Archive for the ‘Colorado’ Tag

Rural America ~ Desert Southwest Road-trips: Kanab to Ridgway   9 comments

On the Ralf Lauren Ranch near Ridgway, Colorado on a crystal-cold late fall morning.

America is a big place.  There are large swathes of it that retain a rural or even wild character.  In the rural areas you’ll primarily see homes surrounded by lawns and landscaping.  No garden, no chickens, goats or horses.  No dairy cow supplying milk to the family.  And in fact little visual evidence of a family.  Where are all the kids who once cared for those animals, and after chores roamed the woods and fields?   Most likely riding to yet another stop on their busy schedules or inside looking at screens.

Things have obviously changed.  But in much of rural America there remains just enough of the traditional character (and characters!) to allow a casual visitor to be transported back to a simpler age.  That is what this series of posts is attempting to do, at least with its pictures.  Since I believe in passing on some of what I know in this blog and not just waxing lyrical, I’m highlighting a few select road-trips that I’ve done several times, journeys that will get you off the main tourist routes while still hitting popular destinations that in my opinion are not to be missed.

Last time we traveled from one favorite national park to another: Death Valley, California to Zion in Utah.  Check out that post.  For an introduction to the geography, culture and history of the Desert Southwest, check out the previous post.  Now let’s continue our journey through the Southwest, traveling from Kanab, Utah to Ridgway, Colorado.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah.

Kanab to Ridgway

This trip begins where the last one left off, Zion Park.  Kanab is a short distance from Zion’s east entrance.  Unless you’ve already been there and want to save your time for new places, you’re going to want to begin with that scenic wonder.  Kanab is worth visiting for its movie history and small-town vibe.  Have breakfast at Nedra’s, where many old-time movie stars chowed down.  Rooms are fairly reasonable in town, but if you’re camping a great choice is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park just north of town (image above).

An old barn in Kanab Canyon sits in a pasture used by horses cared for by the folks at Best Friends.

If you have two or three extra days on your hands, consider volunteering at Best Friends animal shelter a short drive north of Kanab.  Click the link to go to their site.  You can book it ahead and stay there either in a room or if you have a camper there’s a couple nice sites free for volunteers.  It’s the world’s largest true no-kill shelter and houses all manner of orphaned animals from dogs & cats to horses & pot-belly pigs.

Taking a break while walking one of the residents of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Utah.

If you’re traveling east from Kanab, you have a big decision to make.  You can either drive down Hwy. 89 to Lake Powell through Page into northern Arizona.  Or you can follow this trip and head north on 89 to join with Hwy. 12 east.  Both are spectacular journeys, and with a little time you could go as far as Page and then join this trip by either returning to Kanab or cutting across Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on one of the rough dirt roads (high-clearance recommended).

An old western movie set slowly crumbles near Kanab, Utah.

So drive north from Kanab on Hwy. 89 and turn east onto one of America’s most scenic roads, Hwy. 12.  Head up through Redrock Canyon, stopping to take a short hike through hoodoos that are a preview of Bryce Canyon.  After a stop at Bryce a bit further east, continue to Escalante.  This is a very small town surrounded by stunning canyon country.  Stop and get a feel for what life was like for early pioneers in this isolated spot.  Self-reliance is still a prized commodity here, and you will meet some real characters.

Not far from the junction of Highways 89 and 12 in Long Valley, cows deal with the season’s first snowfall.

There is so much scenery and so many hiking and photographic opportunities in these parts that it is tempting to go off on a wilderness tangent.  I did a series on the Grand Staircase, so check that out for a little guidance and some image-inspiration.  Continue on to Boulder, a town subtly different than Escalante but still very much tied to its ranching roots.  The small towns around here are dependent on the steady stream of seasonal tourists.

Head up over Boulder Mountain, where you have a stupendous view out over the country you’re about to traverse.  The unique and spectacular Waterpocket Fold is at your feet up here among the aspens.  As you drop off Boulder Mtn., the country becomes greener.  Take one of the roads west off the highway and see some of the ranches and farms.  With a good map you can easily find your way to the little town of Torrey via the “back door”.  Torrey retains most of its original character and is less about tourism than most towns on this route.

Ranchland at the base of Boulder Mountain, Utah.

Bid a sad adieu to Hwy. 12 where it ends just east of Torrey.  Turn right on Hwy. 24 and drop down to Capitol Reef National Park.  Here you’ll find orchards and the preserved remains of Mormon homesteads, all clustered along the beautiful Fremont River.  Note that instead of going over Boulder Mtn. you can reach Capitol Reef by traveling the amazing Burr Trail.  Don’t worry, it’s a road perfectly passable in a passenger car.

Reefs in this part of the world are not underwater.  Quirks of the local geology, they are long, steep escarpments that formed a barrier to pioneers traveling westward in wagons.  Think of how reefs in the sea form a barrier to boats and you understand the name.  In this case the pass through Capitol Reef comes courtesy of the Fremont River.

A bit of the old west survives at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Going east on Hwy. 24 you enter arid, unpeopled country.  It’s the perfect place to prepare for exploring a desert planet, which is why not far off the highway lies the Mars Desert Research Station.  You can make an appointment to tour the MDRS.  Turn north at Hanksville to stay on Hwy. 24 and travel toward the Interstate along the San Rafael Swell.  This is a magical formation to explore, with great canyon hikes.  Since it is not protected expect to share it with off-road vehicles, but it is definitely off the tourist track.  At its base lie the strange hoodoos of Goblin Valley.

Turn east on I-70 for a short drive to U.S. 191, where you’ll turn south toward Moab.  Moab was for most of its life a small remote town.  It briefly boomed during the uranium mining boom of the early 1950s.  Despite its current tourist-town status, I like Moab.  It draws an interesting mix of rock climbers, mountain bikers and off-roaders.  Drop in to the Red Rock Cafe for breakfast and you’ll see what I mean.

Big beautiful cottonwoods grow in the canyons surrounding Moab, Utah.

Of course you’ll want to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  But there are many other worthwhile hikes and bike rides in the region.  A great driving loop from Moab heads up over the La Sal Mtns. Loop Road and down to Castle Valley and the Colorado River.  Turn east on Hwy. 128 to visit Fisher Towers, then return west along the river back to Moab.  Many of the ranches along this route have been converted to guest and dude ranches.  But they give you a glimpse into the rural life of SW Utah.

Near Canyonlands National Park an old fence reminds of a time when cattle herding was one of the few jobs available.

From Moab go south on 191 a short distance to Hwy. 46 and turn left (east) toward La Sal and the Colorado border.  Cross out of Utah on a gloriously uncrowded route that becomes increasingly green.  You are in a transition now, passing off the Colorado Plateau into the Rocky Mountains.

Welcome!

Drive through tiny settlements with names like Bedrock, Redvale and Placerville, rural Colorado at its best.  When faced with confusing junctions, always take the road that heads east.  At Placerville, after driving through a lovely little valley lined with Colorado blue spruce, turn east again onto Hwy. 62.

A late-autumn scene on the Dallas Divide, Colorado.

Take Hwy. 62 over Dallas Divide through some of America’s most beautiful rural mountain scenery (images above and below).  For a closer look, turn up toward the peaks on the West Fork Road and drive through Ralf Lauren’s spectacular ranch (image at top).  To avoid trespassing stay on the road until you reach National Forest land.  Back on Hwy. 62, continue on to Ridgway, a still-authentic ranching community.  If it’s autumn and the aspens are in leaf, you will run out of space on your camera’s memory card!

A ranch is nestled among colorful aspens high in the San Juan Mtns. near Ridgway, Colo.

An off-pavement loop drive from Ridgway heads east up gravel county road 8 to Owl Creek Pass.  You can free-camp up here and then continue north to rejoin pavement near U.S. 50.  Turn left (west) here and drive to Montrose, the largest town in these parts.  Stock up and then make the short drive back down to Ridgway.  I’m going to leave you in Ridgway, which while lovely is rather remote.  From here you can go south through the interesting town of Ouray, then over the high passes of the San Juans and down to Durango.  You could also head north and east toward Aspen into the high Rockies of western Colorado.

Rural SW Colorado is perhaps best in the fall.

There are two big towns (Durango and Grand Junction) near enough Ridgway to drop the rental and fly out.  Denver is farther away but with enough time a trip that begins in Vegas and ends in Denver would be memorable indeed.  Despite our little foray into the Rocky Mtns. the next leg of our journey continues the Desert SW theme.  We’ll travel south through the Four Corners into New Mexico.  Thanks very much for reading and have a great weekend!

A corral sits in a remote Utah canyon as a storm moves through at sunset.

Friday Foto Talk: Drought Blues   4 comments

Hello everyone and Happy Friday!!  I’m in the midst of a significant shooting drought.  A number of things all combined are preventing me from shooting, but most of it is down to a simple lack of desire to shoot the subjects around me.  I am currently working full-time and in an area not typically known for its nature photography.  But don’t get me wrong.  I’m not offering any excuses whatsoever, and freely admit that I’m not taking advantage of the time and opportunities that I’m getting.

I believe very strongly that it is never a good thing to force yourself into something if you’re not “feeling it”.  I figure it this way:  if you are going out to shoot things that don’t particularly interest you, in light that does not get your photographer pulse going, then the results are most likely going to be bland.  And why do bland photography?  It makes little sense to me.

Now I realize that you may worry that your skills are going to erode while waiting for the subjects to appear and the motivation to return.  If you are still a novice and very much learning, this may be a valid concern.  But for the most part it is a non-issue.  You’ll get it back soon after you start shooting again.  Besides, you can always read books on photography, whether instructional or illustrating the works of other photographers.  You can also keep your observational senses sharp by remembering to be a keen observer – of things, people & animals, and of light, whether you have a camera or not.

So I’m going to post a couple images I stumbled upon that I didn’t process until now.  They’re from a few years ago, in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Colorado.  What a view the builders of this cabin had!  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I   17 comments

Sunrise over the Continental Divide, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

After several weeks of relatively involved Foto Talks, I’m in the mood for short and sweet this week.  As my annual pass to National Parks (NPs) expires, I’m trying to decide when (or even if) I should buy another one.  I probably will.  But it’s made me consider all that I love (and all that I don’t) about America’s National Parks.  I’d love to hear what you think of my likes or dislikes.  Or if you have any of your own you’d like to add.  So fire away in the comments!

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

LIKE

National Parks are photo-worthy.  Of course it’s easy to like the scenery and wildlife of the parks.  It’s mostly why they were protected in the first place.  Nearly all of the parks are photogenic.

DISLIKE

NPs are crowded.  All that beauty and wildlife draws a lot of visitors.  Nearly all of the parks have seen steady increases over the past few decades.  And with recent drops in the price of gas, people are on the road, flocking to the parks.  Visitation is exploding.  Of course a few parks have always been busy: Yosemite, Great Smokies, Grand Canyon.

But two fairly recent trends are bothersome, at least for those of us with some history in the parks.  One is the increase in off-season visitation.  Another is exploding visitation in parks like Zion and Rocky Mountain (which has recently leapfrogged both Yosemite and Yellowstone).  Even small, out-of-the-way parks like Great Basin (which I recently visited) can get busy in summertime.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them:  Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

LIKE

NPs are diverse.  Most parks are all about mountains, forests and streams.  Others are more famous for their wildlife.  But many others feature history or pre-history.  The newest unit, Stonewall National Monument in New York, even celebrates LGBT (gay) rights.

DISLIKE

NPs attract very non-diverse visitors.  I don’t know how much of a dislike this is because I think it’s slowly changing.  But parks are lily white.  Black Americans in particular are few and far between, especially in the big nature-dominated parks of the west.  Latinos are beginning to visit in greater numbers, probably because they have families to entertain.  But they’re also under-represented.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

LIKE

NPs are managed for people.  Most parks go out of their way to make parks accessible to everyone.  And this includes the disabled.  It’s actually in their charter.  They were created with a dual purpose in mind, which if you think about it is a pretty difficult pair of opposing values to simultaneously succeed at.

But they do a good job.  There are accessible trails and fishing platforms at Yellowstone and other parks, for example.  Roads give access to the best attractions, and lodging plus camping allow staying inside the park (as long as you make reservations early enough).

DISLIKE

NPs attract all sorts of people.  Here’s a sad fact:  many people bring way too much with them when they go on vacation, yet they routinely leave common sense at home.  People arrive ready to have a good time, and that’s fine.  But for so many, a good time means getting loud and raucous.  You won’t see the same people in a NP that you see at a trailhead for a remote wilderness area, getting ready to hike in for a week of self-sufficient existence.  That doesn’t mean you won’t find these hikers in NPs (I for one, haha!).  It’s just a numbers thing.

In nature, around wildlife especially, being the typical noisy human being is simply not appropriate.  It ruins the atmosphere and impacts all sorts of creatures, including other humans.  But sadly it’s all too typical.  Many young people don’t learn how to have a different sort of good time until well into adulthood.  It’s one of the things I am thankful for.  I learned early on.

Next time we will continue with some general advice on shooting in national parks.  Happy weekend everybody!

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake in the alpine terrain of a less-traveled area of Rocky Mtn. NP, Colo.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View & Staying Safe   13 comments

A recent shot from a lovely place in the Colorado Rockies called Bluebird Lake.

Let’s follow-up on the topic point of view (POV) and in particular last week’s Foto Talk on ethics and legality.  As you begin to dream up and try a wide variety of positions to shoot from, you’ll find yourself getting more deeply involved with it.  It’s what photography is all about.  But before you get lost in the moment, take another moment to consider the following cautionary tales.  The phrase “safety comes first”, after all, applies to photography like it does to any undertaking.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  People

  • Property Territoriality.  I mentioned last week how you might run afoul of property owners or officials.  Yet anybody could take strong exception to your shooting near their “territory”.  One time in a lonely rural area I was getting some sunset shots.  Not far away was a farm house.  I was on the side of a county road, not even pointing the camera directly at the house.  But driving away in the gathering dark I noticed a guy following me in a pickup.  He continued for quite awhile until I stopped, got out and challenged him (something I don’t recommend).  Later I was pulled over by a cop (the guy had called) and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.
While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.

  • Compositional Territoriality.  It’s not always property owners who have issues.  You can also get in the way of other photographers too.  Although I generally shy away from popular locations and subjects and so don’t run into many others, on occasion I have inadvertently stepped in the way of a fellow shooter.  Some of these guys (they’re always guys) are extremely possessive of “their” compositions (see bottom image).  I don’t know why but they seem to like shining flashlights or (worse) laser pointers at me in a sort of passive aggressive way.  Weird.
  • See Below for more on staying safe in populated areas.
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot 'cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot ’cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.

SOLUTIONS    

  • Stay Cool.  I probably don’t have to tell you that situations involving angry people can spin quickly out of control.  But if you remain relatively calm and listen to what the person is saying you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Be Honest.  It’s always best to state honestly what you’re doing.  If you try to obfuscate in any way you’ll just put yourself under suspicion.
  • Be Sensitive but Firm.  I try to strike a balance between (1) being sensitive to both the law and to people’s concerns and (2) being firm about my right to be on public property and my right to use (especially to keep!) my camera gear.
  • Know when to Walk Away.  I don’t always handle people the way I later realize I should have.  The main thing I’ve done wrong in the past is to not apologize and walk away when someone gets very angry.  Apologize even if you don’t think you’re in the right.  If they won’t let you go and want to get physical, just pull out your phone and dial 911.
St. Vrain River, Colorado.

St. Vrain River, Colorado.

POV & Safety:  Animals

People are obviously the biggest danger, but other animals can be dangerous as well (see what I did there?).  How close to that buffalo do you really need to be?  Seems we read on a weekly basis about tourists getting hurt when they get too near buffalo or other wild animals in Yellowstone Park.  And it’s not just tourists.  Pro photographers with not enough wildlife experience or common sense get too close.  Don’t take domestic animals too lightly either.  For example I give Brahma bulls more respect than most wild animals.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

SOLUTIONS

  • Learn.  Start by reading about your animal subjects, paying particular attention to body language, territorial behaviours, “comfort distances” and related info.  But remember to take anything you learn on the internet or in books as a general guide only.  Animals are like people.  It’s not just that each individual is unique; it’s that each situation you find it in is unique.  Animal behaviour depends not just on instinct but on the individual and its circumstances.
  • Observe.  There is no substitute for careful observation of body language while you’re anywhere near a potentially dangerous animal.  Don’t approach until you take a good look.  For example, ears back is a common warning sign with prey animals.  For predators you may get ears back if they’re feeling defensive, or ears forward and alert if they’re on the hunt.
  • Go Slow.  Approaching slowly will not only avoid frightening the animal and blowing your chances, it will also give the animal a chance to get comfortable and keep it from becoming defensive.  It will also allow you more time to observe your quarry and stop if a behaviour indicates you should.  As a rule you should never turn your back on or run from any potentially dangerous animal.  There are exceptions to this however.

I’ve posted this one before, but it shows so well how animals use body language to warn you about getting any closer (arched tail).

POV & the Blinder Effect

  • The blinder effect is when you are dialed in to what you’re doing, changing positions and POV.  Our minds are on the shot, not on possible dangers.
  • As photographers we are more vulnerable than the average person.  To see why, let’s take mountain lions as an example.  If you’re a smaller man or a woman you need to be particularly careful in cougar country.  But even if you’re big and ugly like me, think about it.  As a photographer we often choose to shoot near dawn or dusk when the light is good.  And that’s when most predators are active.  Further, we tend to crouch down (making ourselves smaller) with faces pressed to the camera instead of directed toward danger.
  • In populated areas, simply substitute the word mugger for cougar and the situations are perfectly parallel.

ANIMALS

It’s not just when they’re the subjects that wildlife is a potential danger.  On a couple occasions I’ve been so focused on a landscape shot that I allowed a curious animal to approach me quite closely.  Depending of course on the animal and the situation, this could be either a pleasant surprise or a dangerous development.  For example cougars inhabit even populated areas.  And don’t forget venomous snakes.  Adjusting POV often means walking through tall grass or thick brush.

I definitely avoided turning my back on this Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia.

This Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia snuck up on me while I was photographing a bigger one. It’s a bit chilling to be stalked.

PEOPLE

  • Urban Areas:  In cities, wandering into a sketchy neighborhood near dark is easy to do when chasing a shot.  I did it in Kuala Lumpur once while trying for a photo of the Petronas Towers at blue hour (dusk).  That is, until a kind local noticed and let me know I was putting myself (or at least all my camera gear) at risk.  I got a shot but it wasn’t right, so next night I did something different (see image).

Not as famous as the Petronas Towers, but still worth shooting, the Kuala Lumpur Tower & the perfect POV on my hotel’s roof. I don’t think I was supposed to be there.

  • Remote Areas:  One reason I like wilderness areas is because there’s normally no need to worry about other people.  But the other side of that coin means you are more vulnerable if a bad character does appear.  Several years ago I was in Colombia on a hike through a jungle known for its bandits.  I stopped to watch some very cool-looking monkeys.  There was a small noise and I turned around to find that two young native guys with machetes had caught right up to me.  Chills went down my spine.  But happily they turned out to be friendly and we ended up hiking together.  One even climbed a tree and used his machete to cut a huge fresh papaya down (yummy!).

SOLUTION

For the blinder effect there is really just one solution:  Be Aware of your Surroundings.  Take your face away from the camera and look around from time to time, particularly in lonely places.

Summary

I feel like I’ve sounded a tone that’s a bit too paranoid.  We all know what can result from too much fear: paralysis.  In fact you’ll probably never run into most of these situations.  But they are worth being ready for in the same way that it’s wise to prepare for a natural disaster that’ll probably never happen.  So be careful out there, just not too careful.  Shoot with as many POVs as you think is necessary.  Practice awareness and common sense and all will be well.  Have a great weekend!

At Deadhorse Point, Utah, a popular spot, I arrived pre-dawn & was able to shoot this gnarled juniper while another photog. who arrived after me circled around with his little flashlight.

At Utah’s Deadhorse Point, a popular spot, I showed up very early (rare for me).  While shooting this gnarled juniper a guy who arrived after me but apparently wanted the same shot circled around trying various ways to hurry me.

Rocky Mtn National Park Alternatives: Avoiding Crowds   13 comments

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

I’ve been stranded with vehicle problems lately but it has not been all bad.  I’m in a beautiful place, near to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Now this is not the most out of the way place I’ve ever been.  In fact Rocky (the name locals use for the park) is now the third most popular national park in the country, visited by more people than either Yosemite and Yellowstone.  So it can get very crowded, especially on summer weekends.

Besides visiting during the week, there are a few ways to avoid most crowds at Rocky.  One is to go over to the west side of the park, in particular staying away from Bear Lake, the most popular destination within the park.  Another is to go hiking but to summon the energy and continue on up the trails, past popular destinations in order to get more solitude.

But an alternative is simply to not enter the park at all.  The Rocky Mountains don’t stop at the park boundary and public land (mostly Forest Service) extends in three directions.  I’ve been checking out a few nearby natural areas recently, mostly to see something different.  As I suspected most of these places are also very crowded on weekends.  But since they mostly attract locals, they tend to be quieter than the park during the week.

It's peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

It’s peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

One place that is hard not to be impressed with is Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  It’s only 35 miles south of Rocky, about an hour’s drive down the Peak to Peak Highway.  A busy campground (get there early or reserve a spot) is located conveniently just below Brainard Lake itself.  Several small picnic areas are scattered about, and fishing is popular.  In recent years a population of moose has moved in.  Popular with wildlife photographers, these are Shiras moose, the smallest subspecies.  Although definitely smaller than Alaskan moose, bulls can reach 1200 pounds and are dangerous in the fall rut.

The area is also famous for its hiking.  Several trails head up into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to beautiful alpine lakes.  Energetic hikers and peak baggers continue up the spectacular valleys past glacial tarns and on up to rugged granitic mountains.  The hikes tend to be strenuous because of the altitude, but distances are not great.  For example I hiked to Blue Lake and it was just 5 miles round-trip with 900 feet elevation gain.

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Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Another amazing hike I can personally recommend is Isabelle Glacier.  In 8 3/4 miles you gain 1750 feet.  This takes you past two lakes, including lovely Lake Isabelle.  Hike beyond this lake and you’ll drop most other hikers, passing flower meadows and a high tarn before climbing into a huge amphitheater surrounded by soaring peaks, snowfields and waterfalls.

Lake Isabelle and Indian Peaks, Colorado.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

But several of the images here are from the lowest of the area’s lakes, and my favorite.  Red Rock Lake lies on the road to Brainard Lake, and most people blow right by it, in a hurry to get to their destinations.  It’s a peaceful spot that attracts waterfowl, and has a nice view of Indian Peaks from the east shore.  It’s quite a photogenic place, despite not being as spectacular as the high, hike-in lakes, which are closer to the peaks.  But because of the red rocks and a partial cover of water lilies I think Red Rock is more visually interesting than many of the area’s lakes.

Thanks for reading, have a great week, and happy shooting!

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View, Part II   4 comments

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV.  Like atop this fallen giant in California's redwoods.

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.

This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography.  Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background.  This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.

Point of View:  Height

Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera.  What did we do?  We shot from a standing position.  Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level.  This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position.  You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them.  Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s?  There’s only one way to find out.  Get up or get down and shoot!  It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.

Long's Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

LOW POV

The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it.  You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose.  Or you squat, getting a bit lower.  Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod.  When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.

You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower.  For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground.  Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California.  So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:

  • Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger.  For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above).  If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number).  Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
  • Foregrounds change position.  Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background.  As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion.  This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette.  You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background.  Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
  • Backgrounds recede.  This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements.  Even tall mountains tend to shrink.  Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar.  It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.

For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.  Compare with image below.

Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.

HIGH POV

Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject.  It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try.  And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well.  That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination.  You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.

Here are some ideas:

  • Climb a rock or mountain.  We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us.  In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop.  It can also add interest to a group photo.  Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth.  The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill.  I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
  • Or a tree!  Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows.  While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots.  So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree.  I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV.  I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is.  But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

  • Tote a ladder around.  This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances.  For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically.  For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
  • Go flying.  I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane.  In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds.  If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all.  You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot.  In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.

 

  • Get a drone.  I don’t really like drones.  For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera.  But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry.  They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.

A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.

I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting.  Not often, but it happens.  I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there.  In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything.  Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.

But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day.  A good way to check if you are truly motivated  is to simply observe yourself.  Are you moving your feet?  Are you changing position and height?

The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible.  All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise.  So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV.  Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains   Leave a comment

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Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part II   6 comments

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

This is the second of two parts on how to approach your photo subjects.  Check out Part I for an introduction to this fairly subtle but important topic.  Thinking about how you tell the story of your subjects is a key step in any serious photographer’s journey.  The reason why I’m not calling this “literal” vs. “abstract” or “interpretive” is that it’s a much more subtle distinction than that.  Now let’s look at a few specific examples.

Example 1:  Fall in Colorado

Last autumn I traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which is my current favorite for fall colors.  The image at top is an objective take.  It’s a level-on, standard composition.  It’s shot in good but not unusually awesome light.  I zoomed in to exclude more of the same.  I’m just trying to show the mountains and trees being their spectacular selves.

In the shot below, I zoomed in again, focusing on the contrast between the golden aspen and green spruce trees, all set off against new-fallen snow.  It’s somewhere between objective and subjective.  The light is flat and there is mist in the air, perfect for showing colors and textures.  The composition excludes all but the trees, giving it even more objectivity.

Fall color and the season's first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

Fall color and the season’s first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

 

However, the photo is partly subjective because of its focus on the snow.  It shows the transition from fall to winter.  I feel pretty strongly that transitions are the most interesting photo subjects.  So this overlap of seasons, common to mountains, naturally attracted me.  That’s a subjective viewpoint and one that plenty of people share.  I timed my trip in part to see this transition.  I also knew that most other photographers, who time their visits for the peak of fall color, had come and gone.

Towards the end of autumn, I was in the far west of the state poking around the Colorado River.  I found an off-trail route to some bluffs overlooking the river, with beautiful cottonwoods lining the banks.  Being late fall, clear cold nights caused dense fog to form each morning along the river.  The fog combined with the viewpoint shooting downward gave me the chance to abstract the form of the trees, which being cottonwoods were still in full leaf.  I think in our enthusiasm for fall color we often lose sight of the beautiful forms, which is one reason why I like going post-peak when leaves begin to fall, revealing the ‘bones’ of the trees.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in the fog.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in dense fog along the Colorado River near Fruita, CO.

 

Now for two examples from a recent stay in one of my favorite places in the world, Death Valley National Park in the California desert:

Example 2: Wildflower Bloom

Winter rains from the current El Nino have led to a great bloom of wildflowers in Death Valley this year.  Some are calling it a “super-bloom”.  I’m not too sure about that.  We’re already calling nearly every full moon a “super-moon”.  But you can’t deny that the flower display is unusual this year and certainly worth photographing.

One subjective take on it is fairly obvious.  Death Valley is well named.  It’s an arid and hot place with sparse life adapted to the harsh waterless conditions.  When colorful flowers burst forth literally overnight from the dusty-dry desert floor (and later die off, just as suddenly, after going to seed), it’s hard to avoid thinking about themes of renewal, impermanence, and the yin-yang of life and death.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

The image above highlights this subjective view of the bloom.  A fairly narrow aperture helped, but increasing the camera-subject distance relative to the subject-background distance did even more to give the cracked desert floor a prominent role in the image.  Otherwise with the macro lens it would’ve been too blurred.

I also did a few objective close-ups, with defocused and indistinct background (image below).  This was to highlight the flowers for their objective qualities.  After all they’re vibrant and colorful no matter where they happen to bloom.

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA.  Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

 

Example 3: Pupfish Pools

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park a bunch of times but have never really focused on pupfish and their habitats.  Pupfish are small, active little fish that resemble guppies.  They are evolutionary left-overs from Ice Age times when enormous lakes filled the valleys here.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manley.  Through the millennia, as Lake Manley slowly dried up, the few surviving fish split into separate species that now live in spring-fed perennial pools and small streams scattered around the region.

The species of pupfish here are all endemic.  Endemic means they live nowhere else, and because of that they’re quite rare and protected by U.S. law.  Pupfish are also quite the cute little guys!  They’re named for their playful antics.  But if you look closely you can see the scars.  What looks like play is actually aggressive territorial behavior.  Their small size and active movements make pupfish difficult to photograph, at least without getting into the water with them (which is illegal of course).

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

I can’t think of the wetlands where pupfish live without imagining what things were like when Lake Manley existed.  It was filled with fish and other life which attracted huge flocks of birds and other animals (including humans, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers living along the lakeshore).  Today’s pupfish pools can in a way be thought of as windows into that distant time.

These ideas have a way of influencing photography in a subjective and often unconscious way.  In the image above (which also appears in a previous post), I drew close to the deep blue pool, shooting to capture the steam rising over the warm water on a frosty morning.  I furthered the slightly mysterious nature of the image with editing on the computer.

The largest spring-fed pool in Death Valley: Saratoga Springs.

In the next image (above), I got close to the ubiquitous reeds lining the wetlands and set them in stark contrast with the deep blue water.  I consider this one partly subjective because it almost looks as if it’s not really a desert environment, like it could be part of ancient Lake Manley.  That was really luck.  During that trip early spring storms moved through the area, filling the springs and decorating the high Panamint Range with snow.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

When I shot the image above I was observing the pupfish.  I decided to get subjective in an abstract way and used camera movement to impart the feel of being there.  I was surrounded by reeds taller than I am, waving in the breeze.

I wasn’t purely interpretive though.  I captured a few documentary (objective) shots of the springs as well as the fish themselves (mostly getting frustrated by the little scamps!).  For the last photo at bottom, I climbed up a nearby hill at sunrise and used a wider angle in order to show the springs in their desert surroundings.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

 

Let me know what you think.  How important is this to you?  Do you mostly have an objective or subjective approach to photography?  Or something in between?  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park.

Best of 2015: A Year in Three Images   17 comments

Have you noticed that pretty much every photographer publishes a “best-of” list at the end of each year?  Hmm…not sure if I want to continue to cooperate on this.  I never feel good about doing things that seem expected; just my personality.  So I’ll do my own variation on the theme.  I’ll post three of my favorites for the year.  Not 10, and certainly not 15.

But here’s the hitch:  if you have other ideas on the matter, images of mine that you’ve seen either here on the blog or on my website, by all means let me know and I’ll post them.  They will appear with your name in upcoming Single-image Sunday or Wordless Wednesday posts.  Just comment on this post with the link to the shot or describe it using its title/caption.

I love this first one for the exceedingly brief moment it represents, and the way it tells a story about the battle between storm and mountain range.  The placid pasture with grazing cattle is just the sort of contrast that a story-telling image is made stronger for.

Knocking on the Door: An April snowstorm breaks over the Sierra Nevada in California.

Knocking on the Door: An April snowstorm breaks over the Sierra Nevada in California.

I’m fond of this next one not only because I almost didn’t get up it was so windy and cold, but it’s one of my rare “planned shots”.  I have been wanting to get a well-balanced shot of this barn and homestead in nice light for quite a long time.  Also, the horse being outside on a very chilly dawn made me think it was meant to be.

The Old Gifford Place: An historic homestead lies beneath the cliffs of Capitol Reef in Utah.

The Old Gifford Place: An historic homestead lies beneath the cliffs of Capitol Reef in Utah.

I like last one a lot because while the sky is not overly colorful, it’s amazing the way sunlight can be aimed as a powerful beam when it is squeezed between cloud and landscape.  And when that light is collected on a simple hillside of quaking aspen, where I had just barely reached an opening in the forest, it can turn your whole world golden.

Happy New Year everyone!

Golden light floods into a grove of quaking aspen in Colorado's Cimarron Mountains. I love this one because while the sky is not overly colorful, simple sunlight collecting on a hillside of aspen can turn your whole world golden.

Golden light floods into a grove of quaking aspen in Colorado’s Cimarron Mountains.

 

 

Wordless Wednesday: Late Fall in Colorado   2 comments

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