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A Winter Dawn at the Grand Tetons

I like the row of trees in the foreground, the snowy Tetons in the middle, and the clouds radiating out from the mountain peaks, and also the clouds resting on some of the peaks on the left. I manually focused on the trees using a magnified live view as the trees and mountains and clouds are all at infinity.

I live in Island Park, ID and it lies about fifteen miles southwest of West Yellowstone. On a clear day, I can see the Grand Tetons to the southeast from my deck. Until a couple years ago, I never traveled to the Grand Tetons to photograph them. (Why? I spent most of my life photographing all over the world. The question I had, “Do I photograph the Tetons, or go to Kenya, Antarctica, Galapagos, Falklands, and more?) That all changed a couple years ago when my friend, Jason, wanted to photograph there in the summer, so I joined him for a week. I enjoyed my time at the Grand Tetons, and quickly realized the opportunity for autumn color photos there too. It isn’t easy for me to be there when the fall colors are peaked as I teach fall color photo workshops in northern Michigan (my native state) and have every year since 1987. I just love autumn color, and northern Michigan is always so spectacular I can’t imagine missing a single season of it. Indeed, the media is now saying the best fall color in the world is found in northern Michigan, something I suspected all along. Still, you don’t get incredible mountains like the Grand Tetons emerging from a sea of yellow aspens in Michigan. So, in 2018 during late September, and just before I started my fall color workshops in Michigan, I returned to the Tetons to get as much color there as I could. It was awesome, and I enjoyed excellent color on some mornings with superb light and reflections, but the colors being a little late to develop in 2018 meant I did not quite get the peak in the Tetons before having to move on to fabulous Michigan. Perhaps in 2020, as I will be leading my Kenya photo tour (about 40 to Kenya now) in 2019 during September! Kenya is awesome for wildlife photography.

The golden sunshine about one-hour after sunrise, and the clouds nicely fill the sky above this magnificent mountain range. At dawn, the sky was nearly empty, but I could see some clouds beginning to arrive from the west. Several other photographers there at sunrise left shortly after sunrise, so I was alone as the clouds filled the sky. Perhaps the other photographers had a better spot picked out, knew of a moose, or were on a tight schedule. But, when I see things are developing favorably, I spend the time to see what happens.

I loved my time at the Tetons in both July and September. Though I had never been on hand to get snow on the Tetons, it was on my bucket list. While driving from Indiana to my home in Island Park to prepare for the four week-long photo tours of Yellowstone I was leading, I had planned to drive to Pocatello, ID and then north to my home on the Idaho side. But, when I saw the weather forecast where fresh snow had just fallen on the Tetons and the next day would have lots of sun, I turned north on I-80 at Rock Springs, WY and headed to Jackson, WY. When I am just traveling, my truck is my home. I sleep in the back of my pickup truck with a shell on it when I only plan to sleep for a few hours. This saves the cost of a hotel, and I don’t have to plan to secure a reservation either. After all, when I am driving long distances, I really don’t know ahead of time where I want to stop anyway. Any place I can find to park works fine. The first night I slept in my pickup in a rest area on I-80. After six hours of sleep, I was on my way again a couple hours before sunrise. The temperature only dropped down to 24 degrees, no problem for my sleeping bag. I planned to sleep once again in my pickup in Jackson, but I got concerned when the temp dropped down to a balmy negative ten degrees. My sleeping bag is rated for zero, and I suspect most sleeping bag makers embellish their ratings a little. And since the night air was already well below the bag rating, and I was dead tired, I when to Expedia on my Apple phone and found a reasonable motel for the night. The idea of shivering for the night after driving 1600 miles in two days was too unappealing to endure. Plus, if I found out I couldn’t make it through the night, the idea of finding a room at 3 am didn’t seem like a good plan.

A much closer view of the Tetons from a road that let me drive quite close to the imposing mountains.

So, I got a good night of 5 hours of sleep at a motel, woke up well before sunrise and drove north past the Jackson airport to a nice lookout for the Grand Tetons. I wasn’t dressed that warmly as I had just left a much warmer climate and my best cold-weather clothes were at my house in Island Park. I had to hike about fifty yards to a bluff to get a clear shot of the Tetons. I enjoyed the clouds in the western sky and waited for the sun to finally light them up. And was it cold!!!!! I have never been one to work my camera with gloves on, so I shot with no gloves, and then quickly put my hands in my pockets to warm them. This was only partially successful. After a short time, my fingers lost feeling in them, but several minutes in my warm pockets return my fingers to just dang cold, but somewhat moveable. I found it difficult to press my camera shutter button and find it by touch with fish sticks (frozen) for fingers. I just pressed the area where the shutter button is located and watched to see if the camera fired the shot two-seconds later since I had the 2-second self-timer on to eliminate any vibrations that might be created by touching the shutter button. Often the camera did not fire as I failed to press the shutter button. But I found a quick solution to the problem. I like sharp images and do everything I can to ensure that outcome. I used a sturdy Gitzo tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead, Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon 24-70mm lens with a polarizer on it to remove glare and darken the blue in the sky somewhat. I prefer to shoot landscapes with live view for a few key reasons. First, magnifying the scene in live view and manually focusing on a key area always works well for me, much better than unreliable autofocus. Even with AF microadjusted camera/lens combos, autofocus still varies a tiny bit. And I shoot in live view because the mirror is already in the upright position and the shutter is open at the moment of exposure, so vibrations from both a moving mirror and shutter are eliminated. Also, my live view gives me a live histogram too. This makes it easy to set the preferred aperture, and then roll the shutter speed dial until the rightmost histogram data touches the right wall of the histogram. Then, I take a quick shot just to view the taken image to see if it has any blinkies, and if so, then how many? My exposure goal is to make the first blinkies appear in the highlights – in this case the white snow. Since I only shoot RAW, I know the first blinkies do not mean that area is overexposed, just approaching overexposure. After all, both the blinkies and the highlight alert are based on the embedded JPEG in a RAW file, and not the RAW data that covers a much wider range of contrast.

This is a four-image focus stack shot at f/8. I stacked it as the foreground was close and if focused on the foreground in one image, the mountains at infinity would not be as sharp as I prefer.

Let me return to my frozen fingers again. Sometimes they hurt a lot, so I know they aren’t completely frozen, but no way could I feel my shutter button. I solved the problem by finding yet another use for live view and the touch shutter in my camera. I have my Canon 5D Mark IV camera set up to fire the image when I touch the LCD. It is called the Touch Shutter. And I have my touch shutter set to Sensitive. That means barely touching it will fire the camera. And I do mean barely. Often, I fire the camera with the touch shutter and I can’t even feel the slight touch of my finger on the LCD. And always worried about sharpness, remember I have the camera set to the 2-second self-timer, so the camera doesn’t fire the shot for two seconds after I barely touch the LCD. Trust me. It is so much easier to trip the shutter with the Touch Shutter than finding and pressing the shutter button, and you can do it with a lot less jarring of the camera. If your camera offers live view, and the Touch Shutter, be sure to embrace it and make it part of your workflow!!!! It is awesome!

More on exposure! Since my scenes are still, and I am using a tripod, I select ISO 100 and use f-stops between f/8 and f/11 for all the shots. I realize many suggest using f/16 or f/22 for landscapes, but you do lose sharpness to diffraction with those small apertures. And, since most of my images had everything in the image at infinity focus with the 24-70mm lens I used, there is no need to stop down more anyway. F/8 easily gets everything sharp at infinity focus. In only one of these posted images is my foreground closer than infinity focus, and in that case, I shot a four-image focus stack using f/8 and merged them together with Helicon Focus software.

I enjoyed the clouds floating over the Grand Tetons a little while after dawn. Having some clouds is so much better than all blue sky, or all white clouds.

While many roads are not plowed in the Grand Tetons during the winter, there still are plenty of places to stop to photograph the Grand Tetons in winter. I highly recommend it. The Grand Tetons in dawn sunshine after a fresh snow is spectacular! I also wanted to photograph the Mormon barns at sunrise with snow but gave that idea up as I was not dressed as warmly as I would if I had planned on going to the Tetons, and given the -10-degree morning, and hiking alone through the snow for a mile or two without boots, I decided not to try for it on this trip. With proper clothes, and a couple of friends for companionship and safety, I would try it! I think spending several or at least a few days in Jackson during winter to photograph the Tetons is time well spent. Naturally, weather is completely unreliable. Give yourself some time to enjoy the area while waiting for the best photo conditions.

The two things to remember in the short post is the weather conditions that work and how I fired the camera. Fresh snow, golden dawn sunshine, no wind, and clouds in the western sky are terrific. The blacker the clouds the better. And with cold fingers, use the Touch Shutter to fire the camera. I can do it easily even with fully-gloved hands!

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