Sometimes It’s Good Enough

Its not first light but the lighting this particular morning along Fern Creek at Odessa Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park still looked pretty good. I had a photography tour client out with me this morning and while he was a little disappointed to put all the effort into getting to Odessa Lake for sunrise, not catching alpenglow and first light due to clouds was quickly forgotten once the sun did break through the cloud cover this morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

Whether you are a beginner when it comes to landscape photography, or a seasoned veteran of the craft, we’ve all been there. You have a location you’ve been dying to photography for months or years and the stars finally align and you have now arrived at the said destination.

You’ve played the scenario through in your head multiple times, you have all your camera gear dialed in, you know just what lens you need to use, you’ve been working out and training so you can make the long difficult hike before sunrise and the weather forecast looks promising.

You’ve now done it, you’ve arrived. Only problem is you’ve arrived to find clouds blocking the first rays of sunlight over the landscape. How could this be?. You’ve put in all this time and effort and now that you are standing behind your camera and tripod waiting to trip the shutter the light is not cooperating. Those dreams of alpenglow hitting the mountaintops, while the sky turns pink and red at sunrise will now remain in your imagination only.

For landscape photographers, this scenario plays out all the time. Having a sunrise or sunset busted by by light or no clouds or other weather related factors that take away from our perceived bias on how the scene looks is one of the most frustrating parts of being a landscape photographer.

While I have no actual numbers to base this claim on, I would bet tarnished expectations is one of the leading causes of burnout amongst landscape photographers. There’s no doubt about, putting all that time, effort and money into making an attempt at capturing a dramatic scene can begin to feel like a fools folly when it doesn’t work out.

As a professional photographer and a photography guide in Rocky Mountain National Park I see this scenario unfold often when I have clients out in the field. I’m rooting for my clients to get killer light and conditions more than anyone and when it doesn’t happen I feel for them and empathize with them as I’ve been there as many times in the exact same situation.

For many landscape photographers, the perfect window of light is the 15 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. No doubt about it that this is the most dramatic window of light during the day. One can build a career off being in the right place at the right time while the light breaks and the landscape is filled with dramatic otherworldly lighting. The truth however, is this happens quite rarely.

When I have photography tour clients out in the field with me in RMNP, I try to manage their expectations and keep them in a positive frame of mind. Sure, we may not get that perfect image of Dream Lake at sunrise, but the light thats appeared a half hour after sunrise once its cleared a cloud bank to the east is pretty darn nice as well.

One of the things I constantly like to reinforce with my students and photography tour clients, is that you can’t only hit homeruns. Sometimes you need to hit singles, doubles and triples to set the tone or in our case our portfolios.

Just last week this very scenario unfolded. I had a client out in Rocky Mountain National Park for a sunrise photo tour. This client was hoping to capture some great images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek at sunrise. We started early with a 2:40 AM departure from the Boulder area which culminated in the 4.3 mile long hike into Odessa Lake for sunrise.

Conditions looked promising this morning and there were clouds hanging over the divide and Rocky Mountain National Park. All landscape photographers love to have clouds in their composition unless they are blocking the sun. After our moderate hike into Odessa Lake long before sunrise, this is exactly what happened.

6:25 AM came and went and there was no alpenglow on the landscape. No fire red clouds over The Little Matterhorn or Notchtop Mountain. My client while enjoying the experience, the location and the hike in was disappointed that the sun was not shining. I tried to assure him that I thought the sun would make an appearance and while it might not be exactly the light he had envisioned, even the light a little after sunrise can look really good when you are framing Odessa Lake, The Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain through your camera viewfinder.

Finally, after about 35 minutes past sunrise, the sun started to shine down on our location. While there was some disappointment, going through the motions of shooting the scene in front of you can quickly change ones mood. We spend the next 15 minutes photographing various composition at Odessa Lake until we once again lost the sunlight behind the clouds.

The light was moody once it did make an appearance and I could tell that we would be able to capture some really nice images of Odessa Lake and Fern Creek. While it wasn’t exactly the light my client had hoped for, he was very pleased with his images once he was able to get back home and get them downloaded on his computer.

As I try to reinforce with my clients, photography is all about the light. Sometimes the light may not be exactly what you had hoped for, but sometimes the light is just good enough to work.

Sunrise At Mills Lake

I headed up to Mills Lake on Tuesday morning for sunrise. Mills Lake is without a doubt one of the most impressive and beautiful locations in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. That being said, its a difficult location to photograph. Some clouds gliding over Glacier Gorge make for ideal conditions to photograph Mills Lake in the morning. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

On Tuesday morning of this week I took a quick trek up to Mills Lake for sunrise. In my opinion Mills Lake, located in Glacier Gorge is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most spectacular and jaw dropping locations. One of the reasons Mills Lake does not get quite as much attention from photographers as do some of RMNP’s other dramatic locations is that Mills Lake can be difficult to photograph.

With Mills Lake resting at the bottom of Glacier Gorge. It’s nestled in and around some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most impressive and iconic peaks. Longs Peak, Rocky’s tallest peak at 14,259 ft towers above the eastern shore of Mills Lake along with Half Mountain and Pagoda Peak. To the south rests Chiefs Head Peak and the iconic Spearhead. On the west side of Mills Lake, Thatchtop Mountain rises high above with the Arrowhead down valley. With all of these impressive and iconic peaks of RMNP rising above Mills Lake, it makes for one of the most dramatic and visually impressive locations in all of Rocky.

These same peaks however, make Mills Lake difficult to photography because more times than less, they are overshadowing and blocking the sunlight in and around Glacier Gorge. This is especially true early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.

Mornings at Mills Lake means that only the summit of Longs Peak will catch sun. In the middle of summer Chiefs Head Peak will catch first light. It still takes awhile for the sun to reach the Spearhead even during the longest days of the year.

Afternoons are best at Mills Lake but even with that said sunlight can be sparse. The backside of Longs Peak otherwise known as The Keyboard of The Winds will glow at sunset. That’s all well and good but many summer afternoons produce strong thunderstorms and cloud cover over Rocky Mountain National Park meaning you have a good chance of not getting any light at sunset. Wind is also an issue with a large lake like Mills and both the afternoon and mornings have a good chance of having a breeze flowing down Glacier Gorge.

With that said, my strategy at Mills Lake has been to look for heavy cloud cover over Longs Peak and hope there break in the cloud cover to the east. They way I see it when it comes to photographing Mills Lake, is that while I would call it more of an afternoon shot than a morning shot, a good set of clouds over Glacier Gorge can help even the score.

Tuesday morning I headed up the 2.8 miles to Mills Lake with decent cloud cover of the Gorge. That cloud cover thinned out as the sun rose, but enough white puffy clouds hung around after sunrise to make for a beautiful scene. Even better, the northern end of Mills Lake remained calm enough to allow for a great reflection. Not exactly how I had drawn up the morning in my mind, but regardless the results were still more than satisfactory.

One other note in closing here not related to photography at Mills Lake but to my tour and workshop schedule in late summer and fall. My schedule for photography tours this fall is quickly filling up. Many of my clients book these autumn dates nearly a year in advance. That being said if you are looking to take a photography tour or workshop with me at the end of August or through September and the fall color season, I still have some openings. Please contact me sooner than later and I’ll be happy to let you know what open dates I still have for summer and fall photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Late August, September and the first half of October is some of the best times to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great time to take a photography tour and I’’m happy to try and accommodate anybody who is interested in heading out with me in the next few months.

Catching Clouds At Little Buckaroo

Over the course of the last 60 years, the park service has made a concerted effort to return much of Rocky Mountain National Park back to it’s original condition. Because of this, many manmade structures in RMNP have been removed. There are still quite a few historical structers present in Rocky these days, a Little Buckaroo Barn on the west side of RMNP is my favorite. With a nice set of popcorn clouds skirting over the Kawuneeche Valley, I quickly headed out to the Little Buckaroo Barn to take advantage of clouds. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

When it comes to photographing western icon, Moulton Barns along Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park. Unlike Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park has made a concerted effort to remove many of the man made structures and lodges in the park over the years. Many are surprised to discover that RMNP actually has it’s own barn that is nearly as photogenic at some of the structures in the Tetons.

While Rocky Mountain National Park was once lined and dotted with lodges and inn’s, none of these structures remain standing. Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows, Deer Mountain and the Kawuneeche Valley all had numerous lodges and structures that once hosted visitors to the area.

While the NPS has made an effort to remove many of these structures and restore the landscape to it’s natural state, there are still quite a few historical buildings standing in Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly on the west side of the park.

For photographing man made structures, its hard to beat the Little Buckaroo Barn. This barn located on the west side of RMNP in the Kawuneeche Valley certainly gives the Moulton Barns of the Grand Teton’s a run for its money.

Part of Trail River Ranch, the Little Buckaroo Barn dates back to 1942. Built in a style that is typically found in southern Louisiana it’s unique one off. With the Never Summer Mountain of Rocky Mountain National Park as a backdrop, and building materials sourced from the area, the Little Buckaroo Barn is a small but stunning piece of construction.

Typically when I head into RMNP to photograph the landscape, I normally have a particular destination in mind. This can all change if the clouds or weather dictate that certain locations are more optimal with the current conditions.

This was the case on Wednesday morning when shortly after sunrise a nice set of clouds slid over the Kawuneeche Valley. Once I saw those clouds gliding over the valley, I quickly set out to Little Buckaroo hoping to use them as a backdrop. The clouds didn’t stick around long, but they stuck around just long enough for me to capture a handful of beautiful images of summer at Little Buckaroo Barn.

Untouched Rocky

In the middle of July, I had the opportunity to spend 3 days backpacking deep in the backcountry or Rocky Mountain National Park with fellow photographer and good friend Erik Stensland. It was a spectacular experience and one in which I was able to photograph areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that very few others have. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 24-70mm F4 S lens

Summer keeps rolling along in Rocky. It’s short and sweet and summer never lingers long. In fact, one can already start to see that the transition from summer to fall won’t be that far off. In fact, for my daughter, summer is over for her as I just walked her to the bus stop for her first day in third grade.

Early this summer I had the amazing opportunity to explore and photograph some very remote sections of Rocky Mountain National Park with my good friend and photographer extraordinaire Erik Stensland, owner of Images of RMNP Nobody has photographed more of Rocky Mountain National Park then Erik. Furthermore, few people have a greater appreciation for the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park nor a reverence for nature than Erik does.

Over coffee earlier this winter we had thrown about the idea of going backpacking for a few days somewhere in the park. We were ambiguous in our plans as each year when the Backcountry office of RMNP opens up the permits for the backcountry sites it’s done on a first come first serve basis.

Because its first come, first serve, you have your list of sites and locations you want to visit but theres a good chance some of them will already be reserved by the time you make it to the front of the line.

Luckily we were able to secure a great backcountry site for 3 nights of the west side of Rocky. Erik, always the man with grand plan had some great ideas on where we should head and what we should attempt to photograph.

It would involve lots and lots of miles hiking over difficult terrain, thousands of feet of elevation gain in a day but would allow us to experience some of Rocky’s most beautiful and remote locations.

The trip did not disappoint. It took my legs about a week to recover from all the cross country travel and climbing but the weather was perfect, the locations visited were pristine and untouched.

The three day jaunt into the backcountry of RMNP was just about as perfect as one could ask for. I greatly appreciated Erik’s company, knowledge and friendship. It’s certainly and experience I won’t soon forget. As an aside as I get time I’ll continue to publish images from the trip in future blog posts.

Upwards To Chasm Lake

Late last week I had to rare opportunity to guide one of my photography tour clients up the challenging hike to Chasm Lake for sunrise. Photographing Longs Peak and The Diamond at sunrise from Chasm Lake is one of the greatest experiences one can have in Rocky Mountain National Park. With favorable conditions and a great sunrise, everything came together as planned and we left we some amazing images. Technical Details: Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm F4 S lens

Late last week i had the opportunity to head up to Chasm Lake at the base of 14,259 ft Longs Peak and its iconic northeast face the ‘Diamond’. As some of you know Chasm Lake is probably my favorite location in all of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Typically, I try to hike up to Chasm Lake at least once during the summer season but with so many amazing places in Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph and only so many opportunities and beautiful sunrises it doesn’t always work out. Travel, weather and leading photography tours and workshops in RMNP can make the logistics difficult some years.

I’ve had a photography workshop/tour client that has wanted to visit Chasm Lake for the past few seasons. He’s been preparing for the physical and difficult 4.2 mile hike and the nearly 2400 ft vertical gain required to reach Chasm Lake for the past few years. I’ve been able to lead him to a few other similar and difficult hikes in Rocky so I felt confident enough to take this particular person up to Chasm Lake when it looked like conditions may be optimal for photography.

With a few aborted attempts late last season due to poor weather, Chasm Lake has been on my clients ‘must do’ list for awhile. This client lives in the Denver metro area so when I have openings in my schedule available and the weather looks good I’ll contact him and let him know it might be a good day to attempt this particular location.

As it turned out, I had another client cancel their photography tour at the last minute. With a promising weather forecast for the potential of low winds and good light, I gave him the heads up that this might be one of our best chances to give Chasm Lake a shot this season.

Chasm Lake sits just below 12,000 ft above sea level. So getting a calm morning at that elevation with little wind, some clouds over Longs Peak and some nice sunrise light can be much more challenging than it appears.

We took off from the Longs Peak trailhead just after 3:00 AM. There was the usual gaggle of fellow hikers departing the trailhead at the same time headed for the summit of Longs Peak. As is the case with the Longs Peak trailhead in the middle of summer, it’s both busy and full of excitement even at 3:00 AM as visitors to RMNP head off to challenge themselves and attempt to make it to the summit of Longs Peak long before the afternoon thunderstorms begin to build.

We made it up to Chasm Lake a little before 5:30 AM. The last scramble up to Chasm and the long up hill hike had challenged my client. While he was bemoaning the long, steep uphill trek from the Longs Peak trailhead, he ignored his cramping legs once Chasm Lake came into sight and he started straight up at Longs Peak and The Diamond.

The early morning pre-dawn light was just starting to cause The Diamond, Longs Peak and the Ships Prow to take on a beautiful orange and red glow. Most of the surface of Chasm Lake was placid and there were some beautiful clouds hanging over Longs Peak this morning.

We quickly setup our tripods, set or compositions and starting photographing the spectacular light unfolding right in front of us. The Rocky ‘trifecta’ was in full effect this morning as we had sunlight, a reflection and clouds making for near perfect conditions.

I spent the rest of the morning above timberline showing my client some of the other tremendous spots in this awesome portion of RMNP. Being able to share the experience of visiting Chasm Lake for sunrise was awesome as was the ability to guide my client up to a location I dont often get to visit with other clients. Either way you cut it, it’s hard to beat a beautiful morning up at Chasm Lake.