Photographing Great Salt Lake poses challenges of patience

03 May

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop at any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

A long exposure captures lightning over the Great Salt Lake. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

The following originally appeared in the April 29 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It might have been the fastest half-mile I’ve run since high school gym class.  I can’t be certain because I had no way of timing it; in fact, timing it was the last thing on my mind at the moment.  What particularly impressed me about my dash was the fact that it completely was spontaneous—involuntary, even.  One millisecond I felt the dense cloud of bugs envelop me.  The next I was sprinting at superhuman speeds over beach and bog, through a dense phragmites jungle.

Were the tiny flies biting me?  I didn’t matter.  They were swarming me by the thousands—latching on, transforming my head into a Dipterid Chia Pet.  No, I wasn’t scared of them.  But something about the way they feverishly burrowed into my eye sockets I found deeply disturbing.  Some flight responses can’t be suppressed.  I aspirated a dozen with every breath as I raced toward the safety of my car.  Yes, I had come to this forsaken Great Salt Lake beach to get a taste of the ecosystem, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

“They’re midges,” a Great Salt Lake ecosystem biologist chuckled when I recounted my panicked retreat.  He recommended visiting the beaches earlier in the morning or later at night—or better yet, during high winds and storms.

That’s also what Salt Lake City based photographer Charles Uibel suggested, but for different reasons.  Uibel has a special affinity for the Great Salt Lake.  He’s been interpreting the lake and its environs through his lens since 2005.

“You need to go see [the lake] when there’s some weather, or else it is disguised as just a bland stinky mud hole,” he told me, although he considers the lake photogenic in any condition.

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

So what makes the lake so visually arresting?

Geologically speaking, the lake is nothing more than pooled water at the bottom of the Bonneville Basin.  As a terminal lake, it contains all the minerals left over from Lake Bonneville and those introduced by rivers and streams.  Yet the lake’s chameleon surface and its islands create a starkly beautiful setting.

The key component of lake’s subtle ecology is algae.  Aside from imbuing the water with a patchwork of reds, blues, and greens, these algae provide sustenance for brine shrimp brine flies.  Believe it or not, these two minuscule creatures are responsible for the unique look of Great Salt Lake beaches.  At the core of each sand grain is a brine shrimp fecal pellet.  Over time, concentric layers of calcium carbonate form around these pellets until they’re washed onto an alkaline shore.

Shorelines are striped by wind-blown rows of amber-brown material.  These are the product of the brine fly, whose total lifespan from larvae to death is about a week.  After feeding on algae in their larval phase, the brine fly’s pupa traps air and floats to the surface.  Once the flies emerge and fly away, pupae are blown onshore in rows of millions.  The flies themselves stick close to the water; their remaining hours are spent mating and laying eggs on its surface.

Higher up on the food chain are the millions of shorebirds who stop to dine on shrimp and flies on their way along Pacific Flyway.  Their presence makes the lake a birding Mecca and fleshes out the lake’s wildlife scene nicely.

Rounding out the lake’s mystique are man’s attempts to comprehend it and his repeated—yet most often futile—quest to harness its charm.  The Great Salt Lake itself is an enigma.  It’s constant and imposing, yet distant and strange.

I’ve tried to capture this concept on film for years with varying degrees of success.  Truth be told, I’ve been photographing the lake longer than Charles Uibel has.  The difference is he knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by the stunning images featured on his website,

This photo depicts a the bacteria-dyed waters in a solar evaporation impoundment. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

I turned to Uibel for a few tips specific to photographing the lake, then I set out to give them a whirl.

His first tip?  Watch the sky.

“The lake reaches far into the sky with its water vapor and weather effects.  So consider the sky.  It will tell you when you need to drop everything and go take pictures.”

Next, make it personal.

“Take a few moments to stop and become perfectly still,” he said.  “Then ask yourself, ‘What’s important here?’ Make the connection between you and the lake.“

His bottom line: “Don’t let other people’s photos interpret the lake for you.”

My first stop was to the Saltair area—my favorite place on the lake.  The current pavilion is picturesque, and ample relics of the old resort make excellent photo subjects.  Then I stopped at the marina to shoot spiders and docked sailboats.

Uibel suggested I visit the beach north of the I-80 rest stop between Saltair and Lake Point.

“It’s a beautiful, rocky, muddy beach,” he said.

He didn’t mention the midge flies, the last component of the ecosystem which was virtually absent until I walked onto the beach ½ mile from the trail head.  I snapped only precious few shots before the black cloud descended and my mad dash began.

The flies don’t bite.  The swarm is only a mating frenzy—a last hurrah before they, like their cousins on the water, die.  It’s thought that they swarm humans to reduce drag so they can devote more energy to the mating process.   The hundreds that accompanied me to my car were dead by the time I arrived at home.  While their millions of siblings will have been replaced in the ecosystem by the time you read this article, the Great Salt Lake—in some picturesque form—will remain forever.


Check out Uibel’s work at


3 responses to “Photographing Great Salt Lake poses challenges of patience

  1. Curt

    May 5, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Check out Michael Slade’s stuff as well.
    He’s a regular on ExpUT

  2. Blessed

    May 7, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Salt Lake is beautiful – we’ve driven over it on our way to see family or come home from seeing family a couple of times. I’d love to get to photograph it sometime… thanks for the warning about the midge flies🙂 I hate to be swarmed!


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