been a whirlwind week for me. I’m currently back on the east coast visiting with family as well as taking some time early in the mornings to get out, explore and photograph landscapes that are very different from my usual Colorado haunts. Waterfalls, beaches and lots of green stuff to shoot here in New York which makes for a nice change of pace.
I flew out to New York from Colorado just after 9:00 AM on Saturday. Before I left I had to get one more morning sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was limited to where I could go shoot because I would only have a short amount of time before I needed to hustle to Denver International Airport to make my flight. With sunrise at 5:30 AM I figured I would have just enough time to get somewhere for sunrise but of course hiking long distances was out of the question.
I find it easy to overlook some of the areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that don’t require long hikes or huge efforts to access come summertime. It’s fun opening a map of the park and finding far away lakes to explore and photograph but sometimes this approach leads me to neglect some of my favorite, more easily accessible locations.
Restrictions placed on your photography oftentimes can be the most beneficial. It can keep you focused and forced to work within your limitations. So with all that said, Lily Lake made for a perfect spot to spend a truncated morning in Rocky. Of course having an amazing sunrise made it all the more worthwhile and made the rush back down to the airport to catch my flight.
landscape photographers I know strive to create images that are beautiful, dramatic and as close to technically flawless as possible. With the amount of talented landscape photographers exponentially increasing and the endless ways of showcasing and sharing images both on online and in print, viewing beautiful landscape photography is a click or page away. The quantity and quality of images has never been greater. Being bombarded with this constant flow of spectacular images can make it feel as if attaining images of similar caliber is like trying to catch lighting in a bottle.
This overload of imagery leads many photographers down a path thats simply not attainable, nor healthy for their artistic pursuits, that of the search for perfection. The search for the perfect image, perfect conditions, perfect sunrise detracts from being in the moment, from appreciating fully the time at hand. It’s a difficult concept for some but let me spell it out. There is no such thing as a perfect image, perfect camera, perfect lens or perfect location. We may be able to achieve near perfect images that are compelling, pleasing or even near technically perfect, but they will never in actuality be perfect. The inherent flaws of the artist and the medium are what make the image unique and compelling. Over the last 20 years I have seen many talented photographers burn themselves out and put their cameras away for good all because they were searching for the unattainable goal of perfection.
Why the rant on perfection?. Mostly because I found myself falling into the trap a little more than I was comfortable with last week. Success in landscape photography seems to come in ebbs and flows. Some weeks it seems you cant miss. Every sunrise is dramatic, beautiful clouds hover over the peaks and the wind is calm. Inevitably, the tide will turn and things wont go exactly as you want them to. Clouds may obscure the sunrise that looked so promising, or the wind may be blowing as a gale when you arrive at that alpine lake after a 6 mile predawn hike. I find it’s as easy to fall into the trap when things are breaking your way just as much as when there not. Either way I’ve gotten better over time in recognizing when the search for perfection starts affecting my enjoyment in the field and being present in the moment regardless how successful an outing is.
It was a combination of sunrise at Chautauqua Park and a morning in Rocky Mountain National Park in conditions that I thought were less than ideal that had me pressing a little more than I was comfortable with. Funny enough, both morning yielded images that I’m very pleased with. Stepping back, sticking with it and more importantly being present in the moment helped wrestle the perfection bug back to the ground and off my back.
Somebody needs to send the memo to Mother Nature that summer is just around the corner. Mother nature seems a bit confused as to how she is supposed to start behaving, it just wont be me. Rain, snow, fog and wind have all made regular appearances into June making for some very interesting conditions for photography.
One of my favorite locations in Rocky Mountain National Park is The Loch, and when the weather is unsettled it always lives up to its billing. Abner Sprague is credited with giving the Loch and Loch Vale area its name. On a foggy or rainy day the landscape is certainly reminiscent of a Scottish lake though this is not exactly how the Sprague came up with the name.
Abner Sprague guided many of the early adventurers through what was to become Rocky Mountain National Park. During one of these trips Sprague and his client Mr. Locke were hunkered down in a snowstorm overnight near Fern Lake. After surviving the night near Fern Lake with Mr. Locke, Sprague named a lake in his honor. Sprague named The Loch after Mr. Locke but instead altered Mr. Locke’s name more fittingly to that of a Scottish lake.
There are unlimited scenic wonders in Rocky Mountain National Park. That being said, anytime I have an opportunity to return to The Loch while dramatic weather conditions are unfolding I jump at the chance. It’s hard to pass up The Loch’s dramatic beauty which is only compounded when fog and clouds cloak the peaks surrounding The Loch in a veil like fashion. So when I arrived at The Loch last week and found the waters still and the peaks shrouded I took a good few moments to just sit and enjoy the silence and serenity before watching the fog and clouds lift from the valley while the peaks bathed in the warm morning sun.
doesn’t get any better than when the park service finally gets Trail Ridge Road cleared and open for business each year. It signals the beginning of summer, a change in the weather as well as access to many part of Rocky Mountain National Park that would otherwise require herculean efforts to access. Photographers can now have access to many more area of the park to shoot and create images. Access to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is now a snap as opposed to having to travel around and over Berthoud Pass.
The opening of Trail Ridge Road still requires vigilance. After it’s opening in May, Trail Ridge Road had to be temporarily closed down a few more times when it was again covered by snow. I made my first trip over Trail Ridge on Sunday June 1st. A dusting of light snow awaited me in the areas around Forest Canyon Overlook as well as the Rock Cut and Alpine Visitor center areas. It certainly did not feel like June 1st but then that’s to be expected at the higher elevations in Colorado where the push towards summer sometimes seems as if its being led by a pack of turtles.
So with the high peaks still covered with lots of snow, an early trip over Trail Ridge Road can be rewarding for photographers. Locations that are accessible in summer only to the most determined adventurers such as the Hayden Gorge and Gorge Lakes area can be photographed across Forest Canyon with relative ease from overlooks and pull offs along Trail Ridge road.
Unlike other areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, the ability to drive along Trail Ridge road allows you to take advantage of changing conditions and move locations quickly. You’re not committed to a long hike from which you are unable to change locations as conditions warrant. While I’ll take hiking to a location in the park any day over driving, being able to traverse lots of terrain quickly in one’s vehicle while conditions rapidly change can lead to a bonanza of possibilities.
Sunday morning this worked quite well for me. Rain showers were moving over the Estes Valley and there was only a few small breaks in the cloud cover. Rainbow Curve provided the perfect location to photograph the muted sunrise to the east. The conditions in the sky were changing fairly quickly and it looked like the sun would break through some of the cloud cover, especially moving west along Trail Ridge Road. Rounding the bend near the Forest Canyon overlook I could see Mt. Julian catching dappled in speckled light as the sun broke through the cloud cover. Within a minute of setting of my camera and tripod the light had disappeared from the flanks of Mt. Julian. All in all another good morning on Trail Ridge Road. Did I mention how great it was to have it back open?
it or not, sometimes it can be a struggle figuring out exactly what location I’m going to photograph on any particular morning. It can be a tug of war between committing yourself to hike many miles into a given location, versus changing it up based on photographing an area where the conditions are more favorable for dramatic conditions and lighting. Adjusting to the conditions present or committing to a location the night before both have their benefits, but they also open the possibility of overthink and indecision. I find overthink and indecision not conducive to photography. If they are not remedied quickly, one may be watching a beautiful sunrise unfold from a less than optimal location.
Sometimes however, you just have to ditch the plan, go with the flow and adapt to the conditions at hand. This was the position I found myself in last week in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a long winter I was looking forward to an early morning hike up to the Loch for sunrise. Of course a three mile long hike up to the Loch before sunrise requires a commitment. Once you set off from your car and get into the backcountry, your not going to have the time or energy to turn around and change your plans and put yourself in a good position for the fast approaching sunrise.
Conditions were looking pretty good as I drove through the Beaver Meadows entry to Rocky Mountain National Park. There were plenty of clouds hovering over the park which of course increases the probability for lots of color at sunrise. I made the left turn onto Bear Lake Road and wound my way down through Moraine Park. From Moraine Park one gets a commanding view of the continental divide and the prominent peaks on the east side of Rocky. I could see clearly from Moraine Park that all the clouds had moved east of the continental divide. It sure looked like the peaks would be devoid of any clouds this morning. Regardless I was determined to hike up to the Loch so I continued on to the Glacier Gorge parking lot hoping the cloud cover would thicken over the high peaks.
Arriving at the Glacier Gorge parking lot I could clearly see there were no clouds over any of the peaks to the west but plenty of clouds still to the east. Putting on my backpack I had a nagging feeling that I might not be in the best spot for sunrise. A gust of wind made my decision for me. No clouds over the peaks, lots of wind and decent cloud cover to the east and I was back in my truck quickly heading back down to Moraine Park.
I did not have a great plan at this point but sunrise to the east was looking promising. I figured I would get into the meadow in Moraine Park face east and setup near some water. I settled on a spot near where Cub Creek spills out into Moraine on it’s way towards the Big Thompson. Soon the sky above Moraine Park was ablaze with color and I was busy photographing one beautiful sunrise. So while I missed my hike to the Loch, changing up the game plan and staying flexible paid dividends for me this morning.
been another good week for photography. Our spate of interesting and unsettled weather has kept me on my toes adjusting to the conditions and working on some new compositions. With the Memorial Day holiday right around the corner, Trail Ridge Road should be opened no later than May 23rd according to the park service. Currently Trail Ridge Road is open to Rainbow Curve so even know some new opportunities are opening. It’s going to feel great to a ride over Trail Ridge as the September flooding and park closures last year made it difficult to access before the winter weather finally closed the road for the season.
The cool wet spring in Rocky Mountain National Park looks as if its been delaying some of the harbingers of spring. While water is flowing and many of the lakes now have open water, many of the trails in the higher elevations are still covered in considerable snow cover. Grasses in Moraine and Horseshoe park are starting to turn green while many aspen trees have just started to bud out. I’m expecting that the combination of rain last fall, good snowpack over the winter and a wet spring will allow for a precipitous wildflower bloom in Rocky this year. Other than Pasque flowers and some cactus plants, there is yet to be any signs of wildflowers blooming at the lower elevations in the park as of yet.
Down in Boulder things are a little more green and the wildflower bloom has started in ernest throughout the open space properties in town. Golden Banner is currently blooming over many of the Open Space and Mountain Park’s properties with Chautauqua Park being the best location to photograph dense clumps that mostly survived last weeks snowstorm. I also spied a few clumps of early blooming Silver Lupine in Chautauqua meadow below the Flatirons. It’s a bit early for lupine but I would expect them to start peaking within a few weeks.
So while Rocky Mountain National Park still has a little ways to go before wildflowers begin to bloom in the lower lying areas and snow still needs to melt at the higher elevations, the open space properties around Boulder are well on their way to summer like conditions with good patches of wildflowers to be found with more on the way.
Weather in the Rockies is an interesting thing. The extremes between seasons are dramatic and can whipsaw quickly. In fact, in my sixteen years of living here on the Front Range of Colorado the entire concept of there actually being such a thing as seasons can seem downright laughable at times. How many places in the United States can one wake in the morning, clear a foot of snow of their car, start it and have the air conditioning still blasting full force from the previous days warm temperatures?
As I write this, I’m staring out my window at trees with vibrant greens leaves of spring. The issue of course is there is a good six inches of snow covering the leaves and branches of said tree from last nights storm, and oh yeah, the snow is still falling. I’m not complaining. Bad weather makes for great images and as the saying goes, when the weather gives you lemons, you need to make lemonade or something to that extent.
While there was still a good amount of snow hanging around the higher elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park, spring like conditions where quickly starting to settle in. Lakes and streams in the lower to mid elevations of the park had thawed and are free from ice. In fact many of the lakes even at higher elevations had thawed to the point of having large areas of water free from ice. It’s an exciting time of year when winter starts to release it’s grip and new opportunities for photography open up.
So with a large spring snowstorm bearing down on Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided to head up to Cub Lake for sunrise before the snow really started flying. It’s always impressive to watch the weather conditions transform as a storm system moves over the park. The high peaks of the park are enveloped in with clouds, snow begins to blow over the continental divide and the wind begins to pick up. Not necessarily the best conditions for photography, but conditions that may at least lead to some drama in the sky and over the peaks.
With the wind howling, and snow blowing I arrived at Cub Lake before sunrise. Like I always do when its this windy, I checked for some area of water that was partially sheltered from the winds which where forming small white caps on Cub Lake. No such luck, pretty much the entire lake was being raked by the wind. There was one small area near the outlet to the lake which was not as choppy and a little more smooth than directly along the shoreline. Problem is I would have to wade into the mud a foot plus deep water to get in a position to photograph.
The sky was starting to fill with intense color over Cub Lake. Off I went wading through the mud, muck, water and snow with camera and tripod in hand. I would not be able to capture a reflection of Stones Peak from this location, but the greening grasses growing from the lake made a nice enough foreground. So while the wind only intensified, the light and color put on by the rising sun was well worth wet pants, boots and cold feet.
It can be difficult to contain my excitement when I think of summer settling into Rocky Mountain National Park. I can think of no place I’d rather be then hiking back down a trail after shooting sunrise at one of Rocky’s hundreds of backcountry alpine lakes and tarns. The warm sun on your face, the smell of the pines amplified by the morning dew, hopscotching around the puddles on the trail from the previous nights thunderstorms are experiences as close to nirvana as anything I can imagine.
Summer season in Rocky is almost here. Sure there is lots of snow in the high country of Rocky, but conditions are changing quickly. The weather is finally warming and the snow is starting to melt at a good pace. Lakes like Sprague and Cub have mostly thawed and are free from ice. Many of the other lakes around 9000 ft or less have also opened up or are partially open. Grasses are starting to green in both Moraine and Horseshoe park. Summer will be here before you know it, and I for one can wait.
Besides checking out the conditions around Rocky Mountain National Park this week, I also took the time to photograph a few mornings. In particular, I was able to photograph one area that I’ve been eyeing since last fall. It’s an image that was not possible before last Septembers flooding. The flooding while devastating has mostly been mitigated to a point that only small areas of Rocky Mountain National Park are affected.
Stream crossings on many trailheads are missing and many places along Old Fall River road have been washed out, but considering the vastness of Rocky these will only prove to be minor inconveniences for summer visitors to Rocky. The power and scope of the flooding is still evident in Rocky Mountain National Park in many areas however. In particular the landscape along the Roaring River and the Alluvial Fan reveals the intensity with which the flooding occurred.
The Alluvial Fan was formed when a man made dam failed at Lawn Lake on July 15th, 1982. Three visitors lost their lives and the dam break flooded downtown Estes Park. The torrent of water pushed boulders and sand downstream forming the Alluvial Fan in Horseshoe Park. Fast forward to September of 2013 and the area saw a near repeat of the Lawn Lake dam break, this time caused by nearly 20 inches of rain over a three day period.
The September flooding once again greatly altered the area around the Alluvial Fan and the Roaring River. At the base of the Alluvial Fan, the Roaring River jumped it’s banks and diverted itself from flowing southward, to instead flowing around the road bridge on Old Fall River road and heading due west prior to resuming it’s southerly course a quarter of a mile downstream. This new course forged by the Roaring River due west has opened up some new photographic potential around the Alluvial Fan.
With the Roaring River now flowing east to west over this newly formed 1/4 mile course, I had been waiting for favorable conditions to photograph this area. A combination of increased spring runoff combined with some nice clouds over Horseshoe Park last week brought just the right conditions to photograph this area.
While I’m used to making attempts to photograph places in Rocky that are often new to me, it’s not everyday that I actually have the opportunity to photograph something new without having to wait the usual thousands of years or so that natures slow pace typically dictates. So out of all the destruction and loss the September flooding has caused, the silver lining is that it has also created new opportunities to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park as well.
Blue is moody, blue is subtle and blue is contemplative. Blue is a color closely tied to emotion, in fact it’s the only color that can be used to describe one’s mood. Blues has its own genre of music, and some of the most legendary jazz musicians recorded under the legendary Blue Note label. For landscape photographers however, blue seems to often loose much of it’s appeal.
I often hear landscape photographers quipping that they need to spend more time adding subjects of blue to their portfolio. Landscape photographers even have a term used to describe the hour or so before and after sunrise and sunset as ‘the blue hour’. This is the time when the sky and landscape are still illuminated enough to cloak ones surrounding in a slight but perceptible blue cast.
There is good reason for our inclination to avoid and ignore photographing in blue light. Much like auto white balance on our cameras, our brain performs much the same function when the lighting conditions favor the blue end of the spectrum. Our brain and eyes will adjust for the heavy blue lighting cast making the landscape appear more neutral or bland.
Many times while photographing late in the evening or early in the morning I’ll return to review my images wondering why there is such as strong blue color cast present. My recollection of the light is of a more neutral scene. This is because my cameras sensor is capturing the blue present in the atmosphere while my brain and eyes are making adjustments lessening the amount of blue light perceived .
There is another reason that one tends to see fewer photographic images that trend towards the blue end of the spectrum. Our brain is wired and conditioned to be attracted to or fixated towards images that contain vibrant colors like reds and oranges. It’s a fact that the majority of my best selling images are colorful, with images containing vibrant reds being some of my most popular images.
So with our brains wired to reduce and compensate for the amount of blue we perceive early in the morning and late in the day, combined with our propensity to seek and be attracted to vibrant reds and oranges it’s no wonder we see fewer photographs depicting blues. My suggestion is to stay mindful when in the field during the ‘blue hours’ of morning and evening. While your waiting for the sun to rise and set the sky ablaze in reds and oranges, pay attention to the light prior to sunrise and don’t be afraid to experiment with your camera. As always, photograph early, late and often.
With the advent of digital photography it seems at times that everybody has become a photographer. Photography and specifically the landscape photography genre has seen a large increased the number of people using their digital cameras to capture beautiful and iconic scenes. The internet is now full of terrific images of some of our most famous iconic landscapes. Rocky Mountain National Park is no different than Yellowstone or Yosemite and one can easily fine a plethora of beautiful images of Dream Lake, Longs Peak or Moraine Park.
It can be downright frustrating at times trying to create work that is unique and original, especially when it comes to capturing some of the iconic locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Even with that being said, there are still plenty of reason why one should make attempts at photographing the iconic locations in Rocky, as well as to search out some of the less known areas of the park. Below are a few quick reminders of what you can do to photograph both the iconic locations as well as some of the less photographed areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Remember, Rocky Mountain National Park is over 400 square miles, there is plenty of room for everybody.
1. Photograph in poor or varying weather conditions. Your not likely to create an image of Hallet Peak from Dream Lake in a completely unique manner. Let’s be honest, Dream Lake has been photographed six ways to Sunday. Even so, it’s an amazing location and one that deserves to be photographed again and again for good reason, it’s one of the most beautiful locations in the United States. So when do I photograph Dream Lake?. I prefer to photograph popular locations like Dream Lake when the weather looks less than ideal. Fog and rain turn Dream Lake into an unrecognizable icon. If the sun does happen to break through the clouds you will be treated clouds and dramatic light. Your likely to find yourself alone in conditions like these, and even more likely to be able to create images that are unique.
2. Explore the lesser known and photographed areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Sometimes we photograph the icons because they are slam dunks. People invest lots of time, money and travel to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and most want to return home with images that capture the beauty of the park. Even so, after shooting some of the iconic locations, study a map of Rocky Mountain National Park and look for places in some of the less traveled locations. While you may encounter a dozen or more photographers at Dream Lake during a morning sunrise, another mile long hike to Lake Haiyaha from Dream Lake means you are likely to find yourself in total solitude at sunrise with just as stunning a setting as Dream Lake.
3. Icons are icons for a reason. Loose the guilt and go ahead and photograph from some of the more popular iconic locations in Rocky. Spend time exploring lesser known areas, try to shoot from the iconic locations in the park such as Dream Lake, Bear Lake, the Rock Cut when the weather is dramatic or different. Rocky Mountain National Park is a spectacular location to photograph, start with the icons and then work your way to some of the lesser known areas and features of Rocky. Your time is valuable, use it how you see fit photographing makes you happy. Even for me, photographing a spectacular sunrise at Dream Lake is as thrilling today as it was for me the first time I visited Dream Lake. While even the best images of Dream Lake may get lost in a sea of other beautiful images, the experience of being at Dream Lake and witnessing a beautiful sunrise unfold over Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain is something even the best photographs cant replicate.