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.