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.
Populus Tremuloides. The scientific name of my favorite species of tree. Populus Tremuloides certainly does not roll of the tongue like its more commonly known identification of ‘Aspen’ tree does. Aspen’s are probably my favorite photography subjects. Not only is this deciduous tree regal in its appearance and symmetry but even the name sounds cool. The name has become popular enough to grace one of Colorado’s most famous ski towns, and even now is a popular pet name.
While Colorado is world renown for its large Aspen groves, Rocky Mountain National Park does not play host to large stands of Aspen trees. There are plenty of Aspen trees present in Rocky Mountain National Park, they just tend to congregate in smaller groves and sizes. Rocky gets less precipitation than some of the central areas of Colorado that are host to some of the larger Aspen groves. Furthermore, the large Elk population takes its toll on the trees using them as a food source during the long winter months by chewing on the Aspen bark and smaller off shoots. While this may make photographing Aspen trees in Rocky Mountain National Park less than ideal, there are ample opportunities to use the Aspen trees of Rocky as photographic subject matter.
Aspen trees have a very unique look and feel to them. Aspen trees send out off shoots from the main tree which produces additional clone like off shoots. These off shoots grow very close to the original tree and are attain similar sizes and attributes. This is why one does not typically find Aspen trees growing alone. The clone off shoots clump together around the main tree which helps to create the unique patterns and shapes of the Aspen boles that make every colony different and unique while at the same time achieving a level of symmetry that makes them so photogenic.
Photographing Aspen trees can be quite rewarding but I also find it very challenging to compose coherent images without to many distractions in the scene. There are thousands of different ways to approach photographing the subject. Do you want to shoot one bole?, the entire grove?, looking up?, looking down?, backlit?, in shade?, and so on. I personally prefer to photograph Aspen trees under diffused cloudy light. Diffused, even light allows one to capture the detail in the bark as well as to allow one to move freely through the scene without having to worry about where the sun is located as well as to avoid harsh lighting. Shooting a coherent, clean Aspen image requires thought and some trial and error. It’s important to narrow down the scene, organize clutter and remove distracting objects and try to avoid converging lines. You need to take the chaos that is Mother Nature and organize the scene in a manner that helps to create a cohesive and compelling image. Practice makes perfect, and I have yet to find conditions where one cant practice making compelling images of Aspen trees.
At the risk of boring everyone to death, I will avoid digressing more on how we have yet to see springtime here on the Front Range of Colorado. I will only say that in the last week I have been able to photograph lots of wintry type scenes on and around Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder. It’s fairly safe to assume that by mid May, most of my photography has shifted from winter like scenes, to views of Golden Banner blooming in Chautauqua meadow amongst the green grasses. Enough of the belly aching, regardless of the fact I am looking forward to warm sunny days, I’m quite pleased with the end results. I’ll let the image speak for our weather this week.
As photographers, we often find ourselves pining after the latest and greatest pieces of gear. The digital photography revolution, with its constantly evolving technology has only fed into these desires. Gear that only a few years prior may have been the latest and greatest, may now be considered dated and old. Many people now embrace digital photography whom in the past film photography had little or no appeal. The popularity of digital photography today has surpassed the popularity of photography at any time during the film era.
When I first started seriously pursuing photography back in 1994, digital photography had not entered the mindset of photographers. Film was still king and Kodachrome was still a very popular film. Fuji Velvia had surpassed Kodachrome as the go to film for most photographers, but you could readily purchase Kodachrome 35mm slide film in 25 ISO, 64 ISO and 200 ISO. Times were much different then and the limitation of your gear mostly revolved around your skills, technique and the film you chose to shoot with. At the time, a 35mm camera was basically a light tight box, used to expose film. Sure there were high end professional film bodies available then such as the Nikon F4 or the Canon Eos 1n, but a photographer with a Nikon FM2 could produce just as technically proficient of an image on Kodachrome or Velvia as could the photographer with the Canon Eos 1n.
No longer can a digital camera be viewed as a simply a light tight box in which we expose a piece of film to light. Digital cameras come in all flavors and sizes these day and the sensor and resolution of the actual digital camera can play a large role in how and image is viewed or printed. That being said the photographers vision and passion for their subject is still the most important aspect to photography. It’s easy to believe that buying a new piece of gear will make you a better photographer. While I find that new gear may add some additional motivation to head out into the field for a test run, that feeling will quickly disperse leaving me only with my vision and passion for photography to get me back out in the field. Since it dawned on my back in 1994, that photography was something I would pursue for life, I have owned many different types of gear. I have shot with Minolta equipment, Nikon equipment and for the last 17 years have shot most with a 4×5 large format system and Canon equipment. While having some of this gear and equipment has helped me to capture some of my imagery, it was the realization that formulating a vision is much more powerful than any new piece of gear
Lets get one more post in the books here for April. This is another photograph from Rocky Mountain National Park on a typical snowy Colorado spring day. Photographers often talk of visualizing photographs prior to making them. I would say I use this approach often and find that it can work very well at times. There is however, a trap in setting out with the intent of capturing a particular photograph during any given outing.
It’s easy motivation to idealize and visualize what one is going to photograph on a particular expedition. The thought of capturing magnificent light at an elusive location may be what gets a photographer out of bed in the morning when the alarm clock goes off at 2:00 AM, more importantly it may be what keeps the lights turned on back at the house. It can also be what hamstrings a photographer and causes them to head out with blinders attached. When I arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park this particular morning I too was guilty of having a pre determined notion of what I wanted to photograph.
I knew that it would be overcast and snowing in the Park this morning. These are some of my favorite weather conditions for my type of photography. Weather conditions such as they were this particular morning are great for photographing trees and more intimate landscape subjects. I headed over to the Hollowell Park trailhead knowing there were some nice Ponderosa pine groves in the area. I was intent on photographing Ponderosa pine trees covered in fresh snow as I had done many times before. I have photographed Ponderosa’s many times in conditions such as these. A funny thing happened as I set out from the trailhead.
As I walked along the stream, and further up the trailhead, the willows along the bank of the stream caught my eye. I have hiked past these willows many times before and never felt the motivation to photograph them. This morning was different. With the snow falling moderately and the Willows along the bank of the stream subtlety glowing red and orange, I had to get my camera out and capture the scene unfolding before me. I quickly setup my equipment, forgot about photographing the Ponderosa’s and began to photograph the willows. The soft light and snowfall combined with the red’s and oranges of the willows along the creek helped to create an almost impressionist like image. The bottom line, visualizing what you want to photograph is good, but make sure you keep your senses tuned and your eyes and mind open.