Fall Is Getting Into Full Swing In Rocky

Sunrise over the Big Thompson,Stones Peak and Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A spectacular day dawns along the Big Thompson river and Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. Rocky’s first heavy frost coats the grasses along the Big Thompson as the fog hangs in the valley. Stones Peak glows red with the first sunlight of the day. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70-200mm F4 IS L
Fall is really starting to hit it’s stride in Rocky now. Aspen tree’s are turning gold all around the park, and we had our first heavy frost in Moraine Park on Saturday. Finally, that distinctive sound of Elk bugling through the meadows and valleys is a sure sign autumn has arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Photography in the park can be overwhelming this time of year. Overwhelming in a good way of course. There is a ton of potential this time of year. Do you hike to a high alpine lake which is still unfrozen for sunrise?. Should I train my camera and lens on that grove of golden aspens?. Or should I hang around Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park looking for herds of Elk and photograph the rut?.

Some photographers excel in trying to capture all of the above subjects at the same time. Personally, I find it best to concentrate on one subject at a time. That’s not to say I wont attempt to photograph multiple subjects in Rocky on the same outings, I just find my style works best when I filter some of the background noise and set a destination.

I find it’s a good idea to have a starting point and goal when heading out in the field. That being said, I also like to have a ‘Plan B’ ready in case I have to alter plans due to lighting, location of clouds or weather. It’s also important for me to take advantage of unforeseen images or opportunities when in the field.

Saturday morning was clear and cool. I had planned to hike to Bluebird Lake in Wild Basin for sunrise but changed my plans on the way up to Rocky when it was apparent I had a zero percent change of getting any clouds at sunrise. I had passed through some low lying fog on the way up to Rocky so I figured I’d take a quick look at Moraine Park to see if any fog was hovering in the valley over the Big Thompson.

Bull Elk in Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A beautiful Bull Elk bugles loudly as he collects his harem and wards off another approaching male. Frost coats the grasses in Moraine Park and fall is certainly in full swing. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 7D, 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 IS L
Cresting over the rise from Upper Beaver Meadows I was pleased to find some low lying fog hanging out Moraine Park along the river. Cars parked at the Cub Lake trailhead had a nice coat of frost on their windshields. A short hike out to a nice bend in the Big Thompson River and the elements started coming together. Skies were clear but the fog along the river would provide a nice element to the scene. Furthermore, it would cover up the many fences installed around Moraine Park to protect the foliage from the every hungry elk herds.

Heading back to the trailhead, I could hear Bull Elk bugling all around Moraine Park. This time of year I keep my Canon 7D and 100-400 IS lens with me in the front seat of my vehicle. I don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer per se, but opportunities to photograph the Elk rut can be plentiful on mornings like this so it’s a good idea to be prepared if the opportunity presents itself.

On my way out of Moraine Park I was lucky enough to come upon this beautiful Bull Elk and his harem. For a good twenty minutes or so I was able to photograph this Bull Elk bugling, herding and chasing other males from his harem. Finally they headed back into the cover and shade of the Ponderosa’s, and I headed home satisfied.

Glacier Gorge, Lake Helene and Fall Colors

Dawn over Glacier Gorge and the Glacier Knobs
Blue Dawn in Glacier Gorge. Just prior to sunrise, this Krumholtz tree is silhouetted agains the deep blue sky and pre-dawn light. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24mm TS-E f3.5 II
I just finished up with a couple of very productive days in Rocky Mountain National Park. The seasons are definitely starting to collide and change and Rocky is very much moving from summer into autumn.

This is without question my favorite time to photograph Rocky Mountain National Park. For the most part, you still have all the lakes open and free of ice, but the aspen tree’s and underbrush are starting to change and the Elk are starting to rut presenting photographers with plenty of varied subjects to photograph.

Sunrise at Lake Helene, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Lake Helene at sunrise.Yellow and red leaves from the underbrush float on the surface of Lake Helene in the forground. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 17mm TS-E F4
Photographing fall colors this week was not in my plans. While it’s not abnormal to see and aspen tree or two changing colors around Labor Day, I have to admit I was quite surprised to find as much color change as I did occurring on many of the hillsides.

I think for the most part, the typical third and fourth week of September will provide photographers with plenty of great opportunities to photograph fall color in Rocky Mountain National Park, but there are certainly going to be some good opportunities to capture fall color in the next week or so. Our dry summer appears be causing some of the stressed trees to turn golden earlier than usual.

My plan was to photograph Mills Lake and Lake Helene if conditions looked right. The clouds I was hoping for at Mills Lake never materialized, but everything fell into place at Lake Helene yesterday.

I’ll start transitioning over to some fall color photography here a bit sooner than I expected. In a nutshell, the Bierstadt Moraine has little to no change. The area around Bear Lake itself is spotty with some decent patches of color. Above Bear Lake it’s also spotty with some patches of decent color. So while there will be plenty of golden color to photograph in the next few weeks, one can certainly find some color in the park already.

Photographing Waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Water flowing over Ouzel Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Water flows down over Ouzel Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. The use of a polarizer allowed for the color to pop in the foreground rocks. I also spent a good deal of time experimenting with shutter speeds before I capture the right amount of flow and detail in the water of Ouzel Falls. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 IS L, Circular Polorizer.
Most photographers visit Rocky Mountain National Park hoping to come away with some spectacular shot of a sweeping mountain vista, or an iconic alpine lake with a perfect mirror reflection. While I feel you on that desire, sometimes weather, wind, or a line of other photographers with the same ideas may prevent one from capturing those idyllic scenes of Rocky.

Don’t fret however, when things aren’t working in your favor when it comes to photographing some of the more iconic spots like Dream Lake, or the Rock Cut there are plenty of other locations one can train their camera on.

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with literally hundreds of waterfalls, cascades and bubbling brooks. These water features are ideal locations to photograph on windy days, cloudy or rainy mornings, or when you just want to get away from photographing the more iconic and crowded locations in Rocky. Here are a couple of quick tips for photographing waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park.

1. Typically you want to photograph water in either cloudy diffused light or prior to any direct sun hitting the waterfall or water feature. Diffused light allows for even lighting over the entire scene and prevents contrasty, harsh lighting that will blowout highlights or remove detail for darker areas. Your camera can only capture so many stops of light and dark, bright sun or direct lighting just makes this range more extreme. If you photograph water in Rocky Mountain National Park on a clear blue sky day prior to feature being illuminated by direct sun, expect to play with and tweak your white balance settings when processing your raw files.

2. Use a circular polarizer filter when photographing water features. Circular polarizing filters help to minimize both glare and reflections emanating from the scene. Use of a circular polarizer helps to keep the detail in both the rocks and foliage as well as to help tame bright spots present in the water. The circular polarizer will also help make colors pop by removing flare and reflection from the surfaces being photographed. Keep in mind circular polarizers require an additional two stops of exposure compensation. This can sometimes be a hindrance but it may also be a benefit as it will allow for longer exposures which create the dreamy motion effect on the water feature being photographed.

3. Experiment with both shutter speeds and ISO when photographing water. Your shutter speed will greatly affect how the motion of the water is captured. Every photographer has there own tolerances for how dreamy and silky than want the motion of the water to be represented in their final image. In general you want to capture the motion of the water while retaining some detail in the overall flow of water. Very long exposures not only create the dreamy look, but may create ‘hot spots’ of very white water that can cause a distraction to the overall image. Adjusting your camera’s ISO will help increase or decrease the shutter speed required and the correlating amount of motion capture in the water.

4.Work the scene and composition using both wide and telephoto compositions. Waterfalls and water features are great because there are literally hundreds of possibilities. Encompassing the waterfalls in the overall scene with a wide angle lens may result in an beautiful image, but using a telephoto lens to isolate and capture smaller areas of the waterfall will result in unique and original compositions as well.

5. Visit the water features and waterfalls at different points in the season. You would be surprised how different any given waterfall may look depending on the overall flow of water. Obviously the spring runoff will generate very large amounts of water flow through the feature. More pleasing compositions may actually open up as the flow of water subsides later in the season. Also, capturing waterfalls under a fresh snow, or first deep freeze will allow one to capture more unique images.

So the next time your photographing Rocky Mountain National Park and the weather or the wind is not cooperating at the more iconic locations, just get out your topo map and find some water to photograph.

Smoked Chickadee

The Sun rises above a thunderstorm over the plains and lights the smokey skies above Chickadee Pond and Wild Basin section of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The sun begins to creep above a large thunderstorm over the eastern plains of Colorado. Particulates and smoke from the many wildfires out turns the sky over Chickadee Pond a magenta hue. Wild Basin contains some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most beautiful locations. It takes some work to get Wild Basin’s many gems, and although the area is often overlooked by photographers, it contains some of Rocky’s most beautiful locations. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24mm TS-E F3.5 L II
The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park has it’s own unique feel and vibe. It’s less visited than other sections on the east side of the park, and many visitors to the park are likely to pass on through without exploring this area. I too am guilty at times of overlooking the Wild Basin area for some of the more familiar spots.

Not only does Wild Basin have a different feel with it’s many streams and water features, it makes you work to see much of its beauty. Roads into and around Wild Basin stop about 5 miles short of any of the lakes or impressive peaks located in the Wild Basin. This means your not going to see very much of Wild Basin from your car.

To get close to the divide and the impressive peaks such as Mt. Copeland, Ouzel Peak and Mt. Alice your going to have to hoof it. While most of the hiking is on the moderate side, distance is the biggest obstacle to photographing this locations.

Five, Six and Seven mile one-way hikes are the norm when exploring Wild Basin. With that in front of me, and knowing I’ve neglected this area, I set off for the Ouzel Lake area.

It was a cloudless morning departing the trailhead, but I had been watching a large thunderstorm flicker over the plains east of Ft. Collins on 2:30 AM drive up to Rocky. The plan was either to photograph from either Ouzel Lake or Chickadee Pond at sunrise. In my opinion, Chickadee Pond offers a better viewpoint of the divide and Ouzel Peak than Ouzel Lake does, so that was my primary destination.

Chickadee Pond also has a propensity of pond lilies that grow on its surface. In fact, I cant think of another body of water in Rocky Mountain National Park that is so densely packed with pond lilies. I figured if clouds did not build at sunrise and bluebird skies persisted, I could at least photograph the pond lilies.

Lastly, the wildfires that have plagued the west this year continue to make photography difficult in Rocky Mountain National Park. The smoke from these wildfires has settled into Colorado for the last 2 weeks, diffusing the early morning sunlight and taking the ‘pop’ from the early morning sun.

I arrived at Chickadee Pond and realized my best option was to photograph the sunrise off to the east. That large thunderstorm over the plains I had watched on my drive up to the park could still be seen from Chickadee Pond. In fact, the large thunderhead was blocking the rising sun while allowing for some nice coloration in the sky and clouds.

I setup my camera and began photographing the sun rising over the large thunderhead clouds off to the east. The smokey skies above Chickadee Pond also helped to add color at sunrise by adding a magenta like hue as the first rays filtered through the particulates in the sky. All in all, the combination of the thunderstorm and smoke in the sky made for an interesting morning deep within Wild Basin.

Back From The Beach

Sunrise at Southampton, New York and Dune Beach
Small bitting bugs, sea spray, sand and high humidity, all the elements I dont typically deal with out here in Colorado. Regardless, I was able to capture this beautiful sunrise from Dune Beach in Southampton, New York. If your willing to get up early and head out to the beach, there is a good chance you the eastern end of Long Island will treat you to a sight such as this. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 17mm TS-E F4
Changing pace can be a good thing. Every once in awhile it’s nice to get out of your set routines, break from the mold a bit and photograph something different. I personally finds it helps the creative process to break from the familiar and get out into different environs.

I spend last week on a whirlwind tour of New York State visiting in-laws and relatives. The trip back east was more about visiting family and catching up with old friends then it was about photography. Of course, there was no way I was going to be able to keep my camera in the bag the entire time.

While spending the end of the week out on the east end of Long Island, I was able to get up early a few mornings and catch sunrise along the beach. While I had a good sunrise this particular morning at Dune Beach in Southampton, the humidity, sand and sea spray where all things I’ve gotten used to not having to deal with here in Colorado. The trip was great, but I’m eager to get back up to Rocky and my more comfortable surroundings.

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls tumbles downstream through Glacier Gorge just below Black Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This morning was one of my most productive mornings in Rocky Mountain National Park. A few weeks back I hiked up to Black Lake to photograph sunrise. Everything pretty much broke my way this morning. There was no wind present in Rocky this morning, at sunrise , beautiful clouds setup, and I was able to walk away with four images of Black Lake and Ribbon Falls that I'm very pleased with. I hustled up to Ribbon Falls just before sunrise to capture this image of the clouds lighting just above the side of Storm Peak. I was only able to spend a few minutes at this location before I had to hustle up to Black Lake to catch sunrise on McHenry's Peak. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 IS L
This image posted from Ribbon Falls is a follow up to the image posted from Black Lake a few weeks back. As I stated previously, I had a great hike up to Black Lake and was lucky to have near perfect conditions on that mornings hike and accompanying shoot.

There was no wind present this morning and I had a great set of clouds that rolled in right at sunrise. Ribbon Falls just below Black Lake was my first that morning. I was able to make a few images here at Ribbon Falls just before the sunrise.

The clouds to the east were just starting to glow when I took this image from the top of Ribbon Falls, looking back towards the sides of Storm Mountain. I was able to quickly pack up and scoot up to Black Lake for sunrise, and the falls on the inlet stream to Black Lake after that.

All in all I walked away with four images of the Black Lake area that I’m very pleased with. It was one of the best mornings I’ve had in Rocky Mountain National Park, and certainly one of my most productive. Now if I could only get every morning in Rocky to work out this well.

The Short Of Things

A Lone Ponderosa on a hillside just east of the Flatirons and Boulder, Colorado
The prevailing winds have helped shape this tree into a boot like shape. This tree is often subjected to very high winds from the west and south during the winter months. This Ponderosa leads a difficult exsistence on the side of this hill just east of Boulder, Colorado. It still manages to survive and endure which is both motivating and impressive. I've been meaning to get out to this spot for some time to photograph this tree and Sunday's sunrise provided the perfect backdrop to frame the tree and The Flatirons. Technical Details: Canon Eos 1Ds III, 24mm TS-E F3.5 L II(which is still working great after it's 10 minute bath in a stream a few weeks back at Black Lake!)
Unfortunately for me I’ve got some personal commitments over the course of the next few weeks that will keep me from being able to get up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Luckily for me, there lot’s of good stuff to photograph closer to home in and around Boulder. On top of that I’ll be heading back to New York for some time at the beach with family. While I wont be trouncing around Rocky in the middle of the night waiting for sunrise, I should be able to break out the cameras and get some photography done.

I’ve been eyeing this particular location and tree from sometime. You can see this tree from Highway 93 just south of Boulder on Boulder County Open Space property. This tree has a commanding view of the Flatirons and I’ve driven by it on countless occasions making a mental note that I have to hike in and check it out one day.

Sunday’s sunrise looked very promising so I decided it would be a good time to hike in and photograph this tree. This Ponderosa sits on a hilltop all alone. This tree leads a difficult existence on the top of this hillside. This may be the windiest spot in all of Boulder, and the shape and form the tree has taken is a testament to that.

During the winter months in particular, downsloping winds off the continental divide are funneled out of Eldorado Canyon, roaring out onto the high plains. It’s not uncommon for winds to reach 80-85mph in this location and speeds have been recorded in excess of 100 mph.

All the while this lone Ponderosa persists. It persists through the hot and dry summer months, just as it does through the hurricane force winds common in the winter months. It’s certainly not the biggest specimen, but the fact that it’s endured the harsh conditions from seedling to its present state is impressive.

This tree’s story and it’s ability to endure tough conditions draw me in to photograph it. Getting such a beautiful sunrise is just icing on the cake. I’ll be back to photograph this tree again, I’ll just have to pass on those winter days when it’s a bit ‘breezy’ on this side of town.

Lake Of Glass From Sky Pond

Sunrise over Lake Of Glass from Sky Pond. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
People often ask me what my favorite are my favorite areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. While I tell them I dont have any favorite area in particular, there are some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that I seem to go back to time and time again. The Sky Pond and Lake of Glass area is one of these places that I photograph as often as I can. From Sky Pond, perched above Lake of Glass, sunrises are spectacular and have all the elements that make Rocky Mountain National Park such a beautiful location. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24-105mm F4 L IS
Rocky Mountain National Park has one beautiful lake and peak after another. Study at Topo map of Rocky Mountain and one can attempt to imagine the beauty of the location and surrounding peaks before ever setting foot in the area.

People often ask me what’s my favorite area of Rocky Mountain National Park, or what area do I think is the most beautiful. It’s not a question I can even attempt to answer thankfully. There are just too many beautiful places and locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photographing in any area of Rocky will keep me satisfied.

That being said, there are some areas of Rocky Mountain National Park that have an almost other worldly quality to them. The layout of the land, the peaks, the way the light filters in through the valleys give certain areas a look and feel that can only be truly appreciated in person.

One of these ‘slam dunk’ areas of Rocky is the Sky Pond and Lake of Glass area. A moderate hike of 4.5 miles leads you through Loch Vale and some of the most spectacular scenery found anywhere in Colorado. The Lake of Glass and Sky Pond area sit on a high shelf above Loch Vale and the view from the cirque is impressive in all directions.

This area which is world famous for it’s rock climbing formations such as the ‘Sharkstooth’ and the ‘Petit Grepon’ make up the Cathedral Spires which border Sky Pond and Lake of Glass. Along with Taylor Peak, these formations and peaks make the photography very enticing as well.

With that being said, my favorite view from the Sky Pond area is looking northeast back over Lake of Glass and Loch Vale. It’s a classic Colorado alpine scene at sunrise. It has all the elements, lakes, mountains, valleys and lighting that make the 4.5 mile hike well worth the effort.

Black Lake

Sunrise at Black Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, McHenry's Peak, the Arrowhead
Rocky Mountain National Park never fails to impress me. I had been planning for some time to photograph Black Lake, and my first visit to the area did not dissapoint. This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. In this image, McHenry's Peak and The Arrowhead are bathed in the early morning light. I was lucky this morning to have nice sets of clouds roll over the peaks and gorge making for some great photography of this amazing area. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 17mm TS-E F4 L
Before I start out to photograph a certain location, I often research the area. Staring at a Topo map I make and attempt to anticipate how that given location is going to look, what might be the best areas to photograph from etc.

Exploring new areas of Rocky Mountain National Park is always exciting. I’m lucky enough to be photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park, so it’s always a thrilling experience for me and I’m certainly not complaining. There are times however, when areas of Rocky impress me even more than I could imagine.

Last week was one of those experiences. I have never photographed Black Lake, but it’s been on the ‘to-do’ list for some time. In fact, I’ve never spent much time in Glacier Gorge beyond Mills and Jewel Lake. I have seen some other photographers images from the area and had been told by many how beautiful the Black Lake area is.

It’s a pretty good slog up to Black Lake. It’s a little under 5 miles one-way just to reach Black Lake which is nestled deep in Glacier Gorge. The area I planned on shooting above Black Lake would make the one-way mileage exceed 5 miles, and the total elevation gain exceed 1800 ft.

I set off from the Glacier Gorge parking lot a little before 4:00 AM for Black Lake. The trail can be a little difficult to follow in some areas and a wind event over the winter months has created large areas of blown down timber which can be navigation a little tricky in some areas but I was able to forge ahead fairly easily.

As I neared Ribbon Falls and the shore of Black Lake, some nice clouds and pre-dawn light started to fill the sky to the north and east. I had only a few minutes until the sunrise but things were looking promising. I scurried around the side of Black Lake and followed Black Lake’s inlet stream to a vantage point up above Black Lake with a commanding view of McHenry Peak and The Arrowhead.

I found a nice location along the creek looking back over Black Lake and began to setup my camera. After hiking 5 miles in the dark, it’s somewhat easy to develop tunnel vision and not to observe your surroundings as you normally would. After setting up my gear, I was able to take a deep breath and take in my surroundings.

It’s hard to describe in words how beautiful a location this area is. I can hope to convey that through my images from this particular morning, but this area is so beautiful one needs to experience it first hand to fully appreciate the location and experience.

Black Lake is one of those areas that far exceeded any and all of my expectations. It’s a location I will return to photograph again. And even though I managed to drop my $2400 24mm tilt shift lens into the creek during the shoot, I had one of my best Rocky Mountain National Park experiences on this expedition.

‘Oh Wow!’, Finally Some Rain On Loch Vale

The Loch and Loch Vale at Sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
We photographers are light junkies. We are in a constant search for dynamic lighting conditions which typically happen on the edge of weather. It's easy enough to want to shoot in dynamic lighting, but photographers have to be willing to pay their dues to capture this illusive lighting. It's been a hot dry summer in Rocky Mountain National Park, and chances to photograph dynamic lighting or 'oh wow' lighting have been few and far between. Finally the weather pattern changed this weekend and I was rewarded with this image of The Loch and Cathederal Wall being splashed with short by spectacular lighting conditions. Technicial Details: Canon EOS 1Ds III, 24mm TS-E f3.5 L II
Finally the hot dry weather pattern broke. It broke in a big way in fact. Record heat and nary a drop of moisture gave way to cool wet weather this week in Rocky Mountain National Park thanks in part to the summer monsoon finally kicking in.

It’s been so hot, dry and windy in Rocky that I was really starting to believe that photography may end up being a lost cause for the season. It’s been unbelievably hot and dry in Colorado for the last few months and these couple of days of cool temperatures and rain are just what the doctor ordered.

I preach it all the time, but dynamic weather like this is also key to capturing unique images in Rocky Mountain National Park. During a typical summer season, a photographer might be lucky to capture dynamic weather conditions like these half a dozen times or so.

It’s very tempting to hit snooze on the alarm clock and head back to bed. There is a very good chance you might end up being skunked after hiking 3 miles in the dark and rain, but if the elements come together, there are few better places to be as a photographer than on the edge of weather.

One tip I often give fellow photographers when photographing Rocky Mountain National Park is to hang in there no matter how poor the conditions appear to be. I cant tell you how many times I’ve headed out into conditions that I thought in no way would allow for extraordinary first morning light.

Mountains and peaks can be socked in by fog and clouds, as can be the eastern horizon. Somehow however, the sun may manage to peek through the bank of clouds just long enough for the ‘oh wow!'(profanity removed) light to bathe the peaks.

Saturday and Sunday both produced ‘oh wow!’ lighting for me. I started Saturday intending to photograph Timberline Falls in Loch Vale. I figured if the clouds and sun did not cooperate I’d still have Timberline Falls to photograph.

On my way up to Timberline Falls, I setup at The Loch to see what sunrise would bring. As is typical, the conditions seemed poor. I hiked up to The Loch in a light mist and I could see no break in the clouds cover over the eastern horizon. I waited patiently at sunrise and just as I was about to pack my bag, the Cathedral Wall and part of Loch Vale lit up all for about 5 minutes or so. It was just enough time for me to capture a half a dozen images of the dynamic and changing light conditions that morning.

So when the lighting appears less than promising, just remember to fight off the urge to pack up your camera bag and leave. ‘Oh wow’ lighting happens a few times a year, but for every ten ‘oh heck’ moments, one ‘Oh wow’ moment will keep you from hitting snooze on that alarm clock and out on the trail even in poor conditions.