With it being a leap year, February gets one extra day this year. Even with an extra day this month, February is nearly over and March is almost here in Rocky Mountain National Park. With a very mild January preceding February, the weather pattern in Colorado changed quickly and we had a much more active month.
Even with February being a very active month weather wise, as is always the case with RMNP, capturing winter images is always more difficult than it appears it should be. We had plenty of snow this month, but as is the case more often than not on the east side of Rocky, snow was often followed with clear bluebird skies the following morning and or gale force winds. Timing of the storms also made it tricky and photographing upslope systems above the clouds or being in Rocky as a storm cleared proved illusive in February.
There were still some interesting mornings, and although photographing the iconic peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park covered in fresh snow proved difficult in February, last Wednesday the 19th was a spectacular morning to be out.
Last Wednesday morning, a new system was moving onto the Front Range of Colorado. Snow would begin to fall just after sunrise, but would wrap up and clear out before Thursdays sunrise. While the landscape itself was free of snow, the unsettled weather created some great atmospherics just as the sun was rising over the eastern plains.
Fog is a rarity in Rocky Mountain National Park, so anytime I get a chance to be out in the field photographing it, I get excited. As the upslope system moved into Rocky, fog began to fill Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park. Longs Peak, Hallett Peak, and the Mummy Range all played peak-a-boo with color and light.
From a ridgeline along Deer Mountain, with a commanding view of most of the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I was able to take in the show. Sure it would have been epic if snow had covered all the landscape, but I’ll take the fog and beautiful atmospherics any day.
The great news as we move into March, is we are entering the best time of year to capture winter images in RMNP. The lighting in the park is at it’s most favorable and the months of March, April and May will all yield great opportunities to capture spring storms moving through the park. Even better, we are moving closer to the summer season and sooner than later we will be photographing the peaks of Rocky reflecting in placid mountain lakes or cruising over Trail Ridge Road again. Regardless, it’s we are entering prime season for winter photography in Rocky and I’m looking forward to see whats in store this year.
Being in the right place at the right time certainly benefits a photographer. Nothing will net you more usable and portfolio worthy images then being in the field as much as possible. In my opinion there is no single variable in photography that will yield a better return of investment than spending it in the field. Of course understanding light, being in beautiful locations and having a reasonable understanding of how to work your camera and equipment will all add to your yield.
Sometimes, there is something a little more going on than just being out in the field opening yourself up to the opportunities presented on a particular shoot. Every so often, if a photographer spends enough time in the field, they are going to stumble upon an opportunity. Call it serendipity, call it luck, or for the more mathematically inclined call it probability.
Spend enough time out and about and you will find that every now and then you are just going trip over a good photograph. This was exactly the circumstance I found myself in yesterday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park.
February’s unsettled weather has been the complete antithesis to the mild and calm weather we had in Rocky in January. Unsettled weather and living on the edge of weather systems are where we landscape photographers butter our bread.
After another night of snow, I headed up to RMNP hoping to capture the landscape covered in fresh snow. Winds were supposed to be moderate and while the forecast was not looking great for lots of cloud cover in the morning, I don’t want to be sitting in my office watching a beautiful sunrise unfold thinking I should have just headed out.
Sunrise yesterday in RMNP was indeed mostly clear. There were some clouds hanging on the Continental Divide but for the most part the skies lacked any great drama and color. I spent the early morning photographing the town of Estes Park just before sunrise before heading back into Rocky Mountain National Park to see if I could find any wildlife or landscape to photograph.
The winds were starting to pickup in the park by the time I arrived and it was cold. Estes Park was -7 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived and when I headed into Moraine Park my temperature reading on my truck was -13 degrees Fahrenheit(wind chill not included). My plan was to cruise the roads in Moraine Park and look for elk, coyote, deer or anything else that might be of interest on the snow covered landscape.
Driving past the group of cabins along the Big Thompson River, I decided to photograph this location I’ve photographed many times before. With fresh snow covering the meadow and mountains and some clouds and blowing snow making for some interesting atmospherics, it seemed a worthwhile proposition to setup and hang out in the snow.
While I was aware of full Snow Moon that had taken place just two days prior, I had not the slightest inkling or idea where the now waining Snow Moon would be setting or even if there was potential in photographing it.
Setting up along the Big Thompson River in the -13 degree morning air and started framing my composition with my 70-200mm lens attached to my Nikon Z7. This particular composition is trick in that trees, fences and other distracting elements allow very little leeway on setting ones composition. Go wide and you have distracting pines, willows and fences in your image. Shoot to tight and you will cut off the tops of the mountains in the distance and your composition will be unbalanced.
I setup and settled in on my composition. The cabin looked beautiful covered in fresh snow as did the South Lateral Moraine and Spruce Canyon in the distance. The winds were picking up and snow and clouds were blowing right down Spruce Canyon making for postcard like winter scene. While the lighting was about an hour after sunrise, the warm winter light illuminated the entire scene in front of me. As is always the case, I’m always pleased when I can capture the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park after a recent snowstorm. As I’ve stated many times before, doing so is much more difficult than one would think here in Colorado.
Firing off the shutter, I took a few images. I then noticed something that I hadn’t when I first setup my composition. The now 2 day waining Snow Moon was setting just above Stones Peak. In a few minutes the Snow Moon was be in the perfect position as it set behind Stones Peak. You couldn’t ask for the Snow Moon to set in a better spot. With fresh snow covering the landscape, and the Snow Moon setting in the upper right corner of the image, all I had to do was wait a few minutes for it to descent into my frame.
They say luck favors the prepared, but as I watched the Snow Moon descend right into the perfect spot in my frame, I couldn’t help but think there was a little more going on here. All the variables had come together in this tight little location and composition to make and image that I likely would not have succeeded in doing if I had planned. Whatever force of nature, karma, or good luck this morning, I walked away feeling a good bit of gratitude that for whatever reason, I ended up in the right spot at the right time and most importantly, capture a beautiful winter image.
Nearly all landscape photographers I know, love getting out in the winter and photographing winter scenes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow covered peaks, trees draped in snow and beautiful winter light draw photographers up to Rocky in the middle winter.
As I’ve written about before, photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months is much more difficult than it looks. After a mild January, February has arrived with plenty of snow and unsettled weather. Here’s a couple quick tips and reminders to help improve your chances of capturing some great winter images in RMNP.
First, keep in mind that access to much of Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter is limited and once off the plowed roads can be much more difficult to travel through than summer months. Trail Ridge Road (Many Parks Curve), Old Fall River Road, Upper Beaver Meadows Road, and most of Wild Basin Road will all be closed in after the first big storms. With these roads closed, getting around the park and working with the conditions can be difficult. You cant just decide to head up over Trail Ridge Road because thats where the clouds are or the Kawuneeche Valley has fog. You will have to be creative and photograph along Bear Lake Road and the areas of Trail Ridge Road and US 36 that remain open.
Secondly, hiking or snowshoeing in the park to locations away from the roads is much more difficult than hiking during the summer months. Snow on the trails can make them difficult to follow and slipping and sliding along the route in the cold weather and wind will require more exertion and more importantly time to get to your destination. Microspikes or snowshoes are a must as is the proper cold weather gear. Plan on giving yourself plenty of time and dress in layers as you will perspire into your location only to be standing around in the cold and wind cooling down quickly waiting for the sun to rise.
Account for the wind. Wind in Rocky Mountain National Park is probably not only the most difficult and trying aspect to photographing in RMNP, but its also the type of weather you are most likely to encounter on a winter visit to Rocky. There are very few days in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter when one wont encounter a stiff breeze or a hurricane force gale. Keep in mind that if the weather forecast calls for 30 mph wind gusts in downtown Estes Park, plan on adding at least 20 mph to that if you are going to hike up to Dream Lake for sunrise. Standing on the ice at Dream Lake with your camera and tripod setup with 50 mph wind gusts nearly knocking you down makes it very difficult to capture images, let only keep the camera steady enough for sharp images. Also keep in mind that the the small thin pine needles found on the evergreens that dominate Rocky’s landscape will not hold fresh snow for very long once the wind quickly blows it off the trees.
Another important aspect to keep in mind during the winter months is the fact that all the lakes and streams in the park will be frozen solid. Reflections are my number one request from RMNP Photo Tour clients. Many are surprised to hear that capturing snow covered peaks reflecting in streams or open water in Rocky is nearly impossible by mid November. There may be a small opening of water here and there along a larger stream, but for the most part lakes and streams will be covered solid with ice and snow until late in the spring.
The sun angle in Rocky Mountain National Park is also another variable that needs to be accounted for in the winter. Rocky’s most popular area in the summer for photographers are not necessarily the great for photography in the middle of winter. The area along Bear Lake Road and the lakes that emanate out of the Glacier Gorge trailhead and Bear Lake trailhead are all oriented north and east. This means the northern angle of the sun during the summer months lights these areas perfectly. During the middle of winter, the sun is at its farthest point south on the horizon leaving many of these areas in shadow or backlit. Ranges such as the Mummy Range however have a southeast facing orientation and get spectacular light during the winter months. It’s also hard for me to think of a range in the park that looks better after a fresh snow than the Mummy Range.
Lastly, some of the best times to head out in Rocky Mountain National Park for winter type photography is the end of the fall and the back end of spring. On the Front Range of Colorado we tend to get our strongest snowstorms in October and or March, April and May. These storms move in and out quickly after dumping lots of snow. Winds tend to not be as intense these times of year and more importantly, one can often find lakes and streams either not yet frozen, partially frozen or thawing out. Even better, later in the spring the sun is rising fairly north in the sky and the popular locations along Bear Lake Road will be lit as well as they are during the summer months.
Truth be told as we head into February, the lighting is getting better and our chances for good snow and quick moving storms are now getting better. Keep your expectations reasonable, watch the weather forecast, and plan on capturing winter images now right through May and you should be able to add some classic winter images of Rocky Mountain National Park to your portfolio.
One of my favorite kinds of light to use when photographing landscapes is backlighting. In some ways backlighting goes against the basic principles of photography. We are taught early on that we should have our source of light behind or on the side of our subject. This was especially true during the days of film photography.
Latitude and dynamic range with film photography was very limited, especially with transparency or slide films like Fuji Velvia or Kodachrome 25 or 64. You could certainly backlight subjects during with film, but often you would have little to no details in the shadow areas and the results would be a hard silhouette.
Todays digital sensors have so much dynamic range, that there is still plenty of detail in the shadow areas of the frame which allows one to become even more creative with the light. If you combine backlighting with first light or the soft lighting the occurs just before dawn or right after dusk, you can open up opportunities to photograph subjects and locations at times that typically might not be considered perfect.
This was the case on Saturday as I had a client out in the field. The original plan was to photograph Dream Lake at sunrise. The winds were blowing pretty good when we left downtown Estes Park, headed for the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. I knew if the winds were blowing this hard into town that we should just figure on at least doubling the gusts by the time we reached the Bear Lake parking lot.
Sure enough it was blowing pretty hard up at Bear Lake but with some light snow flurries coming down and some nice cloud structure in the sky over RMNP, we figured we could deal with the wind up at Dream Lake and possibly be treated to a really nice sunrise over Hallett and Flattop Mountain.
Heading up the snow trail towards Dream Lake, and orange glow like an orb began to form over the high plains of eastern Colorado. With sunrise almost an hour away the clouds were over Rocky Mountain National Park were already starting to glow magenta, red, yellow and orange. Blowing and falling snow were adding to the atmospherics and things were looking good.
We took a little longer than expected to get up the trail as my client had just flown in the night before and was working and a short nights rest. Looking over Glacier Gorge towards Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the winds showed great promise as the kaleidoscope of color formed over Rocky’s tallest peak and only 14er.
We stopped to give my client a rest and shoot the predawn light that was really starting to explode. While the color was great the winds were howling now. From time to time, I could just see the tomahawk edge of Hallett Peak come in and out of the clouds which had cloaked most of the divide at this point. Amazingly, Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge were for the most part free of being cloaked in clouds and only had clouds move in and out of the landscape periodically.
With Dream Lake appearing to be a bust, and the sunrise really starting to ramp up, I opted to set this shot up with my client and take advantage of the backlighting and color east and south of Longs Peak. While we weren’t going to be able to capture sunrise at Dream Lake this morning, I knew we would have some great backlighting that would be more dramatic than we would have had up at Dream Lake.
It’s a good lesson in not only having a backup plan when out shooting, but also one in which you look to work with the conditions presented to you as opposed to the ones you hoped for. We could have pressed on to Dream Lake and ended up with windburn, but instead we chose to photograph Longs Peak at the wrong time of day. Regardless we came away with some beautiful images of Longs Peak in dramatic winter lighting, while we learned the importance of taking advantage of the conditions given that particular morning.