A Rocky Mountain Sunrise
Jun 04, 2017
The life of a nature photographer often means an alarm going off well before dawn and heading up to some location hoping for good light. It's kind of like playing roulette, you have little control over what your conditions are going to be but sometimes you'll hit it big. The photo above is one of those days. In the 8 months since that morning, it's become my most popular image on social media and the most clicked image on my website. So, it's time to tell the story behind this photo.
Within a few months of moving to Colorado and beginning to regularly visit Rocky Mountain National Park, I identified Sprague Lake along Bear Lake Road as a sunrise location that had a lot of potential. My first attempt at it even led to a decent result, with pink alpenglow on the mountains, and a near perfect reflection in the lake. I didn't go all the way over to the far side of the lake though, stopping at a pier that is only part way around the lake, often used for wedding ceremonies. On further experimentation, I found that going all the way to the far eastern side of the lake gave an even better composition, especially in the fall when aspens lit up the hillside above the lake. A few further attempts after that first try were flops however, the light just didn't cooperate. I knew the composition still had potential though, it just needed the right light.
On the last Sunday of last September, I was leading a field trip with my photography group from Boulder to see the fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park, with a plan to start with sunrise at Sprague Lake again. We were running a little later than I wanted, but as we began to hurry to the far side of the lake, I could tell that conditions were setting up nicely. The eastern sky where the sun would rise was clear, but above the mountains to the west there were clouds looming just above the peaks, and the aspens were at near peak color. Inexplicably, we came upon another photography group set up to shoot the sunrise looking towards the clear eastern sky. I came to feel bad for them in the moments to come. Sure enough, when the sun came up, the first light lit up the peaks of the Continental Divide and the clouds above with deep red light. Even better, we were blessed in those first moments with very little wind, leaving the surface of the lake mostly calm to form an equally brilliant reflection. We were all ecstatic, one of the most brilliant sunrise moments I have had the pleasure of seeing. These are the moments that make all those failed mornings worthwhile, and that keep you coming out. Even though those previous mornings didn't work out, they did allow me to dial in a composition that I had ready to go on this beautiful morning. For those who are curious, I shot this with my 24-120 lens at its widest 24mm. The exposure was 1/4 second at f/16, ISO 400. I also used a 2 stop graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky so that it would balance with the reflection in the lake, which worked out nicely. Unfortunately, a slight breeze was starting to come up at this moment, and within a few moments after I made this image the reflection was gone. By the time it came back the best light was already gone. The brilliant alpenglow like this only lasts for a minute or two before it starts to brighten up and the deepest, most saturated colors are gone.
In my time shooting in the eastern US, where there is more humidity and more often cloudy conditions, shooting towards the sun at sunrise and sunset was the way to get brilliant colors like this. You'll see it in a lot of my photos from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the drier west however, things generally work just the opposite. There's usually not much for clouds, so you're looking for reflected light on rock walls or mountain peaks, looking away from the sun. This was the mistake that the other group of photographers was making, if I had to guess I would think they were visiting from the east and sticking to what they usually did. On this morning, I was shooting towards the west away from the sun, and got that great alpenglow on the peaks, but was fortunate to have some clouds above the mountains catching the light as well. A mostly clear eastern sky allowed the sunlight to shine through onto my subjects to the west, as I hoped for. Things really did come together almost perfectly on this morning, I doubt I'll ever be able to top it from this spot!
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