Autumn in the Canadian Rockies 2017
Lake O'hara and Kananaskis

by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 28, 2017

Photographers around Lake O;hara by Robert Berdan ©

Lake O'hara located in British Columbia near the Border of Alberta and Banff National parks is one of the premiere destinations in the Canadian Rockies. Parks Canada controls the number of people having access to the area by bus and reservations are required. A bus pass is $14.70 for round trip up the 11 Km road. Anyone can walk up the road which takes about 3 hours. No bikes or vehicles are allowed up the road. The reason is to preserve the fragile environment. Not everyone that books shows up so you can sometime show up at the parking lot, and if there are some "no shows" you can sometimes take their place. Bus trips run from about the end of June to late September depending on the weather. You can camp in a tent, reserve space in the Alpine hut if you don't mind sharing a bunk or if you are wealthy you can reserve a cabin on the lake for about $950\night 2 night minimum.

This year and last year I assissted Brian Merry in providing photography instruction on September 21 and 22. Brian offers an overnight photography workshop which includes backcountry cooks and mountain guides. The goal is to photograph the landscape, macro and the night sky when possible. The third and fourth weeks in September are an ideal time because the larches turn yellow. In my experience Lake O'hara is beautiful anytime you can get there. This year it was snowing when we arrived. Snow is better then rain and it permitted us to take some beautiful pictures of the lake. The hike around Lake O'hara is easy, but if you are a photographer you can spend the entire day stopping to take pictures. I love bad weather because it makes for more interesting photos. Below are some shots from a group I took around the lake on the first day.

Photographers at Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

I had a small group and as we head from the Alpine hut to Lake O'hara we stopped to photograph a stream covered in fresh snow. The ideal lens for landscapes is a wide angle zoom e.g. 20-35 mm.

Stream with fresh snow near the Alpine hut

Lake O'hara fresh snow by Robert Berdan ©

Lake O'hara from behind the Parks Canada cabin. I used the tree to lead the viewers eyes into the shot.

Trail around Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

The path around Lake O'hara offers numerous scenic vistas

Avalanche slope Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

At the far end of the lake looking up from the trail at this avalanche slope

Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

Around the lake rocks are covered in lichen and the lake is clear and greenish blue in colour due to the suspended rock flour that reflects shorter wavelengths of light.

Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

Lake O'hara - I like to look for interesting foregrounds that lead a viewers eye into the photo. 12-24 mm Wide angle lens F11.

Returning from the far side of the lake our group can be seen along the path. There were so many scenic vistas that we stopped to take pictures about every 5-10 minutes.

Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

Rocks covered in map lichen dot the shoreline. Bring a macro lens for closeups.

In this photo I focused on the willow leaves covered with snow, took a shot, then I focused on the background and took a shot. I combined the 2 images in Photoshop to create a focus stack which results in an amazing depth of field.

Squirrel in snow by Robert Berdan ©

Wildlife around and in the lake includes a vareity of birds and squirrel feeding on his cache.

Lake O'hara with fresh snowfall by Robert Berdan ©

When taking Landscape photos I try to look for an interesting foreground and leading lines such as the shore line which leads into the picture and provides a sense of 3D depth in an otherwise 2D picture.

To get the big picture I brought a long a superwide angle 8 mm fisheye lens (Sigma)

Frederic Subra and Michael Squance with cameras by Robert Berdan

Two of our guests Frederic Subra from Cranbook on the left and on the right Michael Squance from Calgary. Micheal is president of the Calgary Camera Club.

Most of our group gathered at this shallow pond near the Alpine hut to photograph Cathedral mountain in the background. Brian Merry isin the red coat on the right hand side of the picture. One of the photographers, Peter brought a 4 x 5 camera to take pictures.

Schäffer Lake by Robert Berdan ©

On the second day, the weather cleared and we hiked to Schäffer Lake (2170 m)

Schäffer Lake was partly frozen and surrounded by pine and larch trees by Robert Berdan ©

Schäffer Lake was partly frozen and surrounded by pine and larch trees. Wixwaxy peak is in the background hidden by clouds.

Schäffer lake and larches in Autumn with snowfall by Robert Berdan ©

Schäffer lake is below and you can see the yellow larches in the valley (12-24 mm lens F11).

Schäffer lake with fresh snow by Robert Berdan ©

Similar view of Schäffer lake we stopped here to enjoy a lunch provided by our backcountry cook.

One of our guests noticed a dragon fly below one of the larches that appeared to froze to death.

Larches at Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

On the way back we took a lower route and Fred stops to photograph some of the larches.

Photographer at Lake O'hara Yoho National Park by Robert Berdan ©

Later in the day on Friday at Lake O'hara one of our guests stands on a rock to get a different perspective.

PHotogroup at Lake O'hara by Robert Berdan ©

Some of the members of our group after coming back from the hike to Schäffer lake including our mountain guide on the right. Several other members not in the photo were hiking around Lake O'hara. For information on Brian Merry's photo tours visit his web site


Kananaskis Country

One day after the Lake O'hara workshop I took a couple of folks out to Kananaskis country located about an hour drive from Calgary. I like this park as it's not as crowded as Banff National Park and I often see more wildlife here including moose, bighorn sheep, pikas, elk, and deer. I see moose about 50% of the time and almost always see evidence of their presence.

Wedge Pond sunrise by Robert Berdan ©

Wedge Pond around sunrise - the shallow lake acts like a mirror

Wedge Pond Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Wedg Pond from above just a few feet from the parking lot. The lake is partially surround by Aspens with turn yellow in Autumn.

Moose meadow Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Moose meadow near Mount Engadine lodge - moose are seen here frequently in the early hours of the morning.

Spruce grouse are common in Kananaskis and can sometimes be approached when they freeze - they are sometimes called a fool's hen as this bird relies on camouflage and immobility to hide from predators.

Pika Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Pika's are common at the Rockslide about 1 Km before the Highwood pass. You have to be quiet and listen for the sound a sharp "Peeek" and look for movement as they are perfectly camouflaged among the rocks.

Coyote Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Coyote beside the road in Peter Lougheed (photographed on a previous trip)

Bull moose  in Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Bull moose (photographed on a previous trip) in Kananaskis

Meadow near Boundary Ranch in Kananaskis filled with autumn colours

Cone Mountain near the Engadine lodge in Kananaskis  by Robert Berdan ©

Cone Mountain near the Engadine lodge in Kananaskis

Highwood pass from the Southside by Robert Berdan ©

Driving to the Highwood pass from the Southside I used the road as a leading line into the photograph.

Spillway lakes in Autumn by Robert Berdan ©

Spillway lakes are shallow and often act lake a mirror in the early mornings.

Mount Lyautey at Upper Kananaskis Lakes by Robert Berdan ©

Mount Lyautey at Upper Kananaskis Lakes in the morning (20 mm lens F11 on tripod).

Landscape Photography Tips

1. Bring a tripod, wide angle lens and a polarizing filter

2. Look for interesting foregrounds or leading lines like roads or shorelines that draw the viewer into the picture

3. For greatest depth of field take two shots 1) focus on the foreground 2) then focus on the background and      combine the two images in photoshop as described in my article on focus stacking.

4. Dress in layers, be prepared for mountain weather which can change quickly including rain or snow. If you chill      easily bring along some chemical handwarmers. If traveling into the backcounty bring bear spray.

5. Take both vertical and horizontal photos - I have shown only horizontal photos in this article but I did take many      vertical framed pictures as well.

6. For sunrise photos try to arrive about 10-15 minutes before sunrise so you can scout the best spots.

7. With early morning light a 2-stop hard edge grad filter can help reduce contrast or taking several exposures and     combining them into an HDR (high dynamic range) image can often provide more realistic looking images.

8. When the sky is white, crop it out, or use a grad filter, or add a grad filter in Camera RAW to darken the sky.

When you are out shooting and searching for photographs don't forget to take some time to simply look and enjoy the scenery before you - capture it with your heart and mind. Don't forget to breathe. As I finish writing this article the 4th weekend in September is coming up and the fall colours have haved maxed in Calgary. We should have one more good weekend for photographing autumn colour in the mountain parks - so get out there and take pictures. Fall colours only last 2-3 weeks so you have to get out there and enjoy them while you can. RB

Links to additional resources

Brian Merry - Lake O'hara workshop also see his other workshops
Lake O'hara Parks Canada web site - reservations
Elizabeth Parker Alpine Hut - Lake O'hara - Alpine Club of Canada
Photographing in Autumn at Lake O'hara 2016 by Robert Berdan
Photographing Lake O'hara in Yoho Nationall Park BC 2011 by Robert Berdan
Backcountry safety and stewardship - Parks Canada also see PDF
E-books on Best Places to Photograph in Kananaskis and Banff National Parks by Robert Berdan
Mount Engadine Lodge in Kananaskis
Boundary Ranch Kananaskis
How to use Neutral Density Grad filters by Robert Berdan

Authors Biography & Contact Information

Portrait of Robert BerdanRobert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.

Email at:
Web site:
Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.

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