Normally I would consider myself a pretty good pathfinder. Getting lost is in the woods is not typically something I do. I would say under most circumstances I pride myself on being able to navigate either through the woods or to somebody’s home address. I had big plans this morning to photograph the Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain from just below Odessa Lake. Typically when I photograph this area I drop down from the Bear Lake trailhead which makes for a beautiful 4.2 mile hike to Odessa Lake. Because of all the snow we’ve had this past spring in Colorado, I was figured there might be some large, slick icy patches in the area around Lake Helene. Because of this, I figured I’d take the longer but lower elevation route to the Odessa area from the Fern Lake trailhead.
Everything started out as planned. We arrived at the trailhead 10 minutes early for our 4:20 AM departure. I had two good friends along for the hike and we set off headed for our destination. The Fern Lake trailhead follows the Big Thompson River for a portion of the way. We made great time the first 1.8 miles to The Pool. The Big Thompson was raging and The Pool was quite a sight under the full moon. We traveled across the large wooden bridge and over The Pool with a quick pace, intent on getting to our location by sunrise. I could see pillow like clouds hanging over the peaks and a clear horizon to the east. This morning was setting up just perfectly. It was at this point where the train came off the tracks so to speak. While we were all busy admiring The Pool and the flow of water coming down off the Big Thompson, we forgot to pay attention to the trail sign. Just after crossing the river, hikers need to bear to the right to head up towards Fern Lake and Odessa Lake.
Instead we blissfully and unknowingly kept hiking up the Mill Creek trail under the nearly full moon. This is not where we wanted to be and it was not until I reached Mill Creek basin that I realized I had really screwed up. I frantically looked for a location to shoot the impending sunrise to no avail. It was clear at this point that we had just hiked 4 plus miles on the wrong trail. I had a feeling when we passed Cub Lake that something was off, but I was so confident that I knew where we were going that I did not even bring my trail map with me. I learned a few valuable lessons this morning. Never assume you know where you are going, and don’t leave the trail map at home. I was however, able to salvage a shot this morning while hiking back to the car. The wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park look great at lower elevations as do the small streams. I’m calling this small unnamed creek and falls ‘We’re Lost Falls’ in honor of our bumbling adventure this morning.
I try to avoid returning to the same locations on consecutive days if possible. That’s not to say I do return to the same location over and over again in an attempt to capture a scene under varying lighting conditions. You only have so many sunrises and sunsets, so I try to keep the line moving. I had previous commitments on Saturday and Sunday that prevented me from heading up into the high country or to Rocky Mountain National Park in search of images so I stayed local in Boulder.
We continue to have a very wet summer here on the Front Range of Colorado, and the monsoon has really kicked in full force. Most afternoons we are getting very strong thunderstorms and rain. This has made for some great sunrises the past few weeks. Clouds from the previous nights thunderstorms have been hanging around at dawn accompanied by good size breaks in the clouds on the eastern horizon out over the high plains. This particular sunrise of the Flatirons from Chautauqua park was particularly nice. Further north, over Rocky Mountain National Park the sunrise looked to be even more intense. Hopefully some other photographers captured that display, I was glad to be able to sneak in this image.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an image from Chautauqua park of the Flatirons, so I figure were due for one. The meadow around Chautauqua park in Boulder is the place to be for the classic iconic image of the rock slabs that help make Boulder famous. Chautauqua park is a great photographic location in any season, but from spring through mid-summer its hosts a great display of wildflowers on good years.
Starting in early May the meadows below the Flatirons will host a display of varying wildflowers. On a good year, the meadow seems to produce flowers in a near scheduled pattern. Yellow Golden Banner is usually the first flower to make their appearance in the park, followed next by Wild Iris and Arrowleaf. Purple Lupine will cover the fields by mid June and the season will start to wind down with the addition of Sweet Pea in the area near and around the Ranger cottage. While the Sweet Pea makes for a beautiful display when used to frame the Flatirons, it really shouldn’t be there. Sweet Pea is actually considered an invasive species and was planted by some of the first settlers in and around Boulder. Even though we’d prefer these magenta, pink and white flowers found other areas to habituate, they do make for a point of interest for the photographer. Throw in some screaming morning light, some high cirrus clouds, viola! you’ve got yourself an iconic image of the Flatirons.
When discussing my photography with people and displaying my images, I often find there is a bit of a misconception about the effort that is required to pull off a successful image. The first great misconception is that the camera that I am using somehow grants me the ability to capture dynamic images. While I take pride in the fact that I am able to use state of the art technology and optics to help render my vision, I can only hope that is my vision that is being represented through my images, not the technology that I am using to record it.
The second misconception is that photographers just show up at beautiful locations, slap the camera on a tripod, click away and viola!. Here you have a beautiful fine art image ready to be printed, displayed and sold. Photographers understand that this is certainly not the case. We often have to make multiple trips to locations under various conditions before we come away with images that we are happy with. In fact, many of us may visit locations numerous times and never come away with an image whatsoever. Furthermore, there is much more that goes into capturing a unique image of a locations than just arriving on site. We often have to put in lots of back end work studying maps, seasons and lighting of a given locations before we can begin to attempt to do justice to a scene photographically speaking. That’s not to say that serendipity does not sometimes work in the photographers favor. I myself have been lucky enough to show up on a location for the first time and capture and image worthy of being added to my gallery.
The Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of these locations I have visited dozens of times over the last decade attempting to capture a successful photograph. I have been lucky on a few of those occasions, twice in fact, to walk away with an image that I think represents the feel and spirit of Loch Vale. Dozens of times, I have arrived at the Loch to find conditions that are less than optimal for photography. Of all the times I have visited the Loch, I have never found the main body of the large lake to be glass like at sunrise. This is a windy locations, and oftentimes the main body of water has white caps from the wind sweeping through and down Glacier Gorge. The few times I have found the entire lake to be smooth, the lighting has been poor or less than optimal.
I nearly had perfect conditions this week when I started the 2.9 mile hike to the Loch at 4:20 AM. The wind appeared calm as I departed the Glacier Gorge trailhead. I’ve been fooled a few times with what appear to be calm winds, only to get into the Gorge and find the winds howling. There were also some clouds floating above the peaks, remnants of thunderstorms from the night before. I arrived at the Loch about 15 minutes prior to sunrise. I could got not believe my eyes when I got to the shoreline. The entire lake was smooth as glass. The clouds I was hoping for had dissipated, but I would finally be able to get a shot of the entire body of water in total stillness. I setup my camera and tripod and with fingers crossed that the wind would not pick up at sunrise as is often the case. I watched the Cathedral wall light up with the first rays of sun. The Loch remained smooth as glass and I quickly went to work attempting to capture a scene I have spent the last 12 years attempting to capture. While I’m pleased with the images I captured this morning, I’ll need to keep trying to capture this scene with an even more dramatic sky. And so it goes for the photographer!.
Getting into the Summer swing around here has been a bit of a slow go. It’s not that I have not been out in field often the last few weeks, it really has more to do with competing elements leading to fewer opportunities for images. We are in a bit of an unusual transformation here in Colorado.
There is lots of snow still present on the trails in the high country above 9000 ft.
While I very much enjoy photographing snow, this is not the type of snow one wants to photograph. It’s the kind of snow that has lots of mud, dirt, and footprints from being hiked on, slipped on, skidded on, fallen on, etc. It’s really the kind of snow that at this point needs to go away and melt already. Combine our dirty, slowly melting snowpack with hot, cloudless, dry weather and its been somewhat difficult to find subjects that pique my interest and result in successful imagery. I am very much of the belief that there is always something to photograph, in any kind of light and any kind of weather. That being the case, I’ll freely admit that although I have had a good time out exploring for new photography the last few weeks, I’ve come up a bit short in the keeper category.
Like a Baseball player in a long slump, sometimes you just have to keep stepping into the batters box and striking out. Eventually all the preparation, practice, research, knowledge and dedication will pull you out of your slump. I believe this applies to both photography and photographers alike. You need to stay connected to your subjects and stay prepared regardless of the outcome of any given day or week, or month. The weather will change, clouds will come and dynamic conditions will prevail. When the change happens and the circumstances fall in your favor you will be ready to break out of your slump, camera in hand, guided by your inspiration, preparation and dedication to your subject and craft.
Successful photography is about presenting the complex in an orderly, coherent fashion. Successful landscape photography is not about how much one can include in the frame, but instead using your vision to include only compelling and interesting elements. This is a basic photography concept and one that allows the viewer eye to travel through the image without being overwhelmed or distracted. Although it’s a basic photography concept, we can often be overwhelmed in the field with visual stimuli. Because of this, many photographers will fail when it comes to creating compelling imagery because they may be unable to create order from chaos.
Typically when I head out in the field to create images, I like to have an idea of what I want to shoot and where I want to go. I believe it to be important however, to keep both your mind open and your options open. I was recently reading and interview with a photographer who’s work I greatly admire discussing his inspirations. The Photographer purposefully avoids viewing other photographers work when possible. This is not done in an elitist fashion, but because he wants to stay true to his own vision and create original and unique imagery. He feels viewing other photography dilutes his own vision and prevents him from creating imagery unique to his vision of natural places. While I don’t subscribe to his idea to such an extreme and find viewing other photographers work inspirational, I greatly respect his desire to stay unique.
This morning I headed up the Mesa trail from the South Boulder trailhead. I was not feeling inspired to photograph anything in particular and in fact was simply enjoying a peaceful morning hiking with my dog, Jackson. Clouds obscured the sunrise this morning and the soft diffused light is some of my favorite lighting to photograph in. This time of year, mornings break often under ‘severe clear’ conditions, Boulder, Colorado is unique in that it is the junction between two competing eco-systems, that of the high plains and the Rocky Mountain foothills. The South Boulder trailhead and Mesa trail are great in that they wind through Bluestem grasses, Yucca’s and Ponderosa forests.
Early on in the hike, the many Yucca’s growing along the slopes caught my attention. They are starting to bloom in many of the areas along the Mesa trail. While looking for a good composition of blooming Yucca’s, this particular scene caught my eye. The red rocks, typical of this area combined with the Yucca leaves and flowering Shrubby Cinquefoil could be interesting if I could blend all the elements together. When photographing images such as these, it’s of the utmost importance to know what to include and what to keep out. At the same time, your not able to physically move trees, flowers and rocks so you have to work within the parameters nature has given you. Sometimes the flowering Shrubby Cinquefoil does not want to bloom far enough away from other distraction objects, and sometimes it does,
The western United States spans very large distances. Some counties alone out west are the size of some of the smaller eastern states. Part of the west’s lure has always been it’s open spaces and large tracts of land. That being said, events happening hundreds of miles away can still have an impact on the weather and conditions.
This was certainly the case the last week in Colorado. The large and still mostly uncontained Wallow fire just outside of Greer, Arizona has caused smoke and particulates to travel into Colorado on southerly winds. Some days in northern Colorado have been better than others. Even Rocky Mountain National Park is not immune to the smoke and haze from the fire. The particulates and smoke in the air are making for some spectacular Sunrise and Sunsets however, in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This particular morning was about to break cloudless. While it would be a beautiful day to be hiking and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, the ‘Severe Clear’ conditions would not have made for dramatic imagery this particular morning. As I was hiking past Dream Lake on trails still covered with many feet of snow, I could see the colors of the sky starting to pop. I quickly had to scramble to find a vantage point looking east. I used a telephoto lens to compress the scene and layer the mountain ridges making for a more subtle but just as interesting image of Rocky Mountain National Park
One of the two great drives in Rocky Mountain National Park is the drive across Trail Ridge road, the second being the drive up the older Fall Ridge road to the Alpine Visitor Center. People come from all over Colorado and the world to cross the highest continuous road in the United States. How many places can you drive your car across pristine alpine tundra at over 12,000 ft above sea level. During most of the year, the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain National park are split in two due to winter snows and the closing of Trail Ridge road. When open during the summer months, Trail Ridge road connects both the east and western sides of Rocky Mountain National Park as well as the communities of Estes Park on the east side and Grand Lake on the west side.
As of June 5, 2011, Trail Ridge road is still closed. The National Park Service is working hard to complete the clearing of large snow drifts as high as 29 ft according to reports. Typically, Trail Ridge road is open by Memorial Day, and in recent years a few weeks prior to Memorial Day. This year has been anything but typical in the Colorado high country and Rocky Mountain. The Park Service is hoping to have Trail Ridge road open by June 15th at the latest, and hopefully sooner.
Earlier in the week, I was able to catch some dynamic conditions at Rainbow Curve which is the current terminus of Trail Ridge road as of this writing. I had been photographing this particular morning over near Sprague Lake. It had captured a decent sunrise this morning, but many of the clouds present when I arrived had dissipated by sunrise. Up until this point, the real catch that morning at Sprague Lake was a young Moose feeding on the willows along the western shore. Moose are much more common on the east side now then even 10 years ago, but you are still less likely to spot one on the east side. On my way out of Rocky, I could see fog and clouds forming over the Mummy Range and Mt. Ypsilon. I took a quick detour over Trail Ridge road and headed up as far as I could go to Rainbow Curve. I was able to get a handful of shots off before the fog also disappeared and the Mummy Range and Mt. Ypsilon.
Cub Lake is a popular 2.3 mile hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a fairly easy hike to get to Cub Lake, and the lakes elevation of roughly 8600 ft above sea level makes ideal for early summer photography. Typically, Cub Lake is one of the first lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park to melt out from a long Colorado winter. The hike to Cub Lake begins in Moraine Park and you gradually wind your way through the meadow, past a few beaver ponds, in and out of an Aspen grove to the shelf above the Moraine where Cub Lake can be found.
Not only does Cub Lake melt out earlier than some of the other popular lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park, but its an easy hike to get your ‘Park’ legs back under you. With this in mind, I made a second attempt to photograph Cub Lake last week. I had planned on hiking to Cub Lake a few weeks back, but when I arrived in Moraine Park that morning at 4:30 AM, it was windy and snowing. I’m a glutton for punishment, but I decided to forgo the hike in the wind and snow that morning as the prospect for a decent sunrise appeared to be nil. A decent sunrise never materialized on that morning and I spent that time photographing in and around Moraine Park instead.
Fast forward to last week and here I am arriving at the Cub Lake trailhead at 4:15 AM. The longer days of summer are upon us and sunrise was 5:35 AM this particular morning. The conditions on this morning were not much better when I first arrived at the trailhead then they had been a week prior. This time there was a light rain coming down on my truck and fog floating through Moraine Park. My first reaction was to bail on the hike. It’s a reaction all photographers feel when things are not going as planned. Why not stay in the comfort of my warm truck and wait for dark valley to light up. Many times I’ve had unforeseen circumstances ruin shots I thought were slam dunks. At the same time I’ll admit that I’ve bailed on potential epic shots thinking the light was gone only to be headed down the road or trail to see a spectacular light show unfolding without me photographing it. I could see the moon peaking through the clouds in a few areas and some stars. I figured, I’m either going to get one heck of a sunrise, or I’m going to have a nice hike in the rain.
My typical approach now is to fight off that inner voice, and just move forward with the itinerary regardless of the conditions. That’s not to say I wont make adjustments to my to my plan, but I find it best to ignore the conditions and head out into the field. The one thing I’ve learned is your never going to know what’s going to happen unless you try. The plan for this day was to photograph Cub Lake with Stones Peak in the distance. When I arrived at Cub Lake it was shrouded in fog. I could still see some breaks in the fog off to the east but I could not see any of the peaks west of me, including Stones Peak as the were in the clouds. I figured my best chance for something decent would be to hightail it to the west end of the lake and photograph the scene looking east. The scene changed rapidly and eventually the entire lake was covered in fog. I was able to make 6-7 exposures of the sunrise illuminating the clouds above Cub Lake. I was not only able to photograph this scene, but I also got some great photographs of the fog moving through the trees around Cub Lake. Mission accomplished, and I hiked back to my truck that morning a bit damp, but very content.
In keeping with the Aspen tree theme, here’s a recent example of an Aspen grove along the northern flank of Green Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. Were still inching along towards summer here but finally I can see signs of life and spring in our lower elevations. Most photographers enjoy making images of Aspen trees during the fall when their leaves turn a golden yellow. There is however, a short window during the spring, shortly after the trees ‘bud out’ when the Aspen trees put on just as interesting a display of color. Shortly after Aspen trees begin to display their recent spring foliage, Aspen leaves take on a translucent key lime like hue. It’s a short window between the key lime look and the darker summer green leaves. Under the right lighting conditions, the green Aspen leaves literally appear to glow.
I’ve been spying this small Aspen grove on the side of Green Mountain in Boulder for some time. Boulder, Colorado does not have many Aspen groves, but there are a few dispersed areas of Aspen trees here and there amongst the Evergreens. Because of the heat and lesser amounts of moisture, they tend to grow in smaller, less impressive groves than other areas of Colorado. I passed this grove the day before but it was sunny and the lighting conditions where much too harsh to capture the detail and make the key lime spring leaves ‘pop’. I returned a few days later after a light rain had been falling on the area. The leaves looked great under the diffused lighting and I spent some time wandering around the trees. It was an awesome feeling being outside, under a light mist with the organic smell of life, and spring in the air and grove. Periodic claps of thunder could be heard in the distance but I was loving every minute of it. This was spring renewal at its best for me. I was revitalized with thoughts of what the future holds and opportunities to come.