Photographing Colorado fall colors - a labor of love
I have been photographing the amazing Colorado fall colors since 2011, and each year gets better and better as I learn more techniques and locations. This year, I decided to take the plunge and buy Jason Hatfield's guide, which did help me find a few locations I had long wanted to photograph, including Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain near Ridgway, Colorado. Last year, I studied many locations and photographers and fell in love with this photograph of Chimney Rock at sunset by Nate Zeman, one of my favorite Colorado photographers. I have come very close to buying that photo many times, but I figured I should give myself at least one chance to get that same shot; therefore, I decided that if there was one shot I was to get this year, it would be that one. I made plans to head for Silver Jack Reservoir and then over Owl Creek Pass near Ridgway. I also decided it would be fun to take my 5-year-old son with me so we could share the experience together. As I prepared for the trip, I took a look at the weather forecast, which included a snowstorm and a lot of cold. This was both good and bad news because the snow would make for an excellent addition to the fall colors, but the cold might just cause the aspen trees to drop their leaves too soon.
Brent met up with us at around 9 PM in Gunnison and we made our way towards Cimarron, Colorado on Highway 50 and turned left on Cimarron Road (not to be confused with Little Cimarron Road) for our 21 mile trek to Silver Jack Reservoir in the dark. It had just snowed and so driving was a little sketchy but not too bad in my Subaru Forester. Brent led us to an awesome campsite past Silver Jack Reservoir on the east fork of the road past the Owl Creek Pass turn-off. I setup our campsite in the cold dark on a blanket of snow and hoped I could get some sleep in the frozen night. My son was pretty comfortable in a -30 down sleeping bag courtesy of my parents; however, I was frozen solid in my older +30 bag (note to self - buy a better sleeping bag). As I lay in my sleeping bag, I quickly found myself listening to a pack of coyotes that had surrounded our area and were barking/howling at us. I quickly grabbed my cell phone and recorded the howls/barks. You can listen to that HERE.
The morning was good to us and I was rewarded with amazing views and incredible light on the trees. Brent was nearby as well, and I could tell he was just as excited as we were to be there photographing the magic.
We could have probably spent hours near our campsite, as there were so many interesting things to photograph right nearby. The fresh snow and yellow aspen made for an amazing combination.
I was lucky to see The Pinnacles also - one of the more recognizable features found in the area.
Having never been to the Silver Jack Reservoir area, I was in awe of the scenery. It was quite remarkable and I was already making plans for a return visit in 2014.
My son and I enjoyed our time together at the Reservoir and made plans to head over Owl Creek Pass so we could find the best spot to photograph Chimney Rock at sunset from.
My son and I hiked around the Reservoir for awhile and found some awesome views.
We made our way over to Owl Creek Pass and I stopped what must have felt like a million times to my son. There were just so many awesome sights to take photos of, including this stand of aspen among snow-capped pine trees.
One cool feature/fact about Owl Creek Pass is that it is where some famous western movies were filmed, including the original John Wayne version of True Grit. There is a very classic scene from the movie and I was able to find the location, showcasing Chimney Rock behind a large meadow.
We made it down the pass and I found the scenic turn-off that offered amazing views of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain from the west. The area was packed with photographers, which seemed a bit odd for the mid-day; however, I saw the famous Ian Plant and realized he was doing a workshop. I guess I was in a good spot! My son and I decided that this area would be a fine camp for our night and so we followed a trail and setup camp for the night. I setup two tripods, one for my Nikon D800 and one for my Nikon D7000.
After setting everything up, we hiked around a bit, cooked dinner and then waited for the magic to arrive. And boy did the magic arrive! I had my 14-24 lens setup on the D7000 with the insane Fotodiox Wonderpano filter system attached and a .6 Graduated Neutral Density Filter affixed. On the other tripod, I had my D800 and I was alternating between my 24-70 and my 70-200 lens so I could go both telephoto and wide angle. I think I was able to replicate the Nate Zeman shot pretty well, except I was not lucky enough to have clouds.
Here is the telephoto version, followed by the wide angle version.
The colors were amazing.
I had the D7000 setup to do a time-lapse movie, taking a photo every 45 seconds for about two hours or so. I came away with a fun little video I titled "Sundown at Chimney Rock." I hope you like it.
While I was photographing this amazing scene, two photographers rushed through my campsite, looking for a place to setup. I immediately recognized one of them as Toby Harriman, a very well-followed photographer from San Francisco. Toby has over a million followed on G+, which is an impressive feat compared to my 10,000. His fame is well-deserved and it was awesome chatting with him and later connecting on Facebook to discuss different locations and shots around Colorado. Toby was accompanied by Natalia Stone, another well-accomplished photographer.
After Toby and Natalia departed, I got my son ready for bed, which included this obligatory photo of him in the tent with the stars above.
I ventured down the way a few yards and got another long exposure of the the stars over Chimney Rock.
I crashed in the tent and slept fairly poorly again due to the bitter cold. When we woke up, there was ice all over our sleeping bags, but my son said he was quite warm, so it was all good. After packing up, we drove down towards Ridgway, where I was able to get a parting shot of Mount Sneffels above the amazing farms and pastures below it.
Fast forward to the following weekend. My wife and I took a romantic trip to Crested Butte for some rest and relaxation, and a few photos. Other than shopping, eating pizza, drinking beer and enjoying a weekend without our son, we also enjoyed some time at Kebler Pass, where I photographed a few areas of changing aspen, at the tail end of the fall color season.
Despite most of the leaves having already fallen off of most of the trees, there were still pockets of incredible wonder and beauty.
My wife was even up for a fun pose in the aspen. I'll leave you with that - I hope you enjoyed my shots this year!
If you made it this far, and you are interested in purchasing a print from this year's Colorado fall colors gallery, the first 25 people to use the code "FALL2013" will get a 25% discount on prints.
For more Colorado fall colors - check out the full gallery:
Keywords: Aspen Trees, Autumn, Colorado, Crested Butte, Kebler Pass, Matt Payne, Milky Way, Mount Sneffels, Night Photography, Owl Creek Pass, Photography, Pinnacles, Ridgway, Silver Jack Reservoir, Sunset, panoramic
Beautiful, thank you sharing, very refreshing!
Thank you for sharing your love of the outdoors and photography. You are very talented and generous with your product :) I always enjoy your work.
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