Nearly every year for the past nine years, I have embarked on a multi-day journey to photograph one of my favorite subjects here in Colorado - autumn and fall colors. Each trip holds a special place in my memory. As such, I enjoy re-creating the trip through these trip reports, for my own personal benefit but to also allow others to go on the journey with me, virtually.
This particular year, we had a similar repeat of last year in regards to weather and color condition. We had almost no clouds the entire time we were out making photographs; however, I was ready and up for the challenge! I rented a Voigtlander 110 Macro lens and brought along my new Mavic Air Two drone. My goal was to capture more intimate scenes, detailed scenes, and to create more personally expressive photographs. I started out my journey by driving five hours to Twin Lakes to secure the best campsite on earth for me and my friends Kane and Brent. Luckily for me, the campsite was not taken. I set-up my Tepui Rooftop Tent in the dark, opened a cold beer, and enjoyed the autumn stars.
The next morning, I awoke prior to sunrise and got to a vantage point I had familiarized myself with last year in order to get a glimpse of the first light on Rinker Peak and Mount Hope. Mount Hope, pictured at left in the below photograph, is ranked as one of the highest 100 mountains in Colorado. I have fond memories of climbing it on June 1, 1986 with my father Ray. I recall there being massive amounts of fog on the summit. I'll never forget that day!
Above, Mount Hope and Rinker Peak are illuminated by early sunrise light in autumn showcasing fall colors from the glorious transition of foliage and aspen trees as seen near Leadville and Buena Vista, Colorado and Twin Lakes.
From here, I decided to hike on the road up to some glorious beaver ponds to see what I could find on my own with my macro lens. I went in with a very open mind about what I could find in the small waterways and streams around the beaver ponds. I was delighted when I came across these two aspen leaves sitting in a stagnant section of water that was glowing in a blue iridescent fashion.
In puddles of woodlands or around the edges of stagnant or very slowly moving water, it is common to find sheens covering the water in and about leaves and other vegetation. It is tempting to wonder what form of pollution resulted in the sheens, but the answer is microscopic - and natural.
Tiny iron-loving bacteria of many types are involved. A common tale is that some species of bacteria that live in areas with no oxygen (anaerobic conditions) get their energy by converting Ferric Iron to Ferrous Iron (chemists call this process reduction). As the Ferrous Iron moves through the ground water, it encounters water with oxygen, chemically fuses with the oxygen (chemists call this oxidation), then precipitates (separates from the water) and floats on the surface as a colorful sheen.
This year I spent a lot of time practicing "slow photography" where I took the time to move slowly through the forests and look for things that catch my eye in a less intentional fashion. I also received awful news the morning I photographed this scene - my friend and fellow photographer Jack Curran passed away. I spent a lot of time at this small pond on my hike into the woods near Leadville, Colorado looking for ways to commemorate his life. I found this floating leaf with a single drop of water on top of it to be a fitting tribute to my friend, may his memory live on.
While wandering through an alpine meadow near these beaver ponds, I discovered some remnants of summer - this yellow cats-ear wildflower. Most of the others in the area had gone to seed, with a full display of white dandelion-like pods. I used a macro lens to get really close into the flower's inside to get a better glimpse of this nice Hypochaeris Radicata (please correct me if my identification is incorrect).
Exploring the area was quite a joy and I was determined to make interesting photographs without epic skies.
The warm colors often afforded by a lower sun and changing fall colors created some wonderful image making possibilities - for example, this single tree. This particular tree certainly captivated me - I had first seen it a year ago and made a mental note to make more images of it this year. Even over the course of three days, the conditions and foliage around the tree changed dramatically, revealing interesting and new vantages and compositions that kept me quite busy. Here, afternoon light created a really catchy shimmer on the surrounding aspen leaves and quite a contrast in color with the single evergreen tree.
Another aspect of fall photography that I absolutely adore is how it forces me to think more critically and curiously about forest ecology. Finding scenes like this one always have piqued my interest even further. What caused this single tree to grow amongst a huge stand of aspens? Was there a fire long ago that killed off all of the pine trees except this one, leaving cleared and fertile ground for aspen to thrive? What do you think?
The next day, my friend Kane and I wandered about the forest together, looking for interesting subjects to capture with our lenses. I happened upon this beautiful leaf and just had to make an image of it. Fall - it really is nature's chemical magic at work. As summer fades into fall / autumn, the days start getting shorter and there is less sunlight available for plant life. This is a signal for the leaf to prepare for winter and to stop making chlorophyll. Once this happens, the green color starts to fade and the reds, oranges, and yellows become visible. Science rocks.
Speaking of chemical magic - it is really quite something to see the trees in a variety of colors including red, orange, and yellow. I just love it!
Another technique worth trying is ICM. Intentional Camera Movement is not something I have dabbled with much over the years but after trying it out this year I think I will dabble a bit more. It seems to me that the possibilities are quite endless. Here, a stand of aspen trees in early even light are showcased using a fast movement of the camera and a long shutter speed. Fun!
I spent a lot of time just wandering through the forest this year, which sometimes produces incredible photos, and other times produces mediocre images. I'm still on the fence if this is the former or the latter. I do love finding trees like this! They twist and turn up into the sky into a shape I like to call squiggly. I feel like aspen trees are somewhat unique in this regard, especially in the wind-shaped mountainous terrain of Colorado.
I've always found these photos looking up in forests in the fall to be a bit cliché; however, I really liked this composition and combination of color. The trees here were mostly stripped of leaves, revealing a bright blue sky dotted with light white clouds. The same clouds were mostly obscuring the sun, creating nice even light throughout the scene.
Another thing I have been loving to do as a photographer is look down at my feet. You never know what interesting scenes lie in waiting right at your feet, like this photo of Kinnikinnick. Kinnikinnick is one of my favorite plants in Colorado. It is also known as bearberry. My parents taught me about it when I was really young, probably in an attempt at keeping me from asking "are we there yet!?" I think the reason it always stuck with me was because of the really awesome way it sounds. Anyways, Kinnikinnick really is a beautiful plant, especially in autumn when aspen leaves fall in between the lush green leaves.
Kinnikinnick is also known as Bearberry. Here, the forest floor adorned with it.
As I was setting up a composition for a scene that looked interesting, a really cool thing happened: a huge gust of wind blew thousands of golden leaves off the trees and into the air. I was somewhat prepared and snapped this image - the result was not too bad - you can see the blowing leaves all through the scene. Fall in Colorado - a magical event indeed!
Here's another view of the same tree with a different composition. The gradients of color found in various stands of aspen in Colorado can be really fascinating and beautiful. In this case, just in a very small area of trees, I found reds, yellows, oranges, and greens. This variety of color has always been something I have been drawn to visually. The colorful foliage makes for a pure example of the amazing things in nature we can find if we just take the time to look.
As the sun was setting, I rushed out to get more interesting vantage points of the fall colors with my telephoto lens. There's nothing more fun than to spend several days in the exact same spot in fall and watch as the leaves change color and blow away, revealing interesting scenes behind their cover and shroud of color. Here, bright orange and gold aspen leaves part ways to reveal the understory of this magnificent aspen forest.
Spending time exploring the forest after the sun sets is one of my favorite things to do in the fall. Temperatures drop and the light evens out to reveal details in the forest that were not as visible in daylight. I can't really explain how that's true, but it is!
Yellows, greens, golds, and reds - that's what aspen trees in Colorado in fall are all about!
I also was able to find this really interesting scene with tilted aspen trees spanning a small creek filled with fallen trees and aspen leaves.
The sights that can be seen if you open your eyes are endless.
Rivers and lakes are some of the most important ecological features of the landscape as they provide habitat for many creatures, act as a filter for pollutants, and look freaking awesome. I absolutely love trying to photograph them in a way that provides a different view, showcasing the winding water through sediment, sand, rock, and soil. In this vertical panorama, tributaries of water feed into a large lake in Colorado. A longer, skinnier version of this piece is available as well and I think both would make for an outstanding print.
A small stream snakes through tall grasses and willow shrubs into a lake in Colorado in early morning autumn light. After our fun here, we drove over to McClure Pass and acquired a campsite. From here, we took a hike up to one of our favorite spots overlooking the area. Even without clouds, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous!
After our peaceful hike through changing aspen trees in this beautiful forest, I enjoyed the serenity and comfort of the glowing autumn colors at dusk. The yellow glow of the aspen trees and leaves combine nicely with the blues and purples created by earth glow (Belt of Venus). There's something magical about that "glow" that happens after the sun sets. I produces such incredible and deep rich color that I really appreciate!
My time at McClure was very short as I needed to drive to Ridgway to meet with my workshop client and get some much needed sleep. After meeting my client for dinner and beers, we planned for a very early start the next morning.
One of my favorite spots to spend a morning in fall is near Ridgway, Colorado. There's a set of large cottonwood trees that are scattered along a river which runs up a large open valley. This valley is nestled between two large cliff bands which provide a great deal of shelter from the rising sun. At just the right moment, the light from the sun hits the tips of the cottonwood trees but leaves the rest of the valley in darkness, creating fantastic color and light separation. It is really something to see.
My client and I explored the roadways and found many interesting scenes to photograph. I kept my camera in the bag most of the time as to provide assistance to my client; however, I was able to sneak a few fun photographs in the process.
Early Light catches the white bark of aspen trees in a forest near Ridgway, Colorado. I just loved how only a few trees had yellow leaves left, making for a very intimate scene which I feel like encapsulates the essence of fall in Colorado.
Patterns of muck formed on a stagnant pond in fall - with reflected autumn color and blue sky. An odd yet interesting combination of color.
Waiting for just the right moment in landscape photography can be highly rewarding, as evidenced by this giant ponderosa pine catching the final rays of light on a steep hillside in Colorado near Ridgway in autumn. Based on the height of the tree and the steepness of the terrain it was on, I knew the rays of the sun would only hit the tree and nothing else, so I waited patiently to capture it. What a really fun moment to photograph!
My time near Ridgway was once again cut quite short as my friends and I decided to leave for another location further south and west of Ridgway, away from the large crowds of people, tourists, and photographers that are often found in the area. Here, I spent a lot of solo time in the forests, looking for interesting subjects. I was rewarded in spades on the very first day, when I discovered a gnarled fallen aspen tree.
This single aspen leaf caught my attention on a slow walk through the woods in a very remote area of Colorado. The wood I found nearby was an exposed fallen aspen tree with these knotted and curved textures that I grew fascinated with immediately. I wanted to pair the electrical leaf with the textures to create awesome color separation. Autumn in Colorado is one of my favorite events of the year. There's nothing else like it for photography.
Here, ruby red fallen aspen leaves collect in a small stagnant stream in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, all adorned with droplets of water. Fall in Colorado - a wonderful nature event.
Textures, colors, and fall foliage. Pretty nice combination in my opinion. Here, a red aspen leaf rests in a small gap of the aspen tree's bark, which has a ton of texture! Colorado autumn is always filled with so many surprises!
Utilizing a telephoto lens, I created this vertical panorama which includes scrub oak, aspen trees, large meadows, and towering 14,000 ft. mountains in autumn glory. There was smoke haze in the atmosphere, making for a quite challenging image to make. The sunset light filtered in through the haze and allowed some of the peaks to glow red, which was pretty nice! Seen here are El Diente, Wilson Peak, and Mount Wilson.
Fall isn't just about golden yellow aspen leaves. Finding green leaves amongst the golden yellow and reds can be an interesting contrast and exception to the norm. Perhaps I was just excited to see these three leaves together with a yellow backdrop. Who knows. Either way, so much fun can be had capturing these Colorado nature scenes.
Nature Photography has provided me with a tool by which I can explore the natural world with a curious eye. For example, wandering through a forest I found a section that was filled with new saplings next to a section with huge older trees. What caused that? Logging? Fire? Something else? Of course, the fall colors, aspen trees, and aspen leaves make for a beautiful subject to explore these ideas.
A play on words and an ode to one of my favorite bands from my childhood! Who remembers such hits as "Particle Man," "Istanbul," or "Meet James Ensor"? Ok so anyways, I thought this aspen tree in fall looked awesome and had just a little bit more light on it than the rest of its friends in the background, making for an interesting photo.
I was really happy to find this composition which included aspen trees, scrub oak, and the white bark of the aspen trees with green/yellow/red color combinations. This scene was 60 feet from my campsite in the San Juan Mountains. Perhaps a simple display of nature is sometimes the best.
I really loved photographing this scene at sunset. A perfectly clear evening without any clouds created a nice color palette for this winding country road. Aspen trees adorned with orange and yellow leaves scattered the landscape and a wonderfully beautiful mountain was at the end of the road. I'm looking forward to spending many more years in this location.
Fallen aspen leaves containing a variety of colors, including red, yellow, and gold, reminded me of a fireplace filled with burning embers in this scene I found in a forest deep in Colorado's forests in the San Juan Mountains. I love the variety you can find in fall.
Again, my curiosity about forest ecology is instantly piqued when I find scenes like this in nature. My best guess is that these smaller 3-5 foot tall aspen trees only began growing recently, and the forest was voided of the pine trees via logging or fire. Either way, it creates a really interesting play on ideas - is the tree lonely? Is it a mentor to the other trees? Is it ostracized? What do you see?
When I walked by this giant Blue Spruce and saw all of the fallen aspen leaves on its boughs, I could not help but take a photograph of it. What a really awesome fall scene to find in a random forest in Colorado. Autumn is awesome.
My friend Scott Bacon and I found this nice little scene at dawn while cruising around the mountains together in autumn, looking for a way to marry the moon with this mountain and some fall foliage. The vibrant aspen trees provided a nice foreground for this scene. Sure would have been nice to have clouds, but then we would have missed out on this great moon!
This massive panorama showcases insane detail of a beautiful stand of aspen trees illuminated by backlight in the late afternoon sun in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
This fall in Colorado I kept finding single aspen trees to photograph. I am not sure why. I think it symbolizes singular individual strength - perhaps something I have had on my mind in the COVID-19 times we are living in.
Clear skies, orange aspen leaves, beautiful mountains and warm sunset light. These are the fall / autumn Colorado moments I live for.
Here is another scene that piqued my curiosity. Why would there be two stands of aspen trees, one filled with leaves, and another totally bare? What would cause such an event to occur? I don't have the answer to that question, but through my photography I am able to ask it. Fall provides so much mystery and opportunity for photography here in Colorado. It feels blissfully endless.
Here's something I've never seen before in all of the years of photographing fall in Colorado. Small rocks create just enough resistance in this slow moving stream to cause a build up of aspen leaves. Honestly, this is one of the coolest things I've seen in nature!
This country road in Colorado leads right through some amazing aspen tree stands filled with fall color. The road leads the eye right up to the mountain in the distance, inviting the viewer to go for a nice long drive.
A cattle ditch winds through beautiful aspen trees adorned with yellow leaves in fall / autumn in the mountains of Colorado.
Good night from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in autumn at sunset.
When I discovered this scene I was quite ecstatic to see what I could make of it. I wandered about this hillside, taking in the elements of this place and trying to see what story I could make out of the chaos here. Scrub oak, grass, shrubs, aspen trees, and other foliage all combine to create a story of a transition into autumn in the Colorado mountains. This is the kind of image that really would benefit from a sky replacement, as there was smoke and haze in the area from wildfires, and the sunset did not really pan out the way I expected it to; however, I really enjoyed the pastel pinks and blues in the sky here, and, I refuse to replace skies in my photographs without disclosing it to the viewer. Nature is good enough as-is. I suppose this scene also benefits from three of my favorite 14er mountains, El Diente, Wilson Peak, and Mt. Wilson.
Sunrise colors in the western sky are often some of my favorites - the earth shadow (sometimes called the Belt of Venus) creates nice soft pastel colors on the horizon which can sometimes pair nicely with autumn and fall colors in the aspen trees like orange and yellow. Here, the mountain Lone Cone is front and center in a large panorama from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Where will this path take you?
That concludes this year's autumn trip report. I was so happy I could get out and do it again. I think each year my taste in images and the way I see the world changes ever-so-slightly. Do you have a favorite image from this sequence? I'd love to hear about it.