Back from Snowy Colorado Part 1

18 Oct

We returned safely from our adventure in Colorado last week and I wanted to share some pictures and conditions from our first couple of days on the road. We departed Phoenix around 4:30am PST and made it to Cortez by about 1pm MST. From Cortez, we headed up the 145 touring the picturesque Delores River Valley toward Lizard Head Pass, seeing the first signs of snow approximately five miles outside of the town of Delores and before Rico.

The first storm of season had hit the area the day before and blanketed the mountain slopes with up to a foot of snow. The weather was a mix of partly sunny conditions with fast-moving clouds with temperatures in the low 40’s.  The trees in that area were a mix of peak, past peak, and still green – a theme that became the dominant foliage conditions of the trip.

What’s interesting, is as we drove towards the Dallas Divide there were large areas of the mountains that didn’t appear to have any snow or that it had already melted. A few token stops along the way didn’t yield any keepers and we settled into our hotel in Ouray, stopping for happy hour at O’Brien’s Pub in the downtown area. By nightfall, the cloud cover was getting thicker and it was obvious another storm was moving in. The snow started a short time later…

We overslept a bit the next morning for sunrise as I set my alarm on my Blackberry for the right time, but the phone never changed time zones like the rest of us. Luckily, we still woke up in time. When I went outside to heat up my ride, it was still snowing and there was a fresh three inches of powder covering my SUV.  We made our way towards the Dallas Divide on snow-covered roads.  The snow did stop a short time later but the skies did not clear in the right place to catch any sunrise color. Still, it was a beautiful morning and I was able to capture this image about 45 minutes after sunrise.After spending the first part of the morning on County Road 7 we headed back towards Ridgway to check out Owl Creek Pass. It didn’t take long for that road to turn to snow too and we found ourselves four wheeling in what was easily six inches of fresh snow.  As we made our way up and over the 10,114 foot Owl Creek Pass towards Silver Jack Reservoir, I stopped to capture this image taken close to 11:00 am.  There was definitely a foot of snow on the ground where I was standing…The temperatures were in the mid 40’s by the time we stopped for lunch near the Silver Jack Reservoir. This was our first time in the area and I was quite impressed with the dispersed camping opportunities as well as the side roads and hikes to explore the area. The views were 360 degrees and the foliage was looking great, good, past peak, and not yet changed all at the same time again.  Here is an image of the main road between Owl Creek Pass and Silver Jack Reservoir. As you can probably tell by the previous two pictures the weather was partly sunny, but that didn’t last long as heavy clouds were moving in.  I captured this next image just a short way down the road….This was pretty much our turning around point as had about a 75 minute commute back to Ouray and the weather was threatening again. On the way back, much of the snow had melted on the road and there were many more people out and about.  This was our last stop of the day, one of the more iconic foliage view points in the area located just inside the Uncompahgre National Forest boundary. I have several more days of pictures and reports to share with you, and I hope you enjoyed this one as well as the pictures. If you have a particular favorite or favorites, I would love to know about it. Thanks so much for reading.

Leaving tomorrow for snowy Colorado

6 Oct

Tomorrow marks the start of my second annual visit to Colorado for autumn foliage. Last year, we visited the week earlier, stayed in lovely town of  Telluride,  and the timing was perfect for color. The weather was generally cooperative with a few minor afternoon storms and some overnight snows coating the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains.

This year appears a totally different story.  As I write this, a massive storm is pounding much of the state with up to a foot of snow.  It’s effects can be felt all the way to Phoenix, where temperatures have significantly dropped and the winds have picked up big time. Originally, the plan was to camp most nights and stay in a hotel to get a good night’s rest and get cleaned up before we return home, that’s now changed.

This year, we designated Ouray as our base camp. For those of you not familiar with the area, Ouray is the northern most town located on the San Juan Scenic Loop and is about an hour drive from Telluride and probably closer to two hours from Durango.  Getting there could be the biggest problem as the mountain passes are snowy, wet, and treacherous. By the time we reach the area tomorrow the worst of the storm should have passed, but forecasts are calling for lingering snow showers possibly as late as Sunday.

Driving the region’s back country roads can sometimes be a daunting task, but when wet and muddy obviously it can get extremely dangerous. There’s also the possibility the high winds would eradicate what’s left of the region’s foliage, which could significantly decrease photo opportunities.  The storm also brings plenty of promise as well. The mountains will look incredible and snow-covered foliage is a wonderous sight.  The weather should improve over our last couple of days in the region and conditions could be optimum for landscape photography.  It’s hard to tell what this trip will bring, my primary goal is to make it home safely, hopefully will a handful of really good photographs to share with you.

The Top Three Western States for Landscape Photography

19 Sep

As landscape photographers, we all have different visions and reasons to shoot the subject matter we chose.  At times, the experience of traveling to these places is as lasting a memory as some of the images that I create.  The following is my personal list of western states that I enjoy the most for landscape photography,  some interesting statistics, and characteristics that embellish them.

1. Colorado

Land Mass – 104,000 square miles or 8th largest in the country

Population – approx 5 million  or 22nd most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including the entire western border from Dinosaur National Monument to Grand Junction and Cortez

Pro’s:  Arguably the most scenic mountains in the US accompanied with superior wildflowers, and the most prolific autumn foliage in the Western United States. Diverse topography featuring many southwestern geologic features including sand dunes and red rock.  Summer monsoons and early autumn storms make fine art landscape photography possible at almost any time of day.  More accessible roads and fewer hiking and camping restrictions than found in most states.

Con’s: No access to beaches or coastline, eastern part of the state is flat, ATV’s are very popular and disruptive to solitude

Summary:  There is no better place in the United States to photograph than Colorado if mountains are your subject matter of choice.  Here you’ll find more than 60% of the 14,000 ft. peaks located in the United States. That’s more than twice as the next state Alaska, which is more than six times its size! Addition, Colorado also boasts some of the most dramatic weather in the country, hence the name colorful Colorado. In the summer months, the afternoon skies are littered with clouds during its monsoon season. Fall arrives early in the alpine areas and it is typical to get snow during peak fall foliage. This phenomenon is uncommon or not possible in most other states. Spring brings budding aspens and wildflowers in the foothills of its ranges. A true four season state, Colorado offers the best of the best for alpine scenery mixed with enough topographical diversity and southwestern reds to make every connoisseur of the landscape a happy camper.

2. California

Land Mass – 163,700 square miles or 3rd largest in the country

Population – approx 37.2 million, which is  the  most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including most of the areas south of San Francisco to San Diego, most of the Sierra Nevada’s and the Channel Islands

Pro’s: The most diverse topography, best alpine lakes, longest coastline, largest island, best sand dunes, tallest mountain, highest waterfall, and most national parks in the country.

Con’s: Poor air quality/smog, overcrowded parks, state running out of funds and tourism is being affected

Summary: The most obvious choice for number one, due to its sheer size and location California finishes a distant second on my list. While the Sierra Nevada’s offer some of the best backpacking in the world, there are too many clear days and way too many bugs to rate it ahead of the mountains in Colorado for landscape photography.  Air quality can also be an issue there, as it is in states desert park’s like Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  Yosemite and its sister parks King’s Canyon/Sequoia offer big views, lakes, trees, waterfalls and certainly crowds. In the spring, the Mohave Desert is joy to photograph as is the eastern Sierra during all seasons. California’s coastal ranges from Santa Cruz to Santa Monica are arid, homogenous and somewhat uninspiring.  However, its beaches offer as much opportunity as anywhere in the country. The Golden State is a place landscape where photographers have to work much harder to get original, high quality landscape shots.

3.Utah

Land Mass – 84,900 square miles or 13th in the country

Population – 2.7 million residents or 34th in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited: 80%

Summary: Utah seriously challenges California for the number two position on this list. I gave the nod to California for its diversity and size, but Utah probably offers more bang for the buck and as a whole is arguably a more photogenic state.  Utah’s most famous scenery comes from the southern part of the state, some of which it shares with Arizona like Monument Valley and the Wave. One also can’t forget the Subway, the Watchman, Mesa Arch, Zebra Canyon, the Narrows, Calf Creek Falls and Delicate Arch as well many others…From its famous national parks to the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains in the north, Utah offers world-class scenery throughout.  Its diverse climate and landscape makes it an excellent choice for visitors year round.

Pro’s: Most iconic southwestern landscapes in the country, easy to find solitude, five national parks, slot canyons, fall foliage, deserts, above average wildflowers and excellent alpine scenery.

Con’s:  High entrance fee’s to state parks, no access to coastline, middle part of the state is generally uninteresting, ATV’s very popular

Honorable mention: Wyoming, Oregon

Not included in these rankings: Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico

I’d love to hear some other opinions on this subject whether you agree or disagree. Please feel free to chime in!

Capturing Alpine Wildflowers Part Two

7 Sep

Today we are concluding my two-part series on the technical art of capturing alpine wildflowers.  Let’s jump right into it and talk about some advanced techniques for creating dynamic pictures.

Focus Blending to Create Depth of Field – There are many varieties of this technique available for landscape photographers and I found this one works best for me.  My default area for focusing on an image is centered about one-third of the way into the frame. I’ll refocus and take the same image focused on the extreme foreground and then a third focus point and picture on the background subject matter as well.

After adjusting the exposure, tone, and white balance in RAW, I’ll open my primary image in Photoshop.  I do the same thing for the second image I captured, keeping the settings the same.  I then copy and paste the second image into the same frame as the first one.  Next, I make sure the images are properly aligned by selecting both and using the auto align tool.  Keep in mind, sometimes the tool doesn’t do a perfect job on the first attempt. Zoom in close and double-check the results and rerun the tool if you aren’t satisfied. Once your images are properly aligned,  use an inverse mask on the second image and brush in the parts of the image that are sharper in the foreground.  Please keep in mind this can get kind of tricky when dealing with wildflowers because just the slightest breeze can cause movement in the flowers.  Once you are happy with your results save the file. It is important not do any cropping yet.

Next I flatten the image file into one and repeat the steps using the third image captured for the background.  Normally this step is a little bit easier because there usually isn’t as much detail in the background as there is in a foreground.  Once you are happy with the results you can then begin your regular editing.  I prefer to save the cropping for last during my workflow.

Micro Blending – Micro blending is sub category of blending for depth of field. The technique is pretty much the same as the one I just described, except you are specifically blending for one small part of the image.  Let me give you an example.  Suppose you completed the steps above and your wildflowers look good. You then notice a couple of errant flowers that show movement from a slight breeze. You go back and review all of your shots of the scene and because you bracketed,  you find a shorter exposure that has those flowers rendered more in focus.  What you can do is adjust the settings in ACR to match your current picture setting and open that image up, follow the above steps and blend in just the flowers you need.

I hope this explanation of my depth of field blending techniques is useful to you. If so, or if you have any other comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. Have a wonderful Labor Day Holiday.

The technical art of capturing alpine wildflowers

26 Aug

Wildflowers are a joy to photograph. The colors, shapes, and sizes can add so much personal expression and emotion to an image. There is a multitude of creative approaches to employ while developing a vision for the subject.  Today, we explore some of the most effective techniques used to capture wildflowers. It is part one of my new series and I hope that you find it useful.

Composition

Fields of wildflowers offer the opportunity for show stopping photographs of epic proportions.  However, the margin for error is even smaller than normal and proper attention to detail must be precise in order to execute a stunning picture.

My first method of approach is to determine a point of view. How low or high do I want to get with my camera? Obviously the lower the perspective, the more prominent your foreground. This technique increases drama and brings your viewer into the picture. However, there are potential hindrances as well.

For instance, what about the flowers directly behind your foreground? Are they colorful and do they add or detract from your image? Would an overview of the area work better than getting low to the ground? Remember, a moving your camera just a few inches up or down or to either side can truly affect your composition,  so be aware of everything you are photographing. Take your time, look around, and experiment.

A stunning floral display accentuated by a glimpse of rare alpine light. The angle of the field of flowers and the varying lengths of growth worked wonderfully for this photograph.

The heighth, width, and overall size of the wildflowers plays a huge part in composition as well. Smaller and stocky wildflowers are generally  easier to capture than taller, lanky ones because they don’t catch as much wind and they don’t obscure other flowers.  On the flip side, the large ones take up more space in your composition and the differences in height can add texture and variety to your pictures as well.

In addition to size, the spacing of flowers is critical. Are the flowers evenly spaced  or do they occur in clumps? Is the color evenly distributed across your image or is it unbalanced?  Finally, are you looking to photograph an entire field or  prominently capture one clump?

My approach:  Find the biggest and best fields of flowers and work around that. I prefer as many flowers in my images as possible.

Best advice:  Experiment with both vertical and horizontal compositions of the same scene. More often than not, I find my first hunch for presentation is wrong when photographing scenes with wildflowers.

Techniques

Wind is the biggest natural obstacle in successfully executing wildflowers shots. It doesn’t take much, just a little breeze to really mess things up. Fortunately, in today’s digital age we can overcome many natural limitations by exercising a little bit of patience and creativity.  Let’s go over some techniques that can help.

Wind played a major factor in the capture of this shot. Multiple blends were necessary to keep the flowers from moving and to blend for depth of field. The differences in color from the previous image are mostly a result of a much warmer white balance or higher color temperature used as the basis for editing this picture.

1) Take off the polarizer – In one of my all time favorite photography books I learned that a polarizer should not be used within an hour of either sunrise or sunset. While this filter can be very useful in reducing glare while photographing wildflowers – if wind is an issue and it is a sunrise or sunset – take it off and spare yourself the extra exposure time.

2) Utilize your ISO speed – Depending on the quality of your camera and the size of your print, ISO speed can be raised considerably without any noticeable decrease in quality.  That is,  if exposure and focus are correct coupled with the right aperture settings.  For example, I recently compared a 16 x 24 print shot at ISO 400 with another shot with the same camera and lens at ISO 100 and I literally could not tell any difference in quality.

Getting back to the flowers – unless it is deathly still – try to keep your exposure times to less than one half of a second to prevent any kind of motion blur in your flowers.

My approach: Take lots of pictures of the same composition and blend out the blurry flowers if necessary.

Best advice:  Be patient – wait for the wind to die down. Even if the light changes – you still have a chance of pulling off a successful blend.

We’ll stop here for today and pick up this topic next week with more tips and techniques for capturing wildflowers. If you like post or have any tips of your own – I’d love to hear from you!

New Colorado Wildflower Images

14 Aug

I’ve safely and successfully returned from my journey to Colorado and the wildflowers and mountains were spectacular! It was a very productive trip and I am looking forward to sharing my new images with you soon.  My approach to editing has changed with this trip.  I am using a lot more manual focus blending as well as extra blending for dynamic range.

The first the part of the process is reviewing all my images and then selecting the ones that are the sharpest and that have the best light. Next I determine the white balance and tone of the image and then I manually stack them in Photoshop. Once the images are stacked, I hand blend them and then edit for contrast and color.  Lastly, I’ve been returning to the images over the course of several days to give me time to digest what I am seeing and to ensure that my editing is in synch with my final vision. The result is a slower process, but I want to make sure that I am 100% satisfied with the image before I post them publicly.

Currently, I am about 20% of the way through the editing and I am selecting the pictures as they come to me. Here’s the first image I’d like to share with you. It is an image from Clear Lake entitled “Modularity.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope to share more with you soon as well as tell you more about my trip!

Gearing Up For Colorado

26 Jul

Trip preparations are reaching a climax this week as the countdown to Colorado begins in earnest. In less than 48 hours, I will be on the road to Durango and I am keeping my fingers crossed for prolific wildflowers and spectacular weather.  Speaking of weather, now is the time when I begin to obsess over forecasts. So far, I’ve confirmed that afternoon thunderstorms occur reguarly and a couple of sites are actually predicting days of rain. Yikes! As it is, this  news caused me to rethink my itinerary and I have some tentative backup plans in mind – just in case.

Before I discuss those, I’d like to share with you my mostly flexible plans for this trip. Day one brings me to Durango where I’ll be exploring the La Plata  mountains in the far corner of the state with a short hike to a high alpine lake.  For the next couple of days, I’ll be near Creede to meet a friend where we’ll explore the Wheeler Geologic Area.  For those of you not familiar with this place, it was originally designated as Colorado’s first national monument, but later lost its status due to the remoteness of the area. From the looks of it, you might think Utah or even Arizona.

Departing from Creede, my primary destination will be areas around Silverton most notably the Weminuche Wilderness area (see previous blog).  Depending on my mental and physical state, I researched several areas that I could potentially explore. These include: Ruby Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes,  Hope Creek, and the West Fork Trail.  These trails are scattered throughout the wilderness so a lot will also depend on logistics and of course, the weather.

Another primary area of interest in Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan National Forest. This is a popular area known for its spectacular scenery, gorgeous wildflowers, and large crowds.  A couple of factors play into my visit. The primary variable is going to be….drum roll please…the weather and how comfortable I feel backpacking during potentially deadly summer monsoon storms.  My goal is to spend two nights in the upper basin,  which would give me enough time to scout out the most optimal sunrise compositions, which of course, I’ll be sharing with you.

San Juan Mountains near Telluride, July 2008

After that, it’s a couple more days in the Weminuche Wilderness exploring more lakes, peaks, and wildflower fields. That’s my trip in a nutshell and do I have some backup plans if rainy and gloomy days impede on my time in the mountains. My first trip alternative is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I have never been to this place and I love photographing and exploring sand dunes, so this is certainly a possibility. The weather forecast looks promising there and the high temperatures should be pleasant. The downside it is a few hours out of my way so requires plenty of extra driving.

My other options closer to home include: Coyote Buttes, Bisti Wilderness, and exploring the ruins around the four corners area. The biggest drawback to these possibilities is the heat. I’d prefer not to hike in temperatures in the low to mid 90’s so these are excursions for a different time of the year.  That being said, I plan on making the most of my time so I will do what I have to do to get the best images possible.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to sharing with you some of the images and experiences from this trip  in the upcoming few weeks. If you have any tips, suggestions or advice  I’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed this update on my travels.

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