which are often kept in the trunk, just in case.

The chunk of ice shown here was as far as I could go without having the waders filling up with icy water – something I’d experienced a few times before, typically when it’s the last shot of the night and I can find warmth within a reasonable time frame! Initially, though, that ice floe was surrounded by many others which obscured the reflection of the Ten Peaks in the foreground. Therefore a good while was spent hip deep in water, in the middle of the night, pushing icebergs around a little…

When I finally isolated the big guy, and made sure it was in shallow enough water that I could get on top of it, the first shot that came to mind was “iceberg surfing”. I did try a few of those but the exposure was too long to maintain sharpness in the surfer (me), especially since the ice was moving a little bit.

I was eventually forced to lie down on my back to get the sharpness I was looking for, and to allow a significant timer delay to get to the ice, climb on it, and give the surrounding ripples time to dissipate. I took several similar shots and kept the sharpest result.

I like this image most because for me it conveys the magic I feel about where I live.

7 – Canada Day Paddleboarder, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park

Canada Day Paddleboarder, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park

Canada Day Paddleboarder, Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park

This was perhaps one of the more technically challenging images shot this past year, not so much because of the physical work required to get it (I shot it 100 metres from the car), but more due to working with low light, a distant model and only a few minutes of fireworks.

Having captured a few “safe” shots of the Banff fireworks over the last few years, the idea this year was to try to come up with a fresh take on the event. My friend Sue, pictured here, and I had discussed doing a night SUP shoot quite a few times leading up to that night. It made a lot of sense to meet up at the lakes that night to chat about possibilities. I shared one main photo idea I had with her upon arrival and she liked it so off she went into the night as Andrew Caitens Photography and I made our way up the hill a little ways.

A few challenges quickly emerged: low light, Sue getting eaten alive by mosquitos, concern that the subject would not be prominent enough, and uncertainty about the fireworks (Where exactly would they show up? How to tell when the grand finale was actually happening?). When the show began there was a little bit of scrambling (via radio), trying to get Sue just in the right spot. The lake was calm that night, and eventually Sue got to “the” spot, anchored and tried to stay still while I took 50 or so photographs. They all looked reasonably sharp on the LCD, but upon examination at home, most had to be discarded. Thankfully this one turned out well.

I like this image because it is colourful, festive and says a lot about the cool people we have living here in the valley! I think it’s also representative of where I’m headed with my roadside photography in 2015. More planning, more pre-visualizing, more adventure, more “epic”.

8 – Singled Out, Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Singled Out, Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Singled Out, Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

A moment of magic captured on September 9th this year, at Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park. This is a place I’ve shot a lot over the years, but that morning a freak late summer snowstorm had made the iconic location completely unrecognizable. Mother Nature always has ways to show you a place in a way you’ve never seen it before, especially in the mountains where the dynamic weather can so suddenly emphasize certain features of the landscape.

The mountains were not visible that morning, and not even having the option of shooting Mount Rundle (the classic shot there) was probably a blessing in disguise. I walked along the shore a little ways, wading through snow, and looked back towards the famous Two Jack tree island. The double symmetry was made striking by the low cloud ceiling, the calm lake, and the freshly-fallen snow. I was amazed that I’d never noticed it before.

9 – Castaway, Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

Castaway, Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

Castaway, Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

Browsing the web one could argue that self-portraits were the genre of the year in the photo world. I did my share of self-portraits this year, including this one while shooting for Mount Robson Provincial Park in the fall. The client wanted “epic and magical” images that would make people want to come and see the Robson area for themselves.

When I spotted that lonely offshore rock while shooting along the shores of Berg Lake one night, the possibility for a self-portrait leapt out at me.

The more I shoot, the more I am willing to put effort into making a photograph happen. This is the kind of photo opportunity I would have quickly dismissed just a couple of years ago. Now, however, I realize that often the difference between a good photograph and a better one is being willing to put myself through momentary discomfort. When I saw the rock, I knew that eventually I’d end up on it (unless safety became an issue)!

I set up the composition, got the intervalometer going and headed out towards the rock, which turned out to lie in deeper water than I expected (almost neck deep). Safety did not seem like a real concern until the Berg Glacier released an unknown amount of ice into its namesake lake. I say “unknown” because although the photograph makes it look like it was bright out, it wasn’t at all. I could not see how much ice had calved off, nor how much water was coming my way as a result.

If you’ve lived in the mountains, you know that it’s very difficult to estimate how big a slide, avalanche, rockfall or calving event is simply based on sound. After deciding that sticking to my rock was the safest option, the next while was spent anxiously waiting for the water to arrive. After a minute or so I heard the wave approaching, but thankfully the water only rose 25 cm or so – enough to cover the rock, but that’s about it.

My own safety concerns having vanished, I then turned towards my camera setup and hoped for the best. I was most thankful when I saw that the little red light of the Canon 5D3 did not budge when the water hit the tripod. Funny how much chaos went into creating a photograph that (hopefully) conveys a sense of peace and calm!

10 – Assiniboine Dreams, Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Assiniboine Dreams, Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Assiniboine Dreams, Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Final image in this year’s review, a self-portrait from Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, Destination British Columbia. Out of the thousands of other images shot this year, I chose this one because it was from one of my most memorable nights in the backcountry in 2014.

I spent a good chunk of that special night on the Niblet, which is probably the most photographed spot in all of the Canadian Rockies backcountry. It quickly becomes obvious why when one rounds the last corner of the trail on the way up to the viewpoint. The view is mind-blowing, even by Rockies standards.

I had also shot sunset at that spot and had the composition for this image figured out before nightfall, and knew where the Milky Way would show up. Compositionally, I find that the problem with shooting the grand scene there is that Cerulean Lake (the one on the right in this shot) tends to draw too much attention. I tried to fill it in a little bit by including myself in the shot and framing myself with it.

One thing I love about astrophotography is that once night settles, everything seems to slow down. The light remains fairly constant for quite some time, and one needs to take extra time and care to focus and compose properly. This all makes for a more peaceful photo experience.

This is a blend of a couple of exposures to ensure proper exposure and sharpness.

Each of these images can be purchased as a print. Please review your options on our Prints page.  

 

33 Responses to “The Stories Behind the Images: Top 10 of 2014”

  1. Karl Chiang

    Wow, these are simply amazing! Having just experienced the area for the first time in my life last week, I have a great appreciation of how difficult it is to accomplish these works of art! Some of the best I have ever seen!

    Reply
  2. Richard Tremblay

    Hi Paul
    I lived in Banff from ’84-’94 had many amazing skates on l-Louise two jack minewanka and Johnson lake before the snow came
    Thanks to you and cbc I’ve been reminded once again how amazing the vistas are in our country
    Thank you for sharing your fabulous photos
    Richard
    Bowen island bc
    “Where the mountains meet the ocean”

    Reply
  3. Claude Grondin

    Hi Paul,

    Until not too long ago, I had never had the privilege to look at some of your images. Wow, wow and wow… Most of us take pictures, usually when the combination of light, subject matter and composition combine to create something that appeals to us, often on an emotional level. You, however, don’t take pictures. You CREATE pictures by going an extra mile and adding your own touch. As a result, your images are really out of this world. Totally inspiring… Really. I can honestly say that after having seen your images, from now on, I will always ask myself the following question before pressing the shutter: is there anything I can do here to go from “taking a good picture” to “making an outstanding one”. Thank you very very much. Best of luck in all your future projects…

    Claude Grondin

    Reply

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