It was a beautiful spring morning in Rocky Mountain National Park today. The temperature was mild and our bitter nemesis the wind even laid down just before sunrise allowing the silence to reveal the chirps of birds and the howls of coyotes welcoming in the new day.
My options were limited this morning as clouds covered most of the peaks in the park just before sunrise. On mornings like these where a ‘mountain blanket’ cloud is covering most of the divide, the sunrise can be great on the continental divide but you may not see any of the snow covered peaks. I call it a ‘mountain blanket’ cloud because unlike a mountain wave cloud that forms high above the peaks, this kind of cloud essentially covers the peaks like a blanket.
Longs Peak was covered, Hallett Peak was covered, Ypsilon Mountain was mostly covered. While Stones Peak had clouds around it, it was mostly free of clouds prior to sunrise. Because of this I decided to setup at one of the iconic, oft photographed locations in Moraine Park along the Big Thompson River. This is both a beautiful spot and one in which the water is now free from ice and flowing free.
Each year when the thaw out after winter starts to set in and water becomes free of ice I get excited. Not only because of the warmer weather on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park but because moving and open water creates a dynamic scene and allows for reflections to capture the warm morning light.
More importantly its exciting to watch the thaw march upward as its starts in the lower elevations of RMNP and makes it’s way higher with each passing day. It wont be long know before some of the higher lakes start to break free from ice and start to open. Exciting times ahead for photographers and summer season approaching quickly now.
The trend in landscape photography has been every more dramatic, epic, and otherworldly lighting conditions. Combine this was some iconic spot and one has the formula for a Facebook post, Tweet or Instagram post to garner lots of likes or maybe even go viral. The euphoria and endorphin rush with capturing a scene under dramatic lighting combined with lots of likes and comments on social media feeds right into one’s ego and can set a photographer on a temporary feel good high.
As with both light and capturing that light with a camera and creating a photograph, these conditions and moments in time are ethereal. Both the photographer and their mostly anonymous social media fan club that liked, shared and retweeted the image, will move on to another image or shiny object.
Make no mistake about it, as a landscape photographer the condition that allows me to convey my message and portray my subjects personality and mood is the lighting. Like most other landscape photographers I strive to photograph my subjects in the most dramatic lighting conditions possible. I study the conditions, topography and subject envisioning the best conditions that will render what I perceive as a reflection of the sense of place of a given location based on what the potential lighting conditions may be. I’ll stare at a landscape and envision what it would look like wrapped in fog or lit with sun and clouds in a manner that flow with jagged peaks or deep canyons.
Even though I strive to photograph locations in dramatic lighting conditions, some of my favorite light on the landscape is still plain old diffused lighting found on cloudy, rainy and snowy days. For me, while this particular lighting is more subtle and quiet, it often allows me to photograph subjects and conditions that would not reflect the sense of place under more dramatic lighting conditions.
Earlier this week I found myself immersed one morning in cloudy overcast lighting conditions on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. I headed out in Rocky this particular April morning with the hopes that we would get some breaks in the cloud cover at sunrise. Snow had been falling the night before and being as difficult as it is to capture landscape images in Rocky after snow (on account of high winds and bluebird days preceding storms), I’m always going to take my chances hoping the light breaks my way. While I’ve had more than my shares of sunrises and sunsets where this has not worked, many of my most dramatic images have happened on mornings when chances were slim anything dramatic would happen.
Well as so often happens the dramatic lighting did not come this morning. It looked good at times with breaks in the cloud cover but just as sunrise approached snow moved back in over Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side and the lighting on the landscape remained gray and diffused.
I could have packed it up and left the park. Instead I started scanning the list in my head of locations I wanted to photograph under these conditions. That list is as long or longer than the locations I want to photograph in RMNP under prime lighting conditions and sun. Instead of sulking and heading home I was excited and energized by the prospect of being able to shoot locations and subjects that I’d normal pass on.
With this in mind I headed out into Hollowell Park. Hollowell Park is a beautiful location accessed from Bear Lake Road. Great hiking trails emanate out of this small park but I would think for most landscape photographers shooting Rocky, its not high on the ‘to-do’ list as the view of the mountain peaks are not quite as sexy as they are further up Bear Lake Road.
But there is plenty to photograph in Hollowell Park, especially under gray, diffused light. Fresh snow on the landscape and snow covered pines, willows and aspens could keep me and my camera busy and clicking all morning. Even better was I had the entire area to myself that morning kept company only by a pair of ravens, the occasional mountain bluebird and a pack of coyotes.
It get’s tiring hearing many well known photographers rail against the copycat nature that seems perverse in the craft these days. Comp-stomping has become and epidemic and social media only serves to fuel this behavior. That being said, we’ve all been there at one point or another and I can still get just as excited for a dramatic sunrise at Dream Lake as I could twenty plus years ago when I first started photographing Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nowadays I get just as excited for cloudy, gray days to photograph. In fact, with 300 plus sunny days a year here on the Front Range of Colorado, getting these kinds of conditions can be difficult at times. The bottom line is that its important to embrace all kinds of light.
Enjoy and photograph dramatic lighting, but also learn to embrace and enjoy the more subtle lighting when it arrives. It will make you concentrate of both your subject, your composition and your surroundings more. I think you will also find this kind of lighting will allow you to create images that are both more original, and speak to your creative side as much or more than dramatically light iconic subjects.
So long March and welcome April. As seems typical these days the months keep passing by more quickly each year. In it’s usual fashion, March did its thing. The month started out with sub-zero weather and lots of snow. March warmed up but lots of fresh snow fell during the month which bodes well for summer and fall.
April, like March often has a polarity that seems to switch and change at a whim. Warm spring days, grasses starting to green and Pasque flowers blooming under the Ponderosa forests at lower elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park can quickly be disrupted by large and powerful spring snowstorms. April means be ready for pretty much anything and everything.
The first day of April in Rocky Mountain National Park dawned in true April fashion. A mild morning quickly saw the winds pick up and snow squalls cover over the high peaks of RMNP and the continental divide. The skies east of the divide however, exploded with color as the sun rose to welcome the new month.
With the continental divide covered and most of the streams and waterways still frozen or mostly frozen, I headed to this long dead tree to frame the colorful skies. Rocky did not play and April Fools joke on me and lets hope this is a harbinger or things to come in RMNP the rest of the month of April.
One of the most exciting parts of being a landscape photographer is the anticipation of what a new day holds in store. Checking out all the weather forecasts and models trying to take a stab at whether sunrise is going to be a stunner works out only part of the time.
More often than not, expectations are going to fall short. Clouds dissipate right at sunrise or clouds form just before sunrise blocking out first light. So many times the margin between capturing a portfolio worthy image and nothing is minute. Regardless, I always have a little more pep in my step when the possibility of capturing something worthwhile seems more likely.
Yesterday forecasts and models look like this morning may have a decent chance for some nice color at sunrise. High clouds streaming in from the south and west should have been hanging out over Rocky near sunrise.
I was out early this morning as I always am checking out the conditions. High clouds hung over the continental divide this morning and it was cloudless over the eastern plains of Colorado. In a nutshell this is one of my favorite setups for dramatic color over the mountains if all holds.
After walking my dog Jackson, it was into the truck and up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Arriving in the park and checking out the setup things still looked pretty good. Some of the cloud cover had thinned from when I left but there was a good amount of high clouds floating around and nothing to the east to obscure first light.
We are now into spring and the sun is marching northwards each day. Some of the best photographic locations in Rocky and Bear Lake Road in particular are best when the sun moves northward in the sky towards the summer solstice.
I settled on a hike up the Bierstadt Moraine for sunrise. Hallett Peak’s blocky tomahawk shaped peak has always been one of my favorite peaks to photograph and the lights getting good on Hallett, Otis and Flattop now.
High up on the Bierstadt Moraine I settles on this composition. I prefer the upper portion of the Bierstadt Moraine to the lower part as more of Hallett Peak is visible above the top of ridgeline the moraine forms.
Watching and waiting for sunrise on a beautiful March morning in RMNP, the pastels and pinks started popping 15 minutes before sunrise with a little more color as the sun illuminated the mountains. Everything worked out like I had hoped it would. Many times this is not the case but this March morning the madness was perfect.
If you have been watching the national news of late, you’ve probably seen videos of all the snow, avalanches and other weather we’ve been having here in Colorado. While the news stations tend to embellish situations a bit, this winter has been a very active one both for the entire state of Colorado as well as Rocky Mountain National Park.
Just last week Rocky Mountain National Park and the Front Range of Colorado were hit by a very strong late winter storm that dumped lots more snow on the peaks while also being aided with extremely strong winds as well as the lowest recorded measurement of SLP in Colorado at 970.4 MB’s.
Rocky did not get the hurricane like winds that many experienced in the Denver metro area but they did get the snow with very strong winds with well over a foot of new snow falling on an above already above average snowpack.
This latest storm pushed the Colorado River basin snowpack on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park up over 140% while the South Platte drainage on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park currently stands at 136% of normal.
What does this all mean for current and future conditions for photography in Rocky?. For one thing it means I certainly expect there to be lots of snow still hanging around early into the summer season. Higher elevations of Rocky are going to see lakes taking longer to thaw and trails still partially covered with snow into at least mid June and possibly even early July. Streams and waterfalls will be flowing hard as the snowmelt begins to take hold later this spring.
I would expect lots of green as temperatures warm as well as wildflowers. In fact, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we have a great wildflower season in Rocky starting in the lower elevations in June and moving to the higher elevations of the park in July and early August as I hope we reap the benefits of all the snow that has fallen in Rocky Mountain National Park and the mountains of Colorado this season.
As for the current conditions in Rocky expect to see lots of snow, mostly frozen bodies of water including streams and lakes and trails still packed with snow requiring traction, skis or snowshoes. It’s still March so expect lots more snow to fall in the next thirty days but one can also expect the snow to melt quickly as both the sun and temperatures continue to increase quickly as we move towards summer.
So to summarize what one should expect the next few weeks in Rocky, lots more of the same.
I’m going to post another image here of the Boulder Flatirons from Chautauqua Park that I shot yesterday (Sunday). Since the government shut down occurred I’ve been spending most of my time photographing around Boulder and have only made a few trips up to Rocky Mountain National Park. None of those visits to Rocky have produced any images worth posting and really were just ways for me to keep up to date on the conditions.
To be honest, even with the park open and a skeleton crew of employees along with dedicated volunteers helping to maintain the park, visiting and posting images during the shut down left me with mixed feelings. As much as I love Rocky and depend on it to make up for about 80% of my photography portfolio, working and photographing in the park while others were in limbo did not seem very conducive to creating photographs or art. Luckily, the Rocky Mountain National Park is back open, at least for the time being and I am motivated and ready to get back out there and start photographing and exploring my favorite location not just in Colorado to photograph, but favorite subject period.
With that said, I’m equally as blessed to be able to photograph some iconic locations really close to home that were not affected by the government shut down. Many of you who follow my photography know that when I’m not photographing Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m out somewhere around Boulder or Boulder County photographing it’s scenic wonders and beauty.
Boulder and Boulder County could be a National Park onto themselves. In fact a good portion of Rocky Mountain National Park resides in Boulder County. One of the jewels of Boulder and Boulder County is Chautauqua Park and Chautauqua Meadow. Its from here that one can photograph the iconic view of the famous Flatiron formation.
It’s difficult to think of too many better ways to start off a Sunday morning then right here in the meadow at sunrise. I found myself and a few other photographers doing exactly that yesterday enjoying the beautiful sunrise and January conditions. I’ll spend quite a few more mornings over the next few months in Chautauqua Meadow photographing the Flatirons, but I’m happy as heck that I also will get the chance to spend some quality time in Rocky Mountain National Park soon enough.
I apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. After wrapping up a very busy 2018 year of guiding and tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, I took a brief hiatus only to have the latest government shutdown make access to Rocky Mountain National Park difficult. As a reminder you can always check my Twitter or Facebook feeds that are linked at the bottom of this page as I post to them at least a few times a week if not more.
While you can technically walk into Rocky as of right now, services are limited and getting into most areas of the park is fairly difficult. Furthermore, most of the better locations for winter photography would require quite a commitment to get to without the ability to drive to a trailhead.
As of writing this it’s difficult to tell when the current government shut down may actually end as we have just past the 23rd day of the shutdown. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for all involved that a resolution can be found sooner than later and we can get back to Rocky Mountain National Park operating as is normal once again.
While we wait out the shutdown, I’ve been keeping myself busy photographing in and around the Boulder area. Not only is this area my second favorite place to photograph after Rocky Mountain National Park, but I’m thankful I have a fallback that allows me the ability to get out and keep productive while the machinations of our current political climate grind away.
I’ll again be offering photography tours in Rocky Mountain National Park for the 2019 season. If you are interested in heading out with me feel free to drop me an email and I’ll be more than happy to discuss dates, locations and times with you.
Until we get some more clarity here, I’ll be out traversing the landscape and open space properties in and around Boulder and will try to make a few expeditions into Rocky because I miss getting out and exploring the park as much as you all do. Stay tuned for lots of posts and images as 2019 unfolds here.
Just wanted to give my readers a quick update on the current fall color situation in Rocky Mountain National Park as I’ve been questions daily on how things look. What I will say in a broad generalization is the following based on my observations being out in the field everyday the past week.
I believe we are running five to seven days ahead of what the normal timing is for fall color in RMNP. Whether this is because of a warm and dry summer, or because of all the smoke and haze over the park much of the late summer triggering the plants in to thinking there is less sunlight I’m not sure. At this point what seems obvious is that we are certainly running ahead of schedule and that the warm and very windy week we just had is not helping in extending fall color any.
First things first, the autumn color in Rocky Mountain National Park is nearing or just past peak in many areas now. Bear Lake was at peak on Friday, September 14th I would say. This is about 5 days earlier then when peak typically occurs at Bear Lake. While the leaves are at peak, the winds have done a number on many of the aspen trees around Bear Lake. You will stay be able to photograph fall color this week at Bear Lake but its going to be slightly past peak and depending on how strong the winds are, there may not be much left by the end of the week.
The Bierstadt Moraine is currently about 50-60% turned. Many of the trees are showing the stress from the drier summer and while there are nice patches of yellow and orange, there are also some areas that have just turned brown. This week, Bierstadt might be one’s best overall location for autumn color.
As for other areas of Rocky, I would say the mid level elevations will be at peak this week with the lower levels starting to show decent color in the ground cover as well as some of the trees. The Boulder Brook area of the park is only about half turned and should be good over the next week or more as this area does well even after the leaves have fallen as they cover the forest floor.
The elk rut is also well underway and if your timing is good you should be able to find some good groups of bull’s with their harems in Moraine, Horseshoe and the Kawunneche Valley. I do think the warm weather has caused the rutting activity to slow quickly after sunrise and I would also say I’m still observing a fair amount of elk activity in higher elevations of the park stll.
Now is really a great time to get out in Rocky and take advantage of the fall color and autumn elk rut. I think overall color this year is going to be on the fair to marginal side but there is plenty of opportunities to find subjects to photograph if you look. At the current pace, I would expect most fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park to be well past peak by the first week of October.
Spring has arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park and summer wont be far of it’s heels. As I write this we are a little over a week away from Memorial Day which is the traditional unofficial start of the summer season here.
Both winter and spring here have been for the most part mild and more or less seasonal. Snowpack is at about 90% of average so we are a little behind but not much off the mark. We had some good late season snows as well as some good rain in the lower elevations the first few weeks of May so things are starting to green up nicely in the meadows and lower elevations of the park. Pasque Flowers and now Mountain Ball Cactus are blooming and more of the traditional wildflowers will begin appearing in the next few weeks in the lower elevations of Rocky.
Trail Ridge Road has not yet opened for the season but barring any crazy weather should open right before Memorial Day weekend. Trail Ridge Road has been open above Many Parks Curve where it is closed for the winter season all the way to Rainbow Curve for the last two weeks. Having Trail Ridge Road open to Rainbow Curve just above 10,800 ft allows the more adventurous to hike up the plower road and get above timberline with a little more ease and a lot less people than during the summer season when the road is open.
Ponds and lakes are really starting to open up as well. Many of the lakes around 10,000 ft are starting to open up large sections of ice on their surface. Lakes below 10,000 ft are ice off and good for photographing reflections on calm days. Lots of spots of hard packed snow on trails above 9500 ft but lower elevations like Lumpy Ridge Moraine and Horseshoe Park are great for hiking right now with the usual muddy spots.
Overall, Rocky is in great shape and becoming more accessible each day. While there will still be snow and ice around until late June and early July in the highest reaches of the park, access is already great and only getting better. This is one of my favorite times of years and as always I’m looking forward with great anticipation at getting out into the park and exploring new areas as well as visiting old stalwarts.
I get asked often what motivates me to get up five, six or seven days a week to head out at an ungodly hour of the morning for most people and head out into nature ready photograph whatever is in store that particular day. It’s a good question without an easy answer.
Head over to social media, podcasts or other photographers blog and this subject comes up often with some photographers while others never discuss it at all. Some photographers feel strongly that if your motivations behind your photography and the reasons you connect with nature and discussed openly than you are discrediting your imagery and craft. While sharing your images with other is important too many that is not enough.
Photographers on the opposite side of the argument may feel the need to share and detail all their personal feelings and motivations each time the create and share and image is necessary. In the modern age of ever shrinking privacy and autonomy, sharing one’s personal feelings, beliefs and motivations each day beyond the image itself may not only make them uncomfortable but may leave them feeling narcissistic and overly self important.
Where do I fall in the discussion? Not to be a cop-out but I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. We as nature and landscape photographers get to witness untold beauty on an almost daily basis. For many the beauty of the light, landscape, journey and discovery is what drives and motivates us to keep returning and communing with the landscape and light. This certainly motivates me but so does the entire process motivate me.
I enjoy waking early long before most. I take great satisfaction in working out after I wake so that I can stay trail ready whether I’m hiking or not. I taking the dog on a walk in the neighborhood at 2:30 AM so I can survey the sky and conditions before I drive to my location. I love my hour long drive from my home in Erie up to Estes Park in the dead of night so I can think quietly, listen to bad music or have long conversations with myself about who knows what. Most importantly I love that I have the freedom to do not only what I love doing, but have locations such as Rocky Mountain National Park that have been preserved, protected and kept open to the public so that I can for the most part, still freely access large swaths of wilderness. Lastly and most importantly I enjoy the entire process. From start to finish each day each step along the way exciting or boring I enjoy. The minute I stop enjoying the entire process is the minute I stop taking photos. I doubt many other photographers would find my routine and process enjoyable like I do.
With that said, some days I’m motivated to write something thoughtful and engaging, and other days I may feel the image stands alone with little need or desire to delve deeper on sharing the personal intricacies that go into my love and motivation behind my craft.
In the world of art there is certainly not a need to conform to what others are doing. In fact conformity is looked down upon and discouraged. No two artists or photographers will travel the same paths nor will they ever arrive at the same destination. We should not only appreciate the difference between individuals, but embrace it.
Being original should be a goal, but it should not be the be the only goal. The goal should be staying true to yourself but remembering to enjoy and love both the experience and process while championing in a responsible manner the subjects you photograph.
As a final thought on motivation, I see many photographers today railing about photographing original compositions and shooting locations or subjects that are rarely photographed. When posting their original composition they often choose to preface it with a quote from an author or historical figure. It’s probably a quote you’ve seen many times before on the internet, in books, calendars and other forms of media. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for these quotes and often find them interesting and amusing. But in the interest of originality, is it ok to post a never before photographed composition while recycling somebody else’s writing? If we are going to tout the importance of originality shouldn’t the quote used to describe the photograph be held to the same standard as the image and also be original?. Just a thought.