The wind was finally dying down as Bill Ellzey and I prepared to hike off into the cap-rock formations surrounding our camp. We both had objectives that might allow amazing shadow and light patterns during the sunset hour. Though good friends, we each had our own agenda.
It’s difficult to define a photographer’s personal journey in search of an image that dances in our heads. Different destinations and different approaches lead us deeper into the sandstone, but in different directions.
I was eagerly seeking patterns that I had recorded many years earlier in the 4×5 film days. So, I was on a mission with my newly purchased medium format Fuji GFX 50S. My Spartan approach involved a small Mindshift Backlight 18L pack, my Fuji GFX 50S with three lenses: Fujinon 23mm prime, 32-64mm and 100-200mm zoom lenses, and a lightweight Really Right Stuff tripod. I feel I’ve returned to a less complicated time as I shoulder the tiny pack and climb the sandy trail.
Making my way over familiar ground, I zeroed in on design in my mind’s eye, of concentric sandstone circles in the golden sunset light. As the sun reaches the horizon, I spotted and eliminated several potential compositions, before “locking on” to a wonderful domed rock with a perfectly formed “bulls-eye” beginning to fall into the deepening shadow and the valley beyond turned crimson.
I lined up a image, but I needed to get closer. Of course that meant I needed to “crab-walk” off my vantage point and approach the edge of the gaping mini-canyon separating two cap-rock pinnacles. I extended the tripod legs that would allow a splayed out tripod spanning the gap before me. Carefully, I preset all controls and inched forward. The tripod with camera attached doubled as my walking stick.
This part of the San Rafael Desert is home to countless petrified sandstone formations that are eroded into sculptures that have defied time and gravity. One disquieting slip later and I knew I wasn’t that lucky at defying gravity. It seems that my inching closer to the maw before me reached the point when gravity trumped the friction of my butt against the stone. Suddenly, I was sliding forward. Instinctively, I quickly laid camera and tripod across my lap and used my right hand to stop the slide. However, in that instant, the camera and a 23mm lens shot off my lap and into the abyss.
This is one of those times when I’m apt to utter and string of angry meditations that assigned blame to the only person around: ME!
I scrambled backwards to safety and contemplated a trip without my wonderful medium format camera. With a fifteen-foot fall into a veritable stone canyon, my image making was effectively over, and my wallet was to be devastated by the 5K hit for a replacement. My mind was spinning. Between curses and planning contingencies, I set about trying to rescue the mangled camera. As I scaled an adjacent stone pillar, I noticed Bill headed toward me in the distance. I peered down when I found a point to view the sand covered corpse below and unleashed another barrage of obscenities that brought Bill to my side.
The plan was to drop a rope to snag the tripod’s leg and thereby the lift camera tripod and all to the top the spire. While Bill’s a cowboy with well-honed roping skills, the plan just did not work. The angle was all wrong. It was then when Bill asked the obvious question: “Did you try to find a way down?” Of course I didn’t. I was consumed with rage and barely thinking straight.
Well… Bill found a route that held promise for someone as thin as Bill and he wriggled his wiry frame into the slot. He looped a rope around the wreckage with me at the other end. Finally with Bill keeping the camera off the abrasive walls, I managed to hoist the Fuji. In my hands was the busted memory of a fantastic camera, that just days before dazzled me with incredible images of autumn color in Colorado. All I could think of was that we still had another Visionary Wild Workshop to teach and my new landscape camera was toast.
My Nikon D850 that was along as a backup landscape camera and prime wildlife camera was now my only hope.
It was a very long night as I carefully opened the LCD screen to let the sand fall on the ground. I removed the RRS “L” bracket (which acted as a “roll cage”) protecting the camera and watched more sand pour out. Both the battery compartment and the card slots were open and compromised with grit.
With a regular hardware store paintbrush and a “Visible Dust” blower, I set about removing the sand and powdery dust. With Q-tips and a damp terrycloth towel I spent two hours cleaning every corner.
The magic moment occurred late that evening when I re-inserted the battery and fired up the camera. Just like Frankenstein, “IT WAS ALIVE!”
Furthermore, the next two week’s shooting produced some of my best images ever. The Fujifilm GFX 50S is one very strong tank of a camera! It’s my amazing new landscape camera.
There are some lessons here:
- Don’t be stupid when hiking.
- Have a good cleaning kit.
- Have a good cowboy friend named: “slim” around.
- Save yourself to shoot another day.
- Be patiently thorough while carefully cleaning the camera with its battery removed.
Fuji’s shop is currently cleaning and perhaps replacing the LCD screen, but the camera is one incredibly durable machine that makes images that make me feel I’m making the highest quality large format images again. I love this camera!