Tag Archives: Trail Ridge Road

How to Approach Photographing a Popular Location

Longs Peak, Rock Cut, Angled Clouds Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Rock Cut, Angled Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Here is an image of Longs Peak (the flat-topped peak in the far distance) photographed from Rock Cut in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Longs Peak is a very popular subject for photographs, and Rock Cut is a very popular (and very accessible) location along Trail Ridge Road from which to photograph it.

Photographing subjects that are very popular seems to engender much discussion among photographers.  One school of thought seems to treat iconic subjects much like trophies to be hunted and bagged.  In the same way that a trophy hunter might have a collection of stuffed animal heads on his or her wall, this approach tends to suggest that a photographer’s portfolio is not complete without a collection of iconic subjects that have been stalked and captured.  The criticism to this approach is that it lends itself to producing cliched, repetitive photographs lacking in creativity and originality.

Another touted approach is to ignore subjects that are very popular.  The thinking seems to be that great photographs can be found anywhere (which is true!), and photographing subjects that are very popular is at best a crutch in producing compelling photographs, and at worst a substitute for true artistic expression.  The drawback here is that much compelling subject matter is passed over in order to avoid the risk of producing derivative and repeated imagery.

So what’s the right way to approach photographing a popular location?  Myself, I just don’t think about it one way or the other.  My personal feeling is that a photographer with a strong personal vision and the discipline to follow it honestly will inevitably produce images that have his or her unique stamp on them.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time photographing Longs Peak.  I don’t do so to be part of the crowd (indeed, I’ve passed by and have no interest in photographing a great number of very popular subjects).  But I also don’t avoid Longs Peak just because it is popular.  I photograph Longs Peak because it speaks to me on a personal level.  In this way, it’s no different than any other subject I photograph, and I treat it no differently when I photograph it.  To me, that’s the best way to approach photographing a popular location.

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Unexpected Opportunities

Matchstick Trees. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Matchstick Trees.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Last week, I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park (about an hour from my home in Northern Colorado) on a great weather day.  By great weather day, I mean stormy – rain, thunder, and lightening moving through the area in the late afternoon and early evening.  Stormy weather often creates great conditions for landscape photography, in the form of dramatic cloud formations, interesting plays of light, etc.  I envisioned these elements superimposed on the already stunning landscapes of the Trail Ridge Road area, and was really looking forward to seeing some expansive vistas and grand landscapes.

What I found when I arrived was – none of that.  The cloud deck had sunk down below the tops of the peaks, and the entire area was fogged in.  Thick, soupy fog of the kind where you can hardly see the taillights of the car on the road in front of you.  There was nothing to shoot, because there was nothing to see.  I figured the day was a bust and was about to turn around and go home.

But then I remembered a stretch of the road where there was a large grouping of tall, bare trees that, from a distance, look like a collection of matchsticks.  I had photographed these trees before, but was never pleased with the results.  The frames always looked cluttered (I never could seem to find a simple, clean composition), and the light on the trees always looked too harsh and with too much contrast to my eye.

How would these Matchstick Trees look in the fog, I wondered?  Quite nice, as it turned out.  The fog reduced the distracting clutter in the frame, enabling me to create more simplified compositions.  And, naturally, the fog diffused the light substantially, evening out the overall contrast in the scene.  My vision for the image was to create a high-key, almost abstract rendering of these trees, and the foggy conditions really played right into that.

When confronted with unexpected conditions, it can be difficult for me to let go of my expectations and adapt to what’s going on around me.  But, it’s my feeling that there almost always is something worthwhile to photograph, so I’ll have to remember to remind myself that it’s just a matter of being open to seeing it.

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Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak is a landmark on the Front Range of Colorado.  At 14,259 feet, its summit is readily visible from Denver, and indeed can be seen for many miles up and down the Front Range.  Its distinctive, flat-topped profile is easily identifiable and recognized, even in the image in this post, where I deliberately placed it toward the left lower corner of the frame, unobtrusively behind the Never Summer Mountains in the foreground and beneath the dancing display of clouds in the sky.

It’s not very difficult to photograph Longs Peak.  Some of the best views are on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There must be at least six or seven pullouts or parking lots that offer tremendous, breathtaking views of this gorgeous mountain.  In the evening, the position of the setting sun produces very dramatic sidelight that creates extremely compelling shadows on and around the peak.  Throw in some dramatic clouds in the sky – not an infrequent occurrence up there – and you have an excellent base of ingredients for good photography.

Having captured many images of this peak, I will confess to having a bit of insecurity about them.  Isn’t there something wrong with capturing what are basically variations of the same image over and over again?  Aren’t these images just derivative of what others have photographed before?  Shouldn’t I be devoting my scarce time for photography to other, less discovered subject matter?

For a long time I’ve resisted building a collection of Longs Peak images, for the reason of not having great answers to these questions.  But the truth is, I’m really drawn to this mountain.  I feel a connection to this subject matter, it speaks to me.  What better reason is there to photograph something than this? If I build a collection of images, perhaps there will be documentary or artistic value in the collection as a whole.

So I’m setting my insecurity aside and going with the flow.  Trail Ridge Road opened for the season this weekend, and I’m looking forward to many summer evenings with this peak in the weeks ahead.

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f/16 and Be There

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

One well-known axiom of photography goes “f/8 and be there.”  The quote is attributed to (and I had to look this up) New York photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, who apparently gave it in reply to a question about how he consistently achieved high quality work.

The meaning behind the quote is fairly simple: ” f/8″ is a versatile, middle-of-the-road aperture that strikes a good compromise between achieving acceptable depth of field while letting in enough light to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and “be there” simply means you can’t capture the image if you’re not there to take it.  Fellig’s formula allows one to shoot quickly without taking undue time to think through the camera settings before hand, undoubtedly a very useful ability for photojournalists capturing fast-moving events.

Landscape photography probably does not conjure up thoughts of fast-moving events in the way that photojournalism does.  Personally, I like taking the time to think about a scene, compose my image, and select the camera settings accordingly.  Don’t be fooled, though – conditions in the landscape can change very fast indeed.  Such was the case for this image, “Clearing Storm, Mummy Range.”

First, the “be there” part.  After spending the better part of an evening driving around Rocky Mountain National Park in a consistently flat, dull, and pouring rain, I was just about prepared to go home.  I figured I would drive the car around one last bend in the road, turn around, and pack it in for the night.  Cresting a rise in the road, though, I was treated to the sight of the trailing edge of the storm, with the rain abating and the sun peeking through the clearing clouds just before it was to set.  The setting sun lit up this view of the Mummy Range like a spotlight.

Now, the “f/8″ part.  The sun was going down so fast that I could literally see the light fading on the peaks as I pulled my car over to the side of the road.  I jumped out of the car, fumbled with setting up the tripod and locking down the ball head as I composed the image, all the while observing the light fade as fast as I’ve ever seen it do so.  Fortunately, I keep my aperture set to f/16 by default, so I simply adjusted the shutter speed to get my desired exposure, did a quick manual focus of the lens, and tripped the shutter.

But wait a minute, shouldn’t I have set my aperture to f/8?  Well, no, for landscapes I am of course interested in maximizing my depth of field, and while landscape conditions can change quickly, they still generally don’t change so fast that motion blur is a problem.  So, I’ve modified the axiom for my needs to “f/16 and be there.”  This formula is flexible enough to meet nearly all my landscape shooting needs, saves me time in fast-changing conditions, and generally simplifies my thought process in the field so that I can concentrate on seeing what’s around me.

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Latest Work – “Spire at Rock Cut”

Spire at Rock Cut

Here is an image called “Spire at Rock Cut.”  Rock Cut is a location along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park where the road passes through a cut in a massive outcropping of rock.  For photographers, I suspect the cut is most well known for providing a dramatic natural frame through which one can photograph Longs Peak, but this image is not that view.  Instead, the spire is the subject of this image – it is this spire that roughly would form the right side of the frame in the more classic view.

This image has me thinking about my approach to shooting landscapes.  I like to keep things as simple as I can, so I’m usually only thinking of three things when I evaluate if I’m going to click the shutter or not.

First, the quality of the light.  This is by far the most important, and if it’s not there, I don’t shoot.  In this image, the sun had already set over the mountains, out of the frame to the right.  This created a nice glow in the sky as twilight set in, which set off the clouds and evenly illuminated the spire and the mountains in the background.  Check one!

Second, the composition.  If the light is good, but the composition doesn’t work, I don’t shoot.  Here, my eye was attracted to the shape of the spire and the complementary shape of the grayish cloud in the immediate background just behind the spire.  I believe there are several additional shapes and symmetries in the frame, hopefully creating a sense of rhythm.  Check two!

Third is what I just call “camera stuff.”  This is all the technical details associated with operating the camera to get the desired image.  There’s actually a lot of potential details here (you really could become way too obsessed about this, and many people do), but for me it is by far the least important concern, far behind points one and two.  If the light and composition are right, I’ll usually try the shot even if I’m unsure about the camera stuff.  This image is a good example.  Without going through all the technical details, suffice it to say this image was captured just on the edge of being able to use the natural light.  If I had tried five minutes later, I doubt there would have been enough light to show any detail on the spire or the peaks, regardless of how I adjusted the camera.  As it was, I used a relatively long shutter speed of 15 seconds, which created the motion blur in the clouds.  But I got the exposure I wanted out of the camera, so check three!

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The Story Behind “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” Part 2 – Hiding in Plain Sight

Touch the Earth

This tree is hiding in plain sight.

 

It stands just off the side of the road on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I passed by it several times a week, dozens of times in all, over the course of several weeks last summer.

 

I should probably explain, and remind you that this is part 2 of the story behind my image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” currently appearing on my Home Page.

 

Over this past summer, I decided that I needed regular field practice for my camera technique, more than just the occasional weekend or evening that I had been getting out with my camera.  As it happens, I live fairly close to Rocky Mountain National Park.  During the summer, the days are long enough that it is possible for me to drive up to the park after work and have one to two hours of daylight – indeed, prime golden hour sunset sidelight – to shoot.  From my front door, I can be at the top of Trail Ridge Road – around 12,000 feet – in about 45 minutes on a good day.  And so for several weeks during the longest days of the summer, I would spend two, three, or four days a week in the park.

 

On the way up Trail Ridge Road, there is a stretch of a mile or two at the treeline where there are these fantastic, gnarled, windswept trees set against backdrops of hard, solid rock or perched on top of sky-hugging ridge lines.  They have white, bleached trunks and, when the light bounces around just right up there, take on their own glow as the sun lights them up on its way down.  They are fantastic.

 

But here’s the thing.

 

Despite the fact that Trail Ridge Road is highly traveled by volumes of camera-toting tourists in the summer, I hardly ever saw anyone stopping to photograph them.  Maybe they were too excited to move on and get to the wide open tundras and spectacular mountain views up the road.  Or maybe they just didn’t see them the way I did.  The few times I did see other people stop to photograph these trees, I think it was because they saw me photographing them first and then wanted to photograph what I was photographing.

 

As I said, this particular tree was hiding in plain sight, probably not more than twenty yards from the side of the road.  Passed by hundreds or more people every day during the high season in the park.  And hardly noticed by most of them.  But I noticed it.  If you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not, take the time to notice your surroundings, and don’t be afraid to follow and explore whatever catches your eye.

 

And of course, this image became the second panel of my eventual diptych.  Next time, Part 3 of the story behind my image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky.”

 

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