Well August has finally been unleashed in the Pacific Northwest. Sunshine is pouring across the remaining days on the summer calendar and the cascade highland meadows have swung into full blossom. For nature photographers and outdoor lovers of all stripes the annual wildflower blooms are one of the highlight events of summer. Once you have experienced it first hand it’s not hard to understand why. The blooms can be breathtaking especially when placed against a backdrop of glaciers and a broad peak like Rainier. With that in mind (and the knowledge that summertime events are always fleeting) I gathered my equipment and set out to enjoy the sites in and around Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park.
While there are a number of fantastic locations to view the wildflowers this time of year the Paradise Valley at Mount Rainier is definitely one of best. The ice fields that surround Paradise Lodge most of the year have melted away leaving lush, color infused meadows in their wake. Given the right light conditions the highland meadows can make stunning foreground features for landscape shots of the mountain. These meadow ecosystems are nurtured by a nearly constant flow of water from snowmelt further up slope and below ground (so they lush). This bumper crop of meadow vegetation also elevates the volume\density of wildlife so consider packing a telephoto lens for wildlife (I recommend a 80-200mm as larger lens can become burdensome). Some of the wildlife you may encounter while in paradise basin are black tailed deer, marmot, mountain goat, chipmunk, grouse, red fox, pika, butterfly and if you are lucky black bear.
Once you arrive at Paradise you will notice a nest of trails heading out from the lodge. If your goal is to hike and take in breathtaking sites all of the trails will serve you well.. so have at it. If you are wanting to photograph the mountain with wildflower laden meadows filling your foreground I suggest checking out Mazama Ridge. Why Mazama ridge? In my opinion the best reasons for choosing Mazama over panorama point, dead horse tail and or other locations around Paradise Lodge are perspective, low hiker volume and foreground diversity. While the entire paradise basin may be bursting with every hue and shade of wildflower most of the meadows above paradise lodge offer few clear views of the mountain. This issue can be really frustrating for landscape photographers unfamiliar with the area. Likewise the trails above paradise team with lines of visitors so if you do your best work without a crowd and or are hoping for some meaningful wildlife encounters while hiking you may want to consider changing course to Mazama Ridge.
How do you get there? Take the path less traveled by… or in this case try hiking the skyline trail eastbound out of paradise lodge. Cross the foot bridge at Edith Falls and continue down the trail turning right at each juncture. This will take you away from the crowds, across paradise valley and eventually to the top of Mazama Ridge. When skyline T’s into the Wonderland trail turn right. Travel down the ridge about a half miles towards reflection lakes.. The flower studded meadows will flank the trail at this point so look around for different colored wildflowers to use as foreground for your shots. Continue on until you find a vista to your liking and find a few different groves of wildflowers to use as foreground. Then hunker down, break out your gear and have some fun shooting. With a little work this terrain can be composed into stunning images of the mountain looming over a rich foreground of wildflowers.
Trail Details: Hiking distance 5.5 miles round trip from paradise with perhaps 800′ elevation gain. Talk to one of the rangers at Paradise if you have never been to Mazama ridge and they can point it out for you on a park map.
Time of day and what to bring: Barring some unusual cloud activity overhead the best light should be available between 5:45-8:30 a.m. If push comes to shove you can extends this to 5:30-9:30 but the prior time frame is my preference due to light quality. When photographing the mountain with meadow foreground you should consider controlling your lights (the bright areas in your frame) using a polarizer and a couple graduated neutral density filters. The mountain, sky and glaciers always expose lighter than the meadows by several stops so graduated ND filters will help you to balance your exposure across your image. Take light readings of each area in your frame to determine the disparity in your exposure and then use your Graduated ND filters to even out the exposure as needed. Other must have’s for this shoot are your tripod, a wide angle lens (anything ranging between 12 to 40 mms will do nicely), a big can of bug juice and a remote firing device so you won’t jostle your camera box when shooting. If you don’t have graduated ND filters bracket your exposure by a 2\3 stops up\down and take shots at each setting so you can overlay them in Photoshop when you get home.
Consider each factor: When setting up your shot consider the variables that are present in your frame. Well thought out scenes make all the difference between snapshots and strong images.
- Depth of field: Are you using an appropriate aperture to capture the depth of field you expect for your final image? If you are unsure take a few shots of your subject using different aperture settings. Then preview each of them at 100% zoom to see if what you are hoping to be in or out of focus is truly persisting the sharpness you expect. Many cameras have a depth of field preview button that can help you with (check you camera manual if you don’t know where the button is). DLSR’s by default do not display the impact of aperture settings on the final image. I used F16 for the shot above which allowed for sharpness of both my foreground and background. That said if you want impeccable sharp focus through your final image you should consider taking 2-3 shots with your focal plan adjusted to foreground, midground and background. Then layer the images together in using photoshop when you get home.
- Shutter Speed, ISO & Motion: Is there a breeze? If so the flowers making up your foreground will likely be moving with the wind so you will need to adjust your shutter speed to arrest the movement. This is important if you plan on making a large print from your image as the flowers can easily become a messy blur. If however you have a steady wind and you want to blur your flowers to create a silky surreal look stop down and experiment with longer shutter speeds to get your desired effect. The important thing here is just to be aware of your shutter speed & ISO as setting the appropriate levels will impact any unstationary elements in your frame.
- Framing & Perspective: Try a variety of different vantage points and zoom levels in respect to your subject and see what you think. I try to look for unique perspectives whenever possible. I also like natural lines\curves moving through my scenes along with symmetric and or isolated elements to help create an more interesting and or moody scene. Anyway the idea here is to be creative and try a lot of different looks.
- Lighting: Ensure you have addressed the bright and dark regions in your scene (addressed in the previous paragraph). Watch for clipping of lights and darks using your histogram.
- Bracketing: Since the light variance within many scenes will exceed the dynamic range of your camera sensor even with the assitance of Polarizers & ND filters you will be doing yourself a favor to bracket. You can then use layer masks in photoshop to combine the correct exposures into you final image in post production.
Perspective, it’s all in how you look at it. Great sentiment right? The main reason Mazama Ridge is one of the best locations to photograph Mount Rainier is due to it being positioned further away from the peak than the other trails around Paradise. This gives the ridge more perspective of both the peak and the meadows. This in turn translates into final images that allow the viewer to see more of the mountain and provide a strong sense of place. For those of you who like to photograph at Reflection Lakes, Mazama Ridge is the chunk of land that blocks the view of the mountain from reflection lakes leaving only the top slice of the peak visible from that location. In fact the trail that tracks uphill from the east edge of the 2nd lake (the wonderland trail) will take you up the back side of the ridge to the shoot location I’ve been writing about in this article.
When should I go?
Go now! The bloom is peaking right now 8\8\13 and should continue to do so for the next few days. Typically the meadows are at their most colorful and diverse stage in the month of August but the bloom times can vary with weather patterns (when in doubt call the ranger station at paradise and ask them how the blooms are faring).