Sunrise Surprise at Maligne Lake

Captain’s log, stardate 93337.74. Our location is Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, as we await the sunrise. It’s 6:05 a.m. (for those of you losers who can’t convert from stardate 😉 ) and the clouds are quickly rolling across the Canadian Rockies in the pre-dawn sky.

Unlike our previous adventure in Yoho National Park, this one was in no way filled with excitement. We pretty much just parked the car, strolled 100 yards down to the edge of the lake, sat, and waited. We had seen moose just outside the parking lot, so I suppose there was the potential for them sneaking up and ambushing us, if you need some peril in the story.

We had been at the lake since 5:40 a.m., and were all anxious for some color to appear in the sky. Our luck up until this point in the trip had been mixed when it comes to the light; in a few situations, just as it appeared that the sky might explode with color, the whole scene fell apart. I’m an inveterate optimist when it comes to the sunrise and sunset, but I had admittedly become pessimistic at this point.

The official sunrise time on this particular morning was not until 6:45 a.m., but typically the best color appears around 15 minutes or so before the sunrise, and there were few signs that the scene was going to improve. At 6:20 a.m., faint traces of yellow were beginning to appear on the underside of the clouds, but the sky also had traces of grey at this point as the blue began to fade. Not a good sign.

At 6:35 a.m., the blue was almost entirely gone with no additional yellow, as grey was the predominant color. My hope had almost entirely disappeared, and I was about ready to call it and go look for wildlife. I recall thinking that at least the blue hour shots (above) would look nice with the orange of the boathouse against the deep blue of the sky. Still, I left my tripod set up, holding out a glimmer of hope.

Official sunrise time came and went without any color, and I was ready to pack it in. Seeing that everyone else was still waiting for the light, I did the same…because what else was I going to do? If it were just me, I probably would have been gone at this point.

Then, I believe it was around 6:49 a.m., when the unintelligible grunts of photographic excitement emanated from Bill in the distance. Being proficient in Bill’s photographic caveman-speak, I thought the translation was that he spotted some light. I looked around–thinking maybe I mistranslated and he was actually saying “help, I’m being attacked by a moose”–and he was right!

Orange light was slowly spreading across the clouds, as if the sunrise had defiantly waited out the clouds initially blocking and causing it to grey, only to burst onto the scene in a rare display after the official sunrise. The light got better and better, and over the course of the next 45 minutes, it had a stunning quality to it. At 7:12 a.m., over an hour after the first photo in this post, I took this shot:

This is the type of “slow burn” you normally get from a sunset, and sometimes from the pre-sunrise into slight post-sunrise light. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen from solely the post-sunrise light, though. Even at 7:45 a.m. we were all still going crazy firing off shots.

For the two shots in this post, I employed a strategy I’ve used more and more for natural landscapes at sunrise or sunset, and that’s composing for my #1 photo on the tripod and leaving that camera alone. With my second camera, I go into “run and gun” mode, shooting handheld and going for a bunch of different compositions as alternatives.

There are a number of reasons I’ve taken to doing this (maybe I’ll cover them in a separate post if people are interested), and it’s now something I’ll do whenever it makes sense in terms of potential alternate compositions. While these shots are both from my tripod-mounted Nikon D810 that remained in the same spot for nearly 2 hours, I was running around like a madman taking photos with my Nikon D750. As a result, this ended up being my best morning of shooting on the trip.

The lesson from all of this: never give up; always stay optimistic. This is something of which I shouldn’t have to remind myself, because I’m a big believer that great photos can be taken in all conditions, and that it’s more about finding the composition that plays to the weather presented to you, but I needed a reminder of that on this particular morning for whatever reason. Had I been shooting by myself, I would not have the second photo in this post.

If you’re planning a visit to the Canadian Rockies, I recommend picking up a copy of The Canadian RockiesIt’s by a photographer, so there are a ton of inspirational photos in addition to the normal tips (you’ll also find trail maps and other sound advice).

Your Thoughts…

Do you try to stay optimistic and–if necessary–make lemonade out of lemons? Which of these photos do you prefer? Ever been to Jasper National Park? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

7 replies
  1. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    Wonderful job with both of these, Tom. I’ve been waiting to see what the rest of you came up with. Now…about my “Caveman Speak”…lol. I suppose I do sound rather unintelligible at that hour of the morning. I’m definitely with you when it comes to mounting one camera on the tripod and running and gunning with the other. What a fantastic morning of shooting that turned out to be. I love the rocks in the foreground…not sure if I ever got those or not. Looking forward to seeing more shots from this trip!

  2. Darrin Robichaud
    Darrin Robichaud says:

    I love the first shot. The lights on the building show just how dark it must have been and the fog just above the treeline. Wow! Your work is truly inspiring. i also want to thank you for providing the link to Bill’s blog. Between the two of you I look forward to each post and the incredible photos and stories with them. Thanks again for sharing your work.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I agree about the first photo, which I probably should have emphasized more in the post. It’s really *different* from a sunrise/sunset photo, which I appreciate. With that said, I’m glad I didn’t miss the second shot!

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