Cub Lake is a popular 2.3 mile hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a fairly easy hike to get to Cub Lake, and the lakes elevation of roughly 8600 ft above sea level makes ideal for early summer photography. Typically, Cub Lake is one of the first lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park to melt out from a long Colorado winter. The hike to Cub Lake begins in Moraine Park and you gradually wind your way through the meadow, past a few beaver ponds, in and out of an Aspen grove to the shelf above the Moraine where Cub Lake can be found.
Not only does Cub Lake melt out earlier than some of the other popular lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park, but its an easy hike to get your ‘Park’ legs back under you. With this in mind, I made a second attempt to photograph Cub Lake last week. I had planned on hiking to Cub Lake a few weeks back, but when I arrived in Moraine Park that morning at 4:30 AM, it was windy and snowing. I’m a glutton for punishment, but I decided to forgo the hike in the wind and snow that morning as the prospect for a decent sunrise appeared to be nil. A decent sunrise never materialized on that morning and I spent that time photographing in and around Moraine Park instead.
Fast forward to last week and here I am arriving at the Cub Lake trailhead at 4:15 AM. The longer days of summer are upon us and sunrise was 5:35 AM this particular morning. The conditions on this morning were not much better when I first arrived at the trailhead then they had been a week prior. This time there was a light rain coming down on my truck and fog floating through Moraine Park. My first reaction was to bail on the hike. It’s a reaction all photographers feel when things are not going as planned. Why not stay in the comfort of my warm truck and wait for dark valley to light up. Many times I’ve had unforeseen circumstances ruin shots I thought were slam dunks. At the same time I’ll admit that I’ve bailed on potential epic shots thinking the light was gone only to be headed down the road or trail to see a spectacular light show unfolding without me photographing it. I could see the moon peaking through the clouds in a few areas and some stars. I figured, I’m either going to get one heck of a sunrise, or I’m going to have a nice hike in the rain.
My typical approach now is to fight off that inner voice, and just move forward with the itinerary regardless of the conditions. That’s not to say I wont make adjustments to my to my plan, but I find it best to ignore the conditions and head out into the field. The one thing I’ve learned is your never going to know what’s going to happen unless you try. The plan for this day was to photograph Cub Lake with Stones Peak in the distance. When I arrived at Cub Lake it was shrouded in fog. I could still see some breaks in the fog off to the east but I could not see any of the peaks west of me, including Stones Peak as the were in the clouds. I figured my best chance for something decent would be to hightail it to the west end of the lake and photograph the scene looking east. The scene changed rapidly and eventually the entire lake was covered in fog. I was able to make 6-7 exposures of the sunrise illuminating the clouds above Cub Lake. I was not only able to photograph this scene, but I also got some great photographs of the fog moving through the trees around Cub Lake. Mission accomplished, and I hiked back to my truck that morning a bit damp, but very content.
In keeping with the Aspen tree theme, here’s a recent example of an Aspen grove along the northern flank of Green Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. Were still inching along towards summer here but finally I can see signs of life and spring in our lower elevations. Most photographers enjoy making images of Aspen trees during the fall when their leaves turn a golden yellow. There is however, a short window during the spring, shortly after the trees ‘bud out’ when the Aspen trees put on just as interesting a display of color. Shortly after Aspen trees begin to display their recent spring foliage, Aspen leaves take on a translucent key lime like hue. It’s a short window between the key lime look and the darker summer green leaves. Under the right lighting conditions, the green Aspen leaves literally appear to glow.
I’ve been spying this small Aspen grove on the side of Green Mountain in Boulder for some time. Boulder, Colorado does not have many Aspen groves, but there are a few dispersed areas of Aspen trees here and there amongst the Evergreens. Because of the heat and lesser amounts of moisture, they tend to grow in smaller, less impressive groves than other areas of Colorado. I passed this grove the day before but it was sunny and the lighting conditions where much too harsh to capture the detail and make the key lime spring leaves ‘pop’. I returned a few days later after a light rain had been falling on the area. The leaves looked great under the diffused lighting and I spent some time wandering around the trees. It was an awesome feeling being outside, under a light mist with the organic smell of life, and spring in the air and grove. Periodic claps of thunder could be heard in the distance but I was loving every minute of it. This was spring renewal at its best for me. I was revitalized with thoughts of what the future holds and opportunities to come.
Populus Tremuloides. The scientific name of my favorite species of tree. Populus Tremuloides certainly does not roll of the tongue like its more commonly known identification of ‘Aspen’ tree does. Aspen’s are probably my favorite photography subjects. Not only is this deciduous tree regal in its appearance and symmetry but even the name sounds cool. The name has become popular enough to grace one of Colorado’s most famous ski towns, and even now is a popular pet name.
While Colorado is world renown for its large Aspen groves, Rocky Mountain National Park does not play host to large stands of Aspen trees. There are plenty of Aspen trees present in Rocky Mountain National Park, they just tend to congregate in smaller groves and sizes. Rocky gets less precipitation than some of the central areas of Colorado that are host to some of the larger Aspen groves. Furthermore, the large Elk population takes its toll on the trees using them as a food source during the long winter months by chewing on the Aspen bark and smaller off shoots. While this may make photographing Aspen trees in Rocky Mountain National Park less than ideal, there are ample opportunities to use the Aspen trees of Rocky as photographic subject matter.
Aspen trees have a very unique look and feel to them. Aspen trees send out off shoots from the main tree which produces additional clone like off shoots. These off shoots grow very close to the original tree and are attain similar sizes and attributes. This is why one does not typically find Aspen trees growing alone. The clone off shoots clump together around the main tree which helps to create the unique patterns and shapes of the Aspen boles that make every colony different and unique while at the same time achieving a level of symmetry that makes them so photogenic.
Photographing Aspen trees can be quite rewarding but I also find it very challenging to compose coherent images without to many distractions in the scene. There are thousands of different ways to approach photographing the subject. Do you want to shoot one bole?, the entire grove?, looking up?, looking down?, backlit?, in shade?, and so on. I personally prefer to photograph Aspen trees under diffused cloudy light. Diffused, even light allows one to capture the detail in the bark as well as to allow one to move freely through the scene without having to worry about where the sun is located as well as to avoid harsh lighting. Shooting a coherent, clean Aspen image requires thought and some trial and error. It’s important to narrow down the scene, organize clutter and remove distracting objects and try to avoid converging lines. You need to take the chaos that is Mother Nature and organize the scene in a manner that helps to create a cohesive and compelling image. Practice makes perfect, and I have yet to find conditions where one cant practice making compelling images of Aspen trees.
At the risk of boring everyone to death, I will avoid digressing more on how we have yet to see springtime here on the Front Range of Colorado. I will only say that in the last week I have been able to photograph lots of wintry type scenes on and around Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder. It’s fairly safe to assume that by mid May, most of my photography has shifted from winter like scenes, to views of Golden Banner blooming in Chautauqua meadow amongst the green grasses. Enough of the belly aching, regardless of the fact I am looking forward to warm sunny days, I’m quite pleased with the end results. I’ll let the image speak for our weather this week.
As photographers, we often find ourselves pining after the latest and greatest pieces of gear. The digital photography revolution, with its constantly evolving technology has only fed into these desires. Gear that only a few years prior may have been the latest and greatest, may now be considered dated and old. Many people now embrace digital photography whom in the past film photography had little or no appeal. The popularity of digital photography today has surpassed the popularity of photography at any time during the film era.
When I first started seriously pursuing photography back in 1994, digital photography had not entered the mindset of photographers. Film was still king and Kodachrome was still a very popular film. Fuji Velvia had surpassed Kodachrome as the go to film for most photographers, but you could readily purchase Kodachrome 35mm slide film in 25 ISO, 64 ISO and 200 ISO. Times were much different then and the limitation of your gear mostly revolved around your skills, technique and the film you chose to shoot with. At the time, a 35mm camera was basically a light tight box, used to expose film. Sure there were high end professional film bodies available then such as the Nikon F4 or the Canon Eos 1n, but a photographer with a Nikon FM2 could produce just as technically proficient of an image on Kodachrome or Velvia as could the photographer with the Canon Eos 1n.
No longer can a digital camera be viewed as a simply a light tight box in which we expose a piece of film to light. Digital cameras come in all flavors and sizes these day and the sensor and resolution of the actual digital camera can play a large role in how and image is viewed or printed. That being said the photographers vision and passion for their subject is still the most important aspect to photography. It’s easy to believe that buying a new piece of gear will make you a better photographer. While I find that new gear may add some additional motivation to head out into the field for a test run, that feeling will quickly disperse leaving me only with my vision and passion for photography to get me back out in the field. Since it dawned on my back in 1994, that photography was something I would pursue for life, I have owned many different types of gear. I have shot with Minolta equipment, Nikon equipment and for the last 17 years have shot most with a 4×5 large format system and Canon equipment. While having some of this gear and equipment has helped me to capture some of my imagery, it was the realization that formulating a vision is much more powerful than any new piece of gear