How a well-known landscape photographer turns ideas into images

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Curled in the back of my SUV in a sleeping bag, I attempted to catch some sleep at the base of Cascade Mountain near Banff, Alta. I was tired after spending several hours of the night driving the rural roads of Alberta’s prairies and foothills with Banff-based landscape and adventure photographer Paul Zizka.

We hoped that we’d get a glimpse of the heavily speculated Aurora Borealis display, just waiting for a clearing in the cloud-blanketed night sky to set up our tripods in time for the show.

After accumulating more Tim Horton’s receipts than photos, we succumbed to our last resort — heading back to the mountains to camp out, in chance of catching the lights.

I woke to a tap on my frosty rear window at 6 a.m., nearly 10 hours after we had first left Banff. “It’s not happening tonight guys,” Zizka said. “Go home and get some sleep. It’s too bad but that’s how it goes sometimes.”

 Capturing moments in the mountains

This was one of a handful of night photography sessions I had the opportunity to shadow and nights like this were all part of the job for Zizka. The photographer invests endless amounts of time, patience, and exploration to create his work. Work that has reached places all over the world, and is depicted in his recently published book “Summits and Starlight: The Canadian Rockies.”

“There’s two different ways that I go about getting shots, some of them are pre-visualized and I know before getting on location what I’m after,” Zizka said in an interview in his studio in Banff, Alta.

But on other occasions similar to the Aurora-chasing night, he doesn’t have a specific location set.Zizka3Paul Zizka sets up for a night photography shoot at Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park, Alta

Photo by Tera Swanson

“I just get in the car, get on the road and drive past certain spots that I have in mind to see when there’s a location that has good potential,” Zizka said.

A prior photography session with Zizka reflected his former method, as we set out with an end product in mind. Accompanied by ice climbers John Price and Seb Oliver, we walked down the snowy streets of Banff to his apartment, before loading his car with camera and climbing gear.

A 45-minute drive brought us to the parking lot of Haffner Creek, a popular ice climbing area in Kootenay National Park, B.C. With frozen fingers, we set our head lamps to high, packed our bags, and made our way up the snow-beaten trail and partially-frozen creek bed. Charred pines reminiscent of the Kootenay fires dotted the landscape like toothpicks, inviting me to reflect on Zizka’s comment that the mountains are ever-changing — his main draw to photographing the Canadian Rockies.

“Of all the landscapes out there, I’m drawn strongly to the mountains mainly because of their ever-changing character,” Zizka said. “My passion for the mountains is fueled by a desire to always rediscover its new, fresh ways and to document it from ever-different perspectives.”

The horseshoe of frozen ice pillars slowly came into view and it felt as if we had been transported straight into a Dr. Seuss book. As Zizka and his soon-to-be subjects discussed which ice lines would be most suitable for his composition, I wandered around the area to find some vantage points to work with. Price and Oliver soon geared up and began climbing, while Zizka asked them to hold a number of different poses for several seconds to get a crisp image during the long exposure times.

Zizka9A fisheye shot of ice climbers John Price and Jonathon Reynard at Haffner Creek, Kootenay National Park, BC, manages to bring the location and the magic together into one image.

Photo courtesy of Paul Zizka
Cloud-cover and the brisk walk to location made it comfortable to take our time and tinker, but it also meant that Zizka would come back for a second night when it was clear, so he could add starlight into the composition of the shot.

“The mountains are magical to start with,” Zizka said, “but when you add all of the elements of night time — the stars and the moonlight, and sometimes the Aurora, the Milky Way, meteors — there’s just so much more magic that you can add to a scene.”

Reaching a worldwide audience

The image he came away with from their next trip to Haffner Creek is what Zizka believes sparked the recent flood of media interest in his work, as news agencies began incorrectly — in more ways than one — referring to this shot and others as “selfies.”

Zizka’s top tips for night photography:

-Bundle up. People rush through things because they’re cold.
-Commit the time. Night photography takes way more time than you think and you want to be able to enjoy the place for what it is.
-Expect to take bad photos. It’s a lot of trial-and-error; You hear that with any kind of photography, but it’s especially true at night.
-Good starting points in terms of settings are adjusting your aperture to f2.8 or f4, and your shutter speed to 20 seconds. Work up or down from there.
-Tripod and shutter releases are essential camera accessories, especially if you want to go above 30-second exposures.

While some of the photos published in these articles were indeed self-portraits, Zizka said the angle some of the articles took to attract reader interest might have not accurately reflected his opinion of his work.

“It made it sound like I go out there to put people to shame with their own selfies,” Zizka said. “I’m not going out there to take photos that are better than whatever someone does on Instagram, it doesn’t bother me. Everybody does different stuff.”

And while his photos on social media have reached up to 120,000 people, he still makes a point to respond to feedback and share information, whether it’s a compliment or a question.

Coming to this point in his career from working with a point-and-shoot just over six years ago has inevitably brought much development and reflection for the self-taught photographer, and not just from a technical standpoint.

“My wife Meghan and I moved to Banff with just two suitcases and the intention to work outside as much as possible,” Zizka said.  

“I think in the beginning I was more dryly documenting places, there wasn’t a huge emotional connection in my work because in a way I was just starting to get to know what would become my main subject — the mountains.

“Now I feel a lot more connected to what I do, and I’ve grown to know the mountains well and to appreciate how much they change. I think that’s what drives my photographic efforts. I enjoy just trying to find new ways to rediscover my subject and get to know it better.”

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To see more of Paul Zizka work visit his website

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