Mountains upon Mountains

For everyone who's followed Ian's recent visit to my home in the Canadian Rockies, you'll know that the weather didn't really cooperate and that our grand aims of capturing the brilliant yellow larch trees came up short. We even had a whole live event that we called Landscape Fails, which served as a therapy session to help us deal with it. And while this therapy session was good (and entertaining!), I knew that the best remedy for a photographer was to get back out in the field and keep trying.

So this past Friday afternoon (October 4th) I drove to Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, where Ian and I had done some hiking in blizzard like conditions with limited visibility (the camera did not come out of the backpack that day). Anyway, on this Friday, contrary to the weather forecasts and much to my amazement, I arrived at the Moraine Lake parking lot to another blizzard! I waited awhile, but ultimately did not get out of my vehicle and decided to make the 75 minute drive back home.

I was quickly running out of time since the 11km (6.6 mile) access road closes for the season on October 15th and on October 7th I would be traveling abroad on a family trip. This left Sunday, (October 6th) as my last chance at this location for 2019.

So after deciding to forego packing and declining our neighbors's generous offer for dinner, I made one last attempt. The weather forecast and local webcams (which by now had become my most reliable weather instrument) all looked much more promising.

I arrived at the Moraine Lake parking lot in the late afternoon to only a few small clouds in the sky. So far, so good. I quickly geared up and hiked up to the area Ian and I had trekked a few days earlier. From the way the late afternoon sun was hitting the mountain peaks, I was very encouraged and made it up to my shooting location in record time (about 45minutes), which gave me plenty of time to scout the area.

And luckily for me the larch trees, our target trees, still had their yellow needles! I quickly searched for open water (a photographer's best friend in winter time), and was able to capture this image that showcases the mixing of the seasons - the larch trees surrounded by snow. For this composition, I was thinking of visual progression (and the elusive 5th layer for those who listened to Episode 3 of Shuttermonkeys Live!). I set up my tripod very low to the stream to emphasize the triangle opening, which was only a few inches high, and positioned my camera so that it was pointing to the striking mountain in the background that was getting the last golden light of the day. The ice and very small waterfall help to anchor the foreground. Next the curvature of the stream draws the viewer's eye to the mid-ground, which is where the larch trees do their part. It's clear that they're a little past their peak yellow brilliance, but hey, I'll take it! And from there, the background is anchored by the striking, triangle shaped mountain. I would have preferred a few more clouds in the sky, but I wasn't going to be greedy, especially since the best was yet to come.

The triangle opening points the way to the mixing of the seasons. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 50, f/11, 1/8 second.

After following this stream for a little bit and making note of places to scout further for next season, I decided to quickly move on to another location about 20 minutes away that I had scouted earlier in the summer. The light was also waning so I made for a funny sight racing across the ridges and nearly falling every time I unknowingly stepped in a knee deep drift of snow.

As I got closer to my spot, it appeared that the alpine lake, which was to be my foreground, was frozen over! As I got closer, however, I noticed that there was still a small section of open water right where the water was coming into the lake. By now the blue hour was coming on strong and the snow on the distant mountain peaks were starting to get that twilight glow.

So I set up my tripod just above the water once again with this dream like setting in front of me and took this shot of the mountain peaks and the moon, anchored by the large rocks breaking the water line in the foreground. It's important to have a strong foreground element, as Ian explains in the Ultimate Landscape Photography Course, to make your photo more compelling. unique, and interesting. And I particularly like how the rocks naturally lined up in this case.

The rocks in the foreground add an extra visual element to this serene setting. Canon 5DIV, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 50, f/11, 4 seconds.

I was the only one there and I will never forget this moment in this incredibly beautiful setting. Particularly, since just moments after I took this shot, I thought it would be a good idea to snap a quick photo with my phone, which was in my jacket's chest pocket. And as I opened the zipper, my car keys (that were also in this pocket) fell into the water below! Thankfully, I could see where they landed, otherwise they could have easily slid under a rock and been gone forever. So I reached in and grabbed them, but there was another complication. They were electronic! So for the whole 45 minute descent down the hiking trail in the darkness, I'm thinking: (1) there's no cell reception here, (2) I'm a 75 minute drive from home, and (3) I really hope that the keys still work. There was a 4th thought: hopefully I don't run into that bear which I did on this trail earlier in the summer, but this seemed less important at the time, all things considered. And thankfully, the keys worked and everything ended well.

And there's one more piece to this story. You'll have heard Ian state that he's never really seen great light in the Canadian Rockies despite his many visits. Well the following morning, we were treated to one of the most stunning sunrises in recent memory. I snapped this photo from my balcony as the mountain peak caught the first red light of the rising sun as the clouds lit up above. It was so memorable that it was one of the main talking points on our local radio station that day.

The view from my balcony during one of the best sunrises in recent memory. Canon 5DIV, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens, ISO 400, f/4, 1/250 second.

About the Author: Zac Mills lives for adventure and feels at home in some of the wildest places on our planet. Whether capturing the majesty of the silverback mountain gorilla, the elegance of the leopard, or the dignity of the polar bear, photography is more than a passion for Zac, it’s a means of connection – a connection that brings a deeper understanding of the incredible beauty, diversity, and fragility of our planet.

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