Photographing Waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Water flowing over Ouzel Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Water flows down over Ouzel Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. The use of a polarizer allowed for the color to pop in the foreground rocks. I also spent a good deal of time experimenting with shutter speeds before I capture the right amount of flow and detail in the water of Ouzel Falls. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 IS L, Circular Polorizer.
Most photographers visit Rocky Mountain National Park hoping to come away with some spectacular shot of a sweeping mountain vista, or an iconic alpine lake with a perfect mirror reflection. While I feel you on that desire, sometimes weather, wind, or a line of other photographers with the same ideas may prevent one from capturing those idyllic scenes of Rocky.

Don’t fret however, when things aren’t working in your favor when it comes to photographing some of the more iconic spots like Dream Lake, or the Rock Cut there are plenty of other locations one can train their camera on.

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with literally hundreds of waterfalls, cascades and bubbling brooks. These water features are ideal locations to photograph on windy days, cloudy or rainy mornings, or when you just want to get away from photographing the more iconic and crowded locations in Rocky. Here are a couple of quick tips for photographing waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park.

1. Typically you want to photograph water in either cloudy diffused light or prior to any direct sun hitting the waterfall or water feature. Diffused light allows for even lighting over the entire scene and prevents contrasty, harsh lighting that will blowout highlights or remove detail for darker areas. Your camera can only capture so many stops of light and dark, bright sun or direct lighting just makes this range more extreme. If you photograph water in Rocky Mountain National Park on a clear blue sky day prior to feature being illuminated by direct sun, expect to play with and tweak your white balance settings when processing your raw files.

2. Use a circular polarizer filter when photographing water features. Circular polarizing filters help to minimize both glare and reflections emanating from the scene. Use of a circular polarizer helps to keep the detail in both the rocks and foliage as well as to help tame bright spots present in the water. The circular polarizer will also help make colors pop by removing flare and reflection from the surfaces being photographed. Keep in mind circular polarizers require an additional two stops of exposure compensation. This can sometimes be a hindrance but it may also be a benefit as it will allow for longer exposures which create the dreamy motion effect on the water feature being photographed.

3. Experiment with both shutter speeds and ISO when photographing water. Your shutter speed will greatly affect how the motion of the water is captured. Every photographer has there own tolerances for how dreamy and silky than want the motion of the water to be represented in their final image. In general you want to capture the motion of the water while retaining some detail in the overall flow of water. Very long exposures not only create the dreamy look, but may create ‘hot spots’ of very white water that can cause a distraction to the overall image. Adjusting your camera’s ISO will help increase or decrease the shutter speed required and the correlating amount of motion capture in the water.

4.Work the scene and composition using both wide and telephoto compositions. Waterfalls and water features are great because there are literally hundreds of possibilities. Encompassing the waterfalls in the overall scene with a wide angle lens may result in an beautiful image, but using a telephoto lens to isolate and capture smaller areas of the waterfall will result in unique and original compositions as well.

5. Visit the water features and waterfalls at different points in the season. You would be surprised how different any given waterfall may look depending on the overall flow of water. Obviously the spring runoff will generate very large amounts of water flow through the feature. More pleasing compositions may actually open up as the flow of water subsides later in the season. Also, capturing waterfalls under a fresh snow, or first deep freeze will allow one to capture more unique images.

So the next time your photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and the weather or the wind is not cooperating at the more iconic locations, just get out your topo map and find some water to photograph.

Smoked Chickadee

The Sun rises above a thunderstorm over the plains and lights the smokey skies above Chickadee Pond and Wild Basin section of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The sun begins to creep above a large thunderstorm over the eastern plains of Colorado. Particulates and smoke from the many wildfires out turns the sky over Chickadee Pond a magenta hue. Wild Basin contains some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most beautiful locations. It takes some work to get Wild Basin’s many gems, and although the area is often overlooked by photographers, it contains some of Rocky’s most beautiful locations. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24mm TS-E F3.5 L II
The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park has it’s own unique feel and vibe. It’s less visited than other sections on the east side of the park, and many visitors to the park are likely to pass on through without exploring this area. I too am guilty at times of overlooking the Wild Basin area for some of the more familiar spots.

Not only does Wild Basin have a different feel with it’s many streams and water features, it makes you work to see much of its beauty. Roads into and around Wild Basin stop about 5 miles short of any of the lakes or impressive peaks located in the Wild Basin. This means your not going to see very much of Wild Basin from your car.

To get close to the divide and the impressive peaks such as Mt. Copeland, Ouzel Peak and Mt. Alice your going to have to hoof it. While most of the hiking is on the moderate side, distance is the biggest obstacle to photographing this locations.

Five, Six and Seven mile one-way hikes are the norm when exploring Wild Basin. With that in front of me, and knowing I’ve neglected this area, I set off for the Ouzel Lake area.

It was a cloudless morning departing the trailhead, but I had been watching a large thunderstorm flicker over the plains east of Ft. Collins on 2:30 AM drive up to Rocky. The plan was either to photograph from either Ouzel Lake or Chickadee Pond at sunrise. In my opinion, Chickadee Pond offers a better viewpoint of the divide and Ouzel Peak than Ouzel Lake does, so that was my primary destination.

Chickadee Pond also has a propensity of pond lilies that grow on its surface. In fact, I cant think of another body of water in Rocky Mountain National Park that is so densely packed with pond lilies. I figured if clouds did not build at sunrise and bluebird skies persisted, I could at least photograph the pond lilies.

Lastly, the wildfires that have plagued the west this year continue to make photography difficult in Rocky Mountain National Park. The smoke from these wildfires has settled into Colorado for the last 2 weeks, diffusing the early morning sunlight and taking the ‘pop’ from the early morning sun.

I arrived at Chickadee Pond and realized my best option was to photograph the sunrise off to the east. That large thunderstorm over the plains I had watched on my drive up to the park could still be seen from Chickadee Pond. In fact, the large thunderhead was blocking the rising sun while allowing for some nice coloration in the sky and clouds.

I setup my camera and began photographing the sun rising over the large thunderhead clouds off to the east. The smokey skies above Chickadee Pond also helped to add color at sunrise by adding a magenta like hue as the first rays filtered through the particulates in the sky. All in all, the combination of the thunderstorm and smoke in the sky made for an interesting morning deep within Wild Basin.

Back From The Beach

Sunrise at Southampton, New York and Dune Beach
Small bitting bugs, sea spray, sand and high humidity, all the elements I dont typically deal with out here in Colorado. Regardless, I was able to capture this beautiful sunrise from Dune Beach in Southampton, New York. If your willing to get up early and head out to the beach, there is a good chance you the eastern end of Long Island will treat you to a sight such as this. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 17mm TS-E F4
Changing pace can be a good thing. Every once in awhile it’s nice to get out of your set routines, break from the mold a bit and photograph something different. I personally finds it helps the creative process to break from the familiar and get out into different environs.

I spend last week on a whirlwind tour of New York State visiting in-laws and relatives. The trip back east was more about visiting family and catching up with old friends then it was about photography. Of course, there was no way I was going to be able to keep my camera in the bag the entire time.

While spending the end of the week out on the east end of Long Island, I was able to get up early a few mornings and catch sunrise along the beach. While I had a good sunrise this particular morning at Dune Beach in Southampton, the humidity, sand and sea spray where all things I’ve gotten used to not having to deal with here in Colorado. The trip was great, but I’m eager to get back up to Rocky and my more comfortable surroundings.

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls tumbles downstream through Glacier Gorge just below Black Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This morning was one of my most productive mornings in Rocky Mountain National Park. A few weeks back I hiked up to Black Lake to photograph sunrise. Everything pretty much broke my way this morning. There was no wind present in Rocky this morning, at sunrise , beautiful clouds setup, and I was able to walk away with four images of Black Lake and Ribbon Falls that I'm very pleased with. I hustled up to Ribbon Falls just before sunrise to capture this image of the clouds lighting just above the side of Storm Peak. I was only able to spend a few minutes at this location before I had to hustle up to Black Lake to catch sunrise on McHenry's Peak. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 IS L
This image posted from Ribbon Falls is a follow up to the image posted from Black Lake a few weeks back. As I stated previously, I had a great hike up to Black Lake and was lucky to have near perfect conditions on that mornings hike and accompanying shoot.

There was no wind present this morning and I had a great set of clouds that rolled in right at sunrise. Ribbon Falls just below Black Lake was my first that morning. I was able to make a few images here at Ribbon Falls just before the sunrise.

The clouds to the east were just starting to glow when I took this image from the top of Ribbon Falls, looking back towards the sides of Storm Mountain. I was able to quickly pack up and scoot up to Black Lake for sunrise, and the falls on the inlet stream to Black Lake after that.

All in all I walked away with four images of the Black Lake area that I’m very pleased with. It was one of the best mornings I’ve had in Rocky Mountain National Park, and certainly one of my most productive. Now if I could only get every morning in Rocky to work out this well.