Living in the Rocky Mountains, we are privileged to be surrounded by some of the most outstanding landscapes in North America. For award-winning Canadian photographer Lee Nordbye, the Rockies aren’t just a beautiful place to take photos, but a place of solitude, rejuvenation, healing, and of course, inspiration! I had the incredible opportunity to interview Lee on his love of the Rockies, roads less travelled, and how he seeks inspiration from our towering giants!
The Cliff – A friend and I headed up Black Rock Mountain in April, just after a significant snowfall. The post-holing was worth the views when we got to the top. We had an enjoyable stay on the summit enjoying the sights and just taking everything in. I decided to take a nature break before we headed down. As I looked down, I saw the stunning shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. I quickly grabbed my camera and long lens to capture The Cliff. Always keep your eye open, no matter the task at hand. 🙂
Like any photographer, something or someone inspires us to take the leap into photography, so Lee, what got you interested in Outdoor and Landscape Photography?
“My dad was my inspiration for exploring the outdoors and capturing its beauty in photography. My mom and dad started taking me camping in a tent when I was a baby, and ever since then, I have loved the outdoors. Whether it is the boreal forest of Northern Alberta as a child or now the Canadian Rockies as an adult, I have always loved exploring the outdoors.
My dad was an avid amateur. He would always carry a camera, whether his high-end gear or a point and shoot. I wanted to follow in his footsteps as a boy, so my parents got me my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic.
From childhood to 2015, my photographic journey consisted of taking nice pictures. In February 2015, standing on the frozen tundra at -50 c under the dancing aurora, I was inspired to study photography as an art form. Since then, I have been a student of the art of photography and capturing bold stories.”
Bowl of Light – As I walked down to Lower Kananaksis Lake to check out the ice conditions for a future wild ice skating adventure, I looked to my left and saw this wonderful light casting itself on Mount Sarrail. As I ran back to the car to grab my gear, I hoped this moment would last. Upon my return, I was relieved to see it had
It’s easy to see you have a great love for the outdoors, but why do you love photographing the Canadian Rockies so much?
“My love affair with the Canadian Rockies is simply about having fun exploring with friends its beauty, majesty, and mystery. Each time we head out into the middle of the Rockies, I am inspired by what nature has created. Whether I am sitting in an ice cave or standing on a summit looking out at the magnificent, majestic mountains, I am blown away by the snippets of ancient or current natural history that I am seeing. I am not sure how many times I have said how the heck did nature create that.
It is these moments that I love to capture and share with people.”
Rock Solo – Friends and I set out to hike up to the Sparrowhawk Tarns, small mountain lakes. As we approached the first lake, we discovered we would not be able to proceed on to the second and third tarns as we were already walking in snow up to our waist in places. So we hung out and shot near the first tarn. As we were finishing shooting our friend in a red dress, I looked across the lake to see how nature had created the unique feature on the side of Mount Sparrowhawk. The two trees on edge were the icing on the cake. So out came my telephoto lens to capture this story.
Prior to our interview, you told me that not only do you photograph the Rockies, but specifically, roads less travelled. What draws you to these less-conventional places?
“Roads less travelled for me are symbolic of seeking solitude or near solitude from the craziness and busyness of our world. No more so than in the past two years. With solitude or near solitude with friends comes peace and time for reflection. Although I think I am officially an extrovert as defined by the various personality tests, I need time alone in nature to rest the brain and recharge the batteries. When I achieve these moments, I find I am the most creative.”
Peak Light – Returning from my pre-dawn snowshoe trip into Watridge Lake, I looked to my left as I was crossing Watridge Creek. I saw the luscious morning light casting itself on this snow and ice sculpture in the creek. Out came my telephoto lens to capture the moment. The image’s name came about when I put together my Below the Peak Exhibit, which celebrates the Canadian Rockies’ beauty, intrigue, and majesty below any peak. I selected the photo because it had a peak-like structure in a non-mountain peak exhibit. So its name had to follow suit.
There is no denying, Lee, that your work is stunning and distinctive, which begs me to ask, why did you choose to focus on black and white photography?
“My black and white landscape photography journey was inspired by attending a black and white portrait workshop. I thought, what a cool idea to try in landscape photography. As I explored it more and more, I fell in love with the challenge of capturing a bold story using the key compositional elements of photography and not relying on colour.
Finally, one of my biggest drivers in photography, perhaps my determinant at times, is I go out of my way to be unique. If my friends walk left, I go right. If they shoot wide, I shoot long, etc., etc. In the crazy world of social media, black and white is relatively unique compared to the plethora of iconic colour landscape shots.”
Lost Falls – Friends and I decided to hike into Edworthy Falls. We were following the directions to the t when we came upon an unexpected t intersection in the trees. Well, we decided to go right when we should have gone left. Resulting in us getting “lost.” The result of our misadventure was to discover these relatively small falls. Well, being the photographers we are, we found our way down to the creek and spent almost an hour capturing the falls from various angles. We were able to find our way back to Edworthy Falls. So glad we got lost, as this is my favourite story from the day.
I have to ask, what are some of your favourite places to photograph?
“My favourite place by far and away is the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. The backcountry offers so much peace and beauty. A lot of the pleasure for this old guy is a sense of accomplishment in getting to the places in the backcountry.
My second favourite place is Greenland. All the beauty of Iceland but with the solitude I seek. Everything from the towering icebergs to the most beautiful coastline I have ever seen. My short trip to Greenland has inspired me to one day return and spend 6 weeks exploring as much of it as I possibly can. The trip also inspired me to explore more of the North, including Northern Canada. I just need to find the time.”
Voice of the Valley – I was standing on the side of the Bow River in Banff, just below the falls, after a very long day helping friends with their monochrome workshop. My mind was in neutral. Suddenly, the Canadian National Art Galleries painting – Voice of Fire, purchased in the 1980s, came to mind as I watched the water flow in the river. The river’s flow reminded me of the three stripes of the Voice of Fire. At that point, I knew I would capture it in landscape format and flip it in post to create a bold story inspired by the Voice of Fire.
Now, outdoor and landscape photography requires a bit of forethought when it comes to gear. What camera gear do you normally pack for a trip?
“The amount, and type of camera gear I pack, depends on the planned trip. If it is a car adventure, everything comes along, including my beast of a tripod. Suppose it is a momentous adventure day, such as ascending a summit(s) and/or a long adventure. In that case, the camera gear is paired down to as little as my camera body, a lens, polarizer filter (a must in the Rockies with all the glarey light), and a spare battery.
Because bulk and weight are crucial on big adventure days, I recently switched to the Canon R5 mirrorless system. Although not dramatically different from the DSLR system in terms of weight, if you manage ounces, you manage pounds.”
The Bubble Factory – Friends and I were exploring Abraham Lake on skates at night to find cool bubbles to capture. A friend of mine found a massive chunk of ice that had collapsed, showing the bubbles in the ice and the vertical bubble striations. I had to capture this. So we set out using our headlamps at various angles to create the right light to capture The Bubble Factory.
Do you have any non-camera gear you tend to bring on trips?
“Like my previous answer, my non-camera gear depends entirely on the type of adventure I am headed out on. I always carry enough extra clothes, food, and water for each adventure, whether by car or foot. I will add gear based on the type of mountain activity we are embarking upon. I love experiencing the mountains through different experiences and activities, so non-camera equipment can include a pack raft, bike, bike helmet, mountaineering axe, mountaineering helmet, harness, crampons, hiking poles, satellite communication device, etc.
I have also had those occasions where I have taken a-typical mountaineering gear. When we headed up Windy Peak in late October a few years back, a friend wanted to capture more unique Halloween photos for a photo group challenge. So I carried my headless person costume and put it on when we reached the summit.
I could not pass up doing my two favourite mountain activities all at once – exploring an ice cave and wild ice skating. Friends earlier in the season found an ice cave with a small patch of ice that we could skate on. To get to this cave, I carried hockey skates, gloves, and a stick.”
Staring Rundle – When a friend and I decided to shoot Vermillion Lakes at night, we each challenged ourselves to find a more unique perspective from this iconic spot. So after capturing the more iconic wide scene with Rundle reflecting in Vermillion, I started looking around to see what different takes I could find. I instantly fell in love with the way the moonlight was shining on the cliffs of Rundle. So I grabbed my telephoto lens, and after several frustrating minutes of trying to locate the scene and compose it the way I wanted it, I found the composition I loved. I then needed to figure out how to bring balance to the top left. Why not try a star trail in camera. To my surprise, the shape of the stars aligned with the angle of the cliffs.
A bit ambiguous but if you can elaborate, how do you get the perfect shot?
“A very interesting question. Not sure I believe in perfection, but rather go out each and every time to one-up myself. Without progression in your photographic journey, your inspiration will die.
With that said, I do believe that the most important thing any photographer can do is make sure you are having fun and laughing. This applies to your own creative shoots as well as working for a client. Having fun frees you from the pressures of thinking you need to get the perfect shot and puts you in a mindset to actually achieve a great shot. There are no guarantees in life, but from my own personal experience when I first started out as a “professional” photographer, the closest to a guarantee is not getting a great shot if you are not having fun.”
Layered Cake – After spending a wonderful morning at Bow Lake shooting the sunrise, a friend and I decided to hike into Hector Lake. We thought the trailhead started from the Hector Lake viewpoint parking lot. We soon discovered that we had made a mistake, so we had to bushwhack our way in the direction of the actual trail. Catching up with the trail, we finally made it to the lake. Standing on the shores, we were just taking in the beautiful views when the clouds parted ever so briefly to provide the small patch of light in the bottom right. This patch of light and the snow on the top left provided an excellent laying effect, inspiring the image’s name Layered Cake.
Do you have any landscape photography tips for our readers?
“One of the most significant differences between a great photo (professional or amateur) and a snapshot is that great images are taken with a vision and are executed with intent. So to achieve the vision and intent, I have learned that photographers need to stop the process of getting attracted by the shiny object and instantly pulling out the camera. The way to achieve this is we STOP when we see the shiny object and:
- Listen to our heart and gut to understand what the exact story is that is exciting us,
- Look for the proper perspective by walking around, getting down, up higher (where it is safe and legal to do so), zooming in, etc.,
- Ensure the image is balanced where appropriate and
- Get the right level of technical elements complete for the image (not all photos need to be technically perfect, just the right ones for the use).
When I get home and evaluate why an image has failed, invariably, I did not execute at least one of these principles well.”
The Power of the Panther – I had been to Panther Falls several times before I saw and captured The Power of the Panther. After a friend and I had spent a long time capturing various images of Panther Falls, I stood and just watched the falls for a moment. As I watched the power of the falls from the spring runoff, I started to love the contrast in the dark, gritty and solid textures of the rock vs. the lighter, softer, yet powerful textures of the water. Set the camera up on my tripod and captured The Power of the Panther. Always go back to the same place; you will see things differently based on the time of year, day, and, more importantly, your own sense of inspiration and vision.
How about any general tips?
“As a recovering accountant, I firmly believe that anyone with a big passion for photography and who dedicates time to becoming a student of the art of photography can gain the eye and become a fantastic photographic artist.”
This is one of my favourite questions to ask, because there’s usually a great story behind it. Do you have a favourite photo, and if so, why is it your favourite?
“I do have a favourite photo of mine. It is called Nature’s Sculpture. It is of a prominent snow cornice stuck between two glacial ice sheets. Friends and I had spent the day exploring Dome Glacier for ice caves. On our way back from the head of the glacier, we ran into this massive snow cornice. The only way to advance forward was to crawl under it. Once I squeezed under it, I saw the fantastic sculpture that nature had created. Rolled onto my belly, pointed the camera up, and captured the moment.
My love for this photo is based on the uniqueness of this snow cornice. I would hazard a guess that we were one of the very few people to find it. It would have melted during the summer, never to be seen again. So given the adventure to find it, the fun of crawling under it and taking the photo, along with the fact that no one else likely captured it, makes it my favourite bold story.”
The Fox – My wife and I got off to a late morning start at Emerald Lake. After enjoying an excellent breakfast, we headed for a walk around the lake. As we started off, I noticed the rare circumstance in the mountains, mirror-like reflections late in the a.m. It has been my experience that generally, just after sunrise, the slightest breeze usually takes away the mirror reflections. The snowfall from the night before dusted the old avalanche shoot exceptionally well. So I had to capture this unique moment. Later I posted it on social media, and people were saying that if you flip the photo on its side, you could see a fox, hence the name.
And finally, is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
“Each day in the mountains for me is a Mountain Therapy Day. Exploring the mountains by car or on foot and capturing those special moments helps me tremendously deal with my mental health challenges. I also firmly believe that we can eliminate the stigma of mental health challenges and make so many lives better through one conversation at a time. So, if you are challenged by your own mental health demons, show your bravery and courage and talk to someone about your challenges. You will not regret it. Also, get out and enjoy the outdoors; you will feel better whether it is the mountains or your favourite spot. Find your Mountain Therapy Day to look forward to.”
I don’t think I could have ended on a more beautiful note. Thank you so incredibly much, Lee, for taking the time to answer my questions, sharing your stories, and for giving us a look into your passion for capturing the Rocky Mountains. Your gorgeously bold photographs are inspirational!
For more information on Lee Nordbye and to see more of his work, please visit leenordbyephotography.com