This time of year can be a difficult one for photography in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. Storm systems move over the east side of the park bringing with them high winds and little snow.
Furthermore, the most popular areas and peaks on the east side of Rocky around Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge have a northeast facing orientation. With the sun rising well to the south, the peaks around Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge only have portions of their granite monoliths in favorable lighting with many of them remaining in deep shadows. This makes most of the iconic locals in Rocky Mountain National Park less than favorable for prime light during the shortest days of the year.
Even so there are plenty of subjects and compositions to experiment with. The winds that seem omnipresent this time of year in Rocky create interesting lighting and effects around the high peaks. Blowing snow is a constant and typically there are clouds socked in and around the continental divide. This combination can make for an interesting subject, especially if the photographer does not mind being blown about by the wind while trying to make images.
The winds rake the ridgelines and clouds and blowing snow follow the winds lead. Sunrise may be somewhat muted by the clouds and blowing snow but paying attention to the ridgelines and clouds, compositions and potential is endless. The blowing snow creates a low contrast, impressionistic feel to the icy mountainsides.
While December may not be the best time to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park, possibilities abound if you don’t mind being tossed around by the wind and trying to time your shots between gusts. Try to think of the unique possibilities this time of year presents and ignore the fact that your parked car is shaking back and forth like a top when your getting ready to head out from the Bear Lake parking lot and enjoy the season.
It probably goes without saying but if you live in Colorado people just assume you love the snow and cold. While that’s mostly true, there are some days that leave me dreaming of Summer and warmer weather. Winter photography can make even the most mundane landscapes look magical so it’s always worth the effort involved getting out in the field on a wintry morning.
There are some mornings however, when even those of us who enjoy the winter season have to push ourselves out of our warm bed in the morning. Last Friday morning was just one of those days for me. Arctic air had settled in over Colorado earlier in the week. Sub zero cold temperatures had settled in over Colorado and the Front Range along with a daily dose of light snow.
The whether conditions were culminating to a point where it became apparent, that one of these frosty mornings would be conducive to a cold but productive morning of photography.
I crawled out of the warm comforts of bed on Friday morning to find the thermometer reading a balmy -9 degrees Fahrenheit. I checked and scanned the horizon looking for snow and or clear skies. If it was crystal clear or snowing, I could use that as an excuse to crawl back into bed. I’d have no such luck, clouds drifted overhead and the horizon looked clear meaning a beautiful sunrise on the freshly snow covered peaks was looking likely.
No crawling back into bed for me, it was time to hustle, bundle up like a mummy and head out to that cold piece of metal otherwise known as my truck. I figured Chautauqua Park in Boulder would be as good a place as any for sunrise, and even more so since it would only be a short hike out into the meadow on this cold morning.
Arriving at Chautauqua Park, I hiked out into the meadow and began setting up my camera in the stillness of the morning. Even though it was cold, I love being in Chautauqua Meadow overlooking Boulder before sunrise. It’s amazing how even a bustling town like Boulder can be so quiet and peaceful in the stillness before dawn.
On a cold morning like this, waiting for sunrise can seem like an eternity. I was setup no more than 20 minutes before dawn, but the warmth of my truck had quickly dissipated into the chill of morning. Finally the clouds above the Flatirons started glowing with the color of the approaching sunrise.
My Achilles heel in cold weather has always been my fingers. No matter how hard I try, or what gloves I try my fingers always end up becoming painfully frozen within a matter of minutes. Obviously I need to work my camera and feather my neutral density filter by hand over my lens as I’m photographing. It becomes quite a task at this point to keep my fingers out of the lens and the shot, and keep my hands warm enough to even hold the filter and fire the cable release.
So in between cursing at the cold and attempting to periodically warm my hands, I was able to photograph the a beautiful albeit frigid sunrise over the Flatirons. When it was over, I barely enough feeling left in my fingers to pack my bag and fold up my tripod. A short sprint back to my truck ensued and I sat in my vehicle frozen like a block of ice for a good 10 minutes before I felt coordinated and thawed out enough to drive back home.
My love hate relationship with the cold always quickly comes to an end when I’m back at home in front of my computer with a hot cup of coffee editing my images. I quickly forget the cold when finding images I’m pleased with. So until the next morning I’m out in the field with no feeling in my fingers, I’ll welcome more opportunities for cold and snow.
If you stop by here on occasion to read my blog or view my galleries you likely know that I’m a big fan of tree’s. Tree’s are one of, if not my favorite subjects to photograph. The variety, shapes, colors, and textures of trees make for limitless opportunities. For me tree’s epitomize a location as much as any mountain or sea would ever.
For me, tree’s not only take on a sense of place, but tree’s have their own stories, and struggles. The have a uniqueness, personality and will that shows through in their shape and form. When I’m photographing tree’s this is what I am hoping to convey in my images.
In my opinion, photographing beautiful mountain peaks is different that photographing trees. There are few mountain peaks that have not been photographed countless times before. While there are certainly iconic images of individual tree’s such as the Grand Teton National Park’s ‘Old Patriarch’, I have found some of the most beautiful trees in some of the least dramatic settings.
What I love best about tree’s is that ultimately no matter the time, season or place, tree’s continue to inspire me to get out my camera and create images. Tree’s are like Polaris was to mariners and explorers for me. No matter my location, familiar or not, my old friend the tree helps me navigate, learn and create images of the landscape.
The theme of late around here seems to be blue. While I’m not making a conscious effort to create images tinged in blue, it seems to be the meme of late and I’m going to just keep going with the flow.
After a week of chilly, cold and snowy weather, It was time to get out on the trail and see what subjects I could find to photograph. Some snow still clung to the pines along the flanks of the Flatirons and the sky above was filled with clouds.
Standard operating procedure on a morning like this is to take the dog out for a walk while scanning the eastern plains for breaks in the cloud cover. While walking the dog I can usually get a pretty good idea if there are breaks in the cloud cover over the eastern plains which might allow for some spectacular early morning drop under lighting.
Conditions were not looking all that promising when I scanned the horizon. The cloud were increasing and most of the eastern horizon appeared to be shrouded in clouds. Even so, I could make out a break or two in the dark skies or as we photographers like to call them ‘sucker holes’. Small breaks in the cloud cover are known as ‘sucker holes’ for their propensity to sucker you into thinking you are going to get some epic drop under light only to be left standing in the cold when the clouds block sunrise and the light fails to materialize.
I learned a long time ago that while it helps to assess and adapt to the conditions when photographing, not making excuses and being in the best position possible regardless of what you think may happen is the best policy for success. So with that I mind, I was going to head out regardless of how unlikely it appeared that the lighting would cooperate.
As is always the case, the minute I hit the trail and start hiking, the pretenses start to fade away and experience and thrill of being out in nature alone in the predawn hours quickly takes hold. Capturing the light is now secondary to the experience of the sights and sounds of the natural world.
Forty minutes later I arrive at my destination. I’m pre-occupied, enjoying the hike in so as not to be paying much attention to the skies over the eastern plains. I know there are plenty of clouds in the skies this morning as the snow covered landscape around me is draped in blue light prevalent in the pre-dawn hours. Trees now block my view to the east preventing a good assessment of whether or not I’ll have any drop under light.
I take off my pack, setup my tripod and camera and wait under the cool blue pre-dawn light. Shortly before sunrise the clouds over the Flatirons begin to take on a slight magenta hue which quickly begins to intensify. Soon the top of the Flatirons joins in and turns red amongst the backdrop of a cool, snow covered landscape. For a few short minutes the sky and the mountains standout against the backdrop of the blue shadows. As I release the shutter and photograph the magnificent scene before me I can only chuckle to myself that I would have even considered missing this opportunity.
With Winter and the holidays approaching things around here are slowing down a bit. Work continues to repair damaged roads and property from the historic flooding in September but some sense of normalcy is beginning to return to the Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and the northern Front Range.
It’s a good time to review images made over the past year and work on some that I may have placed on the back burner awaiting a second look. I like to look for some of my more subtle work to showcase. Photographing and showcasing icons is fun, but for me the real reward is in creating images of moments that may have gone unnoticed.
So as the seasons transition and from the endless opportunities of summer to the completion of the colorful displays of fall, it’s tempting to put the camera away for awhile and find other things to occupy one’s time. Amongst photographers this time of year is known as the ‘brown season’. Ironically, the more I look to photograph during the ‘brown season’ the more beauty and opportunities I find during mother natures demure transition.
What do you do when the scene unfolding before your camera is one of the most intense and colorful sunrises you’ve been lucky enough to witness?. Is it a good or bad dilemma to be faced with?. Is the scene believable?, will your clients think you just went a little to far with your interpretation of the scene in Photoshop? I’ve spent a lot of time in the field photographing some spectacular kaleidoscopes of color, but one in particular from last week takes the cake.
I could tell heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park that there was some great potential for a colorful sunrise setting up over the park. It had been a very windy but mild night. The high winds aloft formed beautiful Lenticular clouds that extended from the Continental Divide eastward over the Front Range but not far enough east so as to impede the light from the rising sun over the plains.
Sprague Lake was a tempting destination, as was Moraine Park for sunrise. The location of the clouds and sunrise would have made either of these a great choices. I really wanted to get out on the trails and into the forest after all the distractions and closures over the last few months and hike. So with that in mind, I decided that Bierstadt Lake would be a good destination.
I love hiking to and photographing from Bierstadt Lake. It’s been one of my favorite locations in Rocky Mountain National Park since I first visited Rocky in 1998. It was the experience of locations such as Bierstadt Lake that inspired me to become a landscape photographer. The lake is named for Albert Bierstadt, the famous nineteenth century landscape painter from whom I admire and gain inspiration from in my photography pursuits.
Bierstadt Lake holds one of the most impressive views of the continental divide in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s view to the east is more serene and not as pronounced as that of Sprague Lake below. From atop the shelf like plateau Bierstadt Lake is sits on, the sky is all that can be viewed to the east. And although there are no mountains in view when looking east from Bierstadt Lake, the view of the open horizon and sky is impressive.
So after a short but enjoyable 1.3 mile hike up the Bierstadt Moraine to the lake, I setup my camera and watched sunrise unfold. It was the most intense and colorful sunrises I’ve photographed anywhere. Words and images fall short of capturing the intensity of the sunrise this particular morning other than to say it felt as if I had just walked into a scene from none other than one of Albert Bierstadt’s dramatic paintings.
Spending time on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park in the offseason is one of my favorite things to do. The crowds are long gone from the west side of the park and Grand Lake. Trail Ridge Road is closed at the Colorado River trailhead and for all intents and purposes the west side of Rocky becomes an island on to itself with miles of open trails and light traffic on the roads.
Snow has begun to coat the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and the meadows and valleys are also seeing the snow accumulate over their trees and grasses. Ice is forming along the edges of the streams and on top of the boulders and winters coming grip is slowly ebbing the flow of water downstream. In short order, feet of snow will begin to accumulate over the land and the streams and waterfalls will completely freeze over.
The transition time between autumn in Colorado and winter is brief and manic. Warm sunny days can quickly morph into full on blizzards which cover the peaks with snow and freeze the many streams and waterfalls.
Some years however, the transition from autumn to winter is slow and more pronounced. Ironically, with all the historic weather we’ve had leading up to autumn, this has been one of those years in Rocky. So before winter fully settles into Rocky, I spent time venturing around the west side of the park photographing some of the creeks and falls before they completely freeze over for winter. The combination of freshly fallen snow and ice was perfect. There were still open areas of water, but winter is methodically creeping over the landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The next time I photograph the west side of Rocky, the transition from autumn to winter will be complete. Winter will have asserted her grip on the park and sealed the peaks and streams with a coating of snow and ice, only making for more opportunities to photograph the ever changing seasons.
It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve been able to get back east to photograph fall color. It certainly was not from a lack of desire to do so, but sometimes life and schedules get in the way making what was once commonplace, rare.
So finally after nearly a decade and a less than stellar autumn color season here in Colorado, I was able to make the trek back east to New York to photograph the fall colors and visit with family. The visit was shorter than I would have liked, but still a very productive and fun one.
Autumn was in full swing throughout the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes region while I was back photographing so the timing was just about perfect. For the most part most days were mild but overcast. Perfect weather in my opinion to shoot the colorful fall canopies under nicely diffused light.
Since it’s be awhile since I had photographed fall back east, I was very much like a kid in a candy store. The vibrant reds, oranges and yellows all looked spectacular along the hillsides and streams I hiked explored and hiked along. Even in New York, autumn seems to slows the bustling pace allowing one to contemplate and enjoy the colorful surroundings.
There’s a different pace to fall in the east as opposed to fall out west. The colors in the east peak more slowly than out west. Barring a nor’easter or hurricane, leaves stay on the trees longer and fall more slowly. In the west the transition from fall to winter is much more pronounced. One day it can be sunny and seventy degrees and the next day there can be a foot of snow, bare tree’s welcoming winters arrival.
I spent most of my time photographing Harriman State Park in the Hudson Valley and the area around Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Like most expeditions there are plenty of places you want to photograph but run out of time to visit.I’ve got scouted out some new areas and have plenty of ideas for my next fall visit, I just hope it’s not ten years in the making.
I’ve just returned from a short but very productive trip back east to photograph the fall colors. I’ll be posting some of these images in the near future so stay tuned. Even more exciting is the fact that I was able to get up to an open and welcoming Rocky Mountain National Park for a beautiful sunrise.
It always feels good to be home after traveling and it feels like forever since I’ve had a productive morning photographing Rocky. Being a creature of habit means I have a fairly regimented routine. While traveling and exploring new places is essential to learning, creating and improving your craft, photographing on your home turf always feels rewarding.
While it takes a little longer to get up to Rocky Mountain National Park than it did previously the trip over the Peak to Peak highway is worth the extra time involved. With the government shutdown out of the way for the time being, Rocky is open and Estes Park is bustling and busy again with visitors. It’s as great a time as ever to get back up to the park and spend time with old friends.
In a nutshell, the last few weeks have been a hard go here on the Front Range of Colorado. In what is typically my favorite time of year for photography, conditions and circumstances beyond control have placed a damper on many of the places and locales I often photograph between Estes Park and Boulder.
At time like these, landscape photography can seem trivial compared to the damage and devastation the flooding in and around Boulder has caused to peoples homes, business and communities at large. Even so, I look to my photography as a temporary diversion to the reality of the situation that will now accompany us for sometime.
A triple whammy would be the best way to describe what’s happened here this autumn. First the historic flooding that inundated Boulder and Estes Park which in turn closed roads and trails. Secondly, a spate of wet, cold and windy weather over the Front Range at the end of September combined with an above average year for moisture tempered the fall colors rendering many tree’s leafless, brown or still green. And the lastly, our good friends in government provided us with first hand kabuki theater and shut down the government, or at least thirty percent of it making access to National Parks and in particular Rocky Mountain National Park, impossible.
I can only describe the last month in one word, frustrating. It would be hard for me to believe that cabin fever could settle in over the month of September, but that’s what its felt like for me. Not being able to access places I find vital to my soul has been difficult. I daydream in envy thinking of the herds of elk, or solitary black bear trudging through the meadows or back country of Rocky Mountain National Park with nary a human for miles. A return to primal times is what it must feel like in all these once so easily accessible locations.
Things are starting to look up however. Roads are starting to reopen including Colorado highway 119 through Boulder Canyon. This will make getting to the Peak to Peak highway and Estes Park much more convenient. I’m holding out hope that our federal government can come to some sort of compromise on funding and Rocky Mountain National Park can reopen sooner than later.
So until Rocky Mountain National Park reopens and many of the trails on Open Space and Mountain Park property in Boulder are repaired, I’ll be looking for other opportunities to photograph and keep the rust off, including a quick trip back east for fall color. Patience will be paramount, but sooner than later we can all put these bumpy few months behind us and start returning to our usual haunts.