TBT: Maroon Bells | Aspen | 2003

If I had to pick one picture that got me interested in photography, it would be one that I captured during this trip to the Maroon Bells in August 2003.  It was probably the first time I consciously made decisions in order to take a shot and succeeded in getting a decent result. That image was selected as one of the Top 10 Digital Images of 2014 at my local photography club last night, so I thought this would make a timely Throwback Thursday post.

Gen and I made our first trip to Aspen three months after moving to Colorado. I’d looked up maps of the nearby Maroon Bells, a very popular set of peaks. Access to the Bells is from the east; the trailhead starts at Maroon Lake, from where you get a view straight down the valley to the peaks in the west. With the sun rising behind to the east, the peaks would be lit up very nicely. So I planned for an early start.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not the best, calling for rain and thunderstorms the whole time. And as we pulled up to the parking lot a little before sunrise, my fears were founded as the sky was quite overcast.

Greeted with cloudy skies at the start

It was not looking good. But I still decided to wait a bit, just to see if anything would change. My camera was an upgrade on my HP Photosmart 315 that I’d used in New York — a Nikon Coolpix 5700. It was a “prosumer” digital camera, a “bridge camera” between a point-and-shoot and a full digital SLR. I selected f/8 on aperture-priority mode and waited for something to change. Sunrise came and went without any peek from the sun. I was about to pack up and leave, when suddenly the clouds in the eastern sky parted slightly. A shaft of red light shot through and hit the high peaks. It was just about perfect. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. I quickly clicked off some shots. Being at the right place at the right time is obviously a key ingredient in the making of a good image. But what this experience taught me is that it does not have to be all about luck, that I could work at putting myself in those right places at those right times to increase my chances of capturing a good picture.

Right place, right time

The light show lasted only a minute or two. The clouds soon closed up and the sunlight disappeared before it had reached halfway down the mountains. I did not foresee any better light even if the clouds parted, so packed up. Gen and I then made our way up the trail to Crater Lake.

Crater Lake under grey skies

The weather slowly started to clear up, so we decided to continue onto our next destination, Buckskin Pass, a 2,870-foot (875-metre) climb.

Clearing weather meant we could continue
Ascending through the wildflowers

After a stiff climb, we reached Buckskin Pass and were rewarded with some grand views. The most impressive sight was the massive bulk of Snowmass Mountain.

Snowmass Mountain from Buckskin Pass

The clouds looked pretty dark from the pass, but we thought they would hold off. So we continued down the northern side of the pass. However, after we had descended about 500 feet (150 m), the sky started to take on a very menacing look.

Dark skies over Snowmass

Summer thunderstorms are serious business in Colorado, and you do not want to be caught out in the open during one. Given that there was no cover for a long way ahead of us, we decided to turn around. It started to rain as we raced back up to Buckskin Pass. Our immediate target was to get through the highest part, the pass itself, before the lightning caught up to us. We barely made it over the pass and down the other side before the thunder and lightning started crashing VERY, VERY close. We did not stop to look around, but there was practically no time difference between the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning. We were able to catch our breaths once we got under cover of the trees and out of immediate danger.  We eventually made our way back to the trailhead in the pouring rain.

It was an exhilarating outing, and the sunrise shot was the long-lasting highlight. It taught me a valuable lesson as I got more and more into photography. Especially travel and landscape photography, where luck seems to play such a big part. You cannot plan for a beautiful sunrise, or that perfect bank of clouds lit up by the perfect light. But you can increase your chances of getting lucky. You can scout out potential locations using Google Earth/Maps (the Terrain and Photo layers can be very handy) or an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris (iPhone, Android, and desktop versions), to narrow down where you should go to get a good scene. Golden hour is obviously a good time to be out. Right before and after a storm, as the clouds are gathering/clearing, can also produce some great lighting. Then comes the matter of actually getting out there at those right times. With work, family, and other commitments, not to mention the comfort of a comfortable bed, it can be hard to get out a lot. But the more you do, the greater your chances of capturing something interesting.



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