July Photo of the Month: Dragon's Fire on the Mountain

Dragontail Peak, center, and Colchuck Peak, right, with Colchuck Lake in the foreground. Photo © Steven Luu

Photo and writing by Steven Luu

It is a little ironic that I'm introducing myself with a photo of Colchuck Lake—since this was also the first place I visited with a DSLR camera. Before I go any further, let's backtrack a little.

I grew up in a crowded city in Vietnam, where the landscape is flat as a pancake. The closest thing I had to an outdoor adventure was visiting the local theme park. That lifestyle followed me throughout my high-school years in Washington state. It wasn't until I moved to Tennessee for college that I discovered the joy of the outdoors. It was there the "country" boys and girls I befriended introduced me to the lush green and the fall colors of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was there when this city boy was introduced to week-long backpacking trips. It was there when I first waded in a waterfall. It was there when the seed was planted.

Shortly after college, a job opportunity brought me back to Washington. It took a few months, but that seed finally bloomed again. I got googly eyes every time I saw Mount Rainier from the freeway (still do), and my feet got itchy. I started going on some local hikes, like Rattlesnake Ledge and Wallace Falls, then ventured out closer to the Mount Rainier and Mount Baker areas. I enjoy different kinds of landscapes, but am particularly attracted to mountains. Their imposing sizes and their picturesque frosted tips are ever awe-inspiring. Every trip to these majestic mountains serves as a reminder of how small I am in this world — and in the grand scheme of things, my daily problems seem so insignificant.

During this whole time, I knew absolutely nothing about photography — except launching the camera app from my smartphone. Fast forward to August 2016, I invested in my first DSLR camera and was instantly hooked. I was hooked on the technical aspects of exposing for a photo, and I was hooked by the idea of capturing the natural beauty around us. Having a compulsive personality, I totally threw myself into this new found hobby. My daily reading, my internet search, and my YouTube history suddenly became a mining operation for photography knowledge.

Naturally, I learned to take landscape photos. As I got my feet deeper into photography, the day hikes suddenly turned into overnight trips so that I can catch sunrises and sunsets. It also means that for day trips, I started hiking in before sunrise or out in the dark after sunset. This hobby has brought me out and about at ungodly times and in conditions that I would have curled up in my blanket otherwise. Waking up at 2 a.m., enduring the cold and climbing a few thousand feet with heavy camera gear sure hasn't been easy. But the sense of accomplishment of being able to show off a piece of landscape in its best condition keeps me coming back. At the same time, even if I can’t get a great photo, I would always get a great trip out of it.

Having a full-time job and all, I usually wait until Thursday to look at the weather forecast for different locations and go to wherever the weather permits. I was quite excited to see that Colchuck Lake would be in good conditions. After a previous failed attempt, I was determined to give it another go. A three-hour drive and a somewhat strenuous hike later, I made it to the lake. Even though this was the third time I had visited, I was still caught off guard by the beauty and stature of Dragontail and Colchuck peaks.

I took a little time to rest, soak in the scenery, and set up my hammock for the night. With a compass in hand, I wandered around the lake to find a composition for the next morning—mentally visualizing how the sunlight would hit the mountain peaks. The next morning, I woke up to a glassy condition on the lake. I set up my camera and patiently waited. As the sun came above the horizon, the peaks lit up as if they were on fire, and I was able to walk away with a fantastic photograph.

Steven Luu is a software engineer based out of Seattle. He has a passion for nature and capturing scenery in their best conditions. You can see more of his landscape photos at his website or follow him on Instagram for more updates.