Best Places to Photograph in the Canadian Rockies
(Banff & Jasper National Parks - Part I)
by Robert Berdan
February 1, 2011
Peyto Lake - the aquamarine water colour is produced by the scattering of light by tiny rock particles called rock flour that are in suspension. This viewpoint is a short (but steep) 10 minute climb from the parking lot.
A question I get often by email from photographers coming to Banff National Park is "Where are the best places to photograph in the Canadian Rockies?" I usually respond by asking, "what are you most interested in photographing - landscapes, wildlife, or waterfalls? I also ask folks whether they will be traveling mainly by car or if they are planning to hike into the back country and how much time they have. Most folks are simply traveling through the parks by car and have only a day or two. Other questions include what lenses should I bring, what should I wear and where are good places to stay? In this short article I will answer some of these questions - I don't usually recommend places to stay as it depends on ones budget and the best place to look for accommodation is on the web. What I do tell them are some of the popular places to get good photographs (see below). These attractions are popular because they are spectacular, but they can also be crowded in July and August and most weekends. To avoid crowds get up early, travel on weekdays and if possible avoid the peak season - July and August or Christmas Holidays. The location where each of the photographs below was taken is also shown on a map at the bottom of the page - most of the shots were taken close to the road except for the pictures in the Tonquin valley, Paradise valley and Spirit Island which involved back country travel. This is Part I - Best Places to photograph in the Canadian Rockies, Part II will feature Kananaskis Provincial Park and Waterton National Park , and Part III will deal with Yoho National Park, in British Columbia - all of these locations are within a half day's drive from Calgary and offer some of the most beautiful places on the planet. The challenge is to photograph them in a unique way.
This photo of Peyto Lake was taken in July after a summer snow storm - most of the snow melted by noon.
Suggestions on what to bring and wear
- Dress for cool weather and be prepared for snow or rain any time of year
- If you go into the back country get a good pair of hiking boots with ankle support and break them in first
- For back country hiking bring along bear spray or bear bangers just in case you encounter a bear
- If you are coming in July and August you should book your accommodations ahead of time
- Any camera can take good photos, but if you are a serious photographer you should bring an at least an SLR camera with a wide angle (15-35 mm) lens for landscape and a telephoto lens for wildlife (e.g. 70-300 mm) .
- A tripod is valuable if you want to photograph in low light (sunrise) and or waterfalls
- Bring extra camera batteries and storage cards so you do not run out - don't forget your battery charger
- Never feed wildlife and maintain a safe distance from elk, bears, wolves or stay in your car
- If you plan to hike in the back country tell someone where you are going and when you will be back
- When back country hiking please take out what you bring in, dress in layers, include a jacket, emergency food
- Bring water with you, if you drink from streams filter the water with a proper filtration device to avoid Beaver Fever
- Thinking about swimming - try the hot springs pool in Banff, most of the lakes are dangerously cold.
When is the Best Time of Year to visit the Rockies?
I guess it depends on what you plan to do. For skiers January to March is the best time,and for hikers, June to about the end of September is great. If you want to hike into the back country most of the trails are still snow covered in June. Wildlife can be seen all year long. Many animals like elk, deer and wolves are easier to spot in winter and you can see evidence of their movement by the tracks in the snow. November isn't a great time to take landscapes as the ground is usually brown and devoid of snow cover, but it's a good time to attend the Banff film festival and room rates are low. For photography I would say the best time is the first three weeks in September for Fall colours and my second choice would be the end of May and early June when many of the Spring wildflowers appear in the valley and there is a good chance to encounter Grizzlies. If you want to hike up into alpine meadows then mid July to mid September are ideal. In the Tonquin valley I like to go the first week in September to avoid mosquitoes and it usually snows on the trip out which I like (see below).
Riding out of the Tonquin Valley September 10 we always encountered snow fall - but it looks great!
Where are the Best Places to stay?
This depends on your budget - hotels are the most expensive, but you can sometimes rent cabins for a reasonable price. Campgrounds and youth hostels are another possibility. Do some research online ahead of time. Most of the folks that live in Calgary simply drive back and forth as it is still cheaper then staying in the mountains which is a shame. Of course if you head up to Jasper it's too far to drive back in one day so you have to make arrangements. There are some good deals to be had but you will have to search and\or come during the off season. Many folks choose to stay in Canmore which is often cheaper and its just outside the National Park. There are also some fantastic back country lodges you can stay at that offer reasonable rates. Some accommodations can exceed $500\day!
Banff Springs Hotel - even if you can't afford to stay there it's worth visiting the place and taking some pictures.
When is the Best time to take photographs?
The light is usually best around sunrise and sunset, but interesting photographs can be taken any time of day. I personally try to avoid blue sky post cards shots, though I have included a few below. I like stormy weather or fog. Sunrise in winter occurs between 8:00 and 8:30 am in summer sunrise occurs about 5:30 am and sunset at about 10:00 pm. For wildflowers Spring time and overcast days are ideal. If you hike into canyons, overcast light is best.
Vermilion Lake with Mt. Rundle in the background in summer
Mount Rundle and Vermilion Lake in Winter - at sunrise - the light doesn't always look this good you have to work for shots like this and return often. Driving time from Calgary under 2 hours.
Waiting for the Sweet light of sunrise - sometimes you get lucky and then sometimes you simply have to try again.
Vermilion Lakes with Mt. Rundle in the Background. In summer time I would recommend having some mosquito repellant.
Sunrise from Vermilion lakes in Autumn
LAKE LOUISE BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Lake Louise boat house - this photograph was taken about 20 minutes earlier then the photograph below,
The fog lifted and the glacier in the background lit up. Visitors can rent the canoes in summer.
Sunrise at Lake Louise with Mount Victoria (3464m or 11, 365 ft) in the background. This photograph was taken in
July at sunrise (i.e. about 5:30 am) I left Calgary before 4:00 am to be in place on time.
Lake Louise is also popular in winter with an ice festival around the end of January and there are various sport activities such as cross country skiing, ice skating, pickup hockey, and dog sledding Temperatures can go to 20 below zero.
Lake Louise is a very popular spot all year round. The Chateau Lake Louise hotel takes up most of the east side of the lake and offers a wide variety of services, stores and food. At peak times it can be difficult to find a parking spot. Best time is very early or late in the day. If you can afford to stay at the hotel then you will have no problems getting some great light. There are many hiking trails you can enjoy and you can rent canoes to paddle around the lake. Spectacular, but usually crowded except in winter.
MORAINE LAKE BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Moraine Lake -is about a 20 minute drive from Lake Louise. The road however is only open seasonally from June to about early October and depends on snowfall. Some folks cross country ski down the road in winter but the round trip is an all day affair. This is a must see spot, but arrive early if you want to avoid the crowds. The parking lot can get so full you may have to walk a kilometer or more from your car to the lake.
You will want a wide angle lens to capture the scene - try 24-35 mm focal length. If you don't have a wide angle lens try making a panorama from a series of images. There are a number of hiking trails in the area that offer scenic views. Grizzly bears do frequent the area so be alert and hike in groups.
This is a very commercial looking photograph and frankly I am not fond of blue skies, but the colour of the canoes in the foreground is an eye catcher. Moraine lake from the boat launch.
Moraine Lake and Ten Peaks around the middle of the day. Sometimes including a person in the photograph can add interest. Middle of the day produces post card like photos, the water is usually smooth in the morning or later in the day.
PARADISE VALLEY - GIANT STEPS WATERFALL
Giant Steps waterfall in Paradise valley is located between Lake Louise and Moraine lake. The falls is located about 8 Km from the parking lot and the area is frequented by Grizzlies so it is recommended you hike in groups of four or more and make noise to avoid any bear encounters. Self portrait about 15 years ago.
Herbert Lake - is along highway 1 up to Jasper about 15 minutes north of Lake Louise. The lake is right beside the highway, you need to beware of cars and buses driving by. Best time is sunrise when the lake is calm. The lake is shallow and you can see the bottom in most places. Loons are commonly found on the small lake and because it is so shallow it does warm up in summer and a few people actually swim here. There is a parking lot and washroom next to the lake. This is an excellent place to bring a kayak or canoe. Driving time from Calgary, about 3 hours.
Castle Junction is a popular spot for photographers especially in winter. There is a bridge that crosses the river and at the top is a large osprey nest and it is usually occupied in Spring and Summer.
Two popular short hikes that end in waterfalls are Johnston Canyon and Mistaya Canyon (above). Johnston canyon has beautiful trails built into the side of the canyon walls. The walk is about 2 Km and is very popular in summer. Mistaya Canyon is less well known and the best time to arrive is early in the morning. The best light for photographing in Canyons is on overcast days. Arrive early to avoid crowds. There is also a restaurant at the head of Johnston canyon trail where you can eat and rent cabins.
Athabasca river along the highway to Jasper National Park. This photograph was taken in late March.
Tangle Falls is right beside the highway as you drive north from Lake Louise up to Jasper - if you are lucky you
may see some Bighorn Sheep nearby.
Pyramid Lake and Mountain Jasper National Park - sunrise.
Tonquin Valley Jasper National Park - you will need to hike about 25 km into the lake or take a horse
back trip and stay in one of the cabins.
Cowboy - no that's my Dad. It was the first time he has ever been on a horse. I took him into the Tonquin Valley
and in fact we liked it so much we went back a second time and we stayed for a week in the cabins at the north end of the lake.
Top: Moraine Lake, Top right, Lance Warley from Florida, Bottom left, Peter Dettling unpacks a kayak in front of Spirit Island Bottom right, my father glassing the Tonquin Valley. Don't forget to include some people in your shots and turn your camera sideways sometimes for vertical photos.
SPIRIT ISLAND JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Spirit Island at sunrise - only way to get this type of light is to canoe or kayak and stay at the nearby campground. It
takes most of the day to paddle to Spirit island. There is a small campground about I Km away that you need to
reserve in advance. It will give you a true wilderness experience. The water is extremely cold and in July I had to clean the ice off my paddle in the morning. This island is probably on more Canada post cards then any other photo.
Spirit Island Maligne Lake Jasper National Park - sunset.
Visitors that drive to or fly into Calgary most often head to Banff national park and if they have more time will often drive up to Jasper. These parks have an enormous amount of beautiful scenery, I have tried to show you some of the most popular places to take photographs and most of them are next to the highway or close to the road. There are more waterfalls, glaciers and rugged landscapes, but to show you I have need a book of photos.
One thing I have tried to show you is that the character of the place can change drastically during different times of the day and different seasons. If you come don't worry about the weather because it changes around each mountain and if it is raining it might be sunny around the corner.
Map showing the location of where the photographs above were taken - most of the photographs were taken close the road, the exceptions are those taken in the Tonquin Valley and Spirit Island. There are hourly boat tours to Spirit island in the Summer, and they usually travel between 10 am and 5:00 pm at a cost of about $35\person. Unfortunately the best light occurs earlier or later in the day and the only way to get to Spirit Island to get a sunrise shot is by canoe or kayak and since it takes most of the day to get there you would need to camp overnight.
ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
The first time I tried to capture mountain scenes with my camera I experimented using different focal length lenses. When I used very wide angle lenses 10-24 mm, the mountains appeared small, if I used a 50 mm lens or longer I couldn't include more then one mountain into some shots. A 35 mm lens seems to be a good compromise, alternatively consider making a panorama of some scenes and stitch several images together. For wildlife, you need a fast lens 70-200 mm F2.8 or 300 mm is ideal. Always have your camera ready when traveling in the mountains. Wildlife might appear for only a few seconds before disappearing. Other animals like Elk will graze for hours in front of you.
If you like to photograph wildflowers - bring a macro lens or close up filters so you can capture some of the smaller flowers like Calypso orchids. A flash can be useful when photographing in the dark canopy. Wildflowers start to appear around the end of May and throughout the summer at higher altitudes.
Calypso orchids - occur in early June and a macro lens is required to photograph these small flowers.
A 300 mm lens is ideal for most wildlife like these Mountain goats spotted beside the highway.
The photographs above represent some of the most popular locations for photographers, there are many more spectacular locations especially when you travel into the back country. Some other easily accessible locations include: Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Morant's Curve, and the Columbia Ice fields. There are thousands of hiking trails and its worth investing in some good books with trail guides such as those by Don Beers books below. Banff and Jasper National Park have enough interesting material to satisfy a photographer or artist for a lifetime, but getting great photos also depends on getting great light and it doesn't always cooperate which is why I go back to many of the places over and over again. Thankfully these parks are in my backyard and only a couple of hours from my home in Calgary.
Recommended Photography Books by George Brybycin
Also see article by George Brybycin in the Featured Photographer Section
One of the best photographers of the Canadian Rockies is George Brybycin - he has published more then 45b ooks and spent the last 50 years climbing and photographing the Rockies. He is a friend and photographic legend and I hope to post a video interview of George in the near future. His books are available in Chapters and various book shops in Calgary and in the Mountain Parks. All his photographs are taken with a Pentax K camera on Velvia film. George does not use digital cameras - film works for him. Check out his books and also an article by George in the Featured photography section of this web site where he shows you images from the top of the mountains.
The best Trail Guides I have come across for the Canadian Rockies are by Don Beers. His photography is outstanding and his trail descriptions are well illustrated. Don notes where you are likely to see certain type of plants, animals and waterfalls etc. He has also been exploring, photographing an hiking in the Canadian Rockies for over 50 years. His books also describe some of the interesting history of the Rockies and are available in various book stores in the Rocky Mountain Parks - his books are getting hard to find, but well worth it. Don Beers lives in Calgary - his publishing company is called: Highline Publishing, 7720 Bow Crescent, N.W., Calgary, AB T3B 2B9.
Please note I do not sell any of these books these are just my recommendations.
LINKS TO ADDITIONAL RESOURCES IN THE PARKS
See some of my videos on the Rockies on the video page.
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