When reality is too crazy to print

Those of us who have spent a good deal of time in nature have probably witnessed a few moments of pure magic when weather, light and other natural forces converge to create unforgettable events. I have had several such experiences, some of which I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a camera ready to capture them. When I see it in person, I’m often awe struck at the magnificence before me. But many times when I get home and process the resulting photos, I realize that I’m going to have some explaining to do. Sometimes the colors and lighting are so striking and unusual, that the resulting photo looks completely fake. This is especially true in this modern world of extreme photo manipulation capabilities.

But what to do in such circumstances? I certainly don’t want to de-saturate and alter the unusual colors so that the scene looks more “natural”. That is like saying these lighting events never occurred and what I witnessed should have looked like any other day. Instead I process the image so that the result matches my memory and add some written descriptions to allow the viewer to understand what they are seeing. So without further ado, here are three “crazy” lighting events and the resulting photos.

Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park
Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park

We’ll start with one of the most unbelievable sunsets I have ever seen. I was with some friends on a photo trip in Grand Tetons National Park a couple of years ago to photograph wildlife and fall colors against the spectacular backdrop of this mountain range. Smoke from nearby wildfires somewhat hampered our efforts early in the trip, but it also lent a special atmospheric quality to the otherwise clear skies.

The sun set behind the notch in the mountains, and we waited. Finally, it peeked out underneath the clouds on the horizon, cutting through the lingering smoke and turning the sky into an unbelievable magenta. In post processing, I kept finding myself wanting to desaturate or change the sky color, but finally I just left it as is. That is how I saw the scene, so I have to trust the colors.

Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.
Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.

The next example is from a recent fall color photography trip (notice a pattern here?) that I took to Colorado. Standing just below Last Dollar Road and looking out over the Wilson Mesa, I waited for what the sunrise would bring. The morning did not disappoint, and the clouds over Mt. Wilson lit up a beautiful orange. What was strange about the scene though, was that the entire landscape was cast in a similar orange, as if the color from the clouds on the horizon was emanating out in all directions.

What I realized later was that directly above me was a similar cloud catching similar light. It acted as a giant diffuser, coloring the grass, trees, and mountains in that same orange tint. Again I found myself tempted to remove the color cast, but again, that glow was real, and that is exactly how the scene looked that morning.

Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

This sunrise was really spectacular. Given that I was shooting at a popular roadside pullout, the sky really saved the shot here and made it unique (which is why I emphasized it so much in this photo). The bright pink/magenta color continued to get more and more intense as the sun rose behind me. This was one of those moments when the heart starts beating faster and I can feel the blood pumping. I knew I had just seconds to capture the shots I wanted while this phenomenon remained. In all, within 30 seconds it was gone.

As I look back on these shots I see wild colors and unreal looking landscapes. I’m not sure if I’ll ever print any of these, because they look processed beyond reality. But looking at these photos also reminds me of some amazing moments that I’ve witnessed first hand. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Strive For Separation

Thick fog shrouds a forest of aspen, Ridgway, Colorado

One goal of nature photography is to take the chaos of a wild landscape, and using nothing but the perspective of the rectangle of your camera’s view, to simplify and distill the scene into a singular message. One of the most chaotic environments in which I shoot regularly is a forest. Once you combine tree trunks, branches, leaves, and vegetation, you are often presented with quite a mess of a scene. Finding patterns and removing the extraneous elements can be a huge challenge.

One technique I use to help the viewer see the intended patterns I am trying to convey is to use and pay careful attention to the separation of the main elements of my photo. Here are several forest scenes that I shot on a recent trip to the San Juan mountains in Colorado. With each, I spent a great deal of time in the field moving the camera and field of view to just the right location, to make sure the trees were not merging with each other in ways that detracted from my vision.

Bone white aspen trunks create abstract lines over distant fall foliage, Ridgway Colorado
Bone white aspen trunks create abstract lines over distant fall foliage, Ridgway Colorado

When I took this photo, I was in a location with a dirt road running along one side of a narrow valley. The opposite side of the valley was covered with a kaleidoscope of fall colors – a beautiful display. Above the road on my side of the valley was a stand of aspen, with perfect bone-white trunks. I knew the shot I was looking for – now it was a matter of hoping I could find the right composition.

I moved up the steep slope and into the aspen grove. Using a medium to long lens and moving up-slope above the trees, I could shoot straight through a select group of trunks, using the beautiful colors from the other side of the valley as my backdrop. Now was the truly challenging part – I needed to find just the right group of trees that showed a consistent pattern of separation from one another. I finally found some good candidates and spent a while getting my tripod into the right location. Working on such a steep muddy slope made the work slow and arduous. I slipped more than once, preferring to let my clothes take the brunt of the mud rather than my expensive gear.

In the photo, you’ll notice that the spacing between the left and right edges and the left and right most trees is the same. I tried to keep similar spacing between each tree, so as to repeat this pattern across the frame. The trouble trees are the three right most; but after working with them a while, I began to really like how they broke the perfectly even pattern. It brings just a touch of wildness into the photo, hinting at the chaos of this forest.

Thick fog shrouds a forest of aspen, Ridgway, Colorado
Thick fog shrouds a forest of aspen, Ridgway, Colorado

Another great natural phenomenon to take advantage of to help simplify a scene is fog. This can work especially well to simplify a forest scene, and it worked very well with aspen. Again, I worked on creating an even spacing across the closest trees, knowing they would be rendered in the photo with the most contrast. With these photos, it is especially important to pay very careful attention to the edges of the frame.

Fallen aspen leaves carpet the forest floor casting the trunks in a golden white
Fallen aspen leaves carpet the forest floor casting the trunks in a golden white

This last photo was perhaps the most difficult of the three. I saw the foreground cluster of trees, and as I moved closer, I saw a repeating cluster in the background, a perfectly placed V shape in the similarly shaped void between the right most tree and the trees to the left of the frame. However, seeing it and shooting it were different beasts. Instead of using my perspective to flatten a three dimensional scene across the frame as in the previous two photos, here I was using the shapes to accentuate the depth of this pattern.

Once I got the tripod and camera in place to get the background cluster of trees where I wanted them, I spent time working on smaller separations appearing in the left most cluster. Some of the trees I could stack on top of each other and hide from the camera’s view-port, but there was one distant tree that kept creating problems. Finally, I got into a position which put the distant tree into a spot that prevented it from peaking out from behind the foreground trees, and I knew I had it.

Although I was working with depth in this photo, the goals were the same as the previous photos: to simplify the chaos of nature into a digestible, understandable subject. Paying special attention to control the spacing between primary elements in the photograph can help achieve this goal.

Many Slices Of A Scene

When arriving at a new location to photograph, it is easy to get over-excited, and like a moth to a flame, focus all attention directly on the obvious composition. This is easy to do when shooting a grand vista, and more than once I’ve gotten so caught up in this one shot, that only later do I realize that I’ve missed many other great photos that could have been captured there.

On a recent trip to Colorado, I kept this top of mind as I shot a valley filled with beautiful aspen. I made sure to look for many different photos to be made within the scene. This is a good example of thinking of different ways to capture a scene, because I didn’t even move the tripod – here are six different shots taken from the same spot.

Light beams cut through afternoon storm clouds over Abrams Mountain, Ouray, Colorado

I started with the “obvious” grand vista shot. Situated on a bluff overlooking this valley, I shot down the valley at the mountain capping it off. Of course, waiting for just the right moment is also important, and here I captured a ray of light that broke through the clouds for a moment, illuminating the peak.

Abrams mountain rises above lower slopes filled with bright fall colors, Ouray Colorado

My next shot was essentially the same shot, but in a vertical orientation. When the landscape allows for it, I always try to capture both vertical and horizontal shots, offering variety for my stock collection.

Fall colors explode on the slopes of Hayden Mountain, Ouray, Colorado

Turning to my left, I shot another vertical, this time of Hayden Mountain. The groves of aspen climbing up its lower slopes were ablaze in fall color glory.

Mountain slopes exhibit a kaleidoscope of color in the fall, Ouray, Colorado

Now it was time to switch to a telephoto lens (in this case my 70-200mm) and focus on abstracted swatches of fall color.

Mountain slopes exhibit a kaleidoscope of color in the fall, Ouray, Colorado

Telephoto lenses are great for carving out smaller sections of a landscape. If the landscape holds enough detail interest, there are likely many different photographs to make from a single scene. Here the collection of colors was changing from spot to spot, providing strong abstract photos, each unique from one another.

Abrams Mountain caps the end of a valley filled will fall color, Ouray Colorado

Finally, I made a shot similar to my first, but this time leaving out the sky and mountain top. Using the telephoto I created a photo that was more about the variety of color (the warm colors of the forest contrasting with the cool blues of the base of the mountain) than it was about a mountain scenic.

I tried a variety of other shots from this spot (panoramas, cloudscapes, etc), some more successful than others. But by the time I left, I felt I covered the area pretty thoroughly photographically.

Yankee Girl Silver Mine

In the late 1800s, the Yankee Girl mine was one of the most profitable mines in the history of silver mining in the United States. At its height, Yankee Girl produced 10 tons of ore on a daily basis.
In the late 1800s, the Yankee Girl mine was one of the most profitable mines in the history of silver mining in the United States. At its height, Yankee Girl produced 10 tons of ore on a daily basis.

Last month, I took a great trip out to Colorado to shoot fall colors in the Rockies with some friends. One of my favorite locations to visit (we went back several times because the area had so much to offer) was the Yankee Girl Silver Mine, south of the town of Ouray. Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, Yankee Girl was operational until the early 1900s. In the late 1800s, the mine was one of the most profitable mines in the history of silver mining in the United States. At its height, Yankee Girl produced 10 tons of ore on a daily basis, some of which was carted out by 75 mules every day.

Silver ore was carted out by 75 mules every day. Here the old mine is front lit with dramatic dark skies beyond.
Silver ore was carted out by 75 mules every day. Here the old mine is front lit with dramatic dark skies beyond.

A dirt road winds up into the mining area from the highway, which is comprised of several sites, all of which are in various stages of decay. While these abandoned buildings are interesting enough to explore and photograph, being surrounded by intense fall color foliage added an extra layer of interest to the photos.

There remain many small details of interest scattered about this area.
There remain many small details of interest scattered about this area.

When covering an area photographically, it is important to look at a subject from many angles and to incorporate elements that help the viewer understand what the scene was like. Here I used old weathered boards to lead the viewer’s eye up into the frame, showcasing the main building. I’m sure if I spent an afternoon roaming the hill on which the mine buildings were perches, I could find many more such elements (old rusted pipes, mined rocks, etc) to incorporate into interesting compositions.

One of the smaller mine structures of the Yankee Girl Silver Mine sits perched over a valley of colorful fall aspen, Ouray, Colorado
One of the smaller mine structures of the Yankee Girl Silver Mine sits perched over a valley of colorful fall aspen, Ouray, Colorado

Here is one of the smaller buildings in the mining complex. While not as attractive as the main building, it was perched on the edge of a hill with a magnificent color display on the opposite slope. I stitched multiple frames together to create a large resolution panorama.

Stay tuned for more posts based on photos from this trip.