Striking Gold: Maroon Bells Peaks Reflecting in Maroon Lake
I'm just back from an intensive 9-day photo trip to Colorado. Overall, the trip was great, though the weather was not cooperative for about half of the daylight hours. Bad weather can create the dramatic skies that are highly desired for landscape photos, but rain, snow and heavy fog can be especially challenging when distant mountains are a primary subject.
At the top of my distant mountains list were the Maroon Bells, a pair of fourteeners (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) located in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area near Aspen. These tree-less, maroon-colored peaks are generally considered the most-photographed mountains in North America. They are most-photographed for good reasons. The mountains are beautiful, the scene in front of them, including Maroon Creek Valley and Maroon Lake, is beautiful and the access is very easy. Getting this picture into the portfolio, however, was definitely not easy.
I mentioned that access to the beautiful Maroon Bells scene is easy. The hike from the relatively-small parking lot to Maroon Lake is a short one. I carried about 50 lbs. of gear to the lake in a Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator Backpack and a Think Tank Photo StreetWalker worn as a front pack. But, this hike is the easy part of getting this photograph.
There are basically two ideal sections of the Maroon Lake shoreline to shoot from with a limited number of photographers fitting into them. Getting the perfect location requires you to be there before the other photographers wanting the same easy-to-get-to location (just getting a parking space can be a challenge). Factor a 30 minute drive from the nearest hotel to the early arrival time requirement at the parking lot (a limited amount of campsites are available closer to the location) and the result is a very early AM alarm. By the time this photo was taken, there were nearly 100 photographers standing beside Maroon Lake, and I assure you that many did not have optimal shooting positions (just hanging out with this many friendly, enthusiastic landscape photographers makes this trip worth the effort).
Aspen in their brilliant yellow (and red) fall foliage colors were my other primary photography target for this trip. There are only a handful of days each year when the aspen trees are at their peak, so the timing of this trip has to be perfect. Locals can simply watch the foliage reports and make the drive (just over 4 hours from Denver) when the trees are peaking, but the rest of us need to plan ahead with airline ticket purchases, hotel reservations and vehicle rentals. My strategy was simple: plan the trip for peak foliage dates from recent years. In Aspen, this strategy worked perfectly for me. Some trees were beyond peak and some remained green, but most were at or near peak color. Though this is a highly desired location most of the year, the peak foliage definitely factored into the large crowds I encountered.
To get the peaks of the Maroon Bells to glow at sunrise requires a clear sky in the east during sunrise and to get a perfectly clear reflection of the peaks requires no wind. I was not hopeful during my 2 hour lakeside wait. Unlike many of the other mornings on this trip, the sky was perfectly clear. But, there was enough of a breeze blowing to create mirror-reflection-destroying ripples in the water. A moment before this photo was captured, the lake became a giant mirror and remained nearly flat for the next 3-4 hours (this duration is unusual for Maroon Lake) until the sun lit the entire valley floor below.
With the right scene unfolding in front of me, capturing the right framing and exposures became the next challenge. The framing was not hard (it is hard to go wrong at this location), but the exposures required more attention. With direct sunlight hitting the mountain peaks and the light-absorbing evergreens in deep shade, there was a significant amount of dynamic range to be captured. Using a multiple exposure HDR technique was the key to capturing the entire scene and all I had to do in the field was to insure that, for each final image, I had proper exposures captured for the highlights (shorter exposure) and for the shadows (longer exposure).
Back home in the studio, the processing work was much more difficult than capturing the right exposures in the field. Blending the two RAW images into a natural-looking HDR image was a complex process. I'd be embarrassed to say how many revisions I've made to this image, and while I have many variations that I like, I can't say that I am completely satisfied yet. This is my favorite revision today.
The iconic photograph of the Maroon Bells reflecting in Maroon lake with an apron of brilliantly-colored aspen trees lining Maroon Creek Valley was high on my bucket list and checking this line item off was my highest priority for this trip. No, this photo is not going to be unique (at least not completely unique). A lot of other photographers (close to 100 from this day alone) could have this or similar photos in their portfolios (if they executed and processed properly). I enjoy looking at photos taken by others, but this one is mine and there is something special about having iconic images in your own portfolio and having photos you created hanging on your walls. The memories these photos hold are part of their specialness. This particular image does not tell much of a story, but the story behind the image is big. That my father joined me on this particular trip was part of the specialness.
Because this shot was a priority, I allotted the most trip time (two full days and an additional half day if needed) to the Aspen area. The first morning was perfect (I shot from the side of the lake until about 11:00 AM and in the valley most of the day) and the second morning was an exact duplicate of the first until a breeze picked up just after sunrise (I moved to other shooting locations at this time – as planned).
Lakeside, I was simultaneously shooting with two complete tripod-based setups (one under the other when space was tight or to better protect tripod legs from accidents). With all of the effort and timing coming together perfectly and with the short duration of mountain peaks being lit, two rigs allowed me to maximize my take-home. This particular image was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and one of the best landscape lenses ever made, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. They worked perfectly.
35mm f/11.0 .3s ISO 100
Brilliant Aspens in front of Sievers Mountain, Maroon Bells
I love mountains, but not all mountains are created equally. Height is great, but a flat or round-top mountain, even if extremely high, is difficult to make photogenic. Give me a craggy, jagged-topped mountain with character and I can entertain myself for days. Add some color for an over-the-top mountain.
The Maroon Bells Scenic Area has mountains with character and Sievers Mountain, just north of Maroon Lake, is one of my favorites. Along with having character in its shape, this mountain has color character including the namesake "Maroon" with bands of light-colored rock running through it. While the top of this mountain alone can make a good photo, I worked a set of colorful aspens into the foreground so that the tops of the trees somewhat matched the craggy-ness of the mountaintop and added strong contrasting color. With some room to significantly change my shooting position, I adjusted the perspective so that the amount of trees showing in the frame was balanced relative to the amount of mountain showing. Said another way, the closer I approached the trees, the higher the percentage of the frame consumed by those trees and the larger the trees would appear relative to the mountain.
With the perspective I wanted, I then made use of a zoom lens to retain only what I wanted in the frame. In this case, that meant zooming to 57mm.
With a partly cloudy sky, good timing (note that the odds of good timing are greatly increased by patiently waiting) was required to get a dark foreground base, bright trees, shade on the mountain directly behind the tree tops and some direct sunlight on the mountain above. Blue skies are beautiful, but I often prefer that they remain a small part of my landscape images. In this case, the blue adds another color to the image and forms a solid, uninterrupted top margin to this scene that keeps the viewer's eye from leaving via the top of the frame.
I made strong use of the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens on this trip. Nearly every shot I captured with this lens was tack sharp. It is an awesome choice for tripod-mounted landscape photography.
57mm f/11.0 1/40s ISO 125
The Story Behind the Rainbow over Aspen
Something that all landscape photographers need to know is that the worst weather can bring the best photo conditions. For example, without rain, there are no rainbows.
I would like to say that I had spent all day climbing to the top of some remote mountain to capture this image, but ... in this case, I was simply driving from a gas station back to the hotel. When the clouds on the western horizon broke open just enough for the sun to shine under the heavy cloud cover and into the rain, I simply pulled off the road at a safe location and started shooting. In this photo, the very warm-colored last sunlight of the day is illuminating the rain along with an aspen grove at the top of a mountain near the town of Aspen, CO.
From a compositional perspective, I would like to have moved the bright aspen grove and mountain peak to the right (or left) to about 1/3 of the way into the frame. To do that would have required me to drive to a new location. Rainbows and the sun shining through small openings in clouds are both fleeting opportunities and I was not going to chance missing the opportunity.
The leftmost rainbow was easily the most eye-catching subject, so I placed it in the 1/3 (maybe 1/4) frame position. The strong, bright rain easily balances the bright rainbow and the small, faint rainbow remains in the frame on the right. The dark land in the base of the frame works with the dark cloud at the top of the frame to bring the viewer's eye inward. The near-centered mountaintop then works for me in this case.
Without being able to significantly change perspective at this very long subject distance, a telephoto zoom lens allows flexibility in final subject framing.
I love unplanned images such as this one. The only requirement (beyond knowing how to use your gear) is being there. So, be there!
150mm f/8.0 1/10s ISO 100
Canon EOS R, Maroon Bells and Brilliant Aspens
I was in Aspen, Colorado for two nights and the primary goal was to capture another set of classic Maroon Bells lake reflection images that included the amazing fall aspen color. After arriving at the hotel late in the evening on the first night, I set the alarm for 2:40 AM and went to bed. Probably no one thinks getting up at 2:40 AM is fun and ... that I was dragging my wife and youngest daughter with me ... raised questions about my sanity. Still, this is one of the most beautiful locations in the country and I calculated that it was going to be worth the sleep deprivation (and potential grief from the family) to get the perfect position along Maroon Lake.
Upon stepping outside, the heavy cloud cover was obvious and occasional light rain followed us. Landscape photographers live for the openings in breaking storm clouds and I stayed with the plan. I was one of the first photographers to arrive at the side of the lake, but I immediately encountered disruption of the plan. The first issue was that a rope now lines the path around the lake, preventing close access to the water. The second issue was that the lake level was extremely low. The restricted access and now-distant, very shallow lake combined to provide a dirt/stone former lake bottom as the image foreground and the lake was now small enough that the reflections were rather unexciting at the proximity available. In addition, the aspen leaves had changed (and many dropped) about a week early this year, courtesy of the drought that also accounted for the drained lake.
I continued to stay with the plan, remaining standing in my spot, alongside a large number of other photographers, from about 3:30 AM until close to 9:00 AM, waiting for a break in the clouds. That never happened and I finally decided that a decent photo was not likely to happen. The hike I promised the girls was looking like a great option and that became the plan.
After all of the early AM effort, the best scene of the day showed up in front of us while hiking near the far side of the lake. An opening in the clouds allowed sunlight to penetrate, brightly lighting a grove of aspens that were still holding their brilliantly-colored leaves. The key to getting my favorite Maroon Bells image on this trip was just being out in a great location, watching for something good to happen.
The Canon EOS R and RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens were perfect hiking companions.
65mm f/8.0 1/100s ISO 100
Maroon Bells Reflection
When presented with clear blue skies, I often avoid having significant sky coverage in my frame. But sometimes, blue is beautiful.
With a bright, evenly-colored background, the top of the mountains being hit by the morning sunlight creates a strong, eye-catching line. The strong contrast of the mountain shadow creates a second strong line. Take a great scene and reflect it to get symmetry with the result often being greater than twice as good as the image without a reflection.
The choice of focal length is always very important for composing an image. In this case, the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells were of primary interest to me. A focal length that makes these peaks large in the frame will best emphasize their over 14,000' size. I captured many frames using longer focal lengths, but I also liked seeing the bigger picture. With a mirror-calm water surface large enough to reflect the entire scene, I took advantage of the wider angle focal lengths available in the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens on this morning.
When not to use a circular polarizer filter: at sunrise or sunset, with a wide angle focal length being used and large amounts of blue sky in the frame, it is unlikely that I have a CPL filter mounted on my lens. A CPL filter used with a low sun angle and lots of evenly-toned blue sky in the frame is a perfect recipe for very uneven darkening of the sky, a look that is generally not appreciated.
This is a complicated HDR image based on three differently-exposed source images. Removed from this image was a line of other like-minded photographers.
22mm f/11.0 1/8s ISO 100
Clouds are Important for not only the Sky, Sievers Mountain, Maroon Bells
Aspen trees do not all change color at the same time in the fall. This can be good or bad news. Good is that there is some flexibility in the timing of fall photo trips to aspen areas. Potentially bad is that there will likely be green or bare aspen trees in your targeted area.
In addition to leaf color, sky cover is a concern for aspen tree photography. While blue skies are beautiful, I much prefer to have photogenic clouds decorating a blue sky (with abundant amounts of sunshine coming through). My reasoning for this preference is probably obvious for images that include those clouds and the sky. But, clouds cast shadows and shadows can greatly contribute to imagery.
On the return hike from Crater Lake on this day, clouds blocked the sun just enough to shade Sievers Mountain while the foreground aspen trees glowed brightly in the sunlight. In the mid-ground was a patch of aspens with only their top-most leaves remaining (these are the last to fall). Also in the sun, these leaves appear as a flame over the trees. While it is not in the limelight, Sievers Mountain, full of character and framed in blue sky with white clouds further separating the sharpest peaks, makes this shot for me.
While a telephoto lens may not have been your first choice for a hike primarily focused on landscape photography, telephoto focal lengths are an integral part of my landscape kit. I often find composing landscape images with a telephoto zoom lens to be easier than a wide angle lens. The next time you head out to photograph the great outdoors, especially in big mountain areas, make sure that a telephoto zoom lens is in your bag.
300mm f/9.0 1/125s ISO 200
COLORado Gold: Maroon Bells Scenic Area
Revisiting a classic: I shared an image similar to this one some time ago, but a publication needed this scene in a 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning that a wider-angle capture was required. Since I was making the effort to process another image from that trip (and it is fall), I thought I'd share here as well. I'm also sharing this image because the Maroon Bells Scenic Area is one of the most beautiful locations I've seen.
Maroon Bells has many great landscape image components. Start out with a pair of tightly-positioned fourteener mountain peaks (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) with great character. Mix in some of the most-brilliantly-colored trees on the planet along with beautifully color-contrasting and photogenically-shaped spruce trees. Add light from a clear-sky sunrise just reaching the mountain peaks while the namesake maroon rocks remain in the shade with the cooler lighting emphasizing their color. Take all of that and double it with a reflection in the clear, often-still Maroon Lake that also happens to have some bright green algae growing in it.
Capturing the image was easy. The lake is only a short trek from the parking lot. Setup the tripod, focus and switch to manual focus mode, establish final scene framing, lock down the ball head and capture a burst of exposure bracketed images (the burst strategy is helpful because that sun line is moving down the mountain faster than it may seem). That sounds easy (and it was), but capturing the exposure stack was just the final bit of effort required to capture this image.
Getting a position for one's tripod at the side of Maroon Lake during peak leaf color at sunrise is far more challenging. This particular location gets one of the largest crowds of photographers I've seen outside outdoors. An extremely early alarm is required after, for most of us, a long trip to get to the Aspen, Colorado area in the first place. While photographing alone in the wilderness may seem more appealing to you, the folks on the lake shore (most of them at least) are very friendly and fun to hang out with as daybreak unfolds.
Another challenge awaits your arrival home. Manually processing the HDR stack of a scene with brightness ranging from direct sunlight transitioning immediately to shade on into deep shade (such as within the spruce trees) is a remaining challenge required for this image.
As so often is the case with photography, all of the challenges were worth conquering to get the image, many of them in this case.
A reflection can double the beauty of a scene and a second camera setup can often double (or at least significantly increase) the number and variety of images captured at the optimal time of day. When photographing a scene such as this, one that requires significant effort and has a high reward potential, I generally have two cameras on tripods simultaneously capturing the moments. In this case, the lenses mounted were two of my favorites, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens. While the choice of a "wider-angle" image may lead your guess to the model used here, both had the 24mm focal length used here available to them and I didn't have much reason to choose one over the other for this specific image.
24mm f/16.0 .8s ISO 100