Story by Stephanie Hounsell
When photographer Paul Zizka picks up his camera and heads to the mountains for a day — or night — of picture-taking, he never knows exactly what he’ll find. The northern lights are notoriously unpredictable, and camping or hiking amidst the Canadian Rockies can turn up anything and everything.
With that in mind, the Banff, AB mountain landscape and adventure photographer prepares as much as he can, but always leaves room for spontaneity — something he explains with the three photos below.
With sometimes months-long breaks between Aurora Borealis light displays, Zizka has to take quick action when they appear. Not only does he not know when they’re going to show up, he also doesn’t know for how long. That makes preparation key. Photo 1 is a good example of a shot he had in mind before he took it. He knew of the location, with its low northern horizon, and thought creeping out to the end of the diving board — put out by a local — would result in a compelling photo.
When the northern lights started dancing this past June, Zizka headed immediately to this Herbert Lake spot and set up. “I knew it would give me a lot to work with,” he says. Zizka, who often puts people in his day and nighttime photos, set his camera’s timer and experimented by sitting and lying on different spots on the diving board.
The photo reflects how he feels about the northern lights. “It’s a still, dreamy shot. Very calming,” he says.
This sunset mountain shot is representative of the types of photos Zizka takes while mountaineering. “I felt this is what mountaineering is all about,” he says. It’s also a great example of an unplanned photo. “Mountaineering photography isn’t conducive to planning ahead,” he explains. In this case, he was hiking near Moraine Lake, AB, at Valley of the Ten Peaks, toward a campsite when he noticed the sun low on the horizon. He envisioned capturing a sunburst effect. Surveying the scene, he says he liked the symmetry but felt something was missing on the left-hand side. He asked a friend to stand atop one of the mountain peaks on the left to counterbalance the higher peak on the right. Adding a person in the shot provided a more balanced composition, but also serves to give the viewer a sense of the magnitude of the mountains, Zizka explains.
This photo combines both thinking ahead and acting on the spur of the moment. Zizka says he was familiar with this long stretch of road in Banff. He knew it lined up nicely with the mountain in the background and, on nights when conditions were right, the Milky Way. When Zizka found himself shooting outside on an especially clear night, he headed for the spot. After taking a few shots, he lay down in the middle of the road and turned on his headlamp. Lying down, rather than sitting or standing, was the only way Zizka says he could be still enough for the shot. “Because it was so dark, I was pushing the camera to its limits,” he says, adding he had to use a fairly long exposure to get enough light. The resulting image, with its impressive view of the Milky Way, speaks for itself.