Finding beauty in the haze

Smoke from wilfires yields photo opportunities

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— The best nature photographers in America, shooters like Galen Rowell and David Muench, recognize opportunity in atmospheric challenges.

A gentle drizzle can provide the best light to photograph the delicate color of wildflowers, while an active snowstorm can give any landscape a painterly effect.

Forest fires that clog the skies with hazy smoke might not be thought of as favorably as natural precipitation when nature photographers head into the field. But the opportunity is there.

The fact that Buffalo Pass Road is open to the summit at the summer solstice is a fluky condition. It allows local nature photographers to gain that awesome vantage point while the sun is at the far northern end of its annual journey up the western horizon. The chance to make images in these conditions may not come again soon.

But it's the haze in the air that's really presenting a rare opportunity for local photographers. Both at sunrise and sunset, the closest star to earth appears like a red ball on the horizon. The smoke particles are filtering out the bluest light waves and allowing the warm end of the spectrum to dominate.

From the switchbacks on Buffalo Pass Road, photographers can pick out locations with four overlapping mountain ranges to put some dramatic subject matter in a smoky sunset.

The prime time for sunset this week is about 8:30 p.m. But there are great photo opportunities at the summit of Buff Pass during the preceding two hours. The glacier lilies are peaking right now and their dramatic stamens are beautiful when backlit by a low sun. If you think you need a macro lens to photograph wildflowers, it just ain't so. You can get nice results with an 80-200 mm zoom.

The key is getting down on your belly to shoot from a low perspective. If you're shooting into the sun to get that backlit effect, try shading your lens with a baseball cap (your camera needs to be on a tripod to pull this stunt unless you have a photo assistant along).

Many people stop at Summit Lake, but nearby Jonah Lake is much more picturesque. Be prepared to walk across snow this weekend on the way to Jonah Lake. If you're patient enough to shoot wildlife, there are cute picas living in the tumble of rocks at the southwest end of the lake.

Watch for the lake to glass off and reflect pink boulders in the water as the sun gets low in the sky.

At about 7:30 p.m., it's time to head back to the vehicle and choose your sunset location.

You should use a cable release to eliminate camera vibrations at shutter speeds of one-fifteenth of a second and slower. But if you leave your cable release at home, there's a way around this step. Simply use the self-timer on the camera that is typically employed only when the photographer wants to dash into his own family portrait. If you're camera is equipped with a mirror lockup, and you're using a heavy zoom lens, I'd recommend taking this extra precaution. The mere slap of a mirror returning to position inside the camera body can cause blurry pictures.

When photographing sunsets, don't trust your camera's onboard meter. It is recommending the proper exposure for the darkening skies, which will overexpose the subtle tints of orange and lavender you are after.

I recommend you bracket your exposures at least a half stop above and below your camera's recommended setting.

Yes, you'll waste some film. But what's a few wasted frames when forest fires and the summer solstice are combining to present you with the photo opportunity of a lifetime?

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