Going on my third year of providing photography tours of Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what most clients number one request is when visiting Rocky and heading out to photograph landscapes. Without question most of my clients are looking for the classic image of a mountain peak reflecting in the serene and placid waters of a mountain lake. Like my clients these are also some of my favorite scenes to photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park as well.
June is not only when Rocky starts to see visitor numbers skyrocket but its also the time when local business and the town of Estes Park really start to hum along and enter the summer season. This is true for me as well as lots of photographers come out of there winter hibernation and are taking summer vacations looking to dust off the camera and get outside to take photos.
Most visitors to Rocky as well as most of my photography tour clients are coming from lower elevations and locals that have been moving toward mild summer like weather months earlier than the high altitude lakes and peaks of RMNP.
So with clients booking June dates and late season snow storms like the one we had in late may, many of those classic iconic Rocky images of iconic peaks reflecting in a still lake are just melting out. The good news is with warm, summer like weather the past week the delayed melt out is now on a brisk pace.
Clients visiting from out of state last week were a bit surprised to be hiking on lots of snow on the way up to Dream Lake and even more surprised to still find some small pieces of ice floating around on the surface of Dream Lake at sunrise.
Experiencing the huge snow drifts on Trail Ridge Road or hiking on snow to Dream Lake in mid June are part of the experience that makes Rocky Mountain National Park so an awesome place to visit and photograph. So if you head out with me in the next week or so don’t be surprised if I tell you to pack some winter gear and micro spikes to get a first hand experience of late spring or early summer in RMNP.
When one thinks of Rocky Mountain National Park a few things come to mind. Mountains, snow, lakes, Trail Ridge Road and elk. People come from all of the world to get a glimpse of an elk, drive trail ridge road, hike in the mountains or play in the snow. Photographers come for all over the planet to photograph the mountains, lakes, snow and elk. Most of the time a photographer is not going to be lucky enough to photograph all of these elements and icons of Rocky Mountain National Park in one visit let alone one image.
After years of nearly having all these elements line up for me in a photo but never actually being successful I finally had a short moment in the field where all the stars or elements aligned. After a night of rain in snow in Rocky last Friday, conditions looked pretty promising at sunrise. Lots of fog hung over the Estes Valley as well as RMNP as sunrise approached. Fresh snow covered the pines and mountains above 10,000 ft and a break in the cloud cover to the east of the park would allow for the sun to light the landscape at sunrise.
I headed off to the far west end of Moraine Park to setup for sunrise. There’s a couple of great spots in the west end of Moraine Park where one can photograph landscapes facing both east and west. Furthermore with all the rain and snow we’ve had the past few weeks I knew the area near the beaver ponds west of Moraine Park along the Cub Lake trail would have lots of seasonal ponds and seeps from the spring runoff.
Turning west from Moraine Park I headed to a particular spot I had in mind for sunrise. A small pond with a nice view of Stones Peak and the valley. I could see the pink hues in the skies above the mountains and fog swirling around the hillsides as I rounded the corner on the Cub Lake trail. I was feeling the excitement build as conditions were looking very good already this morning. Things only improved as I rounded the bend in the trail and found a large herd of elk grazing on the far side of the pond I was going to photograph Stones Peak reflecting at sunrise.
With the fog hanging in the valley, fresh snow on the hillsides, the wind calm and the water on the pond smooth as glass I setup my equipment as quietly as possible in an attempt not to disturb or spook the elk in the meadow. As the sun rose the elk continued to move from north to south as they grazed the green meadow and the mountains caught the first beams of warm sunlight through the fog. The moment was short but all the stars aligned and I was able to photograph a handful of elements that symbolize the beauty and spirit of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Of all the different atmospheric conditions that I love to photograph in, fog has to be my favorite. Nothing makes familiar locations and landmarks turn to mysterious unknowns faster than a layer of fog cloaking the landscape. Fog is fluid it ebbs and flows by the minute and opportunities for images and compositions open and shut with its waxing and waining.
In fact, when photographing and observing fog its movement and form mimics a living, breathing being. Like a breathing creature fog will inhale and shrink, than exhale and expand. One minute your standing above the layer of fog in the bright sunshine and the next minute your immersed in the cool gray mist as it covers the sun and sifts through the landscape.
The biggest problem as I see it with photographing fog here in Colorado and in particular in Rocky Mountain National Park is that it’s a fairly rare occurrence. While Moraine Park and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky will occasionally see low lying fog on account of the Colorado River or Big Thompson but normally your best chance to get large amounts of fog in Rocky Mountain National Park come during and inversion or upslope event with your best chances of getting dramatic lighting conditions coming as the low pressure system moves out of the Four Corners region or if you can climb high enough to get above the cloud layer.
Last week after what seemed like day after day of clear blue skies,(I know only us photographers complain about such a thing) we finally had the conditions I had been waiting for. A rainy and snowy few days in RMNP were about to end and the low pressure system behind it was set to move out Thursday morning.
Knowing that the weather was set to improve and that the timing of this coincided with sunrise I knew there would be a good chance for some drama at daybreak. I headed up to Rocky in the rain and fog but just below Estes Park I broke through the cloud cover and could not only see the full moon shining bright but the skies appeared cloudless. This was not what I was hoping for but I headed into Rocky to get a better look. Once above Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park I could see that there was still a nice layer of fog floating over Moraine Park.
I headed out in the darkness to a favorite spot of mine high above Moraine Park on Beaver Mountain. Here one is able to get commanding views of Longs Peak as well as Moraine Park and if the fog stayed in Moraine I hoped my elevation would keep me above it.
The fog stayed in Moraine Park this morning and my vantage point worked out very well. While Longs Peak stayed mostly in the clear, Moraine Park was shrouded with fog. Every corner of Moraine Park yielded a new composition and each one changed by the second as the fog moved in and out. After one battery change and a memory card nearly filled as well as the fog starting to clear out I figured it was time to hike out. All in all it was an amazing morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fog is rare and I’m sure if I lived in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest I’d tire of it but here in Rocky Mountain National Park I can never get enough of it.
One of my favorite signs of the impending warm up and summer season in Rocky Mountain National Park is not just finding the first Pasque flowers blooming along the forest floor but the start of the spring thaw out. Ice first comes off the streams in the lower elevations first and the snow begins to recede from the hillsides. As the days get longer and the sun gets higher in the skies winter begins to loosen her grip on the mountain lakes above parks and meadows in the lower elevations of Rocky.
With a week of mild sunny days soon enough the snow has melted off the tops of the lakes and open water is once again revealed after a long winter hibernation beneath feet of snow. It’s an exciting time because it opens up lots of new possibilities for landscape photographers whom have either passed on photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months or who’s travel is restricted by the snow and ice covering the landscape.
For me its a great feeling topping the crest of a trail and seeing open water surrounded by snow. Photographing reflections of Rocky’s iconic mountain peaks in the thawed waters is another sign that my favorite time of year in RMNP is nearly upon us again.
I always get a spring in my step this time of year, spring being the operative word. The first wildflowers blooms of the season are not happening in the foothills of Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park. Pasque Flowers and Star Lily’s are starting to sprout along the slopes of the hillsides now.
Your not going to find fields of wildflowers just yet but if you head out you will find these small nondescript flowers growing the grasses under ponderosa pines or on rocky hillsides with good southern exposure. It’s a fun time to pull the macro lens out from the bag and work some close in compositions. Photographing these early season flowers can make for a nice change of pace as winter recedes from the hillsides.
With Pasque flowers now making an appearance here in Colorado we can expect other blooms to begin to follow in short succession. Mountain ball cactus, golden banner will soon begin to making appearances and then eventually the summer favorites like wild iris, paintbrush and columbine.
There is definite excitement in knowing summer is just around the corner. Take advantage of what’s blooming now because as is the case with all these wildflowers, theres a short window before they are gone for the season.
At least once each year I take a sabbatical from photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and head west to Utah for a few days of photography. Whether I end up in Bryce Canyon or the Moab area depends on a couple factors (Jeep week in Moab being one). Usually this coincides with spring break and both my wife and daughter get to tag along with me and we all get to spend time outdoors, hiking, exploring and spending time together.
It’s a nice change of pace and I welcome a few days out in the desert as the winter months begin to release their grasp on Rocky. This year we spent the better parts of four days in Moab. It’s an easy 5.5 hr drive from my house in Erie and it nice to get to a location and be able to spend sometime in a few spots waiting for the favorable weather for landscape photography.
When we made plans to stay in Moab for part of the week I had no idea that Arches National Park would be undergoing a major road construction project. Sunday through Thursday nights a construction crew is busy repaving the main park road and there would be no access to Arches National Park from 7:00 PM until 7:00 AM as the construction crew would have the road shut down overnight in order for them to work unhindered.
When I first heard this news posted on one of the social media sites, I was a bit dismayed. The timing of the closings would for all intense and purposes prohibit photography of sunrise and sunset in Arches National Park while I was in town visiting. While I love Arches National Park, I’ve spent plenty of time photographing the park and eventually I realized the overnight road closings would actual be a good thing. While I was staying in Moab, other than day hikes with the family, I would have to photograph other locations around Moab, something I often don’t do when the close convenience and easy accessibility of Arches National Park is available.
While in Moab conditions were very good for photography. Warm weather the weeks prior to my visit had pushed some of the wildflower blooms ahead of schedule. Lots of beautiful red paintbrush covered the desert floor. I was also lucky enough to be on the front and back end of two large pacific storm systems that passed through the area when I was visiting. While nobody wants rain while on vacation, photographers love unsettled weather as it creates the possibility of dramatic conditions and lighting. This certainly held true during this visit to Moab. Rain, storms and pot holes filled with fresh raindrops all helped to make for a successful trip to Utah with a couple of great sunsets and sunrises thrown into the mix.
So while its back to photographing Rocky (poor me), it was great as always to get back out to red rock country and enjoy some different scenery and weather for a change. Nothing makes you appreciate your own backyard more than photographing in somebody else backyard for a few days.
If you have read my blog or social media posts long enough then you know I get least excited when the skies are blue and cloudless. Odd as it may seem, clear and cloudless days are some of the most difficult days to photograph as the light can be harsh with little drama occurring above the landscape to add intrigue to a photograph. Clear, cloudless deep blue skies are perfect for just about any other activity other than photography. Out here in the western United States, clear, cloudless deep blue skies are affectionately referred to as ‘Bluebird Skies’.
In this post, I’m not about to go on about the best way to handle capturing quality images during a cloudless day in Rocky Mountain National Park. While thats a good idea for a future post, I just going to post an image of a Mountain Bluebird.
Each spring Mountain Bluebirds return to the meadows and open spaces of Rocky Mountain National Park and are a harbinger of warmer weather to come. These beautiful birds can be found foraging for grubs on the ground, flittering from rock to rock and branch to branch. This time of year, the male Mountain Bluebirds will turn a deep blue in color with the more mature males displaying more intensely then the younger birds.
The best places to find Mountain Bluebirds in Rocky Mountain National Park are any of the open meadow and sage areas. Hollowell Park, Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park are all good places to find Mountain Bluebirds. Drive one of the park roads that traverse these areas and keep an eye out on the ground and rocks for these colorful creatures. I find its best to use your vehicle as a blind and combine that with the use of a longer telephoto lens and its relatively easy to photograph the Bluebirds.
Each day more signs of spring and summer appear in Rocky Mountain National Park. The return of the Mountain Bluebirds to the meadows of Rocky are one sign but if you pay attention the signs of spring are becoming more obvious each day. Of course in typical Rocky fashion don’t count out a few more good dumps of snow before all is said and done with.
Good light vs. bad light. Is there even such a thing as bad light?, take that a step further is there really such a thing as good light when it comes to landscape photography?. I would say there is not. Lighting on your subject is certainly one of the most important tenants to landscape photography. The misnomer here is that certain lighting is better than other lighting. In reality, all light is good, it’s understanding how and when to utilize lighting to render you subject in a way that best represents the message you want to convey.
Dramatic sunrise and sunset lighting is what most landscape photographers strive to capture of which I can be counted amongst. Is dramatic sunrise and sunset lighting always the best kind of lighting on a landscape subject?, nope. At the same time does a rainy, cloud day mean you should just pack up your gear and head home with all hope lost?, nope.
Both dramatic early and late day lighting can produce exceptional photography. But guess what?, cloudy, rainy and gray days can also produce equally stunning results if you use the flat but even and diffused lighting to properly illuminate a subject. As always it comes down to understanding how and when to use certain types of lighting based on what mother nature is serving that day. Understanding lighting is as important as composition and exposure and its important to use the lighting that best suits your subject and conveys the message or storyline you as the photographer are seeking to present to your audience.
So what’s the reasoning behind discussing light?. Lets just say the combination of being out in the field photographing, combined with the realization summer is just around the corner has beset me with a case of spring fever.
Most of the iconic and well known locations for landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park are best lit during the summer months. This is because the mountains and peaks around the Bear Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side have a northeast facing orientation. Whether it be the Diamond of Longs Peak, Hallett Peak or Notchtop Mountain all of these famous icons of Rocky photograph best as the sun moves north in the sky as summer approaches.
Photographing sunrise from the side of the Bierstadt Moraine on Friday really helped to drive home that not only is spring a few days away, but summer is rapidly approaching. So while I’m happy that lighting in Rocky is again favorable for many of the iconic locations, it’s important to remember that all light is good. Figuring out which kind of lighting on your subject best conveys the message you are seeking to present is the harder part.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression before that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. While the saying has become cliche this week seemed to jive with the saying. This mindset very much applies to photography and I often preach the importance of heading out into the field with an open mind and the flexibility to switch up your game plan based on how the conditions are unfolding.
Living and photographing in Colorado means for most people the big draw is exploring of photographing our high beautiful high peaks and mountains. I would say for most photographers when heading out into the field we are hoping to somehow include and convey our majestic peaks while highlighted by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Sometimes however, mother nature is just not all the interested in what your plans are you need to adjust accordingly.
I was really hoping for some colorful sunrises this week in Rocky Mountain National Park or down here around Boulder. I was hoping for dramatic lighting and clouds over the iconic peaks of RMNP or the Flatirons of Boulder. One of the two actually happened. We had really beautiful color in the skies at sunrise towards the end of the week but for the most part the clouds driven by high winds aloft stayed east of the continental divide.
Nature as she so often does dictated the terms and it was up to me to figure out how to make that work. So instead of photographing snow covered high peaks I instead had to change my thinking around and find some other subjects to photograph. In a nutshell this mean lots of backlit trees and mountains to incorporate the dramatic color that unfolded east of the divide the last few mornings of the week. All in all it was not what I was planning but as always I was thankful for the opportunity to be able to photograph. In the end lemonade can be pretty refreshing, especially after a long hike.
Saturday in the park. I’m channeling a line from the band Chicago here as it was the tune playing in the back of my head as I both attempted to stay warm as well as trip the shutter on my camera in between blasts of wind yesterday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Coincidently, the band Chicago recorded many of its songs just down the Peak to Peak highway from Rocky Mountain National Park at Caribou Ranch just north of Nederland.
Saturday’s sunrise was typical of what we often find in Rocky during the winter months. The high peaks of Rocky shrouded in clouds and high winds keeping things interesting below. It snowed the previous day but as is often the case in RMNP, the window is short before the winds and sun make quick work of the freshly fallen snow.
Pro tip for mornings like these which are common in Rocky is to turn your back on the mountains and point your camera in the opposite direction. I know it sounds like some heck of a tip I’m giving but hear me out. Mornings like these often have great cloud cover to the east. You may not be able to include Rocky Mountain National Park’s impressive and iconic high peaks in your image, but weather conditions would have prevented it anyway.
Find a subject to photograph and work in the great skies and more subtle landscapes that are found just east of the high peaks. It will save the angst of feeling like your journey out in to the windy wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park have been for naught and who knows, you might actually come away with some exceptional images. This options surely beats sitting in your vehicle sulking over the conditions and complaining once again RMNP left you empty handed.