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Canadian Rockies Experience

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Banff is gorgeous. Holy cow, it’s an amazing place. But let me annunciate extra clearly, it’s the National Park I’m talking about, not really the city. The city/town is certainly nice. But the region is beautiful. I knew I’d have a great time shooting up there. I just wish I’d had more time.

I left on Valentine’s day, of all days, and went kind of slowly stopping along the way. My plans were to stay the night in Sandpoint, ID, and Cranbrook, BC on the way to Banff. I intended to find waterfalls and other winter landscapes along the way. But I was sorely disappointed in a few of them. I was using the book, Waterfall lovers guide of the Pacific Northwest and I found entries for falls on the way up that were rather close to the main roads. So, I figured I’d have the ability to shoot at least some of them.

A few disappointments

I started with Torrelle falls which is on the Priest River, the West Branch actually, just off Highway 2 outside of Sandpoint. To be fair, the author did start out by saying “a rustic restaurant spans the West Branch Priest River at the base of this 10-15 ft descent.” But they end by saying “When you near the river, a well-worn trail leads to the falls in a few hundred yards.” And that’s the commentary I put more weight behind. It was a bust. It turned out to be about a 5-7ft falls with a very run down and deteriorated building blocking the view. There was no trail that led anywhere. I was very much let down.

The second disappointment was that of the Moyie River outside of Bonners Ferry, ID. The authors give it a 5-star rating and a magnitude of 71 which is rather high. The included little map is quite accurate too. But, there’s a dam built over the falls now. Absolutely NO mention of the dam exists in the book. Why would anyone give a dam spillway a 5-star rating? I figured with five stars there’d be something impressive with the ice, but not with a dam blocking everything up. 

I asked a fella who was plowing snow what gives and he basically said “The author of that book is full of BEEP” [edited to keep it clean here] and I didn’t even have the book in my hand. I just asked him about the falls and where it was.

Getting a good tip

The fella doing the snow plowing did have a great recommendation though. It wasn’t very far either. He mentioned a year-round falls on the Yaak river in Montana.

Yaak River waterfall detail.

The light was very even though and I was having a hard time getting exactly what I wanted. I was doing fine on the overall compositions, but I was concerned about the snow detail.

Technique for snow

If you’re a listener to either of my podcasts you’ve heard me and the other hosts talk a lot about exposing to the right as it relates to our histogram placement. This will guarantee that the snow is in fact bright white.

However, I’ve done this a million times and I’ve been disappointed about as much. My goal with a shot like these (waterfall flowing through a sea of snow) is to show texture both in the waterfall and the snow. When the light is flat, how do you do that? Everything becomes flat along with it because there’s so little contrast in the snow to begin with. 

Dealing with flat light

I decided to not expose quite so far to the right. Rather than slam those white values up against the right side of the histogram as is the usual practice, I brought it down some. In some cases I probably brought it down further than most would be comfortable with doing. All the while I’m looking at the histogram on the left side too just to be sure I’m not clipping anything or losing necessary detail. But all was fine in this area. My whole struggle was to find a way to increase the contrast in the snow. But the contrast slider was useless since it pushes tonal values apart with the midtones being the middle area, obviously.

With the snow brightness values peaking at about 195 on a scale of 0-255 luminance values I was able to use the highlights slider in Lightroom to bring those values down further, and the whites slider to bring them back up. This essentially flattened out the spike in that area of the histogram and that gave me more contrast in that region by pushing some of the tones down a bit and some of them up a bit. I was really happy with the results. 

Develop settings for this image in Lightroom

If you’ve already shot your image, use the exposure slider to first bring down that spike in the snow. Then you can use your highlights and whites like I did and hopefully you’ll find yourself getting more detail in the snow. I used this technique quite a few times as I shot in the Canadian Rockies.

Banff, finally

From Rundle Forebay during “bad” light for photography. Still came out pretty good I’d say.

I finally pulled into town on Saturday night and started shooting Sunday morning. I was staying in Canmore, quite a bit cheaper than Banff and it’s got good views of Mount Rundle as well. So I started at the Rundle Forebay, which is a small reservoir that supplies the town of Canmore. The weather was rather thick, so the light was very flat. I still shot, but nothing much came of it. After a while I gave up on that area and went to a place called the Grotto. It’s a canyon with a frozen river running through it. It was a good shoot and the weather started clearing out a bit. I think I got a few good options there and I just loved the experience of walking on the ice. Traction cleats are very important in an area like this.

Selfie of me on the ice in the grotto.

Another thing to think about with light and the quality of light is that during the winter, and with being so far north, there’s almost never any bad light. The angle of the light was almost always pleasing. During the summer in my neck of the woods it can get quite harsh during the middle of the day and it’s no fun shooting. In the Rockies though things were almost always looking good. I just had to fight the weather. And the cold.

That’s one benefit of being dedicated to shooting no matter what. I like to think that the weather doesn’t really bother me much. In fact, the more the better, within reason. But if you’re completely socked in, well, that can be a challenge no matter what your subject.

I had plans to meet up with a listener at Johnston Canyon at about 2 in the afternoon, so I took a brief lunch break back at the hotel before I headed out. The drive to the canyon was about 40 minutes, but it was wonderfully easy given the attention they give the roads up in this area.

Johnston Canyon is way more popular than the Grotto, but they are essentially the same type of feature. A canyon with a river running through it that is completely frozen. But at Johnston, the canyon is deeper and the trail is much narrower. Plus, for much of it there’s a narrow walkway that is bolted to the side of the canyon and that makes setting up a tripod very difficult. Additionally, the sun had come out and that made for very harsh differences between the shadow areas and the highlight areas. I was not really in the mood to do exposure blending and the crowd was just making things too hectic.

The falls we made it to were kinda cool though. They were in complete shadow so the light was even once again and the platform area we had to shoot from was overcrowded and very tight. Rather than spread my tripod legs I just extended them to the length I wanted and then pushed it against the railing. It worked for what I needed. There’s not much room for creativity there with different angles. Just nowhere to climb and study the subject. If you did you’d fall into the abyss that is the waterfall pool and probably freeze to death anyway!

The best shot of the whole trip, so far

On the walk back we decided we’d head to the overlook of Banff and Mt Rundle. I wrote another blog post specifically about the shot I got there. Thus far it’s the best shot I’ve created this year. I have yet to finish editing all the photos from this trip, so I may have a diamond in the rough that I’ve not uncovered yet. This image was created on a pullout on the way to the Norquay ski area. There’s an easy view of the mountain and the valley below. It was sunset and I zoomed in to the mountain. For all the details, please just read this blog post.

The following day was Monday, our US holiday called President’s day. In Alberta, it’s Family Day. So it was extra busy on Monday as well. I met up with another listener for sunrise and we started out at a place called Johnson Lake. It looked good on the map and it was mentioned as a great place for views, but we were short on time and he knew of a place with wide open views right nearby. So we went to Two Jack lake, got right on the lake and took our pics from there. I got a great panorama of the Alpen glow on Cascade mountain and then I got a couple of Mt. Rundle as well. I was thankful to have someone with me who knew just a bit more about the landscape than I did.

Mt Cascade from Two Jack Lake.

We then drove on over to Lake Minnewanka to go up a small canyon there but I don’t think either of us took any shots. 

Monday, by the way, was very clear and down right COLD. Afterwards we took a break at Tim Hortons (by the way, would the owners of Tim Hortons please bring one to Walla Walla?)

Gorgeous snow forms on Lake Louise.

While chomping on a donut we decided it would be worth it to head on up to Lake Louise. It was awesome. We walked across the lake, got some great shots and had a great time. The weather was completely clear though and that made for some good pics because everything was either well-lit or we were able to photograph in the shadows. I didn’t have any compositional problems trying to fit things into the scene and then having problems with distracting bright areas or parts that were too dark. 

Shooting the frozen Lake Louise

Walking on Lake Louise.

I found myself converting most of the images I shot to B&W. I just like the feel of a good B&W, but when there’s so little color anyway I say what’s the use? Just go for it. That’s another thing about this weather. It can be bright or dreary, B&W works with it all. Or at least it can.

Heading home

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I slept in a bit on Tuesday. That was the day I was heading home and I was convinced that I’d have a repeat of the Sunday, where it was a bit too cloudy to do anything. A check of the weather app proved me right, until I looked out the window. Oh well. I was well rested for the 12 hour drive home. It’s not that long in good wather, but I also stopped at Marble Creek on the way back and photographed some guys doing some ice climbing. That was kinda cool. 

Ice climbing at Marble Canyon. No, that’s not me 🙂

I can’t wait to go back. The next time might be in summer though. I long for the ability to go to great places like this in the off-season.