Capturing the Wild: Photography in the Upper Missouri River Breaks

By Camera and Canoe: Tuning in to the Missouri River Breaks

Kelly Engen has spent over 50, 3-7 day trips documenting the stars, people, animals, and sunrises & sunsets of the Missouri River Breaks. He is a river guide for Missouri River Outfitters and a freelance photographer and videographer living in Missoula.

We photographers are unique as artists in that we discover our compositions through existing light. Photographer are not additive in our creation process; we do not apply paint to canvas, clay to kilns, or words to music. Rather we must go to where our subjects are, compose our scene, and plan (see: hope) for the ideal weather, time of year, and especially, time of day. Our skill lies in being able to put to order that which nature provides us in the most visually pleasing and impactful way. Even then, with the best planning, sometimes our best work comes from stumbling into just the right place with just the right light, but more often than not, even our best efforts fall flat. 

I was photographing a rare astronomy event where the moon briefly fills “hole-in-the-wall,” a popular feature of the white cliffs. This hole is about ½ mile from the nearest campsite, looms 300 feet over the river, is 9 ½ feet in diameter, and requires some seriously precise timing to line up properly. I had been watching and tracking the path of the moon for weeks, and the stars truly aligned when the group I was leading stayed in the area on the night the moon would shine through. In the late evening, I waded out with my telephoto lens about ⅓ of the way into the river, aimed my lens to the hole and watched as a small, soft cloud drifted between the moon and the hole just as the moon began to fill it. The sky had been completely clear that evening up until that moment. It was a near impossible confluence of events that had come together, just to be foiled by the unpredictable wanderings of a cloud, which obfuscated my view for only the few moments the moon made it’s rare hole-in-the-wall appearance, before floating out of view again.

This was a failed photographic effort, but I certainly didn’t waste my evening; and as I frequently tell my guests when things don’t go exactly to plan, “you can have a good time, or a good story.” Ultimately, I spent a beautiful evening in the river, watching the moon rise over a perfect Montana landscape on a warm summer night. I’d say it beats bowling. 

A holdover relatively unchanged from the time before prairie fever, steamboats, and counting coup; “The Breaks” are a unique break in topography from the surrounding oceanic prairiescape. A deep and relatively fresh cut into what is now productive farmland, this area is dispossessed from most any other ecological space or beauty you might find in Montana, it is perhaps unique even to the continent. I challenge you to find another pristine landscape filled with juniper, limber pine, cottonwoods, and white sand slot canyons mixed with hoodoos, bentonite clay, concretions, shonkinite “walls,” and bighorn sheep. The Missouri River Breaks, pushed out of its ancient course due to heavy glaciation 30,000 years ago, carved a new route through the white sand that once shored up the 100 million year old Western Interior Seaway that bisected North America. These now visible white sand beaches long ago turned into sandstone cliffs, and have an immense presence bearing resemblance to works of Gaudi, Picasso, and the ancient Greeks. They reflect the golden light of daybreak and serve as particularly attractive company for sunsets. They cast shadows that translate into stark high contrast black and white images and silhouette against the starry swirls created by a long shutter on a moonless night. 

Living in the Missouri River Breaks are beavers, bighorn sheep, deer, pronghorns, bald eagles, osprey, toads, owls, pelicans, rattlesnakes, great blue heron, coyotes, bats, many dozens of songbirds, and perhaps soon the occasional grizzly. After spending a few days paddling through the Upper Missouri River Breaks, you will have probably seen a few dozen raptors, a rattlesnake or two, a few fish jumps, a herd of bighorn sheep, and if you’re a birder, recognized several dozen species of birds. Additionally, the Breaks are an unusually remote landscape feature in an unusually remote state. With Great Falls (pop. 59,000), Havre (pop. 10,000), and Lewistown (pop. 6000) being the distant population centers, this area possesses one of the darkest skies in the continental US. The stars out here can be extraordinary, and it’s not unusual for people to set their alarm (or have an extra beer) to get up in the wee hours of the morning to see the stars “as they were when I was a kid.”* The milky way pops as it pivots around the inky black night sky and constellations practically identify themselves as they glow deep into the warm light of dawn.

Tips for photographing the Upper Missouri River:

Wake up for sunrise

Wake up for sunrise at least once, even if it’s really early. I consider myself to be a sunrise person, but not a morning person, so I struggle with this one as the sunrise on the Breaks can be before 5:30 during the weeks surrounding solstice. You’re likely to see every available sunset, but you’ll have to make an effort to catch every sunrise. All said, you simply won’t regret it. The golden sun reflecting off the white cliffs at Eagle Creek or Hole-in-the-Wall can be a once in a lifetime experience. This grand beauty amidst the stillness of the early day, paired with fresh morning air and hot coffee is the sort of thing that core memories are made of.

hole in the wall
Photo Credit- Kelly Engen

Bring your longest lens.

I use an 800mm lens on a full frame body. Many times I’ve wished for more. A 300mm, 100-400mm, or 500+mm are all great choices, especially if it’s good glass with a multiplier, or you’re using a crop sensor body. I bring two full frame bodies, one with a 20mm f/1.4, one with an 800mm, and keep a 24-105mm handy. The fast 20mm can soak in just about any landscape while doubling as an excellent astro lens; while I can get soaring raptors, fishing pelicans, and bighorn sheep perched hundreds of yards away atop shale mountains with the  800mm. 

Don’t assume longer is better. Contrary to the last tip, sometimes that long lens isn’t fast enough for dim light when certain animals are more active, or you happen upon a neat and nearby softshell turtle. I’ve yet to find the absolute perfect lens/body combo that fits neatly under my canoe seat, and have doubts that it exists! Even with the greatest attempt at anticipating light or animal behavior, there are simply too many unpredictable events to be ready for all cases. A moderate length lens (24-105mm) is going to be able to handle the vast majority of circumstances. I missed a shot on the lower river of an adorable, silver dollar sized softshell turtle paddling around the boats because I was completely missing the middle range of focal lengths and didn’t have time to switch lenses

Photo Credit- Kelly Engen

Use a Pelican (or other hard sided) case!

I have used three different sized cases, one for my drone, and two for different kit builds. A 1400 series case would be plenty for most people carrying one body, two lenses, and accessories. I currently use a 1450 series for practically all of my trips, which holds two bodies, including the attached 800mm and 20mm, spare batteries, and the 24-105mm. It also fits under the canoe seat, or comfortably at my feet, for lightning fast retrieval to capture fast moving scenes. 

Previously I mentioned how sometimes you stumble into your favorite images. I once captured a small songbird mid-wing flap flying low over a panicked, swimming coyote. I had convinced my paddle partner to take a separate channel around an island, diverging from the other five boats in our group. At the tip of this island was a coyote, who quickly assessed that paddling by our one boat was safer than swimming towards the armada who paralleled us on the other side. This gave us a front row seat to the coyote who raced to be camouflaged in willows and grasses again. Our canoe drifted as we sat in quiet awe and I scrambled to pull out the telephoto lens from my peli case. I snapped away as the coyote not-so-gracefully puppy-dogged their way across the river to the steep muddy bank. It was only because I had my case at the ready with my camera settings all a-go that I was able to capture this moment. Had my camera been buried in a dry bag, I may have missed the shot. (Dry bags also do a poor job with sensitive electronics as they are neither truly waterproof, nor crushproof.) While I got lucky by happening upon this scene without any planning, I was still prepared as my camera was in the right place with the right lens and settings.

Photo Credit- Kelly Engen

Bring your filters.

The Missouri River Breaks are made for a graduated neutral density filter and a polarizer. Your morning and evening landscape shots will have a huge dynamic range and differentiating the light between the sky and foreground is going to make a dramatic difference in the end. Likewise, a polarizer is going to make those mid-afternoon shots that much better. I’ve even moved into bringing an infrared camera to make high intensity, high contrast black and white images of the midday landscape.

Photo Credit- Kelly Engen

Use your fastest, widest lens

Ideal for when the sky is clear and the moon won’t rise to get stunning shots of the stars. Astrophotography is an advanced photography practice that transcends the scope of this article, but it is well worth the time and equipment investment. There are many great online resources to get you started. Check out lonelyspeck for a wealth of astrophotography specific information. Photopills is a great smartphone app to help you understand the astronomic conditions, including moon/sun rise/set times and can help you predict the movement of the milky way. You won’t get service out here, but your phone’s GPS and compass will work, helping you dial into the local conditions. The weather can turn on a moment’s notice, so be prepared to dash over to your camera if you decide to leave it running for the night. An intervalometer is indispensable, as is of course a robust tripod. I’ve turned to packing around my smaller travel carbon fiber tripod, but frequently stake the center into the ground so as to not have a wind storm (or a beaver?) topple over thousands of dollars of equipment. I also always cover the whole kit with a cinch down, camera specific plastic sleeve, which you can find at most camera retailers. I recommend starting with your settings at 20-30,” ISO 1600-3200, and shoot wide open with your widest lens. Anything f/2.8 or faster and 24mm or wider is an excellent choice, though 35mm or f/4 can produce satisfying results. If your camera is a new mirrorless type, feel confident that 6400 or even 12800 can produce very usable images. Lastly, the days run long on the Missouri River. That early sunrise is capped by a late sunset, and then it’s much later to arrive at the true darkness of post-astronomical twilight. Be prepared to stay up late, wake up in the middle of the night, or learn how to use an intervalometer. And make sure you practice using your equipment and tools before you head out! 23:00 is not a good time to figure out how to program an intervalometer or learn how to use bulb mode.

Photo Credit- Kelly Engen

The weather of the Missouri River Breaks is highly variable. Montana is home to the coldest recorded temperature in the lower 48 at -70 (and at least that cold, as the thermometer was only rated to -70) and the state record high is 117. That’s a temperature range of nearly 190 degrees! Winds can exceed 70 mph in the Breaks, the temperature of the area once fluctuated over 100 degrees in 24 hours, and massive thunder and lightning storms can parade through in the afternoon. For the record, the climate of the Breaks is generally pleasant, perhaps a little on the hot side, but that’s why we pack a ton of ice. For when it’s not pleasant, opportunities for capturing exciting imagery abound. Thunderstorms are often in the late evening and many miles away, adding purples and golds to the pinks and blues of sunset. Fog occasionally wanders through camp, transforming the pastoral landscape and enshrouding the features of the white cliffs in a gently rolling haze. Harvest season and wildfire haze turn the sun red and intensify the colors of the sunset. Late night thunderheads rise and crash, momentarily mixing bolts of lightning with brilliant stars.

Ultimately, the trick to photographing the Breaks is to tune in. Be present with her and be ready. Give yourself ample opportunity to get a great photo, and most likely you will. We look forward to seeing you and your lens out there. 

Author Kelly Engen