First Light at Taggart Lake

Over the years I’ve done many alpenglow shots in the Tetons. Since the mountain peaks protrude upwards well more than a mile above the valley floor, the morning sun hits the peaks while the valley below is still mostly dark (called morning civil twilight). Since this first light emanates from the sun along the horizon, the resulting light is rich with warm tones not seen when the sun climbs higher in the sky. So to get an unfamiliar alpenglow shot, I decided it was time to hit one of the Teton backcountry lakes. Taggart Lake seemed an obvious choice, since it’s a relatively easy hike. The hike also gets lots of day traffic (one of those “hello…hi…how are you” hikes), which hopefully would reduce the risk of encountering a grizzly in the dark. I recall my closest grizzly encounter when Grizzly #760 grabbed a flash out of my open camera pack before dawn at Oxbow Bend in 2013. Wildlife is quite active while we humans typically remain warm in our beds.
So with my plan set, I camped in a frequently used spot along the foothills on the east side of Teton Valley. When I awoke in the darkness at 7000 ft, it was 38°. As I drove down into the valley, I watched the outside temperature gauge in my truck drop steadily. Yay! Not that I wanted to suffer through freezing temperatures, but the fact that the temperature was dropping as I went lower meant the air was very still… and that lake surface would be perfect for a morning reflection.
When I got to the parking area, it was still completely dark. The sounds of elk bugling rang out from all directions. First light on the mountains was about 30 minutes away. Time to hike in the dark for what I recalled was about a mile, but is actually 1.6 miles. So flashlight in hand, I began walking in the dark. As I continued on the path, a couple of small birds kept landing a few yards in front of me on the trail and hopped forward as I followed. As soon as I would get close, they would fly forward about another ten yards and resume hopping along until I got close again. I couldn’t tell what type of birds they were, but I hoped they were leading me toward something great.
As I continued along, visibility continued to improve. I thought I must be fairly close, and it wasn’t long until the first light would hit the peaks. Then I saw a sign post – Taggart Lake 0.5 mile. I got a bit worried when I realized I had that much more to hike. There wasn’t much time. I thought about running. But running through fairly dense woods in grizzly country while nearly dark isn’t a particularly good idea. So I just walked fast. And sure enough, I made it to the lake about 5 minutes before the first light hit the Grand Teton.
Alpenglow light on the Tetons along Taggart Lake

After spending about twenty minutes shooting as the light worked its way down the mountains, I figured since I was already there, I might  as well head to nearby Bradley Lake, just about a mile and a half from Taggart, climbing over a glacial moraine that separates the two lakes. Obviously I wouldn’t get the first light there too, but the air remained calm and the reflection should be nice. So up and over the hill I went. After descending from the top of the moraine down to Bradley, it was perfectly still and a spectacular scene. Maybe another time I’ll make it there too for first light.


Bradley Lake Morning Reflections

After finishing shooting at Bradley, I began the hike back to the parking area. The sun was climbing higher and higher in the sky. Before long, I saw the first of the morning hikers heading toward the lake. “Hi…good morning…how are you?”.

Technical Info:
The Taggart Lake shot is an HDR (high dynamic range) composite of three shots taken with a Nikon D800E and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at f/9, ISO100, and a focal length of 27mm. The dynamic range in nature of such a scene, with bright sun on the peaks and the foreground still mostly dark necessitates the use of HDR processing to ‘shoe-horn’ the dynamic range into something adequately represented in a digital image. Without HDR processing, the peaks would be overly exposed and the foreground almost black. The HDR process doesn’t have to produce the grungy appearance commonly associated with this type of processing. It can be a simple tool allowing our cameras to better match what we see with our eyes.

The Bradley Lake shot was produced from two shots taken with a Nikon D800E and a 16-28mm f/2.8 lens at f/9, ISO100, and a focal length of 18mm. With the sun higher in the sky for this shot, HDR processing was not needed. The dynamic range of the scene was approximately what the camera was capable of capturing. The dark rocks along the lake shore, however, were very dark in a single exposure of 1/100s. So a second shot with an exposure of 1/50s was taken, and a luminosity mask was used to blend the foreground of the lake shore of the longer exposure into the overall image with the shorter exposure. Employing luminosity masks takes a bit more practice than simply using HDR software, but can produce a more natural look when the dynamic range of a nature scene is close or just exceeds the capability of a camera.

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