Sunbeams, San Juan Mountains, CO, USA

Sunbeams, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Driving over Lizard Head Pass we came around a bend and spotted these sunbeams coming through the clouds. Claudia found a place to pull over, and I scrambled to set up my camera as quickly as possible. Wind was blowing rain right toward the camera, so it was a challenge to keep water drops off the lens. I stayed for at least 20 minutes capturing images of the sunbeams as they moved and changed, but this was the very first frame. A challenging photo to process!

With their straight, white trunks and colorful leaves, aspens are great subjects for intimate landscapes. But in both Colorado and the eastern Sierra this fall we had lots of interesting weather, with great clouds, which created many opportunities to capture images of aspens as part of a larger landscape, with mountains in the background. I’ve posted a couple of these photographs already (here and here), but I’ve included a few more in this post.

These images were sometimes challenging to process. Often the aspens were in the shade, with sunlit, sometimes snow-covered peaks above, creating a lot of contrast. Yet all of these images were processed in Lightroom, with just one Raw file – no exposure blending or HDR. I used Lightroom’s wonderful Highlights and Shadows tools, plus some dodging and burning with the Adjustment Brush.

With most high-contrast images, shadow areas can be left dark – maybe not completely black, but still looking like dark shadows, with perhaps a hint of detail. But when it’s important to show color in the shadows – when those shadows include colorful trees or flowers, for example – the shadows have to be lightened even more to show the color, and it can be difficult to do that in a natural-looking way. If you lighten the shadows too much you can eliminate the dark areas entirely, and without some dark tones there’s no contrast, leaving the image flat and lifeless. Too-light shadows can also just look weird and unnatural. But on the other hand, you have to lighten important colorful shadow areas enough to see the color, otherwise there’s no point in keeping that colorful foreground in the photograph. You have to strike the right balance, and try to make the shadows bright enough to show the color, but not too bright. I also think it helps if you don’t rely entirely on the Highlights and Shadows sliders, but also use Adjustment Brush to selectively lighten or darken parts of the frame.

In my next post I’ll go into more detail about processing these high-contrast, colorful images. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this little portfolio. It was a lot of fun to capture these. It’s always great when the light, weather, and subject come together!

— Michael Frye

Aspens and Turret Ridge, Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA

Aspens and Turret Ridge, Uncompahgre NF, Colorado. I liked the sunny-day, puffy-cloud feeling of this scene. Everything was in the sun in this mid-afternoon photograph, so there wasn’t much contrast, making this image relatively easy to process.

Fast-moving clouds at sunrise, Crystal Lake, Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA

Fast-moving clouds at sunrise, Crystal Lake, Uncompahgre NF, Colorado. It was very windy on this morning, so I put on a neutral-density filter and made a 30-second exposure to smooth out the water. The blurred, fast-moving clouds looked really interesting, so I left the ND filter on and kept trying to capture that motion. I didn’t want to lighten the aspen-covered hillsides too much here, because I wanted to keep the viewers attention on the clouds.

Autumn sunrise over the Sneffels Range from the Dallas Divide, CO, USA

Autumn sunrise over the Sneffels Range from the Dallas Divide, Colorado. In autumn, this well-known spot can be as popular with photographers as Tunnel View. This was a gorgeous sunrise, with the sun breaking through the clouds to light the snowy mountains.

Double rainbow, Wilson Mesa, CO, USA

Double rainbow, Wilson Mesa, Colorado. Late in the afternoon a thunderstorm approached from the east, and the sun broke through clouds to create a double rainbow. Wind blew rain right toward the camera, so it was difficult to keep the lens dry, and I had to clone out some water spots in this frame. I expected to get dumped on at any moment, but luckily the heavy rain held off until I got back to the car.

Aspens and reflections at Woods Lake, Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA

Aspens and reflections at a mountain lake, Uncompahgre NF, Colorado. We found this lake on our last afternoon in Colorado. We’ll have to go back!

Clearing storm, autumn, North Lake, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Clearing storm, autumn, North Lake, Inyo NF, California. During our first Eastern Sierra Fall Color workshop we photographed a wonderful clearing storm in Bishop Creek Canyon.

Aspens and peak at sunrise, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Aspens and peak at sunrise, Inyo NF, California. On the last morning of our second workshop we were treated to a beautiful sunrise, as the sun broke through clouds and mist to light freshly snow-covered peaks above an aspen grove.

Related Posts: From Eclipse to Aspens; Colorado Color; Eastern Sierra Fall Color Update

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.