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An old, broken down grain elevator sits quietly in the cold western snow. → Buy a Print

Cutline:  An old, broken down grain elevator sits quietly on the cold Montana plains near Lothair.

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Canon 5D Mark II
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 USM

Location —

Lothair, Montana (pop. 33)

Background —

All week the weather forecast on December 31, 2010 said it would be sunny with broken clouds at Glacier National Park so I made plans to get up early and spend the day there making photos.

I got up around 3 AM, looked at the thermometer, and thought it said the temperature outside my home in Havre, Montana was 11° Fahrenheit, which is nothing one would think twice about her in Montana so I packed up my gear and headed out to my truck. But when I stepped outside it seemed colder than what I was used to, so I headed back inside and put on my long underwear. Just in case.

I drove two hours west and don’t think I passed more than one car the whole way. When I stopped in Cut Bank for fuel I could tell it was colder than 11° outside. I ran inside the gas station and asked the attendant what the temperature was and he said it was —46° Fahrenheit. I couldn’t believe it. Had I been any closer to home I would have turned around. But since I had already driven for two hours I figured I might as well continue to Glacier National Park and make the best of bad situation. Besides, I reasoned with myself, it is usually warmer in the mountains.

Behind the Scenes —

It was definitely warmer once I made it to Glacier National Park. It was —42° Fahrenheit.

Normally a trip into Montana’s back country to make photographs in the bitter cold would be considered crazy. And maybe it is. But I am usually well prepared for winter travel here in Montana. I always have my —15° sleeping bag and several additional blankets in the truck with me at all times during the winter. I also have a well stocked survival kit and week’s worth of food and water. Had something happened while traveling the gravel roads between Havre and Glacier National Park I would have been well prepared.

Making the Shot —

I timed my departure from Glacier National Park so I could drive with the sun behind me back to Havre for a couple of hours. Doing so gave me a chance to scout photo ops in a different light than what I’m generally used to seeing on the Hi-Line. When I find something interesting to photograph and the light is not perfect I jot it down in my field notes and make plans to return to the spot later.

In the case of this old grain elevator, I stumbled onto it by accident. I probably passed it before, but grain elevators here on the Montana plains are pretty commonplace. This one, however, is largely intact. Driving at 70+ miles per hour I approached the Lothair grain elevator from the west and the cold afternoon sun hit it perfectly.

There wasn’t a very good place to park so I pulled over onto the gravel along U.S. Highway 2 so I could make some photos.

For those who are unfamiliar with U.S. Highway 2, there is seldom a good place to pull over along the highway. It is a two-lane highway, with steep shoulders, and it is often traveled by large trucks and trailers. It is the safest (or smartest) thing to do, especially when it was —40° outside and the sun was low on the horizon blinding the sight of automobiles traveling into the sun from the east. However, if I did not move quickly I would lose the beautiful light. And if I had to return to the spot another day, I might also lose the freshly fallen virgin snow.

I kept the truck running (which I had done all day), I quickly removed the telephoto lens from my camera and replaced it with a wide angle lens, and then decided to apply the presumed settings to my camera before I had to leave the warm womb of my Ford F-150 to venture into the harsh cold. I then made sure there was no traffic coming in either direction and quickly jumped from my truck to attack the grain elevator with my camera.

The one thing I forgot to do when I was still in the truck was put on my gloves…a decision I would regret later.

I crossed the highway quickly. My eyes locked onto the grain elevator looking for the best angle to photograph, and my feet moved in the direction and spot to accomplish that goal. That’s when the ground beneath me fell away. I had walked into the ditch (or borrow pit as they call it here in Montana), which was filled to the grade of the road with snow. I did not plan for this quick drop and braced myself with my left hand as my right hand instinctively raised my camera into the air. Like a mother trying to brace her child in the car before a possible crash, this is a common move photographers make to protect their gear.

Lucky for me my camera did not fall into the snow, but unlucky for me my glove-less hand was covered with snow. And did I mention it was —40° outside, and the sun was quickly disappearing behind me? I had no choice. I had to shoot.

Up to my waist in snow I began shooting. I adjusted my position some, and shot again. And repeated. Until the sun finally disappeared over the horizon behind me. I was outside maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I then raced back to the truck.

It became obvious that I already had frostbite. I waited for a few minutes until I could move my fingers enough to grip the steering wheel and then drove away, not knowing if I made the shot I wanted or not.

Editing —

When I got back home that same night I was anxious to see how my photographs turned out. I began downloading them to my computer immediately and graded each one, as I always do. I grade them on a scale from one to five. Five is a killer shot; the one that puts a smile on your face. These happen rarely as I am my own worst critic. “Fours” are good, “threes” are average, “twos” have some hope (maybe), and “ones” are those accidental shots, which are deleted immediately.

When I saw this shot of the grain elevator I immediately smiled and gave it a “five.”

This image didn’t require much editing. I performed a basic levels adjustment (as I do to most images), tweaked the colors, applied a “high pass” sharpening layer, cropped, and I was done. It took me only a few minutes.

Results —

I was so pleased with the results I sent this one off to the printer immediately and have it hanging on my wall today. It has graced the cover of two magazines, been purchased by many others to hang on their wall, and it has graced two calendars.

Looking Back —

I only have two regrets looking back. Firstly, if you look in the distance you can faintly see the Sweet Grass Hills. I wish I had enough time to use a different lens and try different angles to see if I could make the Sweet Grass hill stick out a little more. And secondly, I wish I had worn my gloves. To this day the tip of my left pinky finger is a little numb. It is a constant reminder for me in the winter to always wear my gloves, not matter how much of a pain in the ass they are when trying to adjust the controls on my camera.

Happy Birthday Charlie Russell
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