Dawn Photography on Mt. Evans

Summit Lake, Dawn. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013
Summit Lake, Dawn #3. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013

I am a fan of being in high places at sunrise and sunset. Just being there is exhilarating and, of course, the photographic possibilities are WAY better than you’ll find in the alley behind the local downtown Conoco station (for most nature photographers, anyway).

And…Colorado certainly has no shortage of high places, Mt. Evans being one of the most popular. At 14,265 sized-12 feet above mean sea level, and accessible in a mere two hours from Boulder and Denver in a dinosaur grease-fed vehicle most of the year, its summit ought to host your tripod at least once if you are in the area.

Last Sunday (two days before they closed down the entire road for the season), I drove up the narrow, black, asphalt ribbon in the darkness of the pre-dawn to Summit Lake–the final five miles of the road already being closed due to an early snowstorm the week before. The wind was pretty harsh…I had to keep the tripod at its lowest extension, bear down on it with all my weight, and wait for a brief lull in the gusts to press the shutter (once for mirror lock-up, and a second time to initiate exposure delay mode and shutter release). Then, I had to redo a few “takes” as I forgot that blowing wind could quickly cover the lens with tiny water droplets from the nearby lake, something not easily visible through the viewfinder in the low light of pre-sunrise. (Suggestion: always carry a cloth in your bag and check your lens between shots whenever you are near water.)

If you do plan on visiting Mt. Evans, as part of your pre-flight planning, I highly recommend you visit Karl Snyder’s excellent website, MountEvans.com. It is probably the best single source of information about the peak that you’ll find on the web. Pay attention to how to check for road closures and when the road will open and close for the season. Also, consider the altitude and your physical condition–fewer air molecules up there than you’ll find in Atlanta, Georgia, or even Denver for that matter. Finally, be prepared for any kind of weather–high winds, hail, lightning, rain, snow, sleet, scorching high altitude UV rays–at any time of day, at any time of year. You may even get all of those things in one lucky five-minute stretch in mid-July!

I prefer this location at sunrise and favor the summit itself, Summit Lake, and the viewpoint of the Chicago Lakes Basin for landscape panoramas. If you want to score a mountain goat or a pika, try the stretch from Summit Lake to the top.

Some results from Sunday morning…First a 15-second exposure of Summit Lake just before sunrise:

Summit Lake, Dawn. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013
Summit Lake, Dawn. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013

 

The view north, Chicago Lakes Basin Overlook:

Chicago Lake Basin. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013
Chicago Lake Basin. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013

 

Finally, lower on the mountain, a view north across Echo Lake with one of Obelix’s menhirs in the foreground:

Menhir Above Echo Lake. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013
Menhir Above Echo Lake. Mt Evans, Colorado, 2013

Tree of Life

Tree of Life. Yellowstone NP, 2013
Tree of Life. Yellowstone NP, 2013

Yellowstone is actually just one huge super volcano…ready to blow in ten years, or 100 years, or 1,000 years, or 200,000 years. Or never. Its geologic track record, though, makes a good case against the latter.

Yellowstone is a living breathing thing…the crust moving upward, undulating, dropping, flowing as the magma underneath exerts ever-changing pressures and the North American plate slides slowly to the southwest . Geysers and steam vents change. New ones slowly–or abruptly–come into existence while old ones die out. Earthquakes roll through the region on a daily basis, although most are not quite perceptible to human senses. When you visit, you are not treading upon solid ground–it is really sort of a plastic, floating, island of crust. Alive with activity.

If, some day, there is an eruption on the scale of what occurred beginning some 17 million years ago then, more recently, some 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago, it will have world-wide effects. Nothing like that has ever happened in the short history of humans.

Look behind you (or below)

The Stone. Yellowstone NP, 2013
The Stone. Yellowstone NP, 2013

While everyone had their $10,000, 600mm, monster lenses (with teleconverter) focused on a brushy slope that gave only the briefest glimpse of a grizzly feeding on a bison carcass, I found a different subject when I looked straight down from the bridge. Sometimes the best subject isn’t necessarily the most obvious one. I much prefer this image to the blurry one I have of part of a grizzly snout sticking out from behind a distant tree.

So, instead of focusing entirely on the the main–most exciting–photographic subject, take a deep breathe, turn around, and look behind you (or below, as the case may be).

Cloning versus Gardening

Moonrise, Firehole River. Yellowstone NP, 2013
Moonrise, Firehole River. Yellowstone NP, 2013

So, you are out in the wilds of the back o’ beyond and you have set up your tripod to capture this delicious sunset scene when you notice two very inconvenient weeds growing up right into the corner of your frame. What do you do? Do you walk over and pull them out or bend them over…or do you take the picture and then clone them out in Photoshop when you get back to uncivilization?

This sort of bumps into that related theme of what constitutes a “manipulated” photograph. In order to nip that discussion in the butt, lets just all agree that EVERY photograph is manipulated. It is NOT reality you are recreating in that little square or rectangle. It is your interpretation of reality…you choose the viewpoint, the lens, the f-stop, the focus point, the exposure, the post-processing techniques. Even photographing the exact same scene, all photographers will necessarily come up with very different images because of their individual choices with these and other variables.

So, what about that nuisance weed? What to do…what to do…? The purists among us will leave it, or maybe move to a different angle that does not include the offending flora. Others (and I include me, myself and I in this group) will move the weed if we notice it and, if it does happen to escape our intensive camera frame “border patrol”, then we will eliminate it later with the clone tool. I don’t feel at all bad about doing this since I am trying to create something akin to art, not a crime scene documentary photograph. (Rest assured, I do stop short of chain-sawing down trees or dynamiting wrongly-placed boulders to get the shot, though.)

The above image (a repeat from a previous post) is a great example. I was so enamored with the water, the clouds, the Moon, that I didn’t notice the TV antenna-shaped weed in the bottom right corner. Now that you see it, doesn’t it bother the Hades out of you? If I had seen it while shooting, I would have removed the two blades immediately. I didn’t see the problem, though, until I was back home looking at the image in the computer screen. I thought the picture would be much better without this distraction, so–zap!–gone with the wind and a whole lot of detailed mouse clicks.

Here is the result (converted to monochrome) and it feels so much better without that stupid TV antenna in the foreground:

Moonrise, Firehole River. Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, 2013
Moonrise, Firehole River. Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, 2013

Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone National Park

Teton First Light. Mount Washburn, Yellowstone NP, 2013
Teton First Light. Mount Washburn, Yellowstone NP, 2013

If you are looking for a nice high point in Jellystone Park from which to make beautiful images, look no farther than the 10,243-foot summit of Mt. Washburn just north of the Canyon Village area. This is a great place for sunrise or sunset photo ops, and was on my list for this particular trip.

You have two route options by which to hike your hefty hiney up there: 1) the trail from Dunraven Pass, a 1400′ altitude gain and three miles on a very scenic and well-maintained trail, and 2) the two and one-half mile, 1500′ altitude gain, lookout tower access road from the Chittenden parking area.

Being unfamiliar with the peak, being alone, and walking in the moonlit semi-darkness of early morning, I opted for #2–the wide dirt road option. The better to spot Yogi before he could spot me, or so I reasoned.

Some caveats:

–Bring bear spray and wear a tinkle bell (or sing loud, bawdy, fighter-pilot songs) as bears frequent this area–not only Yogi, but even GRIZ him/herself.

–Bring a headlamp for the trip up or down, depending on whether you are doing this for sunrise or sunset photography.

–Be prepared for any kind of weather–have the right clothes with you.

–Avoid the summer, mid-day and afternoon thunder bumpers and lightning storms.

–Consider an off-season ascent to avoid huge crowds of other hikers.

Something I did not know until I arrived at the Park Service  lookout tower on the summit was that there is actually a nice, out-of-the-wind, warm, tourist viewing shelter built into the base of the structure. Inside, you will find benches, a viewing telescope, and posters labeling all of the distant geographic features. (You can see it in the image below–it is that part that bulges out left on the base of the tower.) They even have men’s and women’s restrooms, labeled as such, with toilet paper and hand sanitizer! So, when you get up to the top, there is a place to both get out of the elements and kill those germs on your hands–quite a surprise (from 7a.m. to sunset, anyway).

The view has to be one of the best in all of the Park. On my particular morning, I watched as the dawn light painted the summit of the Grand Teton gold, some 50+ miles to the south. Mist filled the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and various and assorted hot spots were sending vapor clouds up in small plumes above the forested caldera spread out below (the above image). As a photographer, I had hoped for some nice horse-tail cirrus clouds in that big, blue, empty, morning sky, but you can’t always have everything. (Heck, two days before, there had been a blizzard on the mountain, so best to be thankful.)

And then there was that guy in the lookout tower–how do I get HIS job!!!???

Summit Lookout Tower. Mount Washburn, Yellowstone NP, 2013
Summit Lookout Tower. Mount Washburn, Yellowstone NP, 2013