Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall Foliage 1500 Miles from Home: Aspens in Aspen (With a Tangent on HDR imagery)

There are certain places which every photographer must visit in his or her lifetime, and certainly Colorado's Maroon Bells at sunrise is high atop that list--even more so during fall foliage season.  Indeed, there those who make the high alpine lake shore near Aspen an annual pilgrimage, to the point that the Maroon Bells are characterized by some as the most photographed scene in North America.

The Maroon Bells about 15 minutes before dawn
After a long several weeks at work with nary a moment for any interesting photography (working with the government come the end of the fiscal year always makes for busy times!), I needed a break.  The red rock country of the Colorado Plateau did have its siren call in my ear, and I might have headed out to revisit my favorite place on Earth, Bryce Canyon.  Yet with October here and its palette of fall colors that come but once a year, I decided to see something I had not before and booked a flight to Aspen, hoping to catch the aspens at their peak of brilliant yellow even as the Front Range of the Rockies picked up the beginnings of their wintry white cloaks.

Fall comes earlier to the high mountains of Colorado than it does to the Piedmont and coastal plane of Virginia where the majority of the trees are still largely green--according to my trusty copy of Laurent Martres' Photographing the Southwest, the peak of fall color typically arrives in the last week of September to the first few days of October--but I couldn't get away from work any earlier than the Columbus Day holiday weekend.  Fall colors are notoriously fickle, too, depending on factors from the amount of summer rainfall and temperatures leading up to the fall to wind and rain once the leaves turn.

Despite predictions of a later-than-usual peak for the area, I saw plenty of completely bare patches standing along the slopes as I flew over the Front Range from Denver--alongside many still-green stands of aspens, indicating a combination of less-than-optimal summer conditions and winds which had stripped bare many of the trees which had already changed colors (I'd seen the wind forecast a day before my trip--which didn't leave me very happy).  No matter: there's always something to photograph in Colorado!

I started my day in Aspen with a drive up to nearby Marble, a tiny community with only one paved road (and that recently-enough done that Tabitha, my GPS, kept trying to steer me off onto alternate routes).  A lot of the names of Colorado's towns reflect the state's mining history--Telluride, Agate, Leadville, Gypsum, to name a few--and Marble follows that tradition well as it is named for its marble quarry, from which material used in D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial came.  At the far end of town, CR3 turns into a dirt road with a warning sign that there is no winter maintenance and that only 4x4 vehicles are permitted beyond that point: good thing I rented one (and no, please don't tell the rental company, who I know forbids offroading).  This is the beginning of the road to the Crystal Mill, one of Colorado's many treasures and a perfect late afternoon photo shoot location.

Lizard Lake, approximately halfway between Marble and the Crystal Mill
Martres describes the 5.5 mile trip from Marble to the Crystal Mill as a rough but "non-technical" drive--but then, he's comparing it to some of the really challenging routes in the desert southwest.  Although I have some experience with offroading--having driven Jeep trails in the Anza-Borrego Desert among other routes--and have owned a SUV for years, I have to say that the average Joe won't want to tackle the drive to Crystal Mill and should hire a driver and vehicle in Marble.  Most of CR3 beyond Marble is incredibly rocky and demands a high-clearance vehicle with large, tough tires and deep wheel wells, and the vast majority of the route is a single lane which often includes a steep drop-off to the Crystal River far below.  I put my Chevy Tahoe into first gear and full-time four wheel drive and still felt the 45-minute drive worthy of the white knuckles I sure had.  There are stretches where it's tough to see far ahead as you top over a rise, and you dare not come to a full stop for fear of sliding on the loose rocks that continually make the ride a jouncing rollercoaster experience.  You will meet other vehicles, and chances are one or the other of you may even need to back up to find a place wide enough for the other to get by.

The Crystal Mill is worth the drive (or ride, if you're not up to wrangling your own SUV there).  Dating to 1892, the structure stands on a promontory overlooking the Crystal River and is surrounded by aspens which at their fall color peak are gorgeous to behold.  I've seen a few beautiful old mills in the Appalachians, to be sure, but those don't have quite the dramatic background of snow-capped Rockies as does the Crystal Mill.  The mill actually was a power station which provided compressed air for silver mining activities in the surrounding area.

My only complaint was that I managed to get only thirty seconds or so of sun on the mill; the skies had gone to a solid, dreary white during the drive up from Aspen and offered only the occasional gap of blue through the dense cloud cover.  That made my work as a photographer significantly more challenging; nothing makes an image more lackluster than the low contrast of grey, boring skies.  So I set up for a HDR (high dynamic range) shot, taking several bracketed exposures which I intended later to combine in Photoshop into one image which rendered the full detail of the scene and which would allow me to expose for all the rich color of the mill itself while still getting some density to the sky.

Techie side note: HDR can work well for images with significant difference between the bright (or highlight) and dark (or shadow) areas; camera sensors only capture a few "stops" (with each stop representing twice the brightness or darkness of the adjacent one) of light from highlight to shadow--typically anywhere from 5 to 10 stops--whereas the human eye sees a range of up to 15 stops.  Couple that with the fact that our eyes and brains constantly adjust to whatever we're focused on in a very dynamic process which effectively allows us to take in an even broader range of light and dark in a way a single, static image cannot, and you see the problem which HDR is designed to address.

Above, I took three separate exposures, each one full stop in difference than the next.  Given I'd set my exposure compensation to underexpose the shot by a third of a stop (to try to avoid losing the highlights on the water or in the skies), that gave me photos at -1 1/3, -1/3, and +2/3 exposure across a range of two full stops (and thus expand my camera's dynamic range by an extra two stops as well).  I won't bore you with the details of how I processed the HDR image itself as there are many more in-depth explanations available via Google.

See the skies I had to work with? Clouds are good, but images need open patches of sky, too!
The drive back out was just as rough as the drive in had been, with the sole benefit of not meeting any oncoming traffic.  I stayed in Glenwood Springs, a community right off of Interstate 70 and about an hour to an hour and a half's drive northwest of Aspen proper--where I could get a hotel room for under $100 a night instead of paying through the nose with Aspen's high-end boutique rates.  Still being one eastern time made an early bedtime more effective (a good thing as the drive to the Maroon Bells plus needing to be there well before dawn meant a very early morning).

Even though CO82 has a HOV lane (M-F starting at 6:00am) as you near Aspen, traffic was pretty light on my drive down to the White River National Forest and the Maroon Bells.  I figured even with the fall foliage a bit past its peak, a holiday weekend in autumn would find the place packed for the sunrise, yet as I pulled into the Maroon Lake parking lot at approximately 5:50am, there was only one other vehicle present.  Yes, it was bitterly cold: I'd used the Aspen forecast in determining clothes to bring, not thinking that the Maroon Bells were 2000 feet higher up in elevation than the town, and even layered, 18 degrees is darn chilly!  (Side note: arm warmers, designed for cyclists, are a great invention.)

Sunrise may not have been until around 7:15am--and it was completely dark when I arrived--but the skies began lightening not long after 6:00am, so I headed out into the elements and up to the lake shore to set up my tripod and await the magical experience of a Maroon Bells dawn.  (See the photo leading off this blog entry for the scenery I contemplated, my fingers and toes freezing, for about an hour before the sun's first rays struck the peaks.)

On a perfect morning, there will be a few clouds in the sky and absolutely no wind--the slightest breeze will set ripples across the lake and spoil that stunning reflection.  I must say, the morning of October 10 was very nearly perfect!  This really helped make up for the fact that the aspens nearest the lake shore in the shot's foreground had completely shed their leaves.

A graduated neutral density filter will work wonders here, as the first rays of the sun on the Maroon Bells (particularly with any snowfall on the peaks) will create significantly more contrast across the scene than any camera sensor or film can capture.  I went with a 3-stop filter (meaning the lightest areas of the filter let through around eight times as much light as the darkest), and even stacked a second 2-stop graduated filter in front of it for a few shots.  As with the pre-dawn shots I took and the Crystal Mill, bracketed exposures with an HDR image in mind aren't a bad idea, either.  Do note that the first golden rays will strike the peaks about 10 minutes after "scheduled" sunrise (according to the time in my GPS' almanac).

After the best moments of sunrise, it's at least an hour and a half to two hours before the sun will have crept high enough over the peaks behind and to the photographer's left to evenly illuminate the trees surrounding the lake.  I spent about half that time in my car, warming back up from the bitter cold (and cursing having only brought thin cycling gloves) while I transferred photos to my laptop, then set out along the the Crater Lake trail, which climbs above the far shore of Maroon Lake.

The trail to Crater Lake offers some great views of aspen thickets, showing off the skeletal, white trunks, and at the right time of year their brilliant yellow fall foliage.  It's not a particularly rough or difficult trail, and at under two miles one-way from the parking area isn't an all-day affair, either.  Nonetheless, even though I knew I wasn't in the same shape I had been last fall when Beth and I tackled the brutal Fairyland Canyon hike at Bryce (alongside about 20 miles of trails in and about Zion), I had to stop and catch my breath repeatedly on the ascent.  I kept giving myself a hard time--after all, I'd done Delicate Arch earlier this year on a solid sheet of ice--until I consulted the altimeter on my hand-held GPS (Tabbycita, she's named, for her big sister in my car): the hike rises over 1000 feet in the first mile to mile and a quarter, and a large portion of the hike is over 10,000 feet above sea level!  My blood is simply too thin for that sort of exertion that early in the morning.

There is a fantastic view well worth the hike not quite a mile into the route, looking back down at Maroon Lake from one of the few clearings in the aspens.  If you ever attempt this trail and feel like turning back, make sure to force yourself onward until you do make that viewpoint.

Looking down on Maroon Lake
Stop and spend a few minutes catching your breath, because from there the terrain crossed several shaded switchbacks which anytime outside the middle of summer are likely to be packed with a layer of ice.  Crampons would be a good idea in the backpack of a hiker following the Boy Scout motto, and I honestly felt the going more difficult and slick than Delicate Arch had been back in January.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake itself is a so-so sight in my opinion given the rigors of the hike to reach it, but it does offer a much closer look at the Maroon Bells than the classic shots down along the shores of Maroon Lake.  Would-be mountaineers are advised by signs not to attempt climbing the "deadly Bells" without proper preparation and experience, citing dozens of deaths by even otherwise-experienced climbers annually.

The good thing about the hike back down--besides the fact that it's downhill almost the entire way!--is that you can encourage (or have a chuckle at) all the mid-morning hikers huffing and puffing their way up the path who stop to ask you if it's "much farther" or worth the hike.

By the time I got back to the shores of Maroon Lake at nearly noon, the sun had indeed illuminated the entire basin around the lake.  Unfortunately, between several mallards and a bit of a breeze spoiling any reflections, the pre-dawn clouds having moved on and left behind totally-blue skies, and several dozen tourists posing for quick shots against the majestic backdrop, there wasn't any real chance of capturing a good image, so I set off to Aspen in search of a bite to eat.

Aspen can be very crowded, particularly during ski season as well as the peak of summer and fall foliage, but I found it surprisingly laid-back for a holiday and even found free-for-the-day parking near the city's pedestrian core.  Almost all of the restaurants along the core do seem to be dinner-only establishments, but I found a real gem in the Red Onion, which purports to be the town's oldest restaurant and bar and which dates like the Crystal Mill to 1892 and the area's silver boom.  I enjoyed a pint of local pale ale and one of the best seared ahi tuna salads I've eaten, with the tuna cooked absolutely perfectly (raw inside with a thin layer seared but not blackened) and just the right amount of lemon vinaigrette (most restaurants go way overboard with dressing!).

As I know Beth would never willingly ride out the route to the Crystal Mill and not sure I'd have such an appropriate 4x4 rental the next time in the area anyway, I decided I'd better tackle the punishing drive again while the skies were sunny and take a mulligan on the prior day's overcast grey blanket, rather than spending any time in the many quaint shops of downtown Aspen (with signs proclaiming such encouraging notes as: "Be prepared to spend money!").

The drive out to the Crystal Mill was no less punishing than it had been the prior day--at the end of it, I actually had to crank the Tahoe's full-sized spare back up as it had worked itself nearly loose from beneath the car during the trip--but I did get some fantastic color and light on the mill as my reward.  I also met a young artist hard at work capturing the scene in a painting--certainly the scene is one well-suited to artistic inspiration.  Even with the superior light of my repeat visit, I actually liked the HDR image I made the day before better, though.

I had planned to hit the Maroon Bells for a second morning before flying home on Tuesday, putting to work what I'd learned on my first day there, but when I headed out of the Hampton Inn in Glenwood Springs at a quarter to five, it was raining, and the forecast for the Aspen area was hardly any different.  As I drove down CO82, I did watch the skies closely for any sign of the clouds breaking up--remember, some clouds are a good thing in photographs--but with a repeat of Sunday afternoon's gloomy skies and cloud cover which would stop the pink alpenglow and sunrise's magic cold, I decided to put my frequent flier status on United to work and catch earlier flights home.

Will I make the Maroon Bells an annual pilgrimage as do so many other nature photographers?  Well, it was indeed spectacular and something I'd see again, though there are so many other destinations and sights calling...  Well, next time Beth needs to come along, so perhaps in a year or two, I'll find the shores of Maroon Lake in my travels again.