The Maroon Bells

In 2016 I tasked myself with trying to capture unique views of one of the most photographed mountains in the United States.  Just outside of Aspen, Colorado sit the Maroon Bells, two 14,000 foot peaks surrounded by aspen grove.  The parking lot sits steps from a shallow pond that reflects on a calm morning, and there you will find a mass of photographers lined up every morning.  So, how do you capture such a popular location in a unique way?  The first shoot I attempted came about as most do, by pure luck.  I was house sitting in Aspen when I saw crystal clear skies predicted in the weather report.  I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed up the valley in time for moonrise around midnight.  A quarter moon rose behind me to the east and painted the deadly bells in moonlit alpenglow as the stars streaked across the sky.  It's one of my favorite photos I've taken.  I was completely alone the entire night as I watched meteors streak across the inky black.  The second of three shoots in 2016 was better planned, but smoke from distant forest fires changed the game.  The faint layer of particles washed out the blacks, reflecting the orange glow of distant streetlights in Aspen across the milky way.  The third trip was a whirlwind trying to catch the changing aspen leaves with a quickly waning moon.  The sky never fully cleared, but I was granted with one glorious hour of variable moonlight.  The next day a wet snowstorm came through and retired the leaves for another year.

 

Throughout the winter I plotted and planned what I wanted to do the next time an opportunity came about.  Throughout most of the summer of 2017 widespread forest fires in the west clouded the skies of Colorado.  Finally, near the end of August, the skies cleared as the mountains began their move toward fall and deep yellow foliage.  I made three more trips up in September to photograph the Milky Way and the Maroon Bells.  Using a telescope tracking mount carted out to the viewpoint, I was able to take the detail in my photographs to another level.  Able to track the stars for an extended period of time allowed me to lower ISO and close down my aperture to reduce noise and keep the stars as crisp points of light.  Once I was done tracking the stars for the first half of the photograph, I would halt the tracker and repeat the exposure.  At the mesh point between earth and sky, the two exposures are identical making composition trivial.