Rocky Mountain Photography – 24 Hours by Grant Ordelheide

Every minute in the park brings new perspectives and surprises. Go around the clock at RMNP with our dawn 'til dusk photo collection.
By Staff ,

What does a full day in the Rocky Mountains look like? Our collection of dawn-'til-dark images from in and around the park reveal an ever-changing, always-stunning landscape. Bonus: Create your own gallery with professional tips for capturing memorable shots any time of day.

6:03 a.m., August 6
Early morning reflection at Lake Helene

Lake Helene reflected in the early morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

There are no backcountry campsites at Lake Helene, so start the 3.2-mile hike before sunrise to catch dawn on 12,129-foot Notchtop Mountain.

See it: Hike 3.3 miles (one-way)northwest of Bear Lake
Pro tips: When shooting grand landscapes, use a small aperture (f/11-f/22) to keep all the elements of the frame in focus. Remember that the smaller the aperture, the slower the shutter speed, so pack a tripod.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 17-40mm lens at 20mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/4 sec

Add Depth to Your Photos

Grand landscapes featuring distant peaks can sometimes appear flat in photos. Including an object in the foreground (such as the boulders at left) helps add depth to your composition, drawing viewers' eyes into the scene and making it feel more real.

7:23 a.m., October 22
Sunrise at Sprague Lake

Sunrise over Sprague Lake. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Sprague Lake's easy access makes it a popular destination for families. Stroll the flat, .9-mile trail around the lake, or connect to longer trails leading to Glacier Gorge or Estes Cone.

See it: Drive Bear Lake Road 7.5 miles to the Sprague Lake parking lot.
Pro tips: The water doesn't have to be glassy-calm to make a great lake photo. I emphasized the moving ripples on this windy morning with a long shutter speed, which creates a nice blurring effect.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III
camera, 17-40mm lens at 19mm, ISO 50, f/16, 6 sec

2:30 p.m., August 7
Babbling Brook fed by Alberta Falls

Alberta Falls. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Grant Ordelheide

This powerful 30-foot waterfall on Glacier Creek is one of the park's most popular dayhike destinations. You can hike (or snowshoe) it any time of year, but the trip is especially scenic in September or early October, when you'll see bright foliage in the many aspen groves along this trail.

See it: Hike .6 mile from the Glacier Gorge trailhead.
Pro tips: Cloudy days are the best times to photograph waterfalls. The soft light of overcast skies decreases the contrast in your image as well as dims the light enough to let you use longer exposures, creating a silky effect on the water.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 17-40mm lens at 24mm, ISO 50, f/16, 1 sec

3:26 p.m., October 10
Riding High on Trail Ridge Road

Cycling on Trail Ridge Road. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Few Colorado—or anywhere else, for that matter—bike routes can compare with Trail Ridge Road for difficulty, weather challenges, and sheer scenic beauty. From Estes Park, the road climbs above 12,000 feet in a series of curves past tundra wildflowers, 13,000-foot-plus peaks, and the occasional elk, bighorn sheep, or marmot. For a shorter ride, park at the Alpine Visitor Center and do an out-and-back to Milner Pass or Rock Cut. Pack water and snacks (there aren't any services between Estes Park and the AVC) and a wind jacket, and start early to avoid summer vehicle traffic.

See it: Drive (or cycle) the 48-mile road connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Pro tips: When shooting action scenes, you need a very fast shutter speed to freeze your subject's motion. Use a combination of a high ISO and wide-open aperture to allow for such a fast speed.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 24-105mm lens at 70mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/500 sec

Never Miss the Shot

How do you carry your camera on the trail? Leaving it buried in your backpack is a surefire way to miss those magical, fleeting moments. Instead, make sure the camera is always within reach by carrying it in a quick-draw, chest-mounted harness or a protective camera bag that clips on to your backpack's hipbelt.

7:03 p.m., August 7
A Bighorn Sheep is King of the Road on Rocky's Trail Ridge

Bighorn sheep near Trail Ridge Road. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Bighorn sheep are at home in the park's highest, steepest terrain, thanks to specially adapted hooves that let them clamber up and down slopes with ease.

Pro tips: Your top priority when photographing wildlife: Make sure the animal's eyes are in focus. Eye contact is best, but simply including a clear look at its (sharp) eyes makes a successful image.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 70-200mm lens at 200mm, ISO 500, f/18, 1/150 sec

Make the Mountains Loom Larger

Want the peaks in your photos to look even more impressive? Use a telephoto lens to compress the image (75mm or more; the longer the lens, the more noticeable the effect). Long lenses bring the foreground and the background of your shot together, making them look closer than they really are—as with the bighorn sheep and Longs Peak above.

7:44 p.m., August 5
Cloud Break Over the Rocky Mountains

Clouds break at sunset over the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

The treeless tundra makes for an unforgettably dramatic sunset perch. Head up Trail Ridge Road 30 minutes to an hour before the sun goes down so you won't miss any changing hues. Make sure to pack warm layers—up high, temps drop quickly when the sun disappears.

Pro tips: Don't be afraid to shoot into the sun. While it can be trickier to nail the exposure, this technique produces interesting visual effects. Here, the backlit landscape in combination with the bright sunlight accentuates the peaks in the background.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 24-105mm lens at 105mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/60 sec.

6:33 p.m., October 23
Estes Park lights up under Lumpy Ridge

Estes Park at night with Lumpy Ridge in the background. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Lumpy Ridge, the rock formation looming right over town, is a favorite spot among rock climbers and early-season hikers.

See it: Pull off US 36 as you descend into town from Lyons.
Pro tips: The best time to shoot cities is the "blue hour" just before sunrise or sunset. Begin when the lights come on, but don't wait too long, or the contrast between town and the dark surroundings will be too great.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 70-200mm lens at 111mm, ISO 400, f/11, 10 sec

8:26 p.m., August 5
Car Lights on Trail Ridge Road

Car lights illuminate Trail Ridge Road at night. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Trail Ridge Road remains open all night during the summer/fall season, so you can stay above treeline to linger over a high-altitude sunset and enjoy brilliant stargazing. From up here, the horizon appears lower than usual, opening up even more of the sparkling celestial show.

Pro tips: Don't be afraid to stay up late—there are plenty of shots to be had well after the sun goes down and the crowds have gone home. Here, I was able to emphasize the curves of iconic Trail Ridge Road by waiting until it was dark enough to do a long exposure, capturing these car headlights.
Shot details: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 25-105mm lens at 80mm, ISO 200, f/10, 30 sec

After-Hours Shooting

A camera's autofocus doesn't work without light, making crisp night photography challenging. To get around it, find a light source that appears to be the same distance from you as your subject (such as the moon or car headlights) and focus on that. Then turn off your autofocus and recompose your image to capture tack-sharp photos, even in the dark. A tripod is also essential for low-light situations; get the lightest one that can support your camera with its heaviest lens.

Grant Ordelheide is a Colorado-based freelance photographer. His love for the outdoors long preceded his love for photography. He enjoys climbing, hiking, and taking photos in the world's most remote mountain ranges. Visit or "like" Grant Ordelheide Photography on Facebook to see more of his work.