One of the greatest aspects of nature photography is you never know what to expect. Conditions change constantly. Average light can change into fantastic light in seconds. A single location can never be photographed twice under the same conditions. These surprises – big and small – keep nature photography continuously fresh and interesting. This was doubly re-enforced on a recent trip to Rock Mountain National Park.
I spent much of one afternoon exploring Trail Ridge Road – really killing time hoping for decent late afternoon or sunset light. See my previous post. I and another photographer spent about 2 hours photographing a pair of Golden Marmots at Rock Cut and discussing the possibilities for sunset. Clouds were building over Long’s Peak to the east and given the right conditions could be spectacular. To the west, a bit more uncertainty – layers of broken clouds – with a solid line just above the spine of the Rockies – and no view of the horizon. We really couldn’t tell if the sun would disappear behind the cloud line before sunset and offer no light or dip below and provide a glowing display.
The other photographer chose to hike to the end of the Ute Trail to an overlook about 2 miles out – which also meant two miles back after dark. This was a great option. The overlook is dominated by the west face of Long’s Peak and, given the clouds, the light potential could be exceptional. Weak light from the west could also minimize this display.
Since I’d been up since 3AM to photograph sunrise and didn’t expect to be back to my hotel until 10PM – and knew I had another sunrise the next day – I chose another option; e.g., the lazy one! I planned to establish myself at the end of the parking lot of the Gore Mountain Overlook – about 6 ft from my car. I scouted this location earlier and realized I would have a great view of Long’s Peak to the east along the length of Forest Canyon, as well as, a view to the west and south down the spine of the Rockies from the Gore Range in the north to the Never Summer Mountains in the south. With any luck, I’d get the best of both views. Nature photography, however, never quite happens as expected.
Things started well with decent light to the east as the sun to the west moved in and out of the clouds. At one point, Long’s Peak and the clouds overhead started to build some sunset color. This quickly faded as the sun sank into a heavy cloud line just above the Rockies. The sun seemed to be setting into a notch of two ridges and I hoped for a bright and glowing ball at that intersection. As the sun disappeared into the clouds, however, this seemed to be the end of the show. Fortunately, and although unable to see the horizon behind the western mountains, the sun must have been provided a gap below the cloud line. After about 5 minutes of nothing, the fire started. The area between the ridges built into an orange glow and the underside of the heavy clouds above began to burn. This lasted for about 15 minutes – with color appearing at various positions to the west – before all went dark.
The second unexpected surprise came on a much smaller scale than the grand gesture of the sunset the previous evening. I stopped at Wild Basin on the southeast side of the park on my way back to Denver. I’d been to this area several times previously, found it to be relatively secluded, and with the cloud cover had great even light for photographing waterfalls. This, of course, was a Saturday and everyone within the immediate area seemed to join me. I was very happy to see families, particularly those with children, out and enjoying nature. I was less happy to have them in my photographs.
After hiking to the first waterfall and finding the area relatively crowded, I returned to the car to switch to my macro lens. As in other areas of the park, wildflowers were abundant – certainly enough to get my close up creativity working. The light was perfectly and evenly distributed by layer of clouds. After shooting several varieties, I focused on a patch of Early Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum). These low plants had several approximately ½ t ¾ inch flowers. The wind was a bit tricky making shutter speed and timing critical in order to maintain focus. I photographed a group for about 15 minutes when I noticed one with an unusual yellow spot – I assumed to be pollen. As I checked more closely, I discovered a yellow crab spider, poised and ready to strike the unsuspecting insect visiting the flower for a taste of pollen.