Dream Lake & Nymph Lake shooting experience
Keywords: landscape, composition, focal_length, tripod, postprocessing, cropping, fine_tuning, detail, contrast, color, tone
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.
Originally written on May 27, 2015
Last updated on May 29, 2022
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Annette Palm (Alisiane) on August 20, 2015
(Edited by jrp Sunday, 23 August 2015 ) A very informative article. Awesome Pics. Thanks. A
Preston Moochnek RPh. (massulo) on August 17, 2015
Excellent and informative article...
Richard Cron (rcron) on June 19, 2015
I'be had no such encounter but it'seems worth considering, I think. A sow with cubs might an unpleasant meeting, and I understand that moose can be agressive if happened upon. We also have cougar in Colorado. I don't have a gun either... Sorry if I hijacked the topic.
Rick Walker (walkerr) on June 18, 2015
Richard, I don't own a gun, so that's not something I take. Bears aren't too big of problem in Colorado, so I don't worry about that too often either. I've seen a couple of black bears while hiking other places in Colorado, but they were interesting rather than threatening. Both they and I kept a comfortable distance from each other. :)
Richard Cron (rcron) on June 18, 2015
Very nice, thanks. On the subject of hiking in the dark or in the back country anytime, do you take bear spray or a firearm or something?
Mark Abraham (AM4L) on June 17, 2015
Nymph Lake is a gorgeous location as is all the rest of RMNP, one of my favorite hiking locations. Here are two of my favorite pics from RMNP! This first is of Nimph lake and an example of how a slice can sometimes be as pretty as the whole. [imglink:460052] The second is from Alberta falls, I went off the trail to get this one and was very happy with the result. [imglink:482398] Needless to say, one can take a lot of pictures when visiting and hiking and it definitely pays off to be in a bit of shape when you go, I always have a tendency to hike a lot farther than I intend due to the stunning views!
Ronald J. Sacco (Priest) on June 2, 2015
Just a nice photographer's story of a day's experience- well told and rather enjoyable, I thought, Mr. Walker. Thank you. Ron
Marion Pavan (pqtrths) on May 31, 2015
Hi Rick: Very good, step-by-step description of the process - start to finish - you employed in capturing these photographs. Hope to see more articles. Marion Pavan
User on May 31, 2015
Thanks Rick. I see from the charts of various cameras that the PDR tails over at the top end, so one would use the flat portion of the curve to get maximum PDR-ISOs...and then use the smallest ISO for noise minimization. In my case, the D7000 curve is a straight line, so I never saw a minimum except the left end of the line...which is 100 (or smaller, presumably). So my situation is pretty simple. Thanks again. Great article! Mike
Rick Walker (walkerr) on May 30, 2015
Hi, Mike. Generally speaking, DSLRs can handle the widest range of light (dynamic range) and exhibit the least noise (which shows up mostly in the shadows) when you use the lowest regular ISO setting, Modern sensors tend to lose a stop of dynamic range for each increasing full step in ISO. Here is a good resource for the dynamic range in particular: http://home.comcast.net/~nikond70/Charts/PDR.htm
User on May 30, 2015
This is great article, Rick... You have encouraged me to grab my D7000 and get on up there for some more personal shooting. I live in Longmont and used to go up before dawn with my N2020 to capture that sun. I couldn't agree more that "It's good to be a landscape photographer!" You said you use "an ISO of 64 since that’s where a D810 will have the most dynamic range and least noise" Would you please explain that a little more or point me to a good article? I would like to use that to improve D7000 images and this is all new to me. DXoMark reports D810 PDR as 11.52ev at 3206iso, I just learned, with no reference to noise. There must be multiple ways to look at this. Thanks! Mike Munger
Rick Walker (walkerr) on May 29, 2015
Thanks, Eric. Your comment on the polarizer jogged my memory. I think we temporarily tried them and concluded they weren't doing anything for us due to the sun angle. Now I feel better!
Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on May 29, 2015
It was great reading Rick's article and brought back a lot of good memories. He did leave out the part about the one mile walk in the dark was at a 10% grade in addition to the elevation. I was puffing pretty hard. Working in the dark can be a challenge. We did not have any mishaps here, but another photographer at the location dropped a lens into the water. The day before are Bear Lake, we did have some problems with cell phones, headlamps, and LCD playback casting odd light on the scene. This is a great location but helpful to visit in daylight the day before. We had a good area to photograph the location, but a better location to the left was already taken by a photographer who got up a little earlier. We arrived at the location about 45 minutes before sunrise. As for the circular polarizer, I considered one but there were several related issues. With a wide lens, the risk of blotchy skies had to be considered. I liked the reflection of the mountains and sunrise, but not the gray of the skies. The other thought was with the sun at our back, the polarizer was not going to make a lot of difference. One interesting thing. As we returned to the car, we saw a drone being flown in the park. Obviously this is strictly against regulations, so we reported it and a ranger was sent to try to find the person.
Rick Walker (walkerr) on May 28, 2015
Ernesto, thanks! I believe Eric is working on some similar articles, but probably not the exact same location within RMNP. We're using this article and a few others as examples that we'll do more of on this site if they're useful to photographers.
Rick Walker (walkerr) on May 28, 2015
Tom Egel, I should have used a polarizer in this situation (and normally would have), but quite honestly I think I was a bit fuzzy-headed due to lack of sleep and forget to get it out. :) Using the Nik filter helped a bit, but I would have preferred to use a real one.
Tom Egel (tegel) on May 27, 2015
Rick, Thanks for taking the time to write this and for sharing some of your tips and tricks! A few questions/comments: 1. Could you expand more on the choice to apply a polarizer filter in post versus on the camera? I've been under the impression that this is the one filter that can't be replicated by software and I make sure I always have one with me. 2. I believe you can get to the Nik collection directly from LR without going through PS. Is there an advantage to exporting to PS for this? Thanks, Tom
Robert Wightman (robwig) on May 27, 2015
Great article Rick. It is very enlightening to read about the entire process, from hiking in the dark all the way through post processing, and even what you will different next time. I hope we will see more articles in the future. Thank you.
Egbert M. Reinhold (Ineluki) on May 27, 2015
Very good article of a real photographic adventure. Thank you very much for this, Rick.
Ernesto Santos (esantos) on May 27, 2015
Great article Rick. I have never been to RMNP, now you have forced me to move it up on my list . :) It is very helpful to read through your thought process in developing the shots and how you made important considerations to accommodate how you would process the image back at the computer. I'd also like to here about Eric's experiences on this trip - any chance he's working on a companion submission?