The Canadian Rockies: Part 1 Landscapes

I was recently blessed enough to spend eight days in the Canadian Rockies on vacation with my parents. This part of Rocky Mountain range is paradise for photographers. Between the diverse and sociable wildlife, incredible mountain ranges, and unique subjects for macros this region is filled with countless photographic opportunities.

Our first night we stayed in Canmore – a small town south of Banff national park. It was mostly clear and wonderful for landscapes. I was able to shoot several pleasing images of The Three Sisters – a well known mountain range in the area which can be photographed from several parking lots within the town of Canmore – along with some lesser know mountains in and around the Peter Longhead Provencal Park at and before sunset. I shot the Tree Sisters from the Safeway parking lot. I used my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm lens handheld to shoot these two close ups of the mountains. I spot metered the brightest part of the sky with +1 exposure compensation. I usually practice a technique called “exposing to the right” which makes the images as chose to being over exposed as possible to retain as much detail as possible and the lights and darks. I darkened the sky in Photoshop using the Multiply blending mode and increased the contrast using a Hard Light blending mode. This helped bring out the colors and enhance the intensity of the shot. Our first day was very successful.

The next morning it was rainy and dreary but it cleared up for the evening and created some nice intense clouds to accompany the mountains. The Peter Longhead Prudential Park and spray lake may be known for its wildlife viewing – which I’ll write about in my next post – but it also proved to be great for photographing lesser known lakes and mountain peaks. The small lakes made great reflections at sunset so I used my Tokina 12-24mm to capture the entire scene. A tripod and good circular polarizer – two accessories which all nature photographers should invest in – are a must for these images. I set my camera on a tripod and shot two exposures of the same image. One was exposed for the sky and mountain and the other for the water and reflection. I merged these two images later on in post by adding a layer mask and using the gradient tool to have one image fade into the other. Before the digital era of photography to deal with high contrast scenes like these photographers used graduated neutral density filters. These filters were darker on one half and lighter on the other. These were strategically placed in front of the lens to darken skies. Depending on the scene either soft or hard grads were used. We can know mimic this effect by shooting different exposures of the same image and merging them with layer masks and the gradient tool in Photoshop. HDR software can also be used in these scenarios to battle high contrast. Many companies make Photoshop plug-ins and stand alone software to merge and tonemap different exposures of the same image to create detail in the lightest and darkest areas of an image.  

After shooting some great landscapes in Canmore we moved north to Lake Louise – sadly it was rainy and overcast the entire time we were in Lake Louise and Lake Moraine so I didn’t get any images worth sharing of these iconic locations at sunrise like I wished. We ventured over to part of Yoho National Park were the clouds started to break up and I was able to get some great images in British Columbia near Takakkaw Falls. A long the drive down to Takakkaw falls there are several places where you can pull of and shoot the peaks which are lit beautify at sunset. I got this image while the light peaked out from behind the clouds. Because there weren’t many suitable subjects to use in the foreground for wide images I decided to use my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm to get a tight close image of the peaks.   

Luckily it started to clear up near the end of the trip while we were in Jasper were I got many nice sunrise images of Pyramid Mountain over Patricia Lake a lesser photographed area just outside the town of Jasper. This spot is great for seeing elk in the morning as well; several walked right behind me while I was shooting Patricia Lake at sunrise. There’s a hotel right on the lake as well for those who really like this area. For these images I shot using my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm and Sigma 28-70mm. I tried to find some good rocks for foreground interest but was unsuccessful. 28mm on Nikon D200 with an APS-C DSLR was plenty wide enough to include the reflections of the mountains into the lake. Using my longer lens also gave me a more unique up close view of morning light.

Later that day I photographed Peyto Lake – one of the Canadian Rockies most photographed areas – at sunset. This lake is usually photographed at sunrise but I was able to get some nice close ups of the mountains surrounding the lake. I also got several landscape images of the lake at sunset which I had to spend quite some time compositing in post. This was a time when HDR software would prove to be very helpful. Peyto Lake is an iconic location in the Canadian Rockies and is defiantly worth going to in the morning or evening if you visit the area.

On our last day we headed back to Canmore for one last night’s stay in the mountains. I photographed Castle Mount from a scenic look off between Storm Mountain and Moose Meadows. Unlike other spots in the Rockies you’ll probably encounter less people at this scenic view that at others. This image was another composite to add detail in the sky and trees.

I was finally able to get some pleasing images of Mount Rundle – a well known mountain just west of the town of Banff – at sunset. Shooting from the Vermilion lakes provides one of the best views of Mount Rundle. The light and lack of clouds made for some stunning shots and I had the opportunity to talk with some other amazing photographers. I incorporated the texture form one of the several small docks into my image for foreground interest. I really liked the wood texture and leading lines in the dock. Again I shot two exposures one exposed for the sky and the other exposed for the deck and merged them in post. A wide angle lens – like my Tokina 12-24mm – works great for wide foreground interest shots while a mid range zoom – like my Sigma 28-70mm – worked well for closer up images of Mount Rundle and it’s reflection.

I love the Canadian Rockies and can’t wait to go back! For photographer’s planning to visit I highly recommend having a wide variety of focal length available. A good wide angle lens is a must, but a good telephoto zoom can prove to me very beneficial as well for scenes which you can’t find good foreground interest. A good tripod which allows you to shoot with your longest lens at a fairly long exposure is also a must. A circular polarizer will also prove to be very beneficial. Last you need something to balance the high contrast of the sky next to the dark foreground. Either a graduated ND filters, HDR software, or knowing how to combine different exposures in Photoshop to get maximum detail will also be needed. The Three Sisters at sunset, Lake Moraine at sunrise, Lake Louse at sunrise, Mount Rundle at sunset, Peyto Lake at sunrise, and Patricia Lake at sunrise are all worth photographing if you’re planning to photograph this area. Sadly do to the bad weather I didn’t get all the images I’d hoped to obtain. This part of the country is bountiful with photographic areas; this is truly a wildlife and landscape photographer’s paradise! Check back next week where I’ll have a new post about the wildlife shots I got from Alberta!       

-Ryan Watkins

Natural order

This blog entry was going to be about a recent trip to Scotland, but that will have to wait. Last night we had a very rare visitor to our garden. The creatures in question have become such an infrequent sight around here that the last time I saw one was over a decade ago. The next door neighbour’s cat (who seems to live with us more than them these days) was the first to spot it. He stalked up the garden eyes bright and transfixed. I looked out expecting to see another cat. There was movement near the pear tree at the bottom of the garden. It was raining and darkness had set in making visibility very poor. It couldn’t be, could it? The cat crept closer. Then, unable to hold his nerve any longer turned and ran. I went to have a closer look. A hedgehog! And quite a large one at that. It didn’t seem bothered by my presence; too engrosed in hoovering up the all you can eat buffet of slugs and snails out in force in the wet weather. It was strange to see one after such a long time. Thousands of spines covered its bulky body and short ashen tear stains ran down to its sooty nose.

Hedgehogs are mainly nocturnal and can be found in open woods, fields, and gardens, but garden fences are causing problems for them. The fences create a barrier and prevent the hedgehogs from moving between gardens to look for food. Slug and snail pellets don’t help either as they are poisonous to hedgehogs and other wildlife that eat the pellets or the poisoned molluscs.

Since I have had to take on the role of head gardener at home the weeds have proliferated. The wildflower meadow that I am planning to create at the end of the garden has yet to materialize and is more jungle than meadow. The stinging nettles are doing very well indeed. They have mangaged to surpass me in height. There are thistles which are seven or eight feet tall from a wild seed mix scattered last year and which I think are rather beautiful (my neighbours probably do not, though they have been gracious enough not to say anything). Red and white campion from the same mix grows in one corner. A tall weed about a metre high that I have not yet been bothered to identify occupies much of the rest of the space as well as the odd dandelion here and there. My sister and I are currently in the process of decorating the entire house so my excuse is that there is just not time for everything. And anyway, the front garden is reasonably respectable.

I have left the very edges of the lawn to grow wild to encourage grasshoppers, crickets and other insects . It seems to be working to an extent but unfortunately the cat seems to have a taste for them and they seem to disappear as fast as they arrive. We have a huge log pile that last year produced a mass emergence of stag beetles and for the past two years cockchafer beetles have been seen dancing around the tree tops on balmy summer evenings.

We have had woodmice nesting in the greenhouse and this April, for the first ever time, we had a brimstone butterfly stop to refuel itself on vivid yellow dandelions during its busy search for a mate. There has been a female ruddy darter dragonfly hanging around the pond area as well as a common blue damselfly. We’ve also had quite a few frogs this year.

A few months ago the climbing rose creeping up the front of our house was covered with aphids. It is a delicate lemmon yellow and I didn’t want to loose it. I was tempted to spray it but in the end couldn’t bring myself to kill thousands of aphids, so I just left it. Not long afterwards, a group of house sparrows came along and pecked it clean. Ladybirds, also a top predator of aphids, are doing very well here. Slugs and snails, the bane of every gardener have been left to exist in peace, in fact I rather like them, but now the hedgehogs are back to keep them in check. Balance is slowly being restored. Given time and a chance nature finds a way back.

I have updated my website with a selection of images taken in Scotland. As I have failed to publish them here you can find them by following this link: and selecting the gallery.


Summer Vacation: National Park Marathon!

My family and I just came back from a road trip to 8 of the most well-known national parks in the west. All together we covered about 5,020 miles in 16 days which was a lot of driving for my dad! The long drive was definitely worth it, however, because the parks afforded us plenty of spectacular views. We saw a variety of animals roaming the wild, went on many ranger tours, and despite the intense summer heat, we definitely enjoyed our time exploring these natural wonders.

The parks we visited were:

  • Badlands National Park
  • Devil’s Tower National Monument
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Arches National Park
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park

Please enjoy the following pictures from our summer vacation courtesy of my father, my brother, and me.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

See the new NBP Students Online issue!

CLICK to see the new Nature’s Best Photography Students Online edition:

The First Shot

I’ve spent most of this week preparing for a trip with my family to the Canadian Rockies and haven’t had to time take many new photographs. Since I’m not sure if I’ll have internet access, I sadly may not be able to update this blog next week, but should have some great photos from Banff and Jasper, Alberta, to share the next time I can post. Today, I decided to talk about what I consider to be one of my first good images.

I think most photographers have a time or image which really convinces them that photography is a true passion in their life. Obtaining this image was mine. It was the ending of July in the summer of 2009. I had been learning the basics of photography (exposure, composition…etc) for about six months. I tried to go out and shoot almost every time I could and could be found reading different photography magazines when the lighting was unfavorable outside. I had a few nice – but cliché – flower pictures and a few pleasing portrait images taken for my church but my portfolio was very lacking. My parents and I decided to go to the Fred Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI. It was an overcast day which gave me nice lighting for the flowers and architecture. I was walking around with my Nikon D40 and an Nikkor AF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (this isn’t the uber sharp AF-S VR version which I use now this is the cheap $120 which is far inferior in quality) on an inexpensive tripod – which broke about six months later. I got a few more conventional flower pictures and unsuccessfully attempted to photograph some distant skittish squirrels. While walking down one path a small group of people were gathered around the end of the trail. I went over there and could see something rustling around in the brush. This baby raccoon popped its head up just long enough for me to manually focus and manually expose the photograph. Due to this lens not having an AF-S motor I always had to manually focus it; I also wanted to learn as much as I could about how the aperture and shutter speed effected the final image so I always used manual exposure mode for a few months. I was able to properly compose the image, and the catch lights (reflections in the raccoon’s eyes) really made this shot stand out from the other images I’d taken. A month later this image won an online photography contest and it still remains on the front page of my personal website today. Even though this was taken with lower end equipment (an entry-level DSLR, cheap used and refurbished lens, and inexpensive tripod) it still remains one of my personal favorites. This image was the first I’d taken which I really was proud of; it also convinced me that photography was more than just a hobby: it was a passion.

– Ryan Watkins


I was lucky enough to spend 10 days down in Jamaica during June with my family. While I was down there,  I met some of the nicest people and saw some amazing flowers and sun sets. The country of Jamaica was so lush and I was surprised to see that Jamaica has lush mountains. I was surprised by this considering it is an island. I saw hundreds of different types of flowers while I was there and these are just some of my favorite ones that I took pictures of. The people down there really appreciate the nature and try their best to preserve it. Here are a few pictures that I took while down there. Hope you enjoy!!

Fireworks and Flowers

Over the last holiday we’ve had some amazing photographic opportunities. Whether you celebrated Independence Day on the fourth in the U.S. or Canada day on the first there were most likely several outstanding firework displays nearby. I always make a point of shooting the Bay City, Michigan fireworks; each year I try to take a different approach. Last year I used my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.-5.6 lens exclusively and got a few nice close ups of fireworks exploding. The majority of the shots were slightly off making the shots unusable. This year I switched between my Nikkor 70-300 and my Tokina 12-24mm f/4 to get some wide shots showcases several fireworks. With some trial and error I’ve found that ISO 100 f/11 at three seconds seems to be a good exposure. To show less of the firework trail use a quicker exposure and if you want to show more fireworks use a longer exposure. Sometimes to long of an exposure can show too many fireworks and create very cluttered images. Over the past two years I’ve gotten a few firework shots I’ve been happy with but still believe my best images are yet to come.


Since fireworks are far from nature images I figured I’d include of images of the nature world in here as well. Some flowers in my front yard have started to bloom and became great still life subjects. I spot metered the flower and exposed it so it would be one stop overexposed. This added more detail into the dark background while detail still remained within the flower. Purposely overexposing images to keep more detail in the darks is known as “exposing to the right.” This helps eliminate digital noise in darker areas and adds more information into the entire image. When an image is exposed this way the mass of the pixels in the histogram should be on the right hand side of the graph instead of the middle like a traditional “properly exposed” image. Make sure the no pixels are touching the far right corner because then you’re losing detail in the bright areas. Many cameras have a mode which shows flashing areas were pixels are blown out from overexposure. I shot this image at f/8; I was so close to the flower with my Nikkor 70-300 the depth of field was very shallow just like I wanted it. Keep shooting!

– Ryan Watkins

%d bloggers like this: