Visitors to this blog know that I try to hammer home the point that one has to visit a location many times, in different season and varying weather conditions to convey a sense of place which will show through in your photography.
If you photographed long enough you’ve likely had moments of serendipity where you’ve shown up at a location and more or less by chance and luck had once in a lifetime type conditions unfold in front of you and your camera. While you may be thinking to yourself that these kind of conditions happen all of the time, the reality is luck and timing worked in your favor.
There’s a fine line between obsessing and spending to much time on a given location, and giving up to easily or thinking you have a given location in the bag so to speak. I can recount many instances when I’ve thought to myself that I’ve captured a location in a manner that can not be improved upon, only to make second and third attempts and find there is no such thing as a ‘final statement’ image.
There are just to many possibilities when photographing a given location to think one can make ‘final statement’ images. The light changes, the sky changes, the weather changes as does the flora. The possibilities are limitless.
So with that in mind, I spent the first few days of the new year photographing a particular Ponderosa pine that sits on a hillside in Moraine Park. 2014 has been cold and unsettled so Rocky Mountain National Park has had its share of snow, cold and clouds to start the new year.
The ‘Polar Vortex’ as it is know known is our lexicon, allowed me to photograph this one particular location from both different angles while also allowing me to convey very different representations and moods of both the same location and tree. It’s a good example of why its important to keep visiting the same locations and coming away with differing results. In other words, visiting the same location many times with your camera is one of the most effective ways to communicate a sense of place to your audience.
The plan was to hike up to Chasm Lake at the base of Longs Peak for sunrise. Chasm Lake is both a favorite location to photograph and also a favorite hike of mine in Rocky Mountain National Park. As I often emphasize in my blog, plans change and one needs to remain flexible. This morning was no different.
It’s rare for me to see other people out and about on most of my pre-dawn hikes into a given location. Occasionally, I’ll see a climber or two prepping at the trailhead on my way out but mostly its solitary adventure.
The hike to Chasm Lake shares the same the route to the summit of Longs Peak for over three miles. Because this route is shared with one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, it differs from most of my pre-dawn adventures in that I’m hiking the route along with a lot of other hikers, even at 3 AM. Most of these other adventures have their sights set on summiting Longs Peak, Rocky’s only fourteener and highest peak.
An early morning hike from the Longs Peak trailhead is one of the most unique experiences visitors can have in Rocky Mountain National Park. The parking lot and trailhead buzz with activity and excitement long before sunrise as hikers and climbers prepare to ascend this Colorado landmark in time to avoid violent late afternoon weather common to the area.
I broke through the hustle and bustle of the parking area and pushed on past the ever lit trail register at the start of the trail and off into to the darkness of the forest. The hike was uneventful as I passed a few parties resting and eating breakfast along the side of the trail.
In less than an hour I was above tree line. I could see the silhouetted mantle of Longs Peak ahead. Just below Mount Lady Washington I could see a string of lights bobbing along the alpine tundra headed towards the summit of Longs Peak. The view of headlamps emitting light like fireflies along the trail is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine there are this many other people out and about at this time of morning.
As I neared Chasm Junction, the clouds that had filled the air on the hike up had quickly begun to dissipate over the peaks. The wind was picking up in strength as well and I quickly started to assess my ‘Plan B’ options. Without clouds over Longs Peak and with a stiff breeze blowing Chasm Lake was becoming less than optimal for the morning shoot.
Luckily, there are no shortages of choices when it comes to alternate locations to photograph in the area. Chasm Meadows was and option but as I scanned the skies, there were still clouds over the eastern plains of Colorado. Columbine Falls looked like just the place to be for sunrise.
I often photograph Columbine Falls on my way back down from Chasm Lake as you essentially hike right over the top of Columbine Falls on your way to and from Chasm Lake. One shouldn’t short change Columbine Falls however, as it deserves to be a destination all its own.
Columbine falls essentially runs west to east. Being orientated as such, it’s a good location to work in varying conditions as you increase your chances for dramatic lighting when you can photograph in both directions. This is what makes it such a great fallback location when things are not coming together as planned.
Sunrise unfolded over the plains of eastern Colorado and although clouds had pushed away from the divide, Columbine Falls was a better location to be in this day then Chasm Lake from a photographers standpoint.
It doesn’t happen often in Rocky Mountain National Park, but when it does occur you can bet I’m going to be somewhere in the park trying to capture it. What exactly am I talking about that will have me scrambling or driving to the highest points in Rocky?. That would be what’s known as an inversion.
Weather inversions are typically caused when colder air is trapped at lower elevations where in turn warmer air resides above the colder air below. Inversions are pretty much the opposite of how temperatures are typically encountered in Rocky Mountain National Park where normally climbing in altitude will result in cooler temperatures than at lower elevations.
Glassy eyed, some of you are probably what the heck I’m talking about and what relevance does this have to photography in Rocky Mountain National Park. My reason for babbling on is quite simple, inversions open up and create lots of opportunities for rare and dramatic photography in the park.
In Rocky its common for it to be both windy and dry. Monsoonal moisture flows from the southwest can create opportunities for moisture in the summer. These flows typically cause late afternoon thunderstorms and rain which are triggered by daytime heating. Come sunrise, one will usually find all the clouds and rain from the monsoonal flow will have dissipated once the atmosphere has cooled overnight leaving you with our more typical clear, Colorado blue bird morning skies.
Lower pressure to the south and east of Denver is what will allow for conditions that will produce a weather inversion. Counterclockwise or as we call them here on the Front Range, ‘upsloping’ winds out of the east/northeast will often trap cooler air at the surface and suspend warmer air aloft. When this occurs, Viola!, you have nature’s cloud machine working in your favor.
During a temperature inversion, it can be easy to be fooled into thinking its just a cloudy morning. In these conditions, the best thing to do is to get as high(in altitude!) as is possible. Every inversion is a little different but I would recommend trying to climb around or above 11,000 ft, or simply drive Trail Ridge Road until you get above the inversion and cloud line. Once you get above the inversion, the possibilities for photography are endless.
As photographers, we’ve all been there. Were visiting town on business or other personal matters but a must photograph location is nearby and beckoning to us. The problem is we only have a small amount of time to get out an photograph the said location. You do your research, study maps and keep your fingers crossed the gods of photography are on your side.
I’m a big proponent of investing time with your subjects and really getting to know a location or area. I’m a realist also. We all have busy lives and schedules and sometimes you’ve got to take the time your given and run with it. In situations like these where you just need to tune out the background noise and just get right to the meat and potatoes.
I’ll do my best here to lay out a quick, half day guide to photographing Rocky Mountain National Park that give you the best chance of success with your limited time. I’m basing these recommendations on photographing Rocky Mountain National Park during the busy summer season when access and weather are most favorable for a half day visit. I’m also basing my recommendations based on photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning. Mornings in Rocky will more often than not provide favorable conditions at the locations recommended.
Just to preface this recommendation, I find all of Rocky Mountain National Park beautiful. I don’t personally have any one location that’s my favorite. Locations in Rocky are like your children. I don’t have a favorite, they are all full of limitless potential, but some are a little more receptive and productive then others.
Lets cut right to the chase. It’s one of the most popular locations in Rocky Mountain National Park for a reason. The Bear Lake Road area, and in particular the trailheads emanating from the Bear Lake parking lot will give a photographer visiting for a half a day the greatest chance of capturing Rocky in all her glory.
The Bear Lake trailheads can take you far and wide to locations around the park. For this scenario however, the most productive trail will be the Emerald Lake trail. The Emerald Lake trail will take you past Bear Lake(.01 mi), Nymph Lake(.5 mi), Dream Lake(1.1 mi) and Emerald Lake(1.8 mi) if desired. It’s a fairly short trail and moderate to easy in its climb so that out of town visitors in fair condition should be able to traverse the trail with little difficulty if they give themselves enough time.
For this scenario, the farthest most photographers will need to venture is the 1.1 miles to Dream Lake. Dream Lake is one of Colorado’s most iconic locations. Next to the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake, I cant think of another alpine lake more photographed than Dream Lake.
Give yourself enough time to arrive at Dream Lake at least 30 minutes before sunrise. You probably wont be the only photographer at the lake and arriving to the lake early allows you to explore locations and find a nice vantage along the eastern outlet of Dream Lake. The eastern outlet area affords the nicest view of Hallet Peak and Dream Lake and is also the area of the lake most likely to have smooth water if winds are present, which is probable. The shallow water and more sheltered location on the east end of Dream Lake mean that often Dream Lake may be rippled and copy while the outlet area remains smooth. Furthermore, I would recommend you have a wide angle lens available to capture the scene. Depending on whether its a horizontal or vertical image, I find a 17mm to 24mm lens work best a capturing the peaks, sky and reflections(Full Frame DSLR equivalent).
Photograph sunrise from Dream Lake. First light over Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain are something to behold. After first light has bathed Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain in pink and gold, be prepared to move and explore the vicinity around Dream Lake.
Both the stream running from the outlet of Dream Lake and the small tarns the stream forms just east of Dream Lake can make for impressive views of the area. After photographing Dream Lake at sunrise one can either hike an additional .5 miles up to Tyndall Falls, or instead head back downhill towards Nymph and Bear Lake.
On your hike back down from Dream Lake, be prepared to spend sometime photographing Nymph Lake. The area around Nymph Lake has been hit hard by Pine Beatle kill in the last ten years. Even so, Nymph Lake offers terrific views of Hallet Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park’s on Fourteener and highest mountain, Longs Peak.
While Nymph Lake offers impressive views of Hallet Peak as well as Longs Peak, there is plenty of opportunity to capture more intimate scenes at Nymph. Pond Lilies bloom on the surface of Nymph Lake from late June through early August. The possibilities are nearly limitless.
You’ve now capture sunrise at Dream Lake, spent sometime photographing the views and pond lilies and your ready to complete your morning hike and make one last stop at Bear Lake.
Bear Lake offers numerous possibilities as well. View of both Hallet Peak and Longs Peak are impressive from Bear Lake. The eastern shore of Bear Lake is a great location to capture Hallet Peak. Hike around to the northern shore of Bear Lake for equally as impressive views of Longs Peak.
Bear Lake is particularly photographic during the Autumn season. Aspen trees line the hillsides around Bear Lake making it a prime photographic destination in the fall. One could easily spend their entire morning photographing at Bear Lake alone, especially during the third week of September which typically coincides with peak fall color.
Well there you have it. These are my suggestions on how to use your limited time in Rocky Mountain National Park to increase your chances of a successful but short but productive photographic adventure.
I’ve been getting a few emails regarding the current condition of Rocky, what lakes have opened up and how much snow there is yet to melt off. I expect conditions to change fairly quickly in the next few weeks as it looks like a longer stretch of warm more temperate weather is about to settle in for at least a week.
I expect this warm up to have a pretty significant impact on melting and opening up of some lakes in the park. That being said we have a long way to go. There is a lot of snow in the higher elevations in Rocky right now.
In the fifteen years I’ve been photographing Rocky, I personally cant remember a year where there was this much snow present so late into the spring. I’d suggest that everybody get used to the fun of post holing when hiking for at least the next few weeks.
The two images included in this post are from the last two weeks. Conditions will change quickly and everybody needs to be prudent and safe when walking near frozen and thawing bodies of water. It’s often difficult to tell whether your standing on snow along the shoreline, or snow on top of soft, unstable ice.
Moraine and Horseshoe Park are free of snow. The meadows are just starting to green up and both Fall River and the Big Thompson are starting flow at a good pace. I’m eagerly awaiting the wildflowers in Moraine Park this year as the combination of heavy moisture and the revived soil from the Fern Creek fire could make for an interesting display.
Sprague Lake is completely free of ice now. The last little bit of ice on Sprague melted off at the end of last week. Bierstadt Lake was still covered by ice as of this weekend. The edges had just begun to thaw out and I expect Bierstadt to open up quickly from here on out as it was apparent the ice sheet is very soft.
Bear and Nymph lake still remained buried under the heavy snowpack. Dream Lake’s outlet has begun to thaw out and there is open water to be found.
At this point, lakes at about 10,000 ft or higher in Rocky Mountain National Park are going to be frozen well into June. The higher lakes are buried under considerable snow so it’s going to take a lot of energy to thaw them. Until then, the lakes, streams and waterfalls at lower elevations should keep photographers busy.
It’s that time of year again. The time to start making plans for summer vacations and weekend trips to beautiful locations. It’s time to shake off the winter doldrums and dust off your camera gear and to start getting back out in the field to photograph again. It’s time to get motivated again and taking advantage of the upcoming season to add to your portfolio. Below are three simple and easy ideas that will help to improve your motivation and success rate this year.
1. Start A Project: Most photographers I know dream of travelling the world and heading to exotic locations to create images of the worlds most dramatic and beautiful locations. It sounds amazing and a lucky few may even get to pursue this endeavor. The reality is most of us will not be able to break out the black American Express card and start booking flights to Fiji or Bora Bora.
For most of us, we have limited time and resources available. Whether your a professional landscape photographer or a weekend warrior our time and resources are precious and limited. Starting a project and building a portfolio of work from that project is a great way to circumvent this problem. Not to sound like an economist as opposed to a photographer, but there are real efficiencies built into creating a specific body of work.
Projects allow a photographer to manage cost and expenses while maximizing their time and resources building a specific body of work. The more time you spend working on a specific project, the more you become and expert in that subject. Building on your knowledge of your subject while immersed in a project allows you to target locations, set goals, and intimately understand the workings of the subject and area. Like a rolling stone, the momentum of a project builds upon itself to produce superior results.
2. Make A To-Do List: I realize this is supposed to be a landscape photography blog, not time management 101 but hear me out. It’s contrary to how most believe landscape photography works but I believe its important even for photographers in the field.
Many believe that nature photographers wander around aimlessly until something strikes their fancy. While we have all used this technique to varying degrees and some probably have even had some moderate success doing so, I’d be willing to bet more often than not this technique ends with lots of missed opportunities and time spent out of location.
Having a subject To-Do list allows you to keep your eye on the prize and stay focused. I usually keep a list in the note section of my phone that’s easily accessible. The list acts as a way for me to quickly jog my memory and settle on a destination for a shoot.
It’s a loose list and its not meant to be the be all and end all, but it helps me to avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’ syndrome in the field. Indecisiveness causes delay, delays will often cause you to be out of position or rushed when the magic starts to unfold. Having a To-Do list of subjects or locations will let you quickly work through indecisiveness and increase your chance for success.
3. Get In Shape: I cant tell you how often on online forums I read about landscape photographers obsessing over the weight of their gear. There are pages of discussions online about the benefits of compact lightweight tripods. Most of these center on expensive tripods made of the latest state of the art composite materials which cost an arm and a leg to purchase.
A good tripod is certainly an asset and weight is a real issue that photographers need to be addressed. But lets be honest, the most beneficial way to cut down on weight in the field is probably staring right back at you when looking in the mirror. Losing a few pounds here and there will not only make you feel better, but being physically fit in the field with most certainly improve your photography.
Landscape photography involves early mornings and late nights in the fields. It most often involves hiking long distances over difficult terrain. Much of the time in the field may not be spent in ideal weather conditions either. To find dramatic lighting, photographers often have to work and function along the edges of lighting and weather conditions.
Working under these conditions can be challenging both physically and mentally. Being physically prepared to work under these circumstances is a benefit to your photography. Instead of being tired or worn down in the field, being fit will allow you to concentrate on your surroundings and more importantly your photography.
I find staying ‘field ready’ essential to my photography. It allows me to arrive on time to my destinations without feeling rushed. I can quickly recover from the physical challenge and spend time studying my subject and concentrating on my photography instead of trying to catch my breath and keep the sweat out of my eyes. You don’t need to start running ten miles a day to see the benefits of being physically fit. Small steps towards achieving this goal will immediately make a big difference in your photography.
I find these three steps beneficial to my landscape photography. What I find most beneficial about these three steps is that they are all free of charge. You wont need to spend thousands of dollars to see results. Enact these three steps even in small stages and I believe you will quickly see positive results to your photography.
Since it’s still the offseason in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lakes and trails are still frozen over, one needs to get a bit creative to find subjects to photograph. One of my favorite subjects to photograph anytime of year are trees.
The potential and beauty found in the different shapes, contortions, and forms of tree’s are endless. Tree’s are a great subject all times of year. Here are a few of my tricks and tips for photographing trees successfully.
1. Eliminate Distractions: Naturally tree’s tend to grow amongst other trees and foliage. I find its very important when photographing images of trees to be very aware of what’s happening in the viewfinder. Rogue branches, leaves and deadfall can all become distractions that draw the eye away from the subject. Make sure to check the edges of your viewfinder or LCD screen carefully when composing to avoid distracting objects.
2. Make Order Out Of Chaos: This is one of the most important items when photographing trees. Naturally scenes with tree’s in them tend to be chaotic. I find it’s best to try to avoid converging lines. When setting up your tripod and framing your composition, try to keep spacing between tree trunks and allow room on the edges of the frame. Not every group of trees are going to make for an interesting composition. In fact I find nine out of ten times I scout out a group of trees, I end up moving on because there’s just no way to photograph the scene and eliminate distractions.
3. Rule Of Odds: This is a personal preference of mine. It’s certainly a rule that can and should be broken but one that I find most pleasing when photographing trees. Often I find that the best images of trees come when the tree’s are found in odd numbered groups. One, Three or Five trees placed cleanly in an image seems more pleasing to the eye the even numbered groups. Of course this is only a general and I have some very successful images of tree’s in even numbers as well.
4. Singularity: This is much more difficult to accomplish than many would think. Finding a single tree with a clean background can be quite difficult. It’s rare in nature to find a single tree that has not been encroached upon by bushes, branches, rocks and deadfall. Even if you do find a single tree it can be even more difficult to find a clean, non distraction background to use as a backdrop. Single tree’s make for powerful imagery as the exemplify independence, perseverance and tenacity.
Again these are just general rules, and rules in general are meant to be broken. This is the checklist I work off of when out in the field photographing tree’s. It helps me to quickly break down a scene and decide if I should just enjoy the view and move on, or if its time to drop the pack and setup the tripod and start shooting.
It’s the middle of winter and sometimes it can be difficult motivating oneself to head out into the elements to create images. It’s easy to want to hit the snooze button on your alarm and stay in the comfort of a warm bed. Winter photography can be challenging but rewarding. Here are three suggestions for getting out and the elements and successfully photographing Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.
The Tahosa Valley and the Twin Sisters: Located along Highway 7, the Tahosa Valley and the Twin Sisters formation offer some of the most impressive views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker, the two tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike up the Twin Sisters trailhead for impressive views of Longs Peak and it’s famous eastern face known as the Diamond.
Trail Ridge Road and The Mummy Range: The Mummy Range has a southeast facing orientation. This southeasterly orientation is ideal for capturing the winter sun which rises in the southeast this time of year. A short hike up a closed Trail Ridge Road from Many Park’s curve will result in spectacular viewpoints of Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita and Yipsilon Mountain. It’s common to find clouds floating over the peaks of the Mummy Range which will only help to aid in capturing even more stunning light at sunrise.
Bear Lake Area: Nearly everybody favorite spot in Rocky Mountain National Park for winter activities of all sorts. There are endless possibilities for winter photography in this area. Slap on some snowshoes or cross country skies and impressive viewpoints of the backside of Longs Peak, or towering blocky summit of Hallet Peak lend themselves to your camera and lens. Dream Lake is a popular location even in the middle of winter. Images of Hallet Peak from Dream Lake are just as impressive in winter as is summer, but Dream Lake also attracts photographers looking to photograph abstract images of its icy surface. Because Hallet and Flattop mountain have a northeast orientation, late winter will provide fuller and more complete lighting of this iconic location.
Sunrises on the High Plains of Colorado are often magnificent. No two sunrises over the plains are ever alike. Each sunrise is as unique as fingerprints are to one’s hand. The intensity of the colors, the shape of the clouds, and the richness of light are always changing and varied.
In this day and age of digital photography and the use of software to enhance and refine imagery, some may be skeptical of the intensity of the colors and light that some of my sunrise images exhibit. When photographing a location, it is never my intent to reproduce an exact carbon copy of the scene. There are tweaks and adjustments made to some of my images, but sunrises photographed over the Front Range and High Plains rarely need much work after they are photographed.
When photographing sunrises, I prefer to head out long before dawn on mornings when there is a good amount of cloud cover overhead. Before the sun appears, the light show begins. Clouds will begin to pickup the colors of the sun and the hues an intensity of the light will change rapidly as sunrise approaches. Like a kid in a candy store, I use this time to vary my compositions and experiment with my exposures. My advice, get out early, capture the intensity of the sunrise and spend less time in front of the computer after your shoot.
Disclaimer: Photographing ice can be a dangerous and deadly activity. Conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park can change rapidly causing ice to quickly become unstable. Before wandering out on the ice to explore, I strongly advise that you check with NPS Rangers for the latest conditions before heading out on the ice.
It’s that time of year again. That time of year when you start to see shots of ice fractures and patterns from Rocky Mountain National Park popping up all over the internet. It’s a subject that has been photographed quite a bit, but even still some may wonder where and how to capture images of ice in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While there are many locations in Colorado where one can photograph ice patterns on our lakes and streams, Rocky has some of the best locals in all of Colorado to photograph icy surfaces. Combine plentiful locations to photograph ice, with your typical winter doldrums and photographing ice can be the perfect cure to get you back out in the field with your camera.
Rocky is chock full of watery locations that will freeze over once the colder weather settles in. There are however, a few locations that are more accessible and more popular locations to photograph ice in the Park.
Dream Lake tops the list of my popular locations to photograph ice in Rocky. The high winds that race down from the peaks above Dream Lake act like nature’s Zamboni. Even when there is heavy snowpack, winds will often sweep the surfaces of Dream Lake exposing large swaths of the icy surface of the lake. Dream Lake is also a fairly short hike in the winter. The trail is heavily used and will most likely be hard packed. It rarely requires snowshoes to access but I would recommend snow spikes or Yak-Trax type equipment to make your footing a little more sure on the ice and snow.
The Loch, like Dream Lake is also a very good location to photograph ice. The winds at the Loch in the winter can be relentless. This of course will keep large areas of the good size lake free of snow and ready for exploration. The Loch requires a bit more of a physical commitment to reach than Dream Lake but you are likely to encounter fewer photographers here than Dream Lake.
For those who want to avoid long hikes or extended periods out in the cold and wind, Fall River in Horseshoe Park, and the Big Thompson River in Moraine Park can provide some nice areas of ice, especially if the snowpack is lower. Keep in mind you will be able to find interesting ice patterns in just about any location in Rocky Mountain National Park where there is water present.
As for actually photographing the ice and the patterns, I recommend taking your time to observe the patterns, bubbles and fractures present on the ice. Try lots of different compositions and look for patterns or anomalies in the ice that will make for an interesting subject. My favorite lenses when photographing ice are my 100mm Macro lens and my 24-105mm lens. I find the 85-105mm range to be best at isolating the patterns.
Furthermore, keep in mind that weather conditions will play a big part in your results in the field. Cloudless Colorado bluebird days will result in the ice taking on a bluish hue from the sky reflecting in the ice. Cloudy days will result in the ice taking on a more milky white like hue. I recommend you photograph the ice in Raw. Why you ask?, mostly because this gives you the option of adjusting your white balance when processing your shots. This will result in much more dynamic images as you can decide to warm and or cool the white balance based on your desired results.