Planning & Prep

Yet Another Sugarloaf Sunrise

Sugarloaf Sunrise, #1. Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Sugarloaf Sunrise, #1. Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014

The above is what you get on a less-than-average winter day on Sugarloaf Mountain above Boulder. Not bad, but none of the morning’s files were real “keepers” worth printing.

Sunrise with dead trees–too cliché…with insufficient unusual weather or light to bring them above the average level and out of the cliché wastebasket. (In the above image, another problem is the big black triangle on the right 2/3s of the picture with not much going on.)

I present this partly as sort of a baseline for your (and my) photography at that location.

Also…

Here is the principle: You won’t really know what are truly good images from a particular place unless you go there repeatedly to see what is “normal”. Eventually, you’ll discover a sort of “baseline” scenic rating after visiting on a number of average days–then, when the light and conditions are exceptional, it becomes oh-so obvious. That’s when you slip into “the zone” and really get to work with your eye, your instinct, and your shutter finger before conditions change.

There is also sort of a corollary to this principle: Looking at what other photographers worldwide are doing will give you an approximate “baseline” of where the current photographic frontier might stand–that is, what has been done and how well it has been done. This will help you recognize when you begin to produce work that goes beyond the baseline, begins to get personal. (Alas, though…moving beyond this frontier, while staying honest to your vision, is the forever challenge of photography!)

A few more “non-keepers” from this morning. Note the changing hue of the sky color as the sun comes up…

Sugarloaf Sunrise, #3. Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Sugarloaf Sunrise, #3. Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Sugarloaf Sunrise, #4 (Orange Contrail). Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Sugarloaf Sunrise, #4 (Orange Contrail). Near Boulder, Colorado, 2014
First Light on Mt. Audubon and Longs Peak. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014
First Light on Mt. Audubon and Longs Peak. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014

Bear Peak, Boulder, Colorado

Bear Mnt Summit View #5 (The requisite summit selfie). Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Bear Mnt Summit View #5 (The requisite summit selfie). Boulder, Colorado, 2013

I must be in a mood to check out local places I haven’t been before.

I tried to roll out of bed this morning for an early start–maybe catch the sunrise and moonset from the Bear Peak summit (8,461′). But I wasn’t on the trail until 5:30 a.m. and I was unfamiliar with either of the possible trails, so I wasn’t particularly efficient. (I chose the longer trail up.) By the time I reached the top–climbing up through a freshly burned area (the 2012 Flagstaff Fire) and some magnificently powerful and freight train-sounding west winds–the sun was up and the moon was down. Oh, well…it’s just a recon, right? Next time I’ll know.

Cliff’s Notes version….Three hours up via Bear Canyon Trail, an hour at the summit enjoying the view, and two hours back to NCAR via the Fern Canyon Trail. The September flood really ripped down Bear Canyon. The signs are still there–washed out sections of trail, mudslides, debris, etc. The trail was easily passable, though, as City of Boulder Open Space has fixed the worst of it.

Some recommendations:

–On top, if you have whipping west winds, there are some nice natural rock seats on the east side of the summit ridge where you can eat lunch without losing your hat. You’ll want to sit there awhile to enjoy the spectacle and contemplate your navel (orange, that is, don’t leave the peels behind).

–If you want to do this as a loop, consider climbing up Fern Canyon and down via Bear Canyon–it would be faster to the summit and easier on the knees.

–The road up to NCAR, where many people start, is technically closed until after 6:00 a.m. So, if you want an early morning start, you might consider approaching from the Eldorado Canyon side (that is,once the Mesa Trail fully opens, pending flood damage repairs). Or, perhaps you could get prior permission to park earlier at NCAR, although I’m not sure of their policy.

–Consider climbing the nearby and slightly higher, but much less-traveled, South Boulder Peak (8,549′) while you are up there as it’s the highest peak in the City’s Open Space. That’s on my agenda for next time (along with getting up earlier).

Interesting addendum: If you want to see what the Great Front Range Flood of 2013 did to some of the Boulder Open Space trails, check out their photo album HERE. That is some pretty impressive erosion over a three-day period.

And a few more images from this morning…First, the view north from the summit, with the Democratic Republic of Boulder spread out below:

Bear Mnt Summit View #6. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Bear Mnt Summit View #6. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

 

The view to the south. South Boulder Peak (8,549′) is to the right, and Pikes Peak (14,115′) is the 14er in the far distance:

Bear Mnt Summit View #7. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Bear Mnt Summit View #7. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

 

On the descent, a view of the edge of Dinosaur Mountain just across Bear Canyon to the north:

Dinosaur Mountain and The Divide. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Dinosaur Mountain and The Divide. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

Missing the Light

Sunrise on Baseline Road. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Sunrise on Baseline Road. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

Sometimes I try to guess when the conditions might be right for some nice sunrise landscape photography. I generally hope for some interesting clouds that could be illuminated by the solar disc as it approaches, then crests, the eastern horizon. If I think the next day might be good, I’ll set my alarm early.

I sure missed on this one.

I woke up just in time to notice this wonderful, martian red-orange glow coming from the bedroom window. By then, it was already too late to go anywhere–the light would be gone within five minutes. It was all I could do to dress quickly and dash outside with the camera. Then the problem became how to capture the wonderful, wave-cloud sky and light while surrounded by apartments, power lines and city streets. Most would be content to simply shoot the sky, leaving the horizon littered with peaks of houses, electric poles and other detritus of modern “civilization”. I tried to find something–anything–to make the image at least a little bit better than that…the result is above.

Next time, though, I need to hoist my fanny perpendicular an hour earlier and get myself out to a park, a lake, a mountain, or Open Space. Be there and await the light–that’s the real solution!

Keep going back

If you keep going back, eventually the fickle finger o’ fate will smile upon you and drape the landscape with wonderful lighting and spectacular skies.

Friday, I had gone up to the Sugarloaf Mountain trailhead at the appropriate pre-dawn hour, but massive winds and too much cloud cover made it obvious that the photographic situation would be worse than poor. So I left without even getting out of the truck and returned this morning.

Today’s dawn was much, much better. I suppose for every two, three or four trips up the Sugarloaf trail, one turns out to be well worth it and the rest are so-so. This morning was the former.

I hiked up into the fog and darkness with the knowledge that the forecast was for a clear, calm day in the foothills below. That–at least to me–meant there was a good possibility I would either: 1) get to see the sunrise over the top of a spectacular undercast, or 2) get some wonderful light as the clouds and fog dissipated in the first warming rays of the sun.

Today I got #2…windless, and constantly changing wreaths of clouds all over the foothills and the Continental Divide, and a fresh light snow above about 10,000 feet.

Waiting for the sunrise…the clouds begin to break up:

Sugarloaf Sunrise #1. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013
Sugarloaf Sunrise #1. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013

 

Setting up on the tripod at the summit:

Self-Portrait. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013
Self-Portrait. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013

 

The Indian Peaks Wilderness:

Indian Peaks Wilderness #2. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013
Indian Peaks Wilderness #2. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013

 

Longs Peak through the clouds:

Longs Peak. From Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013
Longs Peak. From Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2013

 

And a stop along Boulder Creek on the way back to town. The high water mark from the recent flooding is obvious:

Boulder Creek, Post-Flood. Boulder Canyon, Colorado, 2013
Boulder Creek, Post-Flood. Boulder Canyon, Colorado, 2013

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

On cloud layers, TAFs and METARs

Glimpse through the fog. Trail Ridge Road, RMNP, 2013
Glimpse through the fog. Trail Ridge Road, RMNP, 2013

Three times in recent days I have tried to get above the clouds by going into the high country up to 12,000′, but no luck–three straight strikes. We are socked in. Images captured above the clouds, with the right light, and with the Continental Divide peaks poking up through the mist, can be spectacular.

Sometime ago I talked briefly about using aviation weather sources to get a better handle on the weather conditions, especially the cloud layers. Maybe this is a good time to review two acronyms (and information sources) pilots are very familiar with: TAFs and METARs.

To clarify, “TAF” stands for Terminal Aerodrome Forecast and is a forecast of upcoming weather conditions. “METAR” stands for Meteorological Terminal Air Report and is a summary of current conditions. You can look up both of these for aerodromes all over the world on the Aviation Weather Center website. So, here is what to do:

1) Go to the Aviation Weather Center website HERE.

2) Click on “TAF/FA” in the left column under Forecasts.

3) Follow the directions in the new window: Enter the four-letter identifier of the airport you are interested in, then check the button “Translated” (so you get plain English instead of pilot-speak), then click on “Get TAFs and METARs” (so you get both current and forecast conditions). Note that the 24-hour clock times are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)–that is, the old Greenwich Mean Time. So, you’ll have to adjust for your time zone.  (For the Denver area, subtract six hours, five hours if on Daylight Saving Time.)

4) This will get you the information you are after. You can see the cloud layers stated as well–that is, at least you’ll know where they start, not necessarily where they top out.

A few important definitions:

“Scattered” means less than half the sky is covered.

“Broken” means more than half the sky is covered.

“Overcast” means the entire sky is covered.

And…To look up the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) four-letter identifier of any airport, go try this interactive tool.

Maybe this info will help next time you are trying to get that cool sunrise shot from Trail Ridge Road of Longs Peak towering above the misty valleys below. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway!

A postscript…

The deluge continues. It looks like we have some pretty serious flooding in the area now. I’ll see about getting some images of this in the next post. Stay dry and out of those fast-running washes and creek drainages!

Don’t forget to pre-flight your gear!

Hoodoo Landscape. Vedauwoo, Wyoming, 2013
Hoodoo Landscape. Vedauwoo, Wyoming, 2013

Well, it finally happened. A minor disaster (very, very minor, really, in the world-wide scheme of things). I was able to go almost four years with my current kit with no big breakages. My lucky streak finally ended yesterday, in that haunted, bizarre, granite wonderland that is Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Big Lesson: There are two basic checklists you ought to run whenever you go out to shoot…. Click here to see the checklists and also to discover what minor disaster transpired.

Monthly Photography Education Plan

Blizzard at the Boxcar Corral. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2013
Blizzard at the Boxcar Corral. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2013

Every month, I try to pack in as much photography education as I can. How about you? So much to learn, so little time, no? (Big caveat: A little break now and then helps to recharge the Lithium-Ion batts–don’t burn yourself out!)

Maybe if I share my list with you it will give you some ideas on how you might flesh out your own personal artistic education plan: Click here to read my list.

Changing seasons, light, time of day, weather

Redgarden Wall in Winter #2. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2013
Redgarden Wall in Winter #2. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2013

Having now had a few years to explore the varied photogenic sites around this neck o’ the woods (Boulder County area), I have discovered…

That it pays to go to your favorite photo op sites many, many times…at different times of day, in different seasons, when the weather conditions are unusual, when the light is different, when the grass is green, when the grass is brown…

You begin to learn where to find the best angles, the easiest approaches, the ideal tripod spots…You begin to visualize what these places would look like with the light a certain way, with the lighting from a slightly different angle, with or without snow, in the rain, with fog or low clouds, and so on…You begin to form a deeper understanding of just where to go when Mother Nature offers up something unusual (like a spring snow storm)…You already have your locations studied and you are already visualizing the image in your mind even before you arrive.

Icicles on Redgarden Wall. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2013
Icicles on Redgarden Wall. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2013