Tag Archives: Rocky Mountain National Park

All Cool and Stuff

Moon, Cloud Banks, Evening Star

Moon, Cloud Banks, Evening Star
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

This summer, seems like every time I turned around, there was the moon, looking all cool and stuff.

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Not Fit For Public Consumption

Moon, Branches, Low Clouds

Moon, Branches, Low Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

I’m a regular listener of the podcast by Brooks Jensen over at Lenswork Daily, which always offers up interesting and thought-provoking episodes about the practice and appreciation of photography.  In the recent podcast titled “Just for Me,” he raised the notion that most photographers tend to produce at least some work that is purely personal, as opposed to that offered for public consumption.  He may have offered more than one reason for this – the one that sticks with me is the idea that photographers may hold back work that, for whatever reason, is thought to run the risk of not being well received by one’s audience.  The takeaway, as I understand it, is that this kind of thinking should be questioned, since the work produced that is personally meaningful to its creator also is likely to be the work invested with the highest degree of merit.

I agree with this point entirely, but what struck me the most is how much it missed the mark for me.  Personally, I make no distinction between personal work and work for public consumption, at least as near as I can tell.  My thinking is that if something is good enough for me, it’s good enough to share with the world.  Taking a different approach would be like drawing a line around some of my images and declaring them “not fit for public consumption.”  What I share with my images is more than just the photographs themselves, it’s basically a window into how I see the world.  To me, this is very much an “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of proposition.  If I offer up one part of my work, there’s no reason I can see not to offer up it all.  Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me.

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Chasing the Light

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

As has been mentioned before on this blog, I really enjoy reading the blogs of other photographers.  I don’t have many photographer friends myself, so it often becomes the principle way in which I get information about how the rest of the photography community practices this discipline.

I just was reading the blog of one landscape photographer (whose work I really like, by the way) who described how their practice of landscape photography has changed.  This person’s principle method used to be “chasing the light,” which apparently involved road trips of hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time, crossing state lines and studying maps and weather reports to try and line up iconic locations under epic conditions, often in compressed periods of time between a day job or other responsibilities of life.  If I understood correctly, this person’s opinion was that “chasing the light” was the principle – and perhaps most widely practiced – way to practice landscape photography.

Their new approach was to spend several weeks at a time living on the road, bringing their day job responsibilities with them and working them into a more relaxed schedule of spending a week or more at a given location.  While perhaps sometimes missing the alignment of iconic locations and epic conditions, this approach allowed more time to become familiar with the location, often yielding quieter, more personal images than were achieved under the chasing the light approach.

Both good points for sure, but neither of which really resonates with the way I work.

Here’s a typical way that a photography outing works for me:  I’m at my day job (Monday through Friday, 9-5, with limited options for flexibility in scheduling) and I keep an eye out the window on the weather.  If it looks like interesting conditions are developing – or often even if they’re not – I’ll head out after the workday to a location within an hour’s drive.  Since I live on the Front Range of Colorado, this means I have the flexibility to end up either up in the high mountains or out on the sparsely-populated prairies, so I’m fortunate to have access to a diversity of landscapes.  There’s usually no real plan for a subject, I just drive around and look for interesting things that catch my eye.  Photograph until there’s no light left – which often is well after the sun has gone down – and call it day.

Or try this:  I’m up in the mountains doing something non-photography related.  In the winter maybe it’s skiing, in the summer maybe it’s hiking.  Throw my camera stuff in the car just in case I see something interesting.  When the day’s activity is done, if there’s still an hour or two of light, maybe drive around a bit and see what catches my eye.

Or here’s another example:  at the end of the work week, maybe I  just feel like getting out of town.  So I take off on a last minute road trip to a location within an evening’s drive away.  Maybe it’s somewhere I’ve been to before, maybe I try something new.  Usually I’m going for the sightseeing and novelty of being away from home for awhile, but I always bring my camera along and plan some time to do some photographic exploring as well.

Or something else:  it’s a family vacation, with much time, effort, and planning expended to go somewhere really interesting.  Most of my time is accounted for with family or sightseeing events, as it should be.  But I always keep my eye on my surroundings, and here and there I steal a few minutes to follow up on something that seemed photographically interesting.  Maybe it works out, maybe not.

It’s a very pragmatic, time-available approach to practicing photography because 1) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to chase the light for hundreds of miles at a time, and 2) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to spend weeks at a time away on the road.  If you’re serious about photography, then it’s important to make time for it, but if you can’t chase the light or invest weeks away, you work it into your real-life schedule as best you can.

I suppose the thing that got me on about all of this is the between-the-lines implication of this photographer’s blog post (and those of many others as well).  The implication seems to be that if you can’t chase the light, your photographs won’t be as good, and that if you’re unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time, you’re not serious about photography.

I disagree.

Going to great lengths to get photographs is unrelated to the quality of those photographs.  It’s a crutch -  just like obsessing about expensive camera equipment is a crutch – that people substitute in the place of practicing good photography.  Good photography is about possessing a strong, personal vision about the world around you, and having the ability to translate that vision into compelling images.  This can be done both within a radius of one mile or 1000 miles from your home, and it can be done both within a time period of one minute or one week.  It’s in the mind of the artist, not where you are or how long it took you to get there.

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About Knowing a Place

Still Snow in June Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Still Snow in June
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

For the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of spending a few evenings each week during the long days of June and July at my “local” national park – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half from the front door of my home in Fort Collins, depending on the traffic in Big Thompson Canyon and through Estes Park.  It began the first year as an exercise designed to give me regular fieldwork practice with my camera, but since then it’s become a treasured rite of passage to mark my summers, the way some people might look forward to baseball, hot dogs, and swimming pools.

We had an unusually wet and cold spring this year, meaning the Park got an unusual amount of late season snow.  But I certainly didn’t need any weather reports to tell me that.  My first trip up Trail Ridge Road this year was all about discovering familiar places with unfamiliar appearances.  About seeing snow in places where I’ve never seen it before.  About knowing where to park the car after going around Rainbow Curve, and about knowing where to hike in order to pick out this fine view.

I’m sure many visitors to the Park think it’s covered with snow like this year-round at the higher elevations.  A few spots are, but most aren’t.  Knowing a place like this is all about the privilege of being able to appreciate the difference.

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The Photograph Versus The Experience

Trees, Three Tall and Three Crooked Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Trees, Three Tall and Three Crooked
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Here’s a question for you:  which comes first, the photograph or the experience?

In my observation, most landscape photographers tend to answer that the experience comes before the photograph.  I’ve heard the same story over and over again, where one begins by enjoying the outdoors, then starts to bring along a basic camera to document his or her outdoor experiences, and eventually graduates to higher end gear and an interest in developing some serious photography skills.  Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course, but in this progression, the interest in photography follows from and is secondary to the outdoor experience.

My background is just the opposite.  My interest in photography preceded my interest in getting out into the landscape.  Whereas I’ve always been fascinated with photographs, I’ve not always been an outdoor enthusiast.  Truth be told, I probably began spending more time in the outdoors as a result of following my lens to where the photographs are, rather than the other way around.

For example, this photograph was captured on a weeknight after working hours in Rocky Mountain National Park.  If seeking out and capturing a photograph hadn’t been the primary motivator to get out of the house that evening, I doubt I would have made the hour or so drive just to have an hour or so of daylight to enjoy the (admittedly spectacular) evening.

The difference between the photograph and the experience is a real one.  When I go into the field, I’m unabashedly seeking out great photographic opportunities.  My goal is not so much to enjoy the outdoor experience as it is to have my creative eye stimulated by the natural environment, and to translate that stimulus into a tangible photographic print.  I suspect that many would say this approach gets things backward, that the purer approach is simply to be in nature, appreciate the landscape, and then be moved to create a photograph of it.

So be it.  My opinion is that there are many equally valid paths to achieving great photographs.  It is a no less valid path to approach the landscape simply out of a desire to photograph it than to photograph the landscape simply as an incidence to being in it.  Being in the landscape for the purpose of artistic expression is no less valid than artistic expression that follows from a desire to be in the landscape.

If anything, photography has opened the door for me to enjoy the natural experience in a way that I probably would not have acquired otherwise.  In the same way that some outdoor recreationists discover a passion for photography they might not have known but for bringing a camera into the field with them, photography has opened the door for me to an expanded appreciation of the natural world I otherwise probably would not have but for my interest in exploring the world with a camera.

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Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is like leaving footprints in snow.

Most of my work ends up on my website or shared via social media.  Sometimes it is exhibited in galleries, and occasionally it gets published.

Who are the people who see it?  Are they young or old, men or women, inspired or dissatisfied?  Did they see it because they came looking for art, or did they see it by random chance?  Did they give it a quick glance and move on, or did they pause to let it sink in for a moment?  Did they remember it later, or did the impression fade away like snow on warm day?

Mostly I photograph for myself and my own reasons, and I don’t generally let the opinions of others sway the how or why of my doing it.  But I can’t help sometimes wondering about what kind of connection my work makes with others, if any – I think that’s only natural for anyone who chooses to put their work in front of an audience.

When I see footprints in snow, I sometimes wonder about the person who made them.  I wonder if that person also wonders about who might see the tracks they’ve made.

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

Sentinel Trees
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

- Albert Einstein


This is one of my favorite quotes about photography, along with “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” (Minor White) and “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic” (either Brett or Edward Weston, depending on who you ask).  Okay, the Einstein quote probably wasn’t about photography specifically, but I find it highly applicable to this discipline.

In previous posts, I talked a bit about my takes on Formalism and Minimalism.  Simplicity, to me, is a broader, more ambiguous concept.  The best description I’ve been able to come up with is that it is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  In this sense, works that are formal or minimal probably would be considered simple, but not necessarily vice versa.  The image in this post, for example, has formal elements, but to me the overall arrangement of the elements is just a little too imprecise for it to be truly formal.  Similarly, the image has an element of minimalism, but there’s just a little too much detail in the background for me to call it truly minimal.  On the other hand, to say that the image embodies simplicity sounds about right to me.  It’s about striking just the right balance between too much and too little – being made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

There’s many ways to achieve simplicity in a photograph.  Here, the very foggy conditions I encountered one day last summer on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park did much of the work for me at the point of capture.  I built on that by adding, with judicious application, white gradients around the edges of the frame.  To me, this heightened the effect of the fog and created the illusion of added sharpness and contrast in the trees, the illusion resulting from the juxtaposition of the trees (which were not covered by the gradient) against the soft and high-key background (which was subject to the gradient).  The white gradients at the frame edges also serve to reinforce direction of the viewer’s attention to the trees centering the composition, kind of a nifty flip of the old photographer’s trick of darkening the edges of the frame.

Simplicity is a virtue.  While I appreciate and try my hand at more specialized approaches to photography, such as formalism and minimalism, simplicity still is the benchmark I keep in mind as the basis that underlies my fundamental approach to making images.

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Five Day Challenge: Day Five

Longs Peak, Last Day of Summer Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Last Day of Summer
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Well here it is, the last day of my Five Day Challenge on Google+.  I’ve been posting a new black and white photograph for each of the last five days.  For my last day, I thought I would end with my favorite mountain, Longs Peak.

This was another classic moment where preparation met opportunity.  I had been photographing – quite unproductively – the boulders in the water at Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Feeling frustrated, I adjourned for the day and began the two mile or so hike back to the trail head.  Rounding a bend in the trail, I happened by chance to look over my shoulder and caught this grand vista.  The sun was already down over the horizon and the light was fading fast, so I quickly (but calmly) set up my tripod to make some captures.  I only got two before the light was off the peak entirely, and it was all over in about five minutes.

This all happened on Labor Day here in the U.S., so I called the image “Longs Peak, Last Day of Summer.”  Since today is Day Five of my Five Day Challenge, I’m temporarily calling it, for today only, “Longs Peak, Last Day of My Five Day Challenge.”

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Five Day Challenge: Day Two

Fog in Forest Canyon Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2012

Fog in Forest Canyon
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2012

Today is Day Two of the Five Day Challenge I am taking part in over on Google+, wherein the challenge is to post five black and white photographs in five days.  Yesterday I posted an image from the “non-mountain” part of my home state of Colorado, so today it’s back to the mountains, specifically Forest Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Forest Canyon runs roughly below Trail Ridge Road along that portion of the road that goes above the treeline.  When it rains, it’s common for the canyon to fill up with fog as it did on the day I captured this photograph.  The fog can move through the canyon quite quickly and, from the vantage point on the road above, can rise up in dramatic formations like the ones in this image.

See you tomorrow for Day Three of the challenge!

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This is Not a Perfect Image

Water Lily. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2007.

Water Lily.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2007.

If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Then just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure which colors belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

- Wilco, “What Light”

These lyrics from the Wilco song “What Light” have been running through my mind a lot recently, especially during the editing of the image in this post, which I’ll talk about more below.  On the subject of Wilco, though, the title of this post makes me think of another Wilco song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”  Both bring to mind a certain cliched type of expectation – broken hearts should be avoided, less than perfect images should be discarded – and then flagrantly defy the expectation by explicitly reveling in just the opposite of the cliche.

So, on to the image.  As stated in the title, it’s not perfect.  I captured this image way back in 2007.  It is, in fact, among the first images I ever captured with my first “real” camera after I became serious about taking up photography.  My gear was entry-level, and my knowledge of photography was less than that.  The image had some real problems with exposure, focus, and composition, and sat on my hard drive more or less untouched for seven years.  Seven years on, I was able to improve some of the deficiencies with the editing skills I’ve since acquired, but those only go so far.

To complicate matters, when I came back to work on this image, it turns out I opened the wrong file to work on.  Rather than working on my 16-bit RAW file, I accidentally opened an 8-bit JPG version and made all my changes to that.  This on a file that was captured with a camera having a relatively puny 6 MP to begin with.  As a result, in addition to whatever technical deficiencies the image already had, I’m pretty sure it now goes into my class of “special” images that likely won’t be able to be printed any larger than about 9 inches wide.

Why am I bringing up all these flaws about this image?  I’m bringing them up because despite its flaws, or maybe even because of them, I like this image.  A lot.  Maybe it’s just where I’m at with photography these days.  I’ve been moving away lately from grand landscapes to smaller, more intimate subjects.  But truthfully, I’ve never forgotten about this image even for the seven years it sat on my computer’s hard drive without being worked on, so I think there’s more to it than that.  This image has some pull for me that makes it worthy, even in spite of whatever technical flaws it might have.

There’s a lot of emphasis placed by a lot of photographers on technical perfection.  So much so, in fact, that I think technical achievement is often conflated with good imagery.  They’re not the same thing.  Technical competence is important, no doubt, and personally I always strive to improve my skills and produce technically competent images.  But powerful images can be had even when all of the technical boxes are not checked, and it would be a shame to devalue or even discard these images simply because they don’t reach some abstract level of technical perfection.  If you have something you believe in, even if it has flaws, then believe in it, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.

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