I fell into Bear Lake while shooting a wedding

Tara and Brad

A winter wedding in Rocky Mountain National Park

Photographer in lakeI’m the guy who fell through the ice and into a frozen lake while shooting a wedding. Maybe you read about it on the Huffington Post, DigitalRev’s Bokeh, and at PetaPixel, one of the largest photography blogs on the Internet. Not exactly my finest moment.

Wedding photography is a pretty amazing gig, and the results are almost all effort based. To make unique and compelling images of people, there’s a long and imprecise list of ingredients: one must anticipate what is going to happen before it does; put in 200% effort at a minimum; understand your gear; have a clear artistic vision; earn the unwavering trust of clients; listen, be empathetic, and most importantly understand them; expect the unexpected; continually adjust the vision based on the circumstances; and so on and so forth.

But that’s only half the recipe. The final step — the cooking part, if you will — is scary, and it boils down to taking risks from time to time. If I only play it safe when shooting, the images reflect that. If I take risks, the images are so much better — they’re more alive, more vibrant, more unique, and far more reflective of this unusual, fun, crazy, adventurous, and all-too-short thing we all share called life. 

The character Joel summed it up well in Risky Business: “Every now and then, say ‘What the fuck.’” he said. “‘What the fuck’ gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.”

To that end, I’ve found myself in some pretty ridiculous predicaments since I shot my first wedding in 2003. These include:

  • Nearly falling out of the top of a spindly, 30-foot aspen tree (multiple times)
  • Shooting an elopement in the mountains that was so cold my hands froze and I couldn’t operate the camera
  • Wading into a bay of sharks in the Bahamas with my underwater housing try for a half-in-half-out shot of the couple feeding them
  • Being attacked by a huge moray eel in Belize after it bit the fin off a bride’s mom during a pre-wedding snorkeling session
  • Being submerged in an icy river getting a half-in-half-out shot during an engagement session
  • Walking into a Denver health club with clients who jumped into the pool fully clothed in evening attire while I waited, underwater, with a camera.
  • Photographing in a beautiful mountaintop location, but waiting for the best light and then having to sprint back down to avoid lighting

The list can go on and on and on. Sometimes the images were awesome. Sometimes they sucked. But I will carry these (mis)adventurous memories with me for as long as I live, and I’m eternally thankful for my clients who dare to commission art that reflects their unique lives far beyond the norm.  

Bride putting on jewelrt Wedding ring Bride in mirror in estes park Bride's mom putting on jewelry Bride happy and smiling

Although weddings constitute the vast majority of my photography business, I do a bit of adventure sports photography on the side for prAna and other commercial clients. It keeps me inspired and psyched, and it prevents creative burnout. I’m comfortable hanging on ropes shooting climbers hundreds of feet off the ground or photographing sharks or other sea creatures a hundred feet below the ocean, and doing so has prepared me for these wedding and engagement shenanigans.

Anyway, I added a new feather to my cap when, mid-ceremony in a blizzard in Rocky Mountain National Park, I fell through the ice of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

This could have gone one of two ways: I could have jumped out, embarrassed, and ran to the car to warm up. Or, I could have immediately kept shooting because the resulting photos would be once in a lifetime and tell the story of what actually happened during my clients’ wedding day. 

What was done was done. I’d already interrupted things. I certainly didn’t do so on purpose, but there was no point in interrupting things further by putting their ceremony on pause. The only option was to try to make something good out of it, so I kept shooting while standing in the lake as the groom and officiant came running to fish me out.

I was wearing thermals, ice boots, and a couple of snow jackets, so I stayed reasonably warm during the ensuing 2 hours of shooting outside. I can’t say I was comfortable, but there were more important things to worry about: making awesome photos.

When I posted this story on Facebook — and when the Huffington Post picked it up — I have to admit I was worried about the comments. “What an idiot,” I thought people would say. But what I saw instead were many many comments from former clients who all basically said the same thing: “This is awesome and it’s exactly why we hired you.”

Groom seeing bride for the first time at Bear Lake Bride walking to ceremony in Rocky Mountain National Park Wedding ceremony at Bear Lake in RMNP Wedding ceremony at Bear Lake in RMNPWinter wedding at RMNP at Bear Lake

Anyway! Let’s talk about Tara and Brad’s memorable wedding, which was a small elopement in Rocky Mountain National Park. I met the day before to go over details, and as immediately taken by their fun loving, adventurous attitude. They seemed like a perfect match. The next day I met Tara as she was getting ready, and then we headed into the park for the ceremony and a portrait session. That’s when I dunked myself.

Here are some of her words:

A few days before our wedding day, the 30th of April, the forecast changed to snow instead of rain. I was worried about how cold I would be standing there in my wedding dress but I was prepared to make the best if it. Brad went up an hour prior to me at the lake to make sure I had a clear path to walk and once I got there and rounded the corner of trees I saw him. I instantly became warm. 

When standing there listening to my brother, whom we asked to be our officiant, Nathan was taking pictures. I wasn’t paying much attention as I was deadlocked on my about to be husband. Next thing I knew, I heard a funny noise and saw the look on Brad’s face. I turned around to see my photographer in the lake.

At first I didn’t know how to react. I just kind of stood there. I certainly didn’t want to be the next one in so I backed away and let the men rush in. I turned to look at our family and friends thinking “oh no! I just paid so much money for him! I hope he doesn’t leave to go change!” I heard him shout to the guys rushing in to hold on a second and he started snapping pictures of them as they made their way towards him. At that point I couldn’t help but laugh. He was such a great sport about it.

As he was getting pulled out of the water I made my way back over to him and he gave me the biggest “hell yeah!” high five. And the show went on. 

He actually gave us about an hour extra of shooting time which, given he probably had frostbite on his feet, was amazing. Off and on it was laughed about as we continued on with our picture session. 

Couldn’t be more excited about the pictures he took and also the ones taken by family of the craziness that was our wedding day.

Winter wedding portrait in RMNP

Winter wedding at RMNP at Bear Lake Winter wedding at RMNP at Bear Lake Portrait of bride in snow in Estes Park Portrait of bride and groom snow in Estes Park Winter weddign in RMNP Winter weddign in RMNPWedding couple on rock outcrop in Estes Park

Couple kissing near Bear Lake in RMNP in snow

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