Montana native and professional photographer Lynn Donaldson was recently on assignment for Nat Geo Travel and shares her experiences photographing in Montana.
One of the images on my shot list for a recent Nat Geo Travel assignment was the Kings Hill Scenic Byway (U.S. 89) between Belt and White Sulphur Springs. It’s a two-lane highway that winds through the Little Belt Mountains and is one of my favorite Montana drives. Though the road is pretty up on top of Kings Hill Pass near the Showdown Ski Area, the most photogenic stretch is the 20 miles between Neihart and Sluice Boxes State Park, where the highway skirts Belt Creek and towering rock outcroppings.
I grew up driving this breathtaking road to ski, so I know the route well, and though I’ve pulled off several times to try to photograph it (there aren’t many pullouts, and they aren’t located in the most scenic spots), I’d never managed to quite capture what I was seeing when sitting behind the wheel. I finally realized that my vantage point needed to be a lot higher. I needed to use a trick I had pulled many times when riding around central Montana in the back of my dad’s truck trying to capture gravel roads: I needed to stand in a pickup bed and rest my elbows on the top of the cab.
This instantly gives you the height you need, and riding in the bed of a truck happens to be legal in Montana. Otherwise, the road looks “flat” when you’re standing on the ground, and the ground perspective doesn’t lead your eye into the frame in the dramatic way it does when you shoot from above.
I didn’t know anyone to call in the area, so I went to the “nerve center” of tiny Neihart—the Neihart Inconvenience Store, owned by Royal Westervelt. I told Royal what I needed, and he called his friend Jasmine Krotkov and set it up.
Jasmine drove me through a particularly photogenic 20-mile stretch. I stood in back and rested my elbows on top of the cab. We established a code—tapping slowly on top of the cab meant slow down; tapping rapidly meant pull over and stop as soon as you can. We cruised along for about 90 minutes shooting the drive to and from Sluice Box State Park. I varied my shutter speed all the way—sometimes dragging it to as low as 1/30 of a second to capture motion blur on the periphery and sometimes as fast as 1/500 to freeze everything razor sharp.
When I hopped out at the Neihart Inconvenience Store 90 minutes later, I noticed about a dozen tiny squished bugs stuck to the front of my UV filter. I had quite a few smashed on my face too, and my hair looked like tumbleweed. When I started brushing off my forehead and trying to wrangle my hair, Westervelt laughed and told me, “Don’t worry about it. We don’t spend a lot of time worryin’ about how we look around here.” Then he invited Jasmine and me to a community potluck in the grassy yard next door. Soon we were dishing up ham and scalloped potatoes and watermelon and drinking lemonade with about 30 locals, and none of them looked at me funny.
Photographed with a Nikon D700 with a 35-70mm lens. Camera settings: 1/60; f22; ISO 100
See more photos by Lynn Donaldson on Instagram @lynn_donaldson