Back in early October, Eric Bowles and I spent several days in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, scouting out shooting locations for a Nikonians Annual Photographic Adventure Trip (ANPAT). We wanted to check the current condition of trails and ensure no planned shooting locations were closed. After completing that, we decided to give ourselves a treat and did an early morning shoot at Dream Lake, a location not on the planned itinerary for the ANPAT.
For those not familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s a beautiful alpine location near Estes Park, Colorado, only about an hour and a half driving time from downtown Denver. The trail to Dream Lake begins at the very popular Bear Lake Trailhead (another great shooting location) and is just over two miles round trip. It starts at 9500ft and finishes just under 10,000ft, so you’ll definitely feel that altitude if you’re not used to hiking at this elevation!
Eric and I headed out very early from the Bear Lake parking lot area, as we wanted to arrive at Dream Lake around 45minutes before sunrise, which was a little before 7am then. We both had our basic landscape shooting kit with us, which for me included my Nikon D810 body and 16-35mm f/4.0, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S Nikkor lenses. I also had my tripod, a few filters, and other miscellaneous accessories such as a remote release. Everything other than the tripod was tucked away in a Gura Gear Bataflae 18L backpack, a nice, smaller-sized bag that’s good for hiking. Normally I would have taken the smaller and lighter 70-200mm f/4.0 lens, but we were also photographing bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and marmots during the same trip, and the expanded range of the 80-400mm was helpful.
Dream Lake – Choosing a composition
We were in darkness when we started hiking, using our headlamps to navigate up the trail. We arrived in plenty of time at the lake, more or less at our planned time. It was still dark at that point, so we had to be careful moving around the small lake’s perimeter as the ground was very uneven and there was a stream area just to our left with plenty of opportunities to get our feet wet if we weren’t careful. I always prefer to initially sort out possible shooting locations and angles without a camera in my hand, so I ditched the backpack and tripod on nearby rocks while I determined where I wanted to shoot.
There were several things I had in mind while finalizing my primary shooting location and sorting out potential compositions:
1) I wanted to have a balance of subjects in the foreground, middle ground and background to build depth in the photo
2) It looked like we could have a nice reflection of Hallett Peak in the lake itself, so I wanted to ensure I was at the right height for the reflection to be large and relatively unobstructed, and…
3) I didn’t want too many distracting elements competing with each other within the frame. I found a spot that appeared to offer those elements and got set up for shooting.
Here’s a quick shot of how the lake looked at that point in time, which was around 6:45am:
Yes, it was dark!
Eric and I were a little concerned about the cloud cover. The sun was going to rise behind us and to the left, hopefully illuminating Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain, but the clouds were dense, including the area where the sun was coming up. We starting thinking we might not get good shots and had the typical landscape photographers’ discussion of “Well, at least we’re out in a beautiful location, even if we don’t get good photos this morning”. Thinking positive thoughts, I got out my camera out, along with my 16-35mm and a remote release, so that I was set up in time for sunrise, which was scheduled for 6:55am.
Fortunately, the clouds started breaking a little out east and we began some preliminary shooting. I’ve learned that the light can come and go quickly in these situations, so I wanted to get in as many different shots as possible in a narrow window of time. You can see the range of shots I made over the next few minutes in the Lightroom screen capture below. It’s important to note that time from start to finish was only about ten minutes, so you have to be ready to go. You also need to know your equipment well and be able to change compositions quickly if necessary. It’s not slow and leisurely work!
As I started shooting, I came to the conclusion that the rocks and trees on the right were too distracting, and the mountains were a little small. I quickly readjusted my position and switched to a vertical composition, setting my 16-35mm to about 22mm. Much better! I got several shots around the peak light that I thought would work, and then tried a few alternative horizontal compositions again, just to increase my odds of getting something good. For this entire sequence, I was shooting at an aperture of f/8, which was enough to keep key elements in focus, an ISO of 64 since that’s where a D810 will have the most dynamic range and least noise (important for a shot like this), and the shutter speeds were in the realm of one second. Did I mention that a tripod is important? It definitely is.
I used my typical landscape white balance setting of Direct Daylight A0.5, which is a slightly warmer white balance than Direct Daylight. I learned a long time ago that auto white balance tends to mess up interesting light at dawn and setting a fixed white balance makes it easier for me as a starting point for post-processing. I also have an easier time remembering what the light was like and keeping things natural.
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