Despite appearances to the contrary, spring has sprung along with a new blog post.
To my continued delight, the mountains, wildlife, night skies and elevation here in Colorado made for a comparatively mild winter. Growing up in Iowa, I always thought that harsh winds and subzero temperatures were a common American experience. Concrete roads were covered in snow which, thanks the incessant wind, formed a concrete of its own for months on end.
But in Colorado? The elevation, dry air, and clear skies have made for a sublime winter experience. Snow melts in days, not weeks. People generally know how to drive in it. The higher terrain is even matched with higher average temperatures; 45°F in Colorado for January compared to just 31°F in Iowa.
That photo you see above is from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, located just outside Denver. I like visiting during busy weeks to decompress and to try to find new angles or color combinations to capture. The sky takes on softer blue tones on hazy days, and when snow covers the ground it reflects those hues, too.
A mere week after I saw those deer, I went back out to try to take more landscape photos, but the snow had already melted in its entirety. I visited on a clear afternoon shortly before the weather turned. And on this particular day, the mountains were cast in shadows from storms gathering overhead, leading to deeper blues that nicely contrasted the sunny grasslands I was shooting from.
There is more to the wildlife refuge than bison, mule deer, and empty space, though. There also exist ample opportunities for self-improvement!
The extreme distances involved pose quite a challenge for me to overcome when taking photos. On top of that, some of my subjects move surprisingly quickly. For example, in the photo below, a harrier strikes at some prey it spotted from above. My distance to the hawk was well over 800 feet at the time, I was using my longest lens, and I was shooting by hand.
The bird was moving so fast that my autofocus could not adjust quickly enough. I had to manually adjust my focus on the fly and simply eyeball it. I thought I was getting decent shots at the time, but I could not tell my focus was slightly off based on my camera’s live view.
I think in the future I will intentionally go out on a bird photography mission and come better prepared; I will bring a tripod, visit earlier in the day with better light, and use a faster shutter speed. This was still a good learning opportunity for now, although I am still not super happy with the result. In the interest of transparency, I think it is valuable to occasionally share photos that are not perfect.
Frequent readers may have noticed by now there has been a suspicious lack of mentions of national parks, specifically any named after the Rocky Mountains. Thank you for your attention to detail, but fear not! I did, in fact, make it out to Rocky Mountain National Park. However, I went less often than I did this same time last year.
On both of my excursions in February, I spent a majority of my time taking in the mountainous beauty and only casually looking for wildlife. I did not need to look far since elk were nearly always close at hand. Both of these shots below came from the same afternoon but captured different aspects of elk… culture? At the very least, I do see some reflection of my two primary attitudes here.
Part of the reason I have not made it out to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park so much this time around is I have been spending more time in and around Colorado Springs. Pikes Peak, Woodland Park, Garden of the Gods, and other places have all captured my attention lately.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, I tried to get sunrise photos at the Great Sand Dunes National Park southwest of Colorado Springs, but I was forced to turn back by heavy snow. On my way back, ice crystals in the frigid air reflected the rising sun before the sun actually rose, leading to this unedited image of a sun pillar.
Garden of the Gods, in particular, has been a favorite haunt of mine. The same snow that canceled my trip to the Great Sand Dunes also hit the park. With depressed crowds and a quiet atmosphere, I enjoyed spending my morning just exploring the trails on my own. I caught this glimpse of some mule deer through the snow as the precipitation began easing.
Garden of the Gods is also home to a large contingent of bighorn sheep. I had never seen any before – at least that I can remember – so I was intentional this spring about trying to find them. Although I posted the photo below of a sheep to Instagram already, if you will bear with me, I would like to explain my rationale and approach to getting this shot.
The park is renown for its monolithic slabs of red rock, so before I even set out to photograph its occupants I knew I wanted to get the rocks in the shot. Barring that, some of its signature red soil would suffice. Complicating this was the fact that, from what I had read, the sheep liked to keep their distance from people. This meant I would have to use my longest lens. However, the sheep also tend to be more active at dusk and dawn, in low light environments. My long lens does not perform as well in those conditions, but if I used a tripod or braced my camera on a rock, I should be able to catch a long enough exposure to get a decent image.
With all those conditions in mind, I struck out a few different times trying to see the sheep. When I eventually found them, I sat still on a rock, braced my camera against my legs, and shot the image you see below.
With spring here and summer on the way, I have now begun planning out future Milky Way adventures. Let me know in the comments or via email if you would be interested in more detailed breakdowns like the one above. Future ideas might be techniques I use to accomplish my shots or how I plan and pack for a location.
In other news, I am also beginning to attempt more portrait photography to try to familiarize myself with the craft. As much as I love wildlife photography, it would be fun to branch out. Let me know if you are in or around Denver, Colorado, and let’s give it a shot!
In the meantime, feel free to head on over to my gallery and check out some of my other work that didn’t make it into this post. Thanks for reading and until next time – fly safe!