At least once each year I take a sabbatical from photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and head west to Utah for a few days of photography. Whether I end up in Bryce Canyon or the Moab area depends on a couple factors (Jeep week in Moab being one). Usually this coincides with spring break and both my wife and daughter get to tag along with me and we all get to spend time outdoors, hiking, exploring and spending time together.
It’s a nice change of pace and I welcome a few days out in the desert as the winter months begin to release their grasp on Rocky. This year we spent the better parts of four days in Moab. It’s an easy 5.5 hr drive from my house in Erie and it nice to get to a location and be able to spend sometime in a few spots waiting for the favorable weather for landscape photography.
When we made plans to stay in Moab for part of the week I had no idea that Arches National Park would be undergoing a major road construction project. Sunday through Thursday nights a construction crew is busy repaving the main park road and there would be no access to Arches National Park from 7:00 PM until 7:00 AM as the construction crew would have the road shut down overnight in order for them to work unhindered.
When I first heard this news posted on one of the social media sites, I was a bit dismayed. The timing of the closings would for all intense and purposes prohibit photography of sunrise and sunset in Arches National Park while I was in town visiting. While I love Arches National Park, I’ve spent plenty of time photographing the park and eventually I realized the overnight road closings would actual be a good thing. While I was staying in Moab, other than day hikes with the family, I would have to photograph other locations around Moab, something I often don’t do when the close convenience and easy accessibility of Arches National Park is available.
While in Moab conditions were very good for photography. Warm weather the weeks prior to my visit had pushed some of the wildflower blooms ahead of schedule. Lots of beautiful red paintbrush covered the desert floor. I was also lucky enough to be on the front and back end of two large pacific storm systems that passed through the area when I was visiting. While nobody wants rain while on vacation, photographers love unsettled weather as it creates the possibility of dramatic conditions and lighting. This certainly held true during this visit to Moab. Rain, storms and pot holes filled with fresh raindrops all helped to make for a successful trip to Utah with a couple of great sunsets and sunrises thrown into the mix.
So while its back to photographing Rocky (poor me), it was great as always to get back out to red rock country and enjoy some different scenery and weather for a change. Nothing makes you appreciate your own backyard more than photographing in somebody else backyard for a few days.
If you have read my blog or social media posts long enough then you know I get least excited when the skies are blue and cloudless. Odd as it may seem, clear and cloudless days are some of the most difficult days to photograph as the light can be harsh with little drama occurring above the landscape to add intrigue to a photograph. Clear, cloudless deep blue skies are perfect for just about any other activity other than photography. Out here in the western United States, clear, cloudless deep blue skies are affectionately referred to as ‘Bluebird Skies’.
In this post, I’m not about to go on about the best way to handle capturing quality images during a cloudless day in Rocky Mountain National Park. While thats a good idea for a future post, I just going to post an image of a Mountain Bluebird.
Each spring Mountain Bluebirds return to the meadows and open spaces of Rocky Mountain National Park and are a harbinger of warmer weather to come. These beautiful birds can be found foraging for grubs on the ground, flittering from rock to rock and branch to branch. This time of year, the male Mountain Bluebirds will turn a deep blue in color with the more mature males displaying more intensely then the younger birds.
The best places to find Mountain Bluebirds in Rocky Mountain National Park are any of the open meadow and sage areas. Hollowell Park, Moraine Park, Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park are all good places to find Mountain Bluebirds. Drive one of the park roads that traverse these areas and keep an eye out on the ground and rocks for these colorful creatures. I find its best to use your vehicle as a blind and combine that with the use of a longer telephoto lens and its relatively easy to photograph the Bluebirds.
Each day more signs of spring and summer appear in Rocky Mountain National Park. The return of the Mountain Bluebirds to the meadows of Rocky are one sign but if you pay attention the signs of spring are becoming more obvious each day. Of course in typical Rocky fashion don’t count out a few more good dumps of snow before all is said and done with.
Good light vs. bad light. Is there even such a thing as bad light?, take that a step further is there really such a thing as good light when it comes to landscape photography?. I would say there is not. Lighting on your subject is certainly one of the most important tenants to landscape photography. The misnomer here is that certain lighting is better than other lighting. In reality, all light is good, it’s understanding how and when to utilize lighting to render you subject in a way that best represents the message you want to convey.
Dramatic sunrise and sunset lighting is what most landscape photographers strive to capture of which I can be counted amongst. Is dramatic sunrise and sunset lighting always the best kind of lighting on a landscape subject?, nope. At the same time does a rainy, cloud day mean you should just pack up your gear and head home with all hope lost?, nope.
Both dramatic early and late day lighting can produce exceptional photography. But guess what?, cloudy, rainy and gray days can also produce equally stunning results if you use the flat but even and diffused lighting to properly illuminate a subject. As always it comes down to understanding how and when to use certain types of lighting based on what mother nature is serving that day. Understanding lighting is as important as composition and exposure and its important to use the lighting that best suits your subject and conveys the message or storyline you as the photographer are seeking to present to your audience.
So what’s the reasoning behind discussing light?. Lets just say the combination of being out in the field photographing, combined with the realization summer is just around the corner has beset me with a case of spring fever.
Most of the iconic and well known locations for landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park are best lit during the summer months. This is because the mountains and peaks around the Bear Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side have a northeast facing orientation. Whether it be the Diamond of Longs Peak, Hallett Peak or Notchtop Mountain all of these famous icons of Rocky photograph best as the sun moves north in the sky as summer approaches.
Photographing sunrise from the side of the Bierstadt Moraine on Friday really helped to drive home that not only is spring a few days away, but summer is rapidly approaching. So while I’m happy that lighting in Rocky is again favorable for many of the iconic locations, it’s important to remember that all light is good. Figuring out which kind of lighting on your subject best conveys the message you are seeking to present is the harder part.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression before that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. While the saying has become cliche this week seemed to jive with the saying. This mindset very much applies to photography and I often preach the importance of heading out into the field with an open mind and the flexibility to switch up your game plan based on how the conditions are unfolding.
Living and photographing in Colorado means for most people the big draw is exploring of photographing our high beautiful high peaks and mountains. I would say for most photographers when heading out into the field we are hoping to somehow include and convey our majestic peaks while highlighted by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Sometimes however, mother nature is just not all the interested in what your plans are you need to adjust accordingly.
I was really hoping for some colorful sunrises this week in Rocky Mountain National Park or down here around Boulder. I was hoping for dramatic lighting and clouds over the iconic peaks of RMNP or the Flatirons of Boulder. One of the two actually happened. We had really beautiful color in the skies at sunrise towards the end of the week but for the most part the clouds driven by high winds aloft stayed east of the continental divide.
Nature as she so often does dictated the terms and it was up to me to figure out how to make that work. So instead of photographing snow covered high peaks I instead had to change my thinking around and find some other subjects to photograph. In a nutshell this mean lots of backlit trees and mountains to incorporate the dramatic color that unfolded east of the divide the last few mornings of the week. All in all it was not what I was planning but as always I was thankful for the opportunity to be able to photograph. In the end lemonade can be pretty refreshing, especially after a long hike.
Saturday in the park. I’m channeling a line from the band Chicago here as it was the tune playing in the back of my head as I both attempted to stay warm as well as trip the shutter on my camera in between blasts of wind yesterday morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Coincidently, the band Chicago recorded many of its songs just down the Peak to Peak highway from Rocky Mountain National Park at Caribou Ranch just north of Nederland.
Saturday’s sunrise was typical of what we often find in Rocky during the winter months. The high peaks of Rocky shrouded in clouds and high winds keeping things interesting below. It snowed the previous day but as is often the case in RMNP, the window is short before the winds and sun make quick work of the freshly fallen snow.
Pro tip for mornings like these which are common in Rocky is to turn your back on the mountains and point your camera in the opposite direction. I know it sounds like some heck of a tip I’m giving but hear me out. Mornings like these often have great cloud cover to the east. You may not be able to include Rocky Mountain National Park’s impressive and iconic high peaks in your image, but weather conditions would have prevented it anyway.
Find a subject to photograph and work in the great skies and more subtle landscapes that are found just east of the high peaks. It will save the angst of feeling like your journey out in to the windy wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park have been for naught and who knows, you might actually come away with some exceptional images. This options surely beats sitting in your vehicle sulking over the conditions and complaining once again RMNP left you empty handed.
It was a mild week weather wise in Rocky Mountain National Park. There was no snow to speak of and the temperatures were very mild. Even the wind which usually accompanies warm weather during the winter months was mostly ‘average’ for Rocky. Much of the snow that has been hanging around the lower elevations of the park has melted and other than quite a few trees that have blown down or been uprooted from last week winds storms, the landscape remains dormant.
While the weather was temperate and above average there were a few mornings at the end of the week that hosted spectacular sunrises. Both Friday and Saturday mornings sunrise was spectacular over Rocky. On top of having two really colorful sunrises, the sun is now rising noticeably more towards the north as we move towards spring and summer. This is a welcome change as with the exception of the Mummy Range, most of Rocky Mountain National Park’s high peaks and ranges on the east side of the park are oriented in a northeasterly facing direction. In other words the lighting conditions for landscape photography are improving each passing day.
With the sunrise moving more northward each day, I decided to take advantage of the light and photograph Longs Peak on both mornings. While one can photograph Longs Peak anytime of year, the iconic face of Longs Peak known as The Diamond is oriented to the north and east making it optimal as we move towards the longer days of the year.
Friday morning I headed up the Twin Sisters to photograph Longs Peak. I was badly in need of putting some miles a trail and a hike up the Twin Sisters for sunrise was just what the doctor ordered. Saturday with the prospects for sunrise looking less like a slam dunk I hedged my bets at the Many Parks Curve overlook along Trail Ridge Road. Many Parks gives you a few options for sunrise but it also gives you a great vantage of Longs Peak with Beaver Mountain in the foreground. Both sunrises were beautiful and as always, Longs Peak looked majestic, imposing and iconic.
It’s easy to see why Longs Peak is not only the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259 ft above sea level, but also why its a favorite subject of mine as well as the thousands of photographers the visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year.
February on the Front Range of Colorado probably conjures up thoughts of cold and snowy landscapes. While we certainly get our fair share of snowy days in February, more often than not February is often a tame month when it comes to weather. Our blizzards and large snowstorms tend to occur early in the season in October or November or later in the season come March and April. February as was the case last week is often mild with seasonally warm weather and lots of sunshine. One caveat to mild February weather on the Front Range is our good friend the wind. These mild weather days or often powered by strong downsloping winds which warm the air as the descent the mountain range.
Last week was just that. Warm and mild in the Denver and Boulder area while at the same time being insanely windy. This made it nearly impossible for me to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park or even the foothills of Boulder for photography. Winds of over 80 mph were recorded in Estes Park and Boulder and Berthoud Pass above Winter Park even recorded gusts as high as 104 mph. If you have had the pleasure of trying to photograph landscapes in hurricane force winds you know that more often than not it can be a test in futility.
Windy days on the Front Range make photography tricky but the winds themselves often help to create beautiful lenticular clouds and some of Colorado’s best sunrises and sunsets. So while its hard to photograph in these conditions, its equally as difficult for a photographer like me to stay indoors and watch these spectacular sunrise and sunsets without attempting to photograph them.
Rocky Mountain National Park and the foothills were out of the question with the winds so I had to figure something else out. I figured it was as good a time as any to head out to some local spots here in Weld County east of the foothills and make an attempt to capture some of the beauty right here in my backyard.
Weld County is not going to upset the apple cart when it comes to unseating the jaw dropping beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park or other mountainous areas in the foothills, the high plains of Colorado have a subtle beauty that is often ignored by photographers. While Weld County holds a certain charm, its a county that is continually changing. Whether it be from Oil and Gas interests or construction from the housing boom and growth Colorado is experiencing, locations in Weld County don’t remain unspoiled for long.
Truth be told, 99% of the time I’m guilty of ignoring some of this subtle beauty and will drive right past it heading to up to Rocky or to Boulder for sunrise or sunset. With the hurricane force winds abating somewhat as you head further east, I was able to check off a couple of nearby locations and capture some of that subtle beauty that is present in eastern Colorado. Will this be the start of a new project or portfolio?. It’s hard to say for sure but I believe strongly in photographing subjects in your own backyard. I can only be so many places at once so we will just have to see moving forward how much time I can spare to continue to photograph in my backyard. Even so, photographing locally is rewarding and something I’m going to try and make a better effort to do in the future, especially on those pesky windy days.
Photography for me is constantly evolving process. Technologies change, equipment change and subjects change. Personally, I find the longer I photograph the more refined my vision has become. After years of trial and error you begin to think you have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to creating images. Overall, I believe this progression and refinement is a positive development in one course as a photographer. Having a good idea of what kind of images you want to create and understanding what works and does not work for your particular style is evolutionary, but it comes with a catch. Whats the catch?, blind spots.
Discernment works well until it doesn’t. Being particular and deliberate in your compositions and locations are great as long as you make sure that you are not ignoring and closing your mind off to less seen compositions or subjects that may also help to improve your creative style. There is fine line between being discerning or ignoring potential.
I found myself guilty of this sin last week while out photographing Rocky. Snow had fallen the night before I headed up to the park hoping to capture snow capped peaks and snow covered pines. Like most photographers, I check the weather, study the predictive infra-red satellite maps all in an attempt to anticipate conditions in the field the next morning. I’ve written many a time how difficult photographing classic winter conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park can be, but this morning looked like one that might hold some potential.
Estes Park had received over a foot of snow in the past 24 hrs and Rocky Mountain National Park had even more snow, especially in the higher elevations. I was feeling pretty confident when I arrived at the Beaver Meadows Entrance station to Rocky in the predawn hours. As I headed up the road into the park I could see from the tracks in the snow that an NPS snowplow had already made its way up the road and into the park.
As some visitors to Rocky might be aware, they don’t typically plow the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park between 7:00 PM and 7:00 AM so the appearance of a plow this early appeared to be a positive development. While I have a 4 wheel drive vehicle and am confident driving in winter conditions and unplowed roads, the frequent winds in Rocky can turn that foot of snow on the road to a 4 ft drift all the while looking fairly benign through the headlights of a vehicle at 5:00 AM. I head up to Rocky in the winter to photograph, not spend hours trying to dig my vehicle out of a snow drift at 5:00 AM so I was happy to see a plow was already out working.
As I made my way past Bear Lake Road I could see the plow had turned left and headed up that way. The plow had closed Bear Lake Road so access to the entire portion of the park was not an option now. Not a big deal I thought to myself, I would just head up Trail Ridge Road and photograph from there. While I blasted through a couple of pretty good sized drifts cutting the first tracks on the road that morning, I arrived at Deer Ridge Jct. to find the Park Service has closed Trail Ridge Road up to Hidden Valley and Many Parks Curve. A little bit of panic started to set in. I now had only a very small portion of Rocky that I would be able to photograph and furthermore as so often is the case the high peaks were shrouded in clouds.
I was beginning to feel a little sorry for myself at this point. I had drive up to Rocky on snow covered mountain roads early in the morning anticipating beautiful winter landscapes only to find I may come away with very little to photograph. I parked in one of the roadside pull-offs and watched as some nice color began to form in the skies to the east of Rocky in anticipation for sunrise.
I might not have a lot of options and while conditions where not exactly how I had anticipated them being, I was now determined to find something to photograph. I thought to myself that ‘any photographer worth his salt could find something to photograph on this beautiful morning’. I grabbed my backpack, got out of my truck and started heading down the road towards a grouping of trees. I figured there has to be something to photograph here and at the minimum the skies are going to be spectacular.
Trudging around in the deep snow I kept looking for a composition of trees and sky that would work. I was getting frustrated when I started looking at two small pine trees located right off the road. I’ve driven by these two pines thousands of times and never given them a second look as they are right off the road and for the most part are unremarkable in appearance.
This morning I had few other options and I was determined to find something to photograph. I set up my tripod on the unplowed road and watched as the sky turned red and orange behind these two pines. A snow squall moved past and as I tripped the shutter on my camera I began to see some potential in the composition and landscape covered with fresh snow.
I had driven by these two trees so many times and never considered photographing them. In my mind the location was pedestrian and there wasn’t much reason to stop and survey the location in the past. Because of the conditions and lack of access to other locations in Rocky, I had to make due with what I was given and not what I though fit my style or preconceived notions for this morning. Being stuck in this location forced me to take inventory of the surroundings and more importantly check your blind spot.
With the 2016 in the rear view mirror and a new start to 2017 just underway, it was about time that I photographed Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time in the new year. With holiday parties and family festivities over, the time was right to get out and start creating some new images for 2017.
Holiday or not, the last month in Rocky Mountain National Park has been a challenge for photographers. Photographing Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months is always a challenge, but this past December seemed to be particularly challenging. Clear mornings and lots of windy days had made it less than ideal. The month started off very dry and once the snow did start to fall, the storms quickly moved out leaving only high winds and snowless trees behind.
As is the case with both photographing Rocky and photography in general the key when one finds themselves in a rut or at the short end of the stick photographically speaking is to just keep heading out and photographing. Eventually the law of averages will prevail and perseverance will pay off.
Last week I headed up to the park on a day that looked like it might be ok for images at sunrise. The forecast showed there could be some clouds around but overall it also looked as if the chances to walk away with no new images would be just as likely. It had snowed a day before so I figured at least the high peaks of RMNP would look good with fresh snow even if most of the snow had melted and blown from the pine bows in the lower elevations.
As I waited for the sun to rise, conditions were looking less than promising for a dramatic sunrise. It appeared the skies over the continental divide were clear and only a small lenticular cloud had formed just east of the Estes Cone and Lily Mountain. I was going to capture my first images of 2017 regardless and as I setup my camera equipment as dawn was nearing I began to detect the slightest hint of a pink hue in the skies to the south of Rocky.
Thin high clouds were present in the skies and as the sun was rising a beautiful pink glow over the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park was forming. With fresh snow on the peaks and a beautiful pink hue in the skies my first image of Rocky Mountain National Park for the new year shaped up nicely. All things considered I was quite pleased I decided to head on out to photograph this particular morning as opposed to watching this as a spectator from another location (namely my desk).
Welcome to 2017!. 2016 seemed to just zoom right on past and its hard to believe another year is in the history books. Each year as we pass from one year to the next it’s fun to reflect on the previous year while looking forward to what the New Year will bring.
Almost like clockwork each year, the holidays, shorter days and colder weather slow some of my photography pursuits down and throw me off routine. People who know me well know that I’m a creature of habit and my routines keep me grounded, focused and motivated. I like socializing and sipping a little eggnog as much as the next guy but after a month of festivities, parties and interruptions to my normal daily routines, I’m ready to get back on the horse and start moving forward again.
Photographically speaking 2016 was a very productive year for me. I was able to spend a lot of time in the field photographing new locations in Rocky Mountain National Park and adding to portfolio of images. Furthermore, I had a great season guiding photography clients to all corners of Rocky Mountain National Park and I’m already looking forward to guiding clients in the field again in 2017.
I feeling refreshed and renewed. I have lots of plans for 2017 and cant wait to get out in the field crafting new images to fill my 2017 folders with. While it’s been very windy and mostly mild in Rocky Mountain National Park the last month, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we will have favorable winter conditions over the next few months. Cheers and here’s and to wishing you a happy and successful 2017.