Maroon Bells photographer sleeps in his car to get the perfect shot
The Aspen Times
In the 20 years Sonia Bendt has visited Aspen, this marks her first visit in the fall.
Bendt is an interior designer from New York and had never experienced the fall colors around Aspen, so she was determined to get a few pictures at the iconic Maroon Bells.
She drove up on the morning of Sept. 25 and, upon arriving, realized she could use some help setting up her camera. She saw a group of photographers and approached them for advice.
“They were very nice people,” Bendt said. “That’s how I met Michael Broughton. He gave me some great advice, and I ended up getting the best picture. I couldn’t believe he was sleeping in his car so he could be at the Bells for the sunrise. His dedication was so impressive, and his pictures are amazing.”
Broughton is a professional photographer who started out as a self-taught kid in the Army and was lucky enough to find a camera.
Broughton was stationed in Germany in the mid-1970s and was helping clean out lockers when he found what would become his first real camera.
“I’ll always remember opening that locker and seeing the light reflect off that camera,” Broughton said. “I was immediately fascinated. I could see the artistic possibilities and wondered just what I could do with that piece of equipment.”
Broughton began taking as many pictures as he could and soon was the company photographer for his Army unit. His reputation grew, and soon he was the battalion shooter and then the entire brigade photographer.
By the time he left the service in 1977, Broughton was running the post photo lab, an area where he taught soldiers to shoot, develop and print photos.
“I went from a grunt to having this great photographer position,” he said. “I was having so much fun shooting whatever I wanted. How often do you hear people say they had fun in the military?”
Broughton knew he wanted to pursue photography and took a job at a commercial photo lab where he could build on the knowledge he garnered in the military. In the army, Broughton almost exclusively shot black-and-white photos. As a civilian, he began to explore nature pictures in color and has stayed on that path to this day.
He was particularly drawn to the shapes, textures and colors of natural settings.
“Sometimes I’ll see a subject, and it will literally overwhelm me,” Broughton said. “I had that experience the first time I saw Moab (in Utah). The natural beauty there is mind-boggling. I remember thinking I didn’t even have to be a photographer in Moab — I just needed to find the right spot.”
Broughton spent 15 years shooting around the Moab area before his wife finally spoke up.
“She asked what was wrong with me,” he said. “She wanted to know why I wasn’t shooting pictures of Colorado. After 14 years of marriage, I guess I was finally learning and listened to my wife.”
Broughton had visited the Maroon Bells when he was a kid and remembered the incredible sights. Starting in 2009, Broughton began coming to the Bells every fall. In many ways, it continues to be a humbling experience.
What the Bells taught Broughton is that no matter how technically prepared he is, no matter how much experience he brings to the table, he still needed to be in the right place at the right time to get the shots he envisioned.
“Sometimes that drives me crazy,” he said. “Being prepared is incredibly important, but the best picks almost always require a combination of right place, right time and luck.”
In order to be in the right place and time at the Bells, Broughton learned he needed to be ready to shoot before the first light of day. He began to sleep in his car at the Bells so he could be set up early.
“My wife calls me obsessive,” Broughton said. “I prefer to think I’m focused.”
He also would stay until sunset to learn the light patterns, which paid off in a big way for one of his favorite Bells shots.
“A lot of people wonder why I stay at the Bells during the storms, but that’s when the magic happens,” he said. “Last year, there was a series of storms that blew through and created a rare sunset opportunity. Really, there aren’t many sunsets at the Bells, but the clouds broke at the exact right time and gave me a wonderful shot of the sunrays coming through right next to the Bells. It’s the only sunset I’ve seen there in five years.”
When Broughton gave advice to Bendt, it was short and sweet with amazing results.
“Michael showed me just where to stand and to wait for the exact right light,” Bendt said. “It sounds so simple, but it was the perfect advice. I got the best picture, thanks to Michael.”
Broughton said if you know how to read your camera’s menus and you understand your lens capabilities, you’re that much closer to getting a perfect picture.
He also recommends using a tripod that eliminates vibrations.
“It’s quite satisfying when someone is gracious enough to reward you with a purchase,” Broughton said. “I wish it would happen more often.”
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