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Focus on the flowers while exploring the Colorado mountains

July 24, 2013 Updated: July 24, 2013 at 4:55 pm
photo - La Plata Mountains, west of Durango
La Plata Mountains, west of Durango 

Colorado is a pretty photogenic place.

Images of our golden aspens, glassy mountain lakes and snow-capped peaks can be found in innumerable calendars and coffee table books and adorning waiting room walls.

But in the minds of many photographers, the brilliant show going on in the high country right now trumps them all.

The hills are ablaze - not with fire, but with wildflowers. It's a time of year when shutterbugs go to great lengths to visit remote alpine basins at just the right time to capture the show at its peak.

"They're in their glory for just a few weeks of an entire year," said Colorado Springs photographer Doug Bennett, whose flower photos are on display at Kemper Galleries. "When you think about the harsh winter they endure at high altitudes and they're about to spring forth and be so delicate in the summertime, it's kind of neat."

"It's something that's very brief, very beautiful and when it's gone, it's gone. You have to wait another entire year to see it again," said Todd Caudle, owner of Skyline Press in Colorado Springs, who has been shooting Colorado wildflowers for three decades.

After all, what's a better symbol of Colorado's rugged beauty than the columbine flower?

Though it's late July, it's not too late to see the show. Depending on where you go, the flowers might linger through mid-August. We asked these photographers for their advice on getting the perfect wildflower photo.

Timing and location

The display usually begins in June, depending on how soon the snow melts. The later into June the snow melts, the later the flowers appear. The drier the summer, the sooner they die.

Bennett usually begins flower hunting in mid-June, starting at lower elevations near Crested Butte. He follows the snow line upward, heading into southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray, American Basin near Lake City and Lead King Basin near Aspen, easily reachable by four-wheel-drive vehicles, are reliable for brilliant flowers. As summer continues, he heads higher, and by early August the best flowers can be found near 10,000 feet in elevation, he said.

"Mid-July to first week of August is your best time for just about anywhere in Colorado," said Caudle, who visits many of the same areas.

Setting the scene

There are basically two approaches to wildflower photography: super close-up or incorporating the surrounding scenery.

Experts say when you come upon a flower or patch of flowers, study the area before deciding on the shot. Get down on your hands and knees at "flower level" to see what the camera will capture. Look for scenes without distractions to the eye such as dead grass or anything man-made.

"I'm more interested in kind of shooting the flowers in the context of the total scene, next to a stream or pond, with the mountains in the background," Bennett said. "If I walk into a spot and there are just tons of flowers, for me what I want to portray is that wide swath of flowers and giving the context of the whole meadow just full of them."

Caudle likes to look for spots with different types of flowers close together.

"The different colors make for very impactful photos," he said.

Light and weather

Light is the most important factor in photography, and capturing wildflowers is no different. For the best morning light, you'll need to get there early. So for remote areas, a backpack and tent might be necessary.

If you miss dawn, try the afternoon, when the predictable clouds make for a softer light that won't cast shadows like direct sunlight. Sunset is also an ideal time for photos.

Another reason to shoot flowers early is the wind. Wind tends to pick up in the mountains as the day progresses and, said Caudle, "wind is your enemy when photographing plant life."

"If you want the depth of field, to have the entire scene in focus you need a small aperture combined with a longer shutter speed," he said. "If you use a quarter-second shutter speed and there's the slightest movement in the flower, they're just going to look like Q-tips."

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