Rocky Mountain National Park

Driving Through the Rocky Mountains by Todd Henson

A view from the road while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to spend a day in Rocky Mountain National Park.This particular photograph was created from one of the many scenic pull offs on the road that weaves its way through the park.

The sky was full of clouds and the light was always changing. At times you could see a storm in the distance dropping rain or snow. The view isn’t one of the iconic views from the area, but I still like it. It’s a very beautiful location.

These scenes seem to work well in black in white, so that’s how I chose to process this image. The photo then becomes about tones, textures, and patterns. It simplifies the image. I most often shoot for color, but lately I’ve been exploring black and white.

Give it a try with your own photographs. First try picking photos from your back catalogue that might work as black and white and experiment with different conversions. Then start looking for scenes that might look great in black and white and create images in camera with the specific purpose of later converting them.

If you shoot in RAW (which I recommend) it might be helpful initially to set your camera to its black and white or monochrome setting. This should only affect the JPEG that gets embedded in the RAW file. Your camera will still capture and store all the color information. Doing this will let you view the photo in black and white on the back of the camera and help you see how the scene might look in black and white. Later, when you import the photo into your computer you can work on it in black and white, or process it in full color. That’s one benefit of RAW: it records all the information. It’s up to you how you choose to process it.



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Facing the Storm - The Story Behind the Image by Todd Henson

Facing the Storm, Rocky Mountain National Park (black and white)

Story

Facing the Storm is an image I created while on vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The location is the end of the Tundra Communities Trail, which starts at Rock Cut just off Trail Ridge Road. The entire trail is paved and is a one-way in and back trail. The rock formations seen in the image are the end of the trail.

Tundra Communities Trail is a reasonably short trail, only 1 mile round trip to the rock formations and back. And the elevation change is only 200 feet. But I have to admit this trail completely wore me out. I spend most of my time on the east coast at sea level. This trail is at an elevation of over 12000 feet. That’s more than 2 and a quarter miles above sea level. I knew the air was thinner at those elevations, but not having been at them very often I’d forgotten just how much of a difference it makes. I was constantly stopping and catching my breath on the half mile hike up the tundra. This was a reminder I could use a little more exercise in my routine.

It was a beautiful trail surrounded by tundra, with flowers of various kinds blooming here and there. I could have spent far more time here than I did, but I only had one day, so I had to keep moving. I was fortunate the sky was full of interesting cloud formations, and storms could be seen in the distance. Rain was expected in this area, but it held off for the time I was there.

When I had almost reached the end of the trail, I stopped to take in the fantastic view and create a few photographs. I was most drawn to the sky and the storms in the distance. I loved the look of those storms against the rock formations. There were several people on top of the rock formations, and I was ok with that. Sometimes having a person in an image can help create a sense of scale.

Facing the Storm, unprocessed raw color photo, straight out of camera

The unprocessed raw color image gives a good indication of how the scene looked to my eyes. Unprocessed raw images straight out of the camera are often a little flat and this image shows that. It hasn’t yet had the processing applied to it that cameras automatically apply to JPEG images. That’s why we import raw images into software, to allow us to control how the image is processed instead of allowing the camera to do it for us.

I knew I would try converting many of the images I made to black and white, so I was most focused on the light, the texture of the rocks, and the tonal values of the scene and how they would translate to different values of grey. I smiled when the person with the white shirt climbed to the top of the rocks. I knew the white shirt would stand out nicely in a black and white conversion, and I loved how he was facing the direction of the storms. I imagined this lone individual, standing alone on the rocks, facing the storm and contemplating his life. Of course, there were other people on the rocks, but their clothing was darker and wouldn’t stand out quite as much. I’d have to wait and see how the photo looked after converting it to black and white.

After creating a few images I continued my hike to the rock formations, climbed to the top to see the view from there, and then slowly wandered back down to the car. The focus of this story is on this specific scene, but the location has much more to offer. As I mentioned earlier, the tundra can be covered in little flowers depending on the time of year. And I was fortunate on the hike back down to watch and photograph a group of elk walking along the ridge line very near by, close enough to get good images with my 70-200mm lens. Back at the trailhead, just across the road, is a sharp rocky drop off that is home to American pika and yellow-bellied marmots.

This is a location and a hike I highly recommend to anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. The entire park is just stunningly beautiful. It’s difficult to find words to convey just how remarkable this park is. And I was only there for one day. I could have spent weeks wandering through the park. Go visit if you have the opportunity.

Post-Processing

When I finally returned home it was time to open and process the raw images. I was looking for something bold, something that really showed off the texture of the rocks and the foreboding storm in the distance. I had captured the person with the white shirt facing towards the storm, so Facing the Storm seemed an obvious title for the image. I liked having the person standing atop the rocks, giving a little scale, with the winding curve of the trail leading right to the formation he’s standing on.

I usually do all my processing in Lightroom (or Aperture back in the day), but occasionally I will use a plugin package. For this particular image I used Silver Efex Pro from the Google Nik Collection. The collection contains a large number of plugins for a variety of situations, and Google has made the entire collection free, so check it out if you use Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture (though Apple has discontinued Aperture). Silver Efex Pro, used for black and white conversions, is my favorite tool from this collection. It contains a number of filters that affect the image in various ways. You can apply multiple filters, and each filter is fully adjustable, giving you endless control over how it affects the image.

Facing the Storm, initial black and white conversion using Silver Efex Pro

I was very pleased with my initial black and white conversion. I was able to capture the texture I’d wanted, and I brought out the drama in the sky. The person on the rock was easy to see with his white shirt (though it is much easier to see him on a larger screen). There were 3 other people on another portion of the rock, but they didn’t stand out quite as much and were secondary to the individual standing alone.

After Silver Efex Pro I took the image back into Lightroom to perform some final processing. I thought the dark cloudless region of sky at the top of the frame was distracting, so I decided to crop the image into a panorama format. After this I dodged and burned (lightened and darkened) portions of the image to bring out more texture in the landscape and to help direct the eye up the trail towards the rock formations. This is something that was often done in the darkroom with film, with one of the masters being Ansel Adams. I’ve been heavily influenced by his work.

One of the final steps was the removal of distracting elements. This has become much easier in the digital darkroom than it would have been in the film darkroom. And there is sometimes controversy surrounding this sort of digital manipulation. If I had created this image as a photojournalist, or to appear in a guidebook, I would have skipped this step. But because my focus here is creating an artistic image I have no problem removing distractions, though I am still very hesitant to add anything to an image. In this case I removed the sign post towards the bottom of the trail.

Facing the Storm, after further processing, dodging and burning, and removing distractions

While writing this post I began to look more closely at the image, and wondered if I might be able to make the message stronger. The title is Facing the Storm, and for me it’s about that single individual in the white shirt standing alone and facing the storm. So I thought removing the other 3 people on the rocks might bring this more into focus, might add that element of being alone in this wide open landscape facing the oncoming storm. And this resulted in the following image. I feel this image best captures my vision of the scene.

Facing the Storm, final version

Below is a slide show of each step. Click on the image to step through each version.

Let me know your thoughts. Would you have processed it differently? I ask myself this question all the time and will occasionally return to an image and refine or reprocess it. Do you ever reprocess your own images?

The final version of Facing the Storm is available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products.

Christmas Cardinals and Holiday Chipmunks by Todd Henson

Bright red male Northern Cardinal perched on bush with berries in the rain

The holidays are upon us and it’s almost Christmas, so this week I thought I’d share some images that feel like Christmas to me. Whether you celebrate Christmas, another holiday, or nothing at all, I hope you gain some enjoyment viewing these images.

The Northern Cardinal, above, was photographed in Huntley Meadows, a beautiful wetlands park in Virginia. Looking closely you can see small streaks formed by the light drizzle, and the raindrops forming on the berries. The colors were nice and saturated because of the rain, and I was fortunate there were some nice reds and greens in the background.

Carolina Chickadee hanging upside down from a pine coe

I really enjoyed watching this little Carolina Chickadee feeding on pine cones. It would hang from the bottom of the pine cone and pry pieces loose to eat, sometimes flapping it’s wings wildly to keep balance. Such a beautiful little bird.

Bright red male Northern Cardinal perched on a branch

Steller's Jay, with white eye brows, perched on a branch

The closeup of the male Northern Cardinal was created the same day as the one up top. The rain had stopped, at least for a while, and the very patient Cardinal perched close by, providing a nice profile image. The Steller’s Jay was photographed in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was on my way out of the park when I noticed some Elk along the edge of the trees. After getting out of my car I saw flashes of dark blue moving in the tree right in front of me. I was very fortunate the Jay came out into the light and perched for a brief moment on a branch, allowing me to create one image before it flew away.

Beautiful Blue Jay posing for a portrait on a branch

Burke Lake Park is another nice location, with a long trail around the lake. That is where I created the image of the Blue Jay perched on a branch. From this perspective there is just a bit of blue visible, but I like the pose and the poofy feathers along the sides of the Jay’s back.

Elk along the edge of the trees

And here are the Elk I mentioned earlier. There were at least two in the field just in front of the trees, eating grass. They were slowly moving their way back into the trees. You can just make out the second Elk in the trees to the left of the visible one. I like the pose of the main Elk, looking over it’s shoulder and munching on the grass.

A curious Least Chipmunk on a lichen covered rock

And, finally, here is a little Least Chipmunk perched atop a lichen covered rock in Rocky Mountain National Park. I found this little Chipmunk at a pull off. I had stopped to take a break and look around, when I noticed movement just beyond the car. That’s when I noticed the Chipmunk scurrying from rock to rock. It paused a couple times, long enough for me to create some images. I love how the tail is raised, and how it’s watching me as I watch and photograph it.

Thank you so much for visiting my website and sharing some of your time viewing my images and reading some of my ramblings. I hope you’ve felt a little of the excitement and joy I felt when creating these images, and viewing these beautiful creatures. And I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!