This column originally appeared in the July/August 2015 edition of Colorado Life Magazine. Order your copy here: https://store.coloradolifemagazine.com/july-august-2015-p152.php?retain_errors=Y&retain_notices=Y
Sometimes photographers’ fear of working with large groups are justified. Photo shoots rarely end up being as easy as you expect, and for all your careful planning, your success often hinges on your ability to adapt and improvise. That was the case when the staff of Colorado Life Magazine partnered with Colorado’s Sweetheart City to help produce the 2015 Loveland Visitors Guide.
Loveland’s Visitor Service Coordinator Cindy Mackin proposed we do a photo shoot at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch for the guide’s cover. Many photographers would be skittish about having to direct a large group of models that included children wearing cowboy hats shading their faces on a sunny afternoon while riding horseback over winding mountainous trails.
Sylvan Dale, which I knew well from growing up in Loveland, is a nearly 70-year-old landmark that we almost lost in the September 2013 floods. Owners and staff have had the monumental task of rebuilding the grounds and business. All I needed to do was show up and take some pretty pictures with a post-shoot payoff of campfire hot dogs and s’mores. “No problem,” I thought – sounded like fun.
After persuading family and friends to be our models, we scheduled the shoot for a mid-week evening. In true Colorado fashion, the weather intervened with a mix of rain and snow showers. We scrambled to reschedule another time when all of our models could attend while still meeting our deadline.
The next Sunday, I arrived at the ranch ahead of the models to meet Cindy, graphic designer John Metcalf and Susan Jessup, who co-owns Sylvan Dale with her brother, David, to survey the perfect locations for the photographs. We chose spots with curving gravel roads and wooden fences stretching toward a horizon of rolling sandstone buttes.
Precious daylight was burning as our models arrived, and we excitedly saddled them up in a carefully coordinated arrangement of ages, attire and horse colors. By the time we hit the trail, the sun had moved behind a cloud, and we discovered our pre-selected spots had distracting sagebrush we hadn’t noticed previously. The horses grew stubborn when taken in a direction they weren’t used to plodding. The riders had uncomfortable expressions because they were still getting used to their mounts. The photos I took just weren’t right. It was time to throw our plan out the window again.
Susan, who knows the terrain better than anyone, offered to lead the group back toward the barn over a narrow trail along a mountain ridge. The catch was that I would need to hoof it ahead of the group with only minutes to visualize my shots before the riders appeared.
John volunteered to run alongside to look for clearings where we could set up and alert me when the models approached. Just then, the sun emerged from behind the clouds, casting golden light on the background rock walls. The horses perked their ears as they traveled familiar trails. The riders were having fun and smiled from ear to ear. At the opposite side of the ridge, Cindy cracked up with laughter at the sight of John and me running to stay ahead of the horse string. Our cover photo resulted from this flurry of impromptu activity.
Photographers want to be in control. In our camera bags we pack flashes to manipulate lighting conditions, lenses to give us a range of possible compositions and all sorts of other technological tools that are supposed to help get us out of any jam we find ourselves in. When working with natural light that is at the mercy of the weather, animals that have minds of their own and wide open spaces where it’s difficult to shout directions to models, you realize quickly that no matter how hard you hold the reins you’re still just along for the ride. You might as well embrace unpredictability.
That’s how the people at Sylvan Dale have survived a natural disaster that would have disheartened less hardy folk. I’d like to think this is just one example of the resiliency of Coloradans, and Lovelanders in particular.
If you ride into Loveland during your summer travels, be sure to stop at the Visitors Center at 5400 Stone Creek Circle. Pick up your copy of the guide and extra copies of Colorado Life Magazine to share with the friendly residents you’re guaranteed to meet in my hometown.
You never know, you just might be invited for campfire s’mores at a ranch cookout.