Aerial Photography of Rocky Mountain National Park

Marquee view from above: Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Chiefs Head

Above: From left to right: Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain and Chief’s Head Peak. At center-right you can see the very tip top of the Spear Head, a triangular slab of granite jutting up through the clouds from the valley floor beneath. Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (2017). [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm; 1/250 @ f7.1]

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Poking their massive, craggy heads above the clouds to say hello; 14,259′ Longs Peak and 13,911′ Mount Meeker. Having stood atop both of these mountains, I appreciate this view from above all the more. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm; 1/250 @ f7.1].

Flying commercially isn’t my typical MO, preferring instead to drive through places rather than fly over them at 30,000′ and 600 mph. So when a skilled pilot offers to take you flying low and slow over the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain’s High Country simply for the sake of the experience – just say yes – please, and thank you. A few weeks ago I had the privilege with my son and a few good friends to see this country I love so much from a completely different point of view, and make a few photographs for those of you who may never get to see it.

Aerial photographs of Colorado; western slope, Kremmling area
Coming in to Kremmling, Colorado; west of Rocky Mountain National Park, between the park’s western border and Hot Sulphur Springs along Highway 40. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 38mm; 1/250 @ f5.6]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm, 1/200 @ f7.1.]
We’d been planning the flight for several weeks but as is sometimes the case at the last minute weather decided not to cooperate. When morning came for the scheduled flight, rain from the day before left the cloud ceiling too low and visibility wasn’t happening. Texts flew to and fro debating logistics and eventually one party fell on their sword, letting go of their seats because of an afternoon commitment. This opened the door for an afternoon flight if weather cleared.

Aerial photography of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Over Weld County in a Cessna Skyhawk, 2011. Landing gear and wing struts are facts of life shooting from the air. As much as you want them on the plane for obvious reasons – they can be tough to shoot around.

Because the opportunity to fly low over Colorado’s High Country doesn’t happen often I wanted to make the most of it. Considering how to approach it photographically briefly included going digital. A few years ago I was in another Cessna and appreciated the flexibility shooting digitally provided. Instead, I spent some time going through my previous shots looking at ISO, shutter speeds, lens choice and aperture and decided The F6 + some recently acquired Ektachrome 100VS was the winning combination.  As a back up I had the F5 + Portra 400 in case light became an issue.

Camera nerd:  focal length, shutter speeds and aperture info is provided for anyone interested in such things; some day you may have opportunity for such a flight and this could provide a head start setting up. Shutter speeds were typically between 1/400 and 1/250 at f7.1. The plane was traveling about 200 miles an hour but the ground was so far away the overall impression through the camera’s lens was that it passed slowly below. Most of the time the lens was zoomed to about 70mm. I also had the 70-200 with me but it was unnecessary – and too large and unwieldy in the small cockpit.

Ypsilon Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A favorite from the day: 13,520′ Ypsilon Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park. Light is everything. The direction and angle of the plane determines the shots. With no way to roll the window down, shooting through it is the only option, introducing the challenge of reflections and glare entering from the opposite side of the aircraft. Having a skilled pilot maneuver to the desired point of view is crucial to frame things up properly. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 45mm; 1/250 @ f7.1].
I wasn’t sure what plane we’d be flying and held my breath as we walked across the runway. Beggars can’t be choosers. To my delight it was a Cessna Centurion II, a high wing aircraft with retractable landing gear and no wing struts; the perfect plane for aerial photography. Wing struts and extended landing gear have a habit of creeping into the frame when you’re pointing the camera towards the ground.

We enjoyed a brief introduction to the plane and flying in small aircraft then climbed aboard, donning headsets and fastening seatbelts.

Aerial photographs of western Colorado.
The Colorado River just east of Kremmling, Colorado along Highway 40. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/160 @ f5.6].
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
A sea of dense, puffy clouds blanketed the Rockies this beautiful afernoon, with the occasional granite beheamoth poking its craggy head up through for a breath of crisp, high-altitude, Colorado air. The Mountains seemed to wave hello to our little craft as we passed above, reminding me of humpback whales breaching in Alaska. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm; 1/250 @ f7.1]
Beginning in Loveland, Colorado the first leg of the flight was into the afternoon sun. Clouds along the Front Range had dissipated and skies cleared allowing navigation by site and gorgeous views below. Given the angle of the sun, even with the large hood of the Nikkor 28-70 flare was a problem. We zig-zagged and spiraled our way up and over the unbelievable terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park accompanied only by sound the single turboprop spinning at 2,500 RPM’s (the miracle of flight, right?). Every once in a while a robotic, female voice broke the silence with, “warning, terrain… warning, terrain.” At one point – as casually as I could fake – I asked our pilot if that was anything we needed to be worried about. He assured me it was not. In less than an hour we were in Kremmling. It would have taken me three hours by car.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Earlier in the afternoon flying into the sun (west) the light was a little more harsh; shadows more pronounced, and fighting glare and reflections off the windows was a challenge. Despite this – it’s just tough to make a bad photograph when this is what’s before you. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 34mm; 1/800 @ f5.6]
Refueling in Kremmling, Colorado (2017)

We refueled in Kremmling and decided to make our way back the way we came. After take off I put the camera down and flew the plane for a bit, my first time flying. But when we approached the big mountains I handed the wheel back to the pilot and it was time to get to work. The light was perfect, skies were clear and the views were, well…

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Nothing but Colorado’s magnificent high country filled the view in front of the plane. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm, 1/320 @ f7.1.]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National, Colorado.
Coming home over Rocky Mountain National Park in perfect conditions. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/400 @ f7.1]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 60mm; 1/400 @ f7.1]
F6 Nerd Stuff: As each roll finished we were flying over something else I just didn’t want to miss. Fortunately the F6 rewinds and reloads fast (Custom Setting D:2 set to ‘Auto’ automatically rewinds the roll at the end of the the last frame. Custom Setting D:3 tells the camera to leave the leader out rather than sucking it all the way back into the canister, and Custom Setting D:4 tells the camera when to rewind the film – at frame 35, 36 or whenever the end of the roll is detected). Auto rewind pulled the film back into its canister in mere seconds, the new roll was put in place and the leader pulled out to the red line. The back snapped shut and just like that I was shooting again.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/320 @ f5.6]
For this flight, focus mode was set to Group Dynamic auto focus (the little diamond icon on the focus selector switch). I also re-coupled auto focus with the shutter release button (Custom Setting A4: AF Activation Release/AF-On). Plane cockpits are small and making my thumb do the autofocusing on the AF-On button required swinging my arm up a little higher as I turned my body at an already awkward position in the seat, trying to avoid the wings and adjust to whatever reflections and glare were coming in through the window. It’s amazing how one little tweak can simplify shooting – something the designers of the F6 well understood and planned for. There was no need for selective focus as the camera quickly and accurately acquired whatever ground it was pointed at.

Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.

Keeping horizons level can be a challenge in flight. Between composing quickly, a shifting horizon line out the window and dodging reflections in the window, often times you get as close as you can and rely on straightening in post production. If you’re close in the original shot you’re not throwing a lot of image away when you straighten the frame.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Never Summer Range, western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 50mm; 1/500 @ f5.6]
Often I found myself simply gazing out the window in silence, trying to imagine standing at that line where the shadow begins. I’ve been there many times; experiencing the mountains as warm, inviting, beautiful friends basking in the glow of afternoon sun. When the sun sinks and that shadow line rises they become cold, foreboding places leaving one feeling vulnerable and alone. These Rocky Mountains are a treasure and deserve our utmost respect.

Flight Crew, Kremmling, Colorado (2017)

At the end of the flight we glided gently back to the Loveland-Fort Collins airport as our pilot stuck a perfect landing. He smiled as he said, “you guys don’t know how lucky we were on this flight… it’s never like this.” Afternoon flights are prone to a lot of upheaval from warming air, sending the plane into various lurches and making for a bumpy ride. Our flight was smooth as glass making shooting that much easier and more enjoyable.

A big thanks to my good friend Kole, an awesome pilot and generous guy allowing the use of his Cessna Centurion II for the flight.

The 440

A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.

There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean  is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.

Highway 14, North Park, Colorado
North Park along Highway 14 south of Walden, Colorado (2015). Nikon F100 + Ektar

At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.

White gate near Rand, Colorado, North Park, Colorado (2015)
White Gate, North Park, Colorado (2015). Nikon F4s + Velvia

A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.

I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.

I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.

There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.

Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that's fallen.
Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that’s fallen. Nikon F4s + Velvia
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado.
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado. Nikon F4s + Velvia

After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.

I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.

About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.

Riverside, Wyoming (2015)
Riverside, Wyoming (2015) Nikon F5 + Ektar

Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.

No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.

Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming
Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming. Nikon F6 + Portra 160

Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.

Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.

 

 

Happy Fourth of July

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Allenspark, Colorado Fourth of July Parade
Allenspark, Colorado is nestled snugly just below Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. Each year Allenspark celebrates July 4th with a short but festive parade down the main street.

In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me. Attending the Allenspark Fourth of July parade has become an annual event. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked safely in the shadow of Indian Peaks Wilderness, Allenspark is where we began our married life 20 years ago today – and holds a special place for both my wife and I. As the small parade of locals passed in front of us, people, animals and vehicles adorned in American regalia, I was filled with a new appreciation for the strong character and relationships of this town – and our country. What we stand for, what’s important to us. Some days – especially in the mountains of Colorado – it’s great to be an American.

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Little Snake River Valley

Descending Snowy Range Road towards the Little Snake River Valley near Saratoga, Wyoming (2014)

I’ve been wanting to explore the Little Snake River Valley for years. The Little Snake River Valley sits along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and follows the Little Snake River as it tumbles out of the western flank of Colorado’s Park Range. The Little Snake is a tributary of the larger Yampa River, meandering westward in and out of Colorado and Wyoming along the state line then gradually makes its way south west to hook up with the Yampa west of Maybell and very close to Dinosaur National Park.


Evening light along Wyoming-Colorado state boundary (2014)

I was so pleased to have my wife join me on this trip. I’ve spent many hours and miles wandering alone out there and was glad for the company. All I had to do was mention fly fishing along the LSR and she was in. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how the weekend panned out. What we discovered when we hit the drainage was a whole lot of private land. At first glance, access to the river is all but eliminated by ranch after ranch, private home after private home, and miles and miles of fence line with large signs reading, “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING.” While the fishing thing didn’t materialize quite the way we’d envisioned, as in every first time into an area you learn a lot. Getting a feel for the area and traveling the roads is the first step in getting to know it. Turns out there is BLM land up there and river access – we just couldn’t find it. Some follow up calls to the BLM office and GPS will fix that though. We’ll return next time armed with more, better information.


Evening light on Moffat County Rd.7, Moffat County, Colorado (2014)

With our fishing plans shot, my objective was to return to the “town” of Great Divide, a lonesome outpost along Moffat County Rd.7 in the remote regions of the county. Several years ago I’d stumbled across it returning from the Red Desert. At the time it had been a long few days in the car so I took the opportunity to stop and rest for a bit in Great Divide. From a landscape photography point of view light was poor; a typical, blue bird, cloudless, Colorado high-altitude, sunny day (whom but a photographer would deem those conditions poor?). Regardless, I made a few frames, then began the drive south east towards Craig. It’s difficult to explain why but somehow that stop is one of the things I remember most about that particular trip. For some reason the outpost of Great Divide stayed with me for years. Occasionally I’d google it to see what turned up – virtually nothing. It was almost like it didn’t really exist. For years I’ve wanted to get back to Great Divide, hopefully in better light – and see what happened. Great Divide became our new objective.


Wyoming-Colorado state boundary, Highway 13 looking north towards Baggs, Wyoming (2014)

We hit Highway 13 south out of Baggs, Wyoming, and followed it for a mile or so before hooking up with County Road 4, then headed west. The plan was to hook up with Rd.9 and angle down to hit Great Divide for sunset. Even with a sunset calculator you can’t be absolutely certain when sunset will happen. The light was cooperating beautifully. An active sky was producing doppled clouds that drifted between the sun and earth, slightly diffusing the increasingly gorgeous light as it began to sink towards the horizon. Often times what’ll happen with an active sky is a low band of clouds will prematurely obscure the best light at the critical moment and end things early in a veil of gray. This has happened to me a lot over the years. This day, though – it looked like we had a shot at it.

My wife and I talked in the beautiful, evening light, heading down Moffat County Rd. 4 in search of the turn off. I told her as we drove, “when we get there, you’re going to think…” and she finished my sentence: “…I know…that it was all worthwhile and I’ll see how beautiful it is, right?”
“No,” I said. “You’re gonna think I’m nuts – that there’s something wrong with me. There’s really nothing there. It’s just this old building, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even explain why I’ve had it in my head for so many years – why I need to get back. It doesn’t make any sense.”

After a few miles on 4 we checked the map again and realized we may have missed our turn off. Briefly thinking about doubling back to look again the decision was made instead to press on in case it was still before us. But it was a gamble. Rd.4 continued to Powder Wash, then angled back south east on Rd.7 to Great Divide. If you picture a triangle balanced on its point, with Great Divide the bottom, 9 would have traveled one length direct of the triangle and put us right there. Instead, we missed that turn and had to travel the other two lengths of the triangle to reach the same point. It was a sure thing; getting us there eventually, but the route was twice as far. And it was getting late. Making the decision, I hit the gas instead of the brakes – ready for whatever awaited. It seemed like an eternity but we eventually hit Powder Wash, picked up Rd.7 then angled back down, towards what I hoped was that lonely remnant of a town in the middle of nowhere, waiting for me in beautiful, evening light.

My memory of the road was a little fuzzy and looking again at the Delorem atlas it seemed like we were doing everything right. A few dusty miles clicked off the odometer as stones flew from new tire treads and hit the underside of the wheel well. I glanced at the sky, then the clock. Crap. We’re gonna be cutting it close, I thought. All of a sudden I remembered the date. It was June 20 – the day before the longest day of the year. A smile cracked my lips. “What’s the smile for,” my wife asked. I told her. We laughed, and my foot eased up on the accelerator as the pond came into view.


Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

The cows welcomed us as the car came to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Directly across the road I glanced up to see the sign: Moffat County 9. We’d missed it, but would take it home when we left. Most importantly – though – after all the stressing about light – we’d managed to hit it perfectly. After a few shots of the pond we climbed in the car and headed up the road to the only junction of Great Divide, where the Mercantile waited.


Old Mercantile Store, Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

It was still there and didn’t look a bit different – which was no surprise. After surviving for so many years alone on the high plains, a few more shouldn’t have made any difference. We pulled over across from the Old Mercantile and climbed out of the car into the gorgeous, still evening. Birds fluttered about. Back down by the pond, cows moo’d. It was serene. Still. There was no wind. The sun had continued its path towards the horizon, seeming to pull up at the last minute and wait – leaving just enough for us. I set up the tripod, picked the shots and went to work as my wife wandered Great Divide’s single intersection for the first time.

Why do places remain with us? Why some places and not others? I don’t know. What I did know that evening was, the second time to Great Divide was better than the first. It was made better by the company, the knowledge gained from the first visit, and the light. I’ll look forward with eager anticipation to our next visit to the Little Snake River Valley. And I’ll have my camera and a roll of Portra loaded and ready.

Honesty

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in extreme northern Colorado, just south of the Wyoming border (Kodak Portra 160)

I went on one of my 4042n jaunts last Saturday, this time to SoapStone Prairie Open Space, a relatively new area at the extreme edge of Colorado. You can cross into Wyoming on one of the short backcountry trails. Having decided the goal for the day was to record honest images, I headed out with a pack full of Portra 160, some Ektar, some Delta and of course Tri-X.

soapstone prairie natural area, fort collins, colorado
Soapstone Prairie Morning, Extreme Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

What do I mean by honest images. I mean images of an area that don’t happen for a split second once a month, then are gone. An honest image is an unpretentious image. An honest image represents what an area looks like 99.9% of the time, not .1% of the time, deceiving viewers into believing every minute of every day looks like magic hour. An honest image means heading out when nothing’s flowering, nothing’s blooming and nothing’s having babies. An honest image is two does and a buck watching you work your way up the trail in grey-blue hour, wondering if you’re there to kill them, and deciding your not.


North of Wellington, Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

The honest image means a natural color film. Not a digital camera. Not Velvia (though I do think honest images can be made on Velvia). The temptation with Velvia is to force it into the dishonest realm – to compromise it. Juice it. An honest image means no Photoshop monkey business. It means no pano’s, no stitching, and for the love of all things good and right in the world, no HDR. An honest image means being intentional about the media you choose to record a scene that’s chosen you. An honest image means no black and white conversions. It means no cropping your way to a good image. It means thinking in series, or working for the stand-alone, solitary shot that needs no caption, no tag line.


Evolution of a front range sunset, no.3, Fort Collins, Colorado (Kodak Ektar)

An honest image means medium format, 120 fine-grained, color negative film to capture every bit of nuance, every slight tonal variation, every bit of every square inch of everything in front of your fixed, focal-length (non-zooming) lens as you stand behind the tripod with the cable release in hand and trip the shutter. An honest image means waiting. It means looking intently for composition and it means missing. It means seeing a shot and not being able to frame it properly and passing it by, but allowing it to burn into your brain for next time.


Rawhide Power Plant, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means it fits the subject matter. Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming aren’t Disneyland. The land is muted, earthen hues. Greens, mauves, ochres, tans, cobalt blues, cadmium reds, burnt sienna’s; big skies, small plants, ugly rocks and lots of wind. It’s bright, sunny, high-altitude light out of dynamic range praying for a cloud to drift between the sun and the earth to make a shot. An honest image means driving for hours and stopping in the middle of an unmarked county dirt road to turn around to make a shot that you pray you can make before a car comes over the hill and… because with the wind blowing and the hood on your Carhartt up you can’t hear anything more than 3 feet away. An honest image means getting dusty and dirty kneeling down in the the ditch. It means chasing your hat across the prairie when the wind takes it.

red mountain open space, fort collins, colorado
Near Red Mountain Open Space, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.

An honest image means – above all else – joy. Peace. Solitude. Creative immersion. It means Discovery. An honest image is a very, very good thing.

Post-Lude: In the spirit of “honesty,” this post was first published in my previous blog, written when I was shooting a lot of medium format film. Images in this post were not made with the Nikon F6 on 35mm film, but the Mamiya RZ67 on 120 (medium format) film. Not that anyone cares – or would ever know.