Boulder, Colorado

Often times when you head out for the day along Colorado’s Front Range you simply don’t know what the day holds. That’s one of the reasons it’s such fun: that unexpected surprise emerging when you think you’re looking for one thing – and another takes you completely off guard. Such was the case on this day.

Fort Collins was shrouded in cold, gray fog.  There was really no hint of redemption – just unrelenting grayness. Sometimes the cloud base is low along the front range that you can literally climb above it by heading to the hills. This wasn’t the intention, but is exactly what happened as I made my way out of Lyons towards Estes Park.

With the newly repaired 645 in hand and I was eager to try it out – not feeling much like hiking, but just wanting to cover some ground and see if anything interesting popped up along the way. Estes Park was gorgeous – sunny blue skies, fresh snow, and warm. Unfortunately no photographs emerged, so on I pressed.

 

Coming over Lee Hill Road a beautiful, fresh frost covered everything as far as the eye could see. In the distance the sun shone only on the higher peaks to the south of the front range.  (Mamiya 645 Pro TL + Ektar)

The Peak to Peak Highway took me back to Ward and from there, down Left Hand Canyon. I’d re-entered the fog descending the canyon making my way slowly through the same cold gray I’d left in Fort Collins earlier. Towards the bottom of Left Hand is Lee Hill Road, which takes you south along the ridge line, depositing you in North Boulder. I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme I’m beginning to pay more attention to; along the edges of any transition is where the most interesting activity tends to be. The edges of the day, the edges of a storm, the edges of dark and light… you get the idea.

The scene atop the page was a brief moment seen coming around a bend as North Boulder came into view. Late afternoon light was partially obstructed by ice fog – just before disappearing behind higher mountains to the west. What struck me was the pronounced difference between the cold, blue, snowy trees blocked from the warmth of light – and the glowing, warm winter pinks produced by the last light of the day from the west.

I pulled over in a wide shouldered turn out on the tight road hoping I could quickly squeeze off a frame before other cars came. No such luck. As the fog wafted in and out producing holes in the distance – more light was allowed through and warm pinks intensified and I stood mesmerized. The quiet was broken by the sound of a down-shifting engine and I looked up the road to see a school bus making its way down the hill towards me. The car was safely off the road and though it was tight, I knew he could get by. I hopped the guard rail and scrambled down the embankment for a cleaner view – just enough for snow to make its way up over my socks and onto bare ankles.

The beauty of the scene was most uncommon. Snow adds a unique dimension to any landscape. No matter how many times I’d seen this same ridge line before, this day the snow made it uniquely beautiful. Especially the snow tucked in the crags and cracks of rock.

As I finished up and hopped the guard rail back onto pavement a young man in a knit cap heading up the hill slowed, rolled down his window and wagged his finger at me. I could only smile, knowing I’d not put anyone else at risk by taking the time to see something truly beautiful that day.

 

Winter Grasses and Snow, RMNP, Colorado

Winter Grasses and Snow, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Winter Grasses and Snow, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Nikon F2S, Ilford Delta 100.

Winter is one of Colorado’s unique charms. One day we’ll be -15°, a few days later we’ll be in the mid-to-low 60’s. January can be a pretty dreary time, especially just after the holidays. Back to work we go, after what was hopefully a restful – but more likely a stressful – holiday season. Summoning the energy to get out into the cold isn’t easy some days. We photographers nobly begin our annual projects hoping to jumpstart determination; drive – then ride the wave into Spring. Only rarely do I succeed.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Nikon F2AS, Kodak Portra 400.

Inspiration is found employing a different focus; a different cadence because winter possess a different kind of beauty. The color of winter skies is gentle; grayish blues with hints of lavenders, purples and pinks. Overcast skies diffuse the light and bring out amazing textures in just about everything. Walking slowly through The Park on a weekend late afternoon with the cold, metal body in gloved hands I’m not searching for vistas. I’m searching the ground before me. I’m looking again at the things I step on or over come summer.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (2016). Nikon F2AS, Kodak Portra 400.

Despite the fact I can see my breath it’s not that cold at 8,500′ above sea level in January. In the distance a pair of bull elk casually glance up from the business of eating, making sure I haven’t drifted too close while their heads were lowered. Thick, mottled hair dresses long necks with massive racks towering above noble heads. How do they raise and lower all of that so effortlessly to nibble tiny amounts of grass. They slowly make their way in the opposite direction, feigning disinterest but keenly aware of my presence. I purposely ignore them. They’re a safe distance off – no threat to me or them – and truth is, I’d just as soon be left alone too.

Southwest Color

Milky Way over the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, San Juan County, New Mexico (2016)
A moonless, cold night in early October proved an excellent time to hunt for the Milky Way in southwestern skies. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, San Juan County, New Mexico (2016).
The San Juan mountain range from Geologic Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (2016)
Last light overlooking Cortez and the San Juan range from Geologic Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (2016).
Morning vista, Valley of the Gods National Monument, Southern Utah (2016)
Southern morning vista with Monument Valley in the distance, Valley of the Gods National Monument, Southern Utah (2016)
First light in Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)
First light in Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)

 

Chicago Lakes, Mount Evans, Colorado

Chicago Lakes from Summit Lake Overlook, Mount Evans, Colorado
Chicago Lakes from Summit Lake Overlook, Mount Evans, Colorado (2016). To view image as large as possible please click and you’ll be directed to the gallery containing it.

One of the commonly cited demerits of 35mm film is its lack of resolution when you want to print really big. It’s true. This is a physical limitation; a wall unclimbable by any camera or any lens combination. Leica, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss… it matters not. A frame of 35mm film is a fixed size: 24mm x 36mm, and only contains so much data when exposed. Being a strong advocate of film photography – especially 35mm and medium format film photography – has pushed me outside of conventional use of these cameras looking for something a little different. This 5-foot wide panoramic image was stitched together from 5 vertically exposed frames shot with the Nikon F2AS – a camera made approximately 40 years ago – on Ilford Delta 100 35mm film. A ‘normal’ 50mm lens was used to minimize geometric distortion. Exposure is the same on all frames. The film was developed in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3 developer, then the frames were scanned using the dedicated Nikon film scanner. During scanning the exposure was locked to maintain consistency across all frames – something that aids in the software stitching process.

pano-options

To blend the images together into a panoramic shot, Photoshop was used. Photoshop has an excellent tool under the File\Automate\Photomerge\ menu allowing you to load a sequence of images and allow the computer to determine the best configuration. Options include the Layout of the finished piece,  Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal, Geometric Distortion Correction and Content aware Fill Transparent Areas. I select Auto for Layout, Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction.

pano-dialog-box

From there Photoshop will run a series of procedures producing a blended version of the frames you’ve selected. It does an outstanding job. It uses Layer Masks(see image below – layer masks are the black and white shapes to the right of each layer in the palette at left of the image) to obscure the irrelevant portions of each frame, and heals the edges allowing them to blend more seamlessly together. So the process is non-destructive to the pixel data in each frame. You may go back and re-work by hand what the computer suggests – which I’ve found seldom necessary as long as each frame is exposed properly and overlapped enough during shooting.

A valuable feature is the Geometric Distortion Correction. Each lens has a varying inherent amount of geometric distortion to it. Depending on the lens and its design, this will either be a large amount or small amount – but some distortion is unavoidable. What’s nice creating such wide images this way is the ability of the computer to go through each frame and minimize such distortion so the resulting image is as “true” as possible. I wonder if a lens were available to make such a wide exposure in one frame to avoid the panoramic stitching – if it would suffer due to the extreme distortion such a wide field of view would introduce. In some respects then, I wonder if one obtains a truer image using this 5-frame method with a normal focal range lens (50mm) – than attempting to do one shot with a super wide-angle lens? Just a thought.

Once the image is assembled, typical scan-retouches are all that’s usually required. Removing dust and scratches, making sure the black and white points are set properly, then cropping/framing the final image. Below you can see the original results of the merge. The final image is cropped to straighten out the top and bottom of the frame – indicated by the light blue guide lines. This is where using a tripod comes in handy. The straighter the images are while panning during the actual exposures, the less waste there is at top and bottom. In the image below you can see to the left of frame there’s more white space on frame top. I was hand-holding the camera which prevented a more precise alignment.

pano-results-screen-shot-1

I get such a kick out of this process is it demonstrates – once again – what a unique period we’re enjoying in the history of photography. Years ago when 35mm film was available but software was no where near its present level of sophistication – this would have been impossible to accomplish. Today, using old school tools and new digital methods of processing, creative floodgates have burst open allowing so many different ways to blend these two schools of thought together. What a wonderful time to be a film photographer.

Thanks for reading.

Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I have had the privilege of living in Colorado since 1981 when I moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. Having moved from Illinois, I’d literally do anything to get into the mountains. At first a poor college student with no car, I once borrowed a friend’s bike – two sizes too large – to pedal up Thompson Canyon from Fort Collins, backpack with ice axe and all. I remember a sleek, streamlined peloton of cyclists in fancy gear and even fancier bikes whizzing by up the canyon, looking at me and smiling. Like they knew… ‘yeh, I’m new here and I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting up into those hills.’

All these years later that same drive hasn’t diminished one bit. Living along Colorado’s Front Range, any opportunity to get deeper into the mountains usually involves at least one trip over Trail Ridge Road. For those unfamiliar with it, Trail Ridge Road (also known as U.S. 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road connecting Estes Park, Colorado with Grand Lake, Colorado by traversing Rocky Mountain National Park at a elevation high point of 12,183. If I can’t get up there for sunrise (leaving Fort Collins by 4am usually) – then I try to time the return trip with late afternoon/evening light. Many times I’ve gone up and just spent the night on the road, sleeping in the back of the truck. Coffee on the tail gate in the morning at 12,000 watching the sun rise over the Mummy Range, Gore Range, and the Medicine Bow’s is pretty tough to beat with a hot cup of french roast.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The above view is accessible to anyone who has made the journey up Trail Ridge to the Alpine Visitor Center. This view looks down what I call the Fall River Valley – the prior route up to the Visitor Center years ago. There is a one way, dirt road buried in the trees at left that winds up from the valley floor – an alternative to the paved Trail Ridge. A common route is to go up Old Fall River Road, then down Trail Ridge Road. Often time elk may be seen grazing in this valley, high above treeline. If I were an elk I’d sure elect to eat dinner here.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A distant storm forms over the Gore Range, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Ypsilon Mountain and the Mummy Range, RMNP
The Mummy Range from Rainbow Curve, RMNP
Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge, RMNP
Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge, RMNP

And finally, the Monarch of Colorado’s northern Front Range, Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds on the upper left horizon recedes into the east flank of Glacier Gorge, surrounded by high, wild country in beautiful light. The views on Trail Ridge Road are constantly changing, largely driven by weather and of course time of day. Storms move in fast – and often are gone just as fast. If you’re not prepared you’ll be soaked and freezing – for a time. Then the sun will come out and the high altitude mountain air will whisk away the water and leave you dry and chilly.

We recently had family from North Carolina visit who had not yet been up Trail Ridge. I was excited for them with anticipation knowing what a thrill that first trip over can be. Several times since moving to Colorado, when I’ve found myself temporarily living in other places, the realization that I can’t hop in the car and – in an hour be up in Rocky Mountain National Park – is a cold smack in the face. I’m humbled to realize that others save their vacation time all year just to spend a week’s vacation in Colorado. And I wake up here every morning. Even after all these years I will never take living in Colorado for granted.

Spieker Wedding
Longs Peak, with the lesser peak Mount Lady Washington along the ridge line in front. Mount Meeker can be seen to the left of Longs Peak’s “knob” like appearance from this angle.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Alpine Visitor Center Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Spieker Wedding
Medicine Bow Curve, with the Never Summer Mountains in the background.
Spieker Wedding
Upper reaches of Forest Canyon
Spieker Wedding
Hayden Spire looms over Forest Canyon from Forest Canyon Overlook.