Stock landscape and outdoor adventure photos from Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Northwest

Off-Season Photo Expeditions: The Red Shirt Days of Winter

This winter in Central Oregon has been fairly unpredictable and uneventful for me in terms of photography.  I’ve gone out with good intentions on several days, but I just haven’t been able to capture many landscape photographs worthy of including on our Pacific Crest Stock photography pages.  After a couple of failed attempts early in the season, I decided to try out some advice that I received from Dan Bryant, a good friend of mine who works in the advertising world.  Dan and I have been best friends since we were kids.  Today, he owns make-studio in Portland, Maine.  Make-studio has worked with some of the country’s best photographers and they have done advertising and branding for many high-profile companies like Simms Fly-Fishing, Orvis, Nike, Nikon, Nordstrom, BMW, MTV, Timberland, Telluride Tourism, and the American Skiing Company.  Given that Dan has had a very successful career as an art director, I figure that I should probably listen carefully to any and all advice that he offers.  In one of our conversations this year, he mentioned that I should start trying to incorporate the human element into some of my stock photographs.

This concept of putting people into my shots is not something that comes easily for me.  I’ve always been a nature and landscape photographer, and in fact, I have often gone to great extremes to make sure that I haven’t accidentally framed any people into my photographs.  But then again, I haven’t had any other luck this winter, so I figured that I might as well give it a try.  Since I’m not really sure what I’m doing at this point, I’ve basically just started dressing myself in a red or orange shirt for every photo expedition, just in case the conditions or locations don’t lend themselves to nature photography.  I realize that the whole red shirt concept is a little trite (kind of like the requirement that all canoes used in advertising need to be red), and even though I’m certainly not ready to be America’s Next Top Model yet, I am starting to have some fun experimenting with this idea. 

On my first “red shirt day,” I drove over to Santiam Pass in hopes of hiking into the slopes of Three Fingered Jack, but when I got there, the clouds were not cooperating.  A large collection of fluffy clouds seemed stuck on the mountain’s pinnacles, so rather than spending six hours hiking through knee-deep snow just to get blanked by low-hanging clouds, I decided that I would take a shorter ski into the backcountry areas near Mount Washington.  Once again, the clouds moved in and obstructed my views of Mount Washington, but since I was prepared with my nice shiny red shirt, I decided to set up my tripod in the snow and start experimenting with ways to incorporate myself into the shot.  My favorite advertising photos are the ones where there is a hint of someone being there or doing something, but where the picture itself is not necessarily focused on the person.  That was the main idea that I played around with while I was skiing, and although I didn’t get anything too magical, the chance to experiment with different positions at least opened up some photo opportunities that would not have otherwise been there on this particular day.


Backcountry skiing near Oregon’s Mount Washington Wilderness Area.

Backcountry skiing near Oregon’s Mount Washington Wilderness Area.


After skiing back to the Jeep that day, I decided to take advantage of the clouds—and our unique Central Oregon geography—by leaving the mountains and driving into some nearby desert rock formations for a few more shots.  I found a nice collection of rocks above the Crooked River that provided open views back toward some of Smith Rock’s most dramatic cliffs.  I balanced my tripod on one of the larger rocks, set the 10-second timer, and then scrambled out onto one of the other rocks overhanging the river.  It took me about 11 seconds to get there on my first few attempts, but with some perseverance, I eventually got fast enough to get fully into frame.  I didn’t really capture anything all that original in the desert either, but still, I wasn’t too disappointed since it was just my first day playing with this idea.


Hiking among the boulders at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, Oregon.

Hiking among the boulders at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, Oregon.


One of the nice things that I’m beginning to appreciate about this experiment is that it allows me to get out and photograph on days that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise tried.  For example, I had some free time on one cold and rainy weekend in February, and even though there wasn’t really much of a draw to do anything outside, I decided to drive into Lake Billy Chinook and explore around some of the cliffs overlooking the lake.   I knew that it was much too early in the season for pure landscape photography, but I loaded up my camera equipment anyway and went out with the idea of experimenting with the human element concept a little more.  While I was there, I found several nice scenes that I would like to shoot later this year when the balsamroot flowers are blooming, and before I left, I took a few photographs of myself perched on the edge of one of the steep drop-offs.  The composition isn’t quite as interesting as I would have liked, but then again, I didn’t trip and launch myself off of the cliff during any of my hurried attempts to get into the photograph, so I figured that was enough of a success.


 The cliffs above Lake Billy Chinook in Central Oregon.

The cliffs above Lake Billy Chinook in Central Oregon.


One of the other good things about trying to include people in my images is that it opens up some locations that I would not have otherwise gone to because the scene itself would have felt too empty without someone in the picture.  For example, there are several areas along the Middle Deschutes where I’ve always enjoyed hiking, but the scenes are not quite “full” enough for a good landscape photograph.  They’re absolutely beautiful when you’re there, but they just don’t photograph that well unless you add something else interesting to the scene.  The next two photographs were taken in one of those areas on the Deschutes River.  I wish that I would have brought my fly rod with me (which I will do when I go back to re-shoot these later in the year), but I think these initial attempts are at least a good start, and they help demonstrate the value of adding the human element to an otherwise average-looking scene.


Overlooking one of the waterfalls on the Middle Deschutes River.

Overlooking one of the waterfalls on the Middle Deschutes River.



Hiking along the Deschutes River canyon in Central Oregon.

Hiking along the Deschutes River canyon in Central Oregon.


Sadly, this is just a small sampling of my winter failings.  There were many more days this winter where my red shirt ended up being the only interesting thing in the scene.  It happened again last weekend, when I tried once more to climb up onto the shoulder of Three Fingered Jack.  After 4 hours of climbing up through deep, soft snow I ran out of time and I had to turn around.  I was less than a mile from the top, but that last mile was straight up, and I knew there was no way I could make it to the summit and then back to the Jeep before dark, so I just took a couple of bad photographs of me and my red shirt standing in front of the ridge and headed back home. 

That day at Three Fingered Jack would have been much better from a photography perspective (and probably from a safety standpoint) if someone else had been there hiking with me.  The more I play with this experiment, the more I realize that it’s really difficult trying to be the photographer AND the model.  My 40-yard dash time isn’t quite what it used to be, and there are many times that I simply can’t shoot the scene the way I would have liked because I can’t get to where I need to be in the 10-second time lapse before my shutter releases.  If you live in the area and you feel like you would like to get in touch with your inner Zoolander, please send me an email.  It would be really nice to have someone else to work with as a model.  I suspect that it will involve a fair amount of suffering, and I can’t promise that you will end up on the cover of Outside magazine anytime soon, but I am fairly confident that we will at least have some fun.  All you need is a red shirt.


Photo of my good friend, Jake Bell, doing the classic jump scene near the base of Mount Washington.

Photo of my good friend, Jake Bell, doing the classic jump scene near the base of Mount Washington.


Posted by Troy McMullin

4 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. ForestWander Nature Photography

    What outstanding photo work you have accomplished.

    I love hiking and taking pictures like this.

    Great job!

    Oregon looks wonderful…

    Apr 21, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  2. Sandi

    I just had to smile through the reading of your blog. I too am a landscape photographer and find it impossible to take a good picture of a person. My best “people” shots are of people walking away into the sunset and such. If I picture a persons face they will undoubtedly have their eyes closed or their mouth hanging open or something. (o: I can appreciate your difficulties. I have not really tried the technique you are using and think I will in future. For fun at least. Your photos are gorgeous. I am a native Oregonian and avid hiker, rafter, camper, fisher person. We are so lucky to have the most wonderful variety of landscapes in this great state. Have fun and be safe.

    Apr 21, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  3. Troy McMullin

    It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one struggling with this concept. I’m not sure it will ever give me the same satisfaction as pure landscape photography, but it is a nice alternative when the conditions don’t lend themselves to nature shots. Hopefully, I’ll eventually get better at it.

    May 03, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

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