Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

8th Annual Nature Photography Day

Saturday, June 15th, 2013
8th Annual Nature Photography Day

The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) is a membership organization dedicated to promoting nature photography “as a medium of communication, nature appreciation, and environmental protection.”  I’ve been a member of this organization for a decade, taking advantage of its membership by attending annual seminars, enjoying inexpensive equipment insurance, and receiving guidance on ethical field practices.

One of the things that NANPA promotes is an annual Nature Photography Day on June 15.  It began Nature Photography Day to “promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide.”  Rather than calling upon people to go to great lengths to fly or drive great distances to some dramatic, iconic location, the idea behind Nature Photography Day is to go someplace close, some place within walking, hiking or biking distance and examine the wonders of nature in our own backyard.  Fresh air and less carbon footprint that way!

Since the snow finally went away just a few weeks ago, I have been enjoying getting out and exploring the trails near my new hillside home above Rabbit Creek. The other morning, when doing my usual hour-long circuit, I noticed that the wildflowers were in crazy bloom.  Arctic lupine, bluebells, Western columbine, Narcissus-flowered anemone, forget-me-not, dwarf dogwood; all were bursting from the grasses, alders, aspen, cow parsnip, and just about every aspect of hillside and trail.  Knowing that I would be going for a hike this morning along the same route, I decided to take my camera long for the first time and capture some of this fleeting beauty.  Of course, with all of the stopping and composing, the usual hour turned into two.  But what a way to start a day.

The day is still young.  If you have a trail, park, stream, lake, coast, woods, or anything not made entirely of concrete and steel nearby you, I encourage you to get out and explore it with your camera.  Don’t be in a rush, either; take your time.  You may be surprised as to the many wonders you can discover if you give nature a chance to reveal herself to you.

The dark side of nature photography

Monday, February 20th, 2012
The dark side of nature photography

Not all good nature photography is pretty.  If you believe, like I do, that nature photography should be used to highlight issues of environmental or conservation concern, then it cannot always be pretty.  There are a variety of things, from toxic waste dumping to deforestation, that need to be captured in photos so that people can see the consequences of those actions.  The aggressive predator control measures currently underway in the Lower 48 is a prime example.

I captured this image of a poached coyote during a visit to Montana in 2006.  I was with my friend Nick Fucci at the time, and we were on our way back to his home in Big Fork after visiting the eastern part of Glacier National Park.  We saw this fence on the edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and thought it would provide a nice leading line to the sunset and mountains in the background.  We got out to capture some images, and I saw this coyote on the ground.  Seeing the rope around its neck, I instantly thought of the aggressive predator control measures of the West.

Predator control has been around for centuries.  It was transplanted to North America with the colonization of this land by western Europeans.  Predators, especially wolves and coyotes, have long been seen as competition for food by humans.  But there has also always been a primal, irrational fear of these animals that has been a driving force behind efforts to eradicate them.  Wolves have always been depicted as cunning, blood thirsty savage animals – even with an enlightened knowledge that this is not the case, they are still depicted as much, as the new Liam Neeson movie “The Grey” shows.

So, despite scientific study after scientific study showing that wolves or coyotes will not deplete a prey population, and that they have minimal impact on livestock populations, western states have dramatically increased predator control measures.  Alaska is among them, as I noted in a previous blog post.

And while people discuss and argue about predator control, waging media campaign wars and exchanging barbs on editorial pages across the western United States, it’s easy to talk about the consequences of predator control programs when they are in the abstract.  It’s much harder to actually to favor predator control when you can see the impact of such vehemence.  A campaign of hatred only breeds hatred.  Here, a coyote that once bounded about in western Montana, spending its days hunting for voles or hare or whatever it could find, met an untimely end because it was unfortunate enough to live in a place where the wanton killing of others like its kind was not only allowed, but encouraged.

Up to Chasm Lake

Friday, July 24th, 2009
Up to Chasm Lake

For my “finale” hike of this residency, I decided I wanted to go up to Chasm Lake. I really did not care for the idea of starting the trail head at 2:00 a.m., so I considered options for staying the night near there. The nearest formal campsites are miles away, still not the best for doing what I wanted to do – a full night time lapse and some good morning shots. After some inquiries, I was able to secure a bivy site at Mills Glacier, at the base of Long’s Peak on the back side at Chasm Lake. Normally, these sites are only available to people climbing the mountain. But, when you are the artist-in-residence and you have a project in mind, things can happen.

Needless to say, it is a challenging hike. The first 2.5 miles are not bad, more like a slightly steeper version of the hike from Bear Lake to Lake Helene. Then, you hit the sign post for the spur trail off to the Battle Mountain campground. From then on up, a mere 1.7 miles, it is a one-step-at-a-time struggle if you are not used to this elevation and have a fully-loaded pack. Now, there are all kinds of people who hike this trail in no time – 1 1/2 or 2 hours. There was even a park ranger 30 years ago Sunday who made the hike, made the Long’s Peak summit and was back to the parking lot in 2 hours and four minutes. I am not them. But, I wanted to get this shot.

The 0.7 mile Chasm Lake Trail from the Mills Moraine is the highlight of the trail. It has the highest concentration of columbine I have seen in the park, and has beautiful waterfalls. There are tremendous views of Long’s Peak and its adjacent ridges. But you pay for it all after you get to the ranger patrol cabin. From there, it is a several hundred feet scramble up a boulder field to get to the lake

To keep things as light as possible, I brought only one of my Nikon D300s, two lenses – the 12-24mm and the 24-85. I brought the Lee filter system, Moose’s warming polarizers for each lens, and my Hoya IR filter in case I wanted to do any Infra Red. The last thing I would need is to be miles up a mountain side and see a great possible IR shot, but no IR filter. I also brought my Hassleblad for the really spectaclar scenics, but to also capture a 3-hour star trails while the D300 was capturing the time lapse.

I started the D300 on the time lapse at around 8:00 p.m., shortly before sundown. I set the camera at ISO 400 on aperture priority, taking a photo every ten seconds. I came back after sunset when it was starting to get dark to adjust the exposure settings. No matter what the ISO setting, shooting at aperture priortiy will not get any sort of exposure other than black for nighttime photos, especially during a new moon when it is really black. So, I jacked the ISO up to 3200, set it at f/4.0 with a 15 second exposure, set to take a photo every 31 seconds. Why 31? At 15 seconds, with the long exposure noise reduction, it takes 15 seconds to process the image. Thus, a total of 30 seconds to take and process a 15 second photo. – hence the need for the one second margin.

As I was readying my camera for the darkness that would follow, something small, soft and fuzzy hit me in the back and bounced off. Then on the side of the head. Then in the chest. Moth after moth after moth was coming out, taking the to newly darkened sky, and not expecting my body in their flight paths.  My only light source was my headlamp, and I was able to capture glimpses of dozens of moths within the reach of my beam as they scattered about in the dark night sky.  Then I started to hear the fluttering of wings, to my left, behind me, off to the right. With my headlamp, I was able to determine that the fluttering of wings came from bats that were swooping out in great numbers and going after the moths. It made me think of the flying creatures from “Pitch Black” and how they exploded into the sky once the three suns in the sky set – not the sort of thing you want to think of when you are alone in the dark. In the morning, as the light started to show on the lake, I saw the aftermath of the aerial battle – hundreds, if not thousands, of wings and various moth parts blowing up against the lake shore. I wondered how many bats there could have been airborne at one time, and the sheer magnitude of this event was awe-inspiring.

I came back at 1:00 to start the Hassleblad, which I had propped up on rocks and framed the shot before it went dark. Everything was ready to go – I just needed to set the shutter cable to lock and walk away. At 4:00 a.m., I stopped the Hassleblad. At 4:30, I started adjusting the Nikon D300 exposure to compensate for the increasing light. Over the next hour, I constantly adjusted the exposure, ISO, and eventually was able to get back to aperture priority again, which would be the best way to accurately expose the changing lighting conditions. As soon as first light was in full swing, I stopped the time exposure and went to taking stills of the scene.




Meadows morning

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
Meadows morning

I thought I would try again this morning to do the time lapse of the sunrise at Upper Beaver Meadows. The skies were clear to the west and north, but not to the east. That meant that clouds could obscure the early light and thwart the project. But, I headed out anyway, found a good spot, then set up my camera.

It was slow going at first. The sun had obviously come up, but there was no light yet on the continental divide. After a while, hints of light graced Long’s Peak. The light danced a bit on that prominent feature, then subsided. A short while later, it came back, working its way along the peaks from Hallett down to Long’s. After a while, the sun commanded the landscape, and its golden light came down to the meadows. Time to grab the camera and move on.

I wanted to spend a bit of time working around the Montane areas, seeking the meadows and Ponderosa pine groves. I simply worked back and forth between Upper Beaver Meadows and Hidden Valley, looking for things that caught my eye. By 8:00, though, the light was getting harsh and it was time to pack it up for the morning. 

The rest of the day will be errands (I have to run into Boulder to pick up a bivy I ordered), preparing for and delivering my presentation this evening at 7:30 at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center auditorium. The subject will be what I have gained, and contributed, from my three very different experiences as an artist-in-residence in the National Park Service.

Here is a time lapse video of the sunrise.
Get the Flash Player to see this content.

Bierstadt Lake, and trail

Monday, July 20th, 2009
Bierstadt Lake, and trail

I awoke at 3:30 and scampered over to the doorway to check the skies – clear and starry.  So, I got everything together and headed out to the trailhead for Bierstadt Lake, where I was on the trail by 4:30.  The maps say that it is a 1.5 mile hike up to the lake, with another 0.3 miles to get to the east side of the lake, where you can connect with a trail going down to the Park and Ride.  The main part of the trail up to the lake, though, is actually only 1.2 miles, with a 556 foot elevation gain.  I contemplated hiking down to the Park & Ride when I was done, but once I got a look of the trail – what I could see in the darkness – I was intrigued by the opportunities. 

As I got higher, I could see better, although it was still mostly dark, and appreciate the possibility for great views and photos of the aspen grove covering the slope.  I decided to come back the same way I came to see the photo potential in daylight.  I got to the far side of the lake with plenty of time, so I set up my camera, did a couple of test shots, then sat down to enjoy a PBJ and banana. 

The view from this end of Bierstadt Lake is pretty much similar to that on the east side of Sprage Lake – the peaks and mountains that are the signature of this end of the Bear Lake valley, and part of the Continental Divide, lay out before in a similar view.  There are rocks and reeds available in the foreground, much like Sprague, to balance out the composition.  There were some nice clouds in the sky that should have provided some brilliant pre-sunrise pinks, but the band of clouds to the east interfered somewhat.  After finishing up the first light photos, I headed back down the trail.  I would not linger at the lake like I did at Sprague – I wanted to explore that trail.

And what a view from that trail there is.  From what I have seen so far, it offers the best views of the valley and Continental Divide of any of the lake trails along the Bear Lake Road.  Among the aspens, there were also several types of wildflowers, offering additional photo material.  Long’s Peak stands out nice and clear, a monolith to the south, and can be photographed standing alone or framed among the various trees.  But the thing that really struck me is how brilliant of a spot this would be to capture first light in the autumn.  To heck with going all the way to the lake, I wanted to see this view in the fall, when first light struck the aspens, which dominate the slopes on the right side of the road, countering the dark green of the pines on the other side. 

I was back to the trailhead by 7:30, having never seen another person on the trail or at the lake.  There was another car parked there when I arrived – and still remained – but I suspected the owner was at a backcountry camp site.  I am not sure what I am doing this evening.  I am hoping that the clouds thicken so I can photograph a few spots where I have been saving for shooting in cloudy, overcast light. 

Sprague Lake – tourist or guest?

Sunday, July 19th, 2009
Sprague Lake - tourist or guest?

After a late evening on the west side, I decided to “sleep in” until 4:30 so I could make first light at Sprague Lake, one of the more accessible lakes on the east side for early light photos.  There was virtually no breeze, a first for my morning shots, and the lake was calm.  I photographed a few spots about a half hour before sunrise, before I headed out along the trail to find a spot to photograph early light. 

As I headed out on the trail, I met Rick Gayhart, a resident of Loveland, who was out early to photograph as well.  He said that he tries to get into the park once or twice a week, saying that no matter how many times you come into the park, you can always find something new. 

What Rick had to say is a philosophy I can agree with.  Nearby my home of Anchorage, there is a body of water called the Turnagain Arm.  I have routinely told people I could spend an entire year photographing nowhere but Turnagain, and could always have something to photograph.  The seasons change, light changes, the weather changes, wildlife patterns change, even blooming patterns of flowers change from year to year.  There is always something new to photograph, even at someplace as “cliché” as Sprague Lake, or Wonder Lake back home in Alaska. 

Albert Sprague, after whom the lake is named, also spoke of a similar philosophy, making a distinction between “tourists” and “guests.”  Mr. Sprague operated the Sprague Lake Lodge from 1910-40.  He called people “tourists” when he referred to people who “go tearing from coast to coast and back again on their vacations … When they reach home from their travels they are certain where they say this or that.”  As for guests, he said the guest “comes to spend every minute of his vacation he can spare.  If he fails to see every nook and corner of the place on one visit, he comes year after year … Our guests never get tired, the same old urge to visit spots seen more than once brings them back on their next vacation.  They go home rested.” 

I was able to experience this dichotomy first hand this morning.  About ten minutes after first light, after Rick and I had been there for around forty minutes, another photographer showed up.  He seem harried, rushed, and had a wife and kid in tow.  The new photographer picked a spot, photographed for five minutes, then left with his family.  They did not seem to be there to enjoy the lake; rather, they apparently came so that an obligatory photo could be taken to move on to the next spot, or back to bed.  Rick and I stayed at the lake for almost another two hours, exploring all other aspects that the lake had to offer.  Flowers, reflections, ducklings … all of them presented to me for my eye and my camera. 

For the rest of the day, I am taking off to relax, read, and simply enjoy the view from the cabin for what it is.  Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I am thinking on a visit to Bierstadt Lake. 




On the west side

Saturday, July 18th, 2009
On the west side

I decided to go explore the west side of the park this evening, just to see what there was to see, check out possible locations for future hikes or photos, and to see how the light fell in the end of the day.  I drove to the Kawueeche Visitor Center and spoke to the park staff there about their favorite locations in that side of the park.  Always ask the locals where the good spots are. 

The first spot I checked out was a trail to an area they referred to as Ranger Meadows, down past the Green Ridge campground in the adjacent Arapaho National Recreation Area, managed by the Forest Service.  I crossed a bridge over a stream that I later found out was the Colorado River.  I explored a little along the East Shore Trail, photographing wildflowers.  After a bit, I headed out back across the bridge and noticed a raptor I have never seen before.  I will have to do a little research to find out what it is. 

I headed back up the road back into the park, I found my way into a “moose jam,” a massive gathering of cars along both sides of the road where people had stopped to watch a cow and calf moose, grazing about fifty yards off the road along the edge of the woods.  I found it interesting that moose would generate so much more attention than any other wildlife I have seen.  But, you cannot see moose on the east side of the park – it is just not their habitat.  I was getting back to my vehicle to leave when a ranger arrived to break up the party.

One thing to know about the west side of the park is that the light goes down early.  The main road runs through a low part of a valley, along the headwaters for the Colorado River.  Most of the higher points in the west side are accessible only via hiking trails, many of which take you a long way before you get into the Alpine areas – as much as 9.25 miles one way, for example, along the East Inlet Trail.  As I was driving along the road, the sun was no longer hitting the river corridor by around 7:45.

I headed back toward the Trail Ridge Road, stopping along Poudre Lake to photograph several large bull elk that were gazing in the area.  Unlike the cow moose and calf, only a few cars stopped to notice – most kept going through.  As I climbed up the road, the sun had completely gone down.  But the last colors still lingered along the mountain ridges that border the west end of the park.  I stopped at Medicine Bow Curve to capture the last colors. 

It was a nice foray into the other side of the park, but made me realize how limited I will be to explore that area while I am here.  I certainly am not up to a 18.5 mile day hike, half of which would have to be done in the dark, which is what it would take to get up to Fifth Lake, a beautiful alpine lake at the end of the East Inlet Trail.  But, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the beautiful, winding Colorado River and some of the wooded, Montane areas of the lower trails. 


First test of a hike

Friday, July 17th, 2009
First test of a hike

So, based on a recommendation from one of the long-time volunteers here in the park, I decided to hike the Fern Lake Trail, but from the opposite direction most people commonly do, for first light this morning.  The trail starts at the Bear Lake trailhead, then goes around over the top and down into a gorge that leads down to Odessa and Fern Lakes.  I originally intended to be on the trail at 3:30, but for some reason was moving slowly this morning and did not get boots on the ground until 3:55.  After a short while, I seriously began to doubt that I would make it to Odessa Lake, a four-mile trek, by 5:45, which is when the first hints of pink have been hitting the mountains this week. 

I hiked through the darkness with a headlamp for a good long while, occasionaly getting glimpses of a bat or bats swooping down at the mosquitoes that were in the air.  So long as I kept moving, that pesky insect did not bother me.  Once in a while, I caught glimpses of the lights of Estes Park below me.  Quite to my surprise, as it started to get light, I came upon a snow field that had covered the trail.  But, it was easy to find it again, and I kept going.  Soon, I turned off my headlamp just at around the time I came upon a massive boulder field and some rather spectacular views of the mountains and ridges ahead. 

I reached the final sign post before Odessa Lake shortly before sunrise, but that still put Odessa Lake at 1.1 miles away.  The mountains were right in front of me, and I knew this area would be great for first light.  But there were so many trees blocking the view.  I took a look at the map I had with me, and it indicated there was a small alpine lake, Lake Helene, in my immediate vicinity.  Could it provide a good location for first light?  I found an unofficial trail and followed it.  Not only did I find the lake in time, but a beautiful stream flowing from it.  I set up the tripod and camera, and worked steadily.  Once I felt I had what I needed, I moved as quickly as I could down the steep, rocky trail along the gorge down to Odessa.  There was still some decent light when I got there, so I photographed the stream coming from the lake and the lake itself.  When I was done, I took a break and had breakfast – an apple and a PBJ. 

On my way down to Fern Lake –  I had still not seen another soul yet this morning, save for the two climbers leaving the parking lot at Bear Lake for a Hallett Peak ascent when I arrived – I found a nice patch of columbine to photograph.  I had seen a few here and there along the way, but none that I could capture.  When I finished photographing the flowers, I came upon my first group of hikers.  By the time I was at Fern Lake, the light was pretty bad, but I still took a shot to document the lake.  Given the little time I have in the park, I don’t think I will be this way again. 

Past Fern Lake and to the trailhead, the flow of hikers coming up the trail was fairly steady.  People kept asking if Odessa was worth it, and I said that, yes,  it was, and how I wished I had a fishing pole there – the fish were jumping left and right.  I also ran into a couple who had attended my presentation at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center the other evening – they were hiking with their sons – and we had a nice chat.  One of the wonderful things about being a nature photographer is making connections with people, and this encounter reaffirmed that. 

Once at the Fern Lake trail head, I hiked another 0.7 miles along the road to the bus stop, where I caught a ride that eventually took me back to my car, about eight hours after I left.  My feet were definitely feeling a bit raw, and I was a tad tired at that point.  I went back to the cabin and started to photo edit, but succumbed to a nap that would last four hours.  Tomorrow morning – sunrise at the Gore Range Overlook and then on to the west side of the park in the afternoon.

Old Fall River Road

Thursday, July 16th, 2009
Old Fall River Road

There is something alluring about one-way, gravel roads that reach high up into a canyon up to the Alpine.  The Old Fall River Road did not disappoint.  Starting just up the road from the Alluvial Fan, the Old Fall River Road winds up through the woods, around sharp corners – one overly long pickup truck in front of me misjudged so badly he had to back up twice in order to continue around the corner – and up above the treeline.  Along the way, the Chasm Falls provide a nice opportunity to get out and explore – and cool off, as the rushing stream and cascades cool off the air considerably.  You frequently catch glimpses of the upstream portions as you continue on up to the Alpine Visitor Center and connect with the Trail Ridge Road. 

I enjoy photographing cascading falls, as they provide a lot of opportunities for braoder scenic photos as well as close up, more concentrated shots of particular rocks and flows.  The late afternoon is the best time to photograph the Chasm Falls, as the sun has now retired behind them, leaving them in the shade. 

As I continued further, I noticed several areas with blooming flowers, but only one where I could safely stop.  Pullouts are a premium along this road.  Shortly thereafter, I started to get better glimpses of the nearby ridges and rock formations, as the trees started to give way to the more open, higher eleveations.  As I was in the shaded, final approach to the Alpine Visitor Center, I noticed five bull elk grazing along the hillside.  I pulled over enough to let other cars pass and headed down to photograph them for a while.  They seemed completely oblivious to my presence, or completely unconcerned.  Either way, it is good for me, as I take great care in not causing distress to an animal I am photographing. 

Back on the Trail Ridge Road, I stopped to photograph some Alpine flowers with the mountains in the background.  After the sun went down, I approached Rock Cut and saw hundreds of elk gazing right around the trail areas.  They, too, were oblivious to the many humans who stood in awe on the trail as elk moved around them.  This group of elk or others seem to have been spending a lot of time in the vicinity of Rock Cut this week.  I wonder if it is the abundance of Alpine flowers that draws them there.  I will give it a shot to photograph them tomorrow evening, when I return on the Trail Ridge Road from my visit to the west side of the park.

Lily Lake morning

Thursday, July 16th, 2009
Lily Lake morning

I decided this morning to photograph the first light of the day at Lily Lake, which has a nice view of Long’s Peak, but a different view than what is available through most of the eastern side of the park.  It also gave me a chance to scout the area and drive up to the Long’s Peak trailhead, where I will hopefully be going next week for a hike up to Chasm Lake. 

As there has been in the mornings this week, there was a breeze in the area, creating ripples on the lake.  I tried to minimize the effect as much as possible by creating long exposures to smooth out the ripples,  like the technique used to create the silky look of waterfalls and streams.  It didn’t work as well as I liked, but it did help to smooth the rough waters a bit. 

I also took advantage of the shade to photograph the flowers and trees along the east side of the lake.  There was a nice patch of Indian Paintbrush that I photographed with a double exposure – one exposure in focus, the other out of focus.  There is also a young grove of aspen on this side of the lake, complimenting the more mature patch on the other side of the lake.  As first light hits that more mature patch, I felt this would be a great autumn location, with that patch of gold adding a real pop to the corner of the frame. 

One of the things about doing drivable first light locations is that it makes for a short morning.  This evening, I will be driving up the Old Fall River Road and taking some short hikes along the way.  Tomorrow morning, the plan is to hike to Odessa Lake for first light, starting at the Bear Lake trailhead.