Sunrise Photography at Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park

Sunrise Photography at Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park

One of my summer photography goals this year was to get out and do some night photography and some sunrise photography. When we decided to make a trip to Grand Teton National Park this summer, I got my wish. Our first night camping at Grand Teton (by the way, I highly recommend the tent cabins at Colter Bay–we loved them), I managed to convince my husband to get up at 3:30 a.m. and accompany me to Oxbow Bend for photography. It turned out to be a wise choice as, not only did we make some great photographs, it was cloudy for the rest of our stay and we didn’t see the stars.

I have been absolutely fascinated by astrophotography, also known as star photography, since I first saw someone else’s image. It’s not a hugely difficult technique, but it does require some technical skill, the right equipment, some patience AND the willingness to forgo a good night’s sleep in the quest of your craft. Since I am a chronic insomniac and only sleep a few hours a night anyway, the last one was a piece of cake.

If you’ve been following, you may remember that I made my first attempt at astrophotography in Rocky Mountain National Park back in February. I was happy with the result for a first try. It was, however, way too cold for my liking. This summer’s attempt at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton was much more comfortable, I have to admit. Interestingly though, even at 4 a.m., it was already getting too light and I didn’t capture nearly as many stars as there were in the sky. I also didn’t quite get the Milky Way as I would have liked. Next time, I will probably shoot for 1 or 2 a.m. But that’s one of the things I love about trying new photography techniques–there’s always something new to learn, something I can do different the next time.
oxbow bend grand teton national park astrophotography, star photography

We were the only ones at Oxbow Bend at 4 a.m. Now that may not be much of a surprise to you, but since early morning and sunrise has long been my favorite time of day–and since I try to photograph the sunrise every time I travel, I have gotten used to seeing at least one or two other photographers with the same goal. Not to worry, though. Once we finished our astrophotography and realized it was only an hour until sunrise, we decided to stay on get our sunrise photographs. Sure enough, about 5 a.m., a whole convoy of vehicles pulled into the parking lot and a herd of photographers piled out. Turns out that someone was leading a Teton photography workshop. Made me really happy that I had already staked out my spot for the sunrise.

And so I began a series of pre-dawn and sunrise images. There is nothing I love about the outdoors more than getting to watch the sunrise. Seeing the world turn from dark to light is a spiritual experience for me (and yes, I’ve blogged about it–you can read about my love of the sunrise here)
oxbow bend grand teton pre dawn

I found it interesting that the earliest daylight shot has the brightest sky. Probably because it required a longer exposure so it makes it seem as though it’s much lighter out than it really was. I do have some where the sky is darker, but this is my favorite from the pre-dawn series.

oxbow bend grand teton early morning

As the sun began to creep closer to the horizon, the sky changed color from its pre-dawn blue and we began to see pinks and purples. We also began to see a little more color in the trees and they weren’t just dark silhouettes any more. It really wasn’t very cold–I worse a hoodie, a windbreaker and my photographer gloves (best investment ever–I HATE having cold hands) and was very comfortable.oxbow bend grand teton sunrise photography 1

I loved the steam rising off the Snake River. I thought it really added to the early morning mystique. Changing my angle and the amount of zoom just a little gave me opportunities to highlight different parts of the landscape. From Oxbow Bend, Mt. Moran dominates the landscape and so it was my focus this year. If we had more clear nights, I probably would have headed farther south and photographed Grand Teton itself across one of the more southerly lakes. But that’s okay, now I have a goal for my next Teton outing.

oxbow bend grand teton sunrise photography 2

A closer view of Mt. Moran to make sure I captured all that beautiful pink coloring.

oxbow bend grand teton sunrise photography 3

Finally, the sun begins to  cast it rays on the peak of Mt. Moran. Notice that as the mountain itself turns pink, the color in the sky begins to fade to a paler blue.oxbow bend grand teton sunrise photography 5

As the sun rose and the sky got brighter, my foreground and trees once again became darker.

oxbow bend grand teton sun upWhen the sun had finally risen enough to illuminate all the mountains, we decided we were ready to call it good and head back for breakfast.

Now, in case you’re wondering how you, too, can get some great sunrise photographs whether you’re fortunate enough to watch the sunrise over Grand Teton National Park or just in your own backyard, here’s what’s in my toolbox:

I have a good sturdy tripod. At the moment I have a Velbon tripod, available from most camera suppliers. Fully extended, it puts the camera at just shy of six feet, so it’s easily tall enough for me. Yes, I’d like something carbon fiber with a ball head, but that hasn’t made it to the top of my priority list yet. So I work with what I have (translation: you can still make great photographs without the fanciest of equipment). My primary camera these days is a Canon 60D. Having moved up from the 30D, I am really enjoying it. I also use a Canon cable release. If you’re going to make long exposures go get one. It makes a HUGE difference. It’s less than $20 and possible even less than $10. And yes, be sure you buy the right one for your camera model. It’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. The lens I used for these was my go-to Canon 18-135 zoom. I do have a couple of L-series lenses, but this one works for me for about 60 percent of what I’m photographing. That’s it. I didn’t use any fancy filters, no special exposures. I tend to photograph very simply so I can focus on enjoying the scenery and enjoying what I am doing.

And yes, I used Photoshop on every single one of these pictures, primarily to do either a levels or curves adjustment and to give most of them a little boost in vibrance because I’ve found that digital photography tends to be just a little on the flat side straight out of the camera. If you really want to get into photography, there is just no substitute for Photoshop. I’ve been using it since before it had numbers in the name (which means I was scanning in prints and film–yep, I’ve been around that long), I’ve tried most of the others and Photoshop is still my go-to.

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