Bachelor Loop

How To Do a Photography Cleanse in Mystic San Luis Valley

What happens when you ask an influencer to put down their camera and detox from social media? How about if you asked them to do it while travelling through the stunning Mystic San Luis Valley? This wasn’t a hypothetical for adventure photographer @fr33water, who set about on a photo tour around Colorado with his girlfriend, Ashley. This is the story of what they discovered on their journey. 

Does this scenario sound familiar? A person arrives at a scenic location, gets out of their car, snaps the obligatory iPhone photo and then drives away – without taking even a moment to connect with that place or learn about its history. Maybe you’ve seen it happen. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. In the social media age, many of us are addicted to checking our phones and seeking approval from others. When it comes to photography, this can mean over-producing our imagery and only uploading content that we know will get likes. 

As an outdoor lifestyle photographer, I’m on the road a lot. But one of the things I struggle with most is being present, and I often find myself preoccupied with documenting the adventures I’m on rather than being in the moment. So when the opportunity to try a social detox in Colorado’s Mystic San Luis Valley arose, I was intrigued. The ask? To put down my phone and camera, be present in the moment and consider the role of photography in telling stories. 

Each day I would receive a prompt about how to document an area. The first was a Filter Free Zone, where I needed to ditch filters in favor of capturing the raw moment. The second was a Shutter Speed Limit, where I could only take a dictated number of photos. The last one was called Colorado Photo Preserves, which was all about taking time to reflect on how we can preserve the places we visit. 

Man looking at envelope detailing a photo challenge
 Every day I received an envelope with my itinerary and photo challenge. 

THE DETOX: Frankie’s Perspective

While the challenges tested my photography skills, they also gave me the opportunity to be more present, in the moment, and mindful of my surroundings.

Every day on this journey was a surprise. Each morning I received an envelope revealing where I would travel that day, along with my photography challenge. For example, while visiting Big Meadows Reservoir there was a shutter speed limit in place, where I could only take one photo for every fifteen minutes spent exploring. We took our time here, and I took about six photos. Where normally I can take as many photos as I want, this time I had to be mindful and line up each shot carefully, making sure I was pleased with the composition before clicking the shutter.  On a Rugged Air Tour plane trip soaring above the Sangre De Cristos, the challenge was to use no filters and capture images that would be exceptional right out of the camera. As an avid photo editor, I became more conscious of preparing my shot rather than relying on post-production. Later, as we cruised around the timeless Bachelor Loop outside Creede, I was challenged to hone in on the impact humans have had on this terrain and focus on storytelling through my photography.  

Two people looking at the stars
It was quite a challenge to only take one stargazing photo, but the image I captured reminds me of the beautiful night Ashley and I had watching the stars. 

Later on, we went stargazing at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This time, the shutter speed limit was in place and I was only allowed a single photo per hour, which meant I only had one opportunity to take a great photo. I lined up my million-dollar shot, relying on my knowledge of astrophotography and wishing I had a few test shots. Looking back on the photo, I’m reminded of the time spent with my girlfriend Ashley, as our silhouettes look up at the expansive night sky. While the challenges tested my photography skills, they also gave me the opportunity to be more present, in the moment, and mindful of my surroundings.

THE DETOX: Ashley’s perspective

My girlfriend Ashley joined me on the Mystic San Luis Valley tour, helping to keep me accountable and document my detox journey. She particularly enjoyed the stargazing challenge where I was only allowed one photo per hour. Whenever we’ve been stargazing in the past, she would find herself watching the Milky Way alone while I played with my camera. 

That night at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Ashley appreciated having uninterrupted time together under the stars, and we felt very connected that night. She noticed that when my shots were limited, I spent more time planning to ensure I would get the best photo. We agreed that it’s important to strike a balance: having the opportunity to take enough pictures so I can be proud of my work, but not so many that I’m completely engulfed in my camera and missing out on the moment.

La Ventana Arch aerial photo
This journey helped me reflect on how we can lessen our impact on outdoor spaces.

Outside of my personal learnings, I reflected on how people have had an impact on these delicate lands. As park visitation increases dramatically, I have become more conscious of how I treat these places. We often pick up trash or forgotten dog poop bags and try to do everything in our power to lessen our impact and protect these delicate places for generations to come. Humans have had a dramatic impact on our outdoor spaces – every day we witness the results of our direct impact on the planet. We often get caught up in the mentality of snapping a photo and sharing it with our followers, but we don’t step back and ask ourselves, “Will this place be as quiet and scenic as I experienced it? Or will sharing this create more traffic to a destination that should remain peaceful and untapped?” It’s reasonable to want to showcase our favorite photos and videos from a magical place to our friends and family, but we shouldn’t feel pressured to share everything – it’s okay to keep a place a secret and take only memories away. 

What I learned

I’m still learning how to be more mindful and productive when I’m out with my camera. I think that’s why I mostly enjoyed the photo challenges – they forced me to slow down and focus on how to accurately portray somewhere new. I had to continuously remind myself to be present in the moment, force myself to put the camera down and take mental pictures instead. 

Connecting to the present moment allowed me to slow down, catch my breath and tap into my other senses: listening to the sound of the wind move the water across the Big Meadows Reservoir, smelling the fresh alpine air as we wandered around the Cuchara Mountain Park, tuning into the sound of the crickets as we watched the shooting stars race above the Sand Dunes, or savoring the hot coffee as the sun rose over the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. I was more attuned to the beauty of these small moments, reminding me why I need to unlearn my habitual over-capturing. 

Aerial photo of a lake from above
When I wasn’t focused on taking photos, I could focus more on the here and now. 

Despite both living in Colorado, this experience opened our eyes (in more ways than one) to how alive the Mystic San Luis Valley is, showing us a different side of our home state. Next time you travel, I encourage you to take an extra moment to understand how the place in front of you came to be. I know I sure will.