Banff 7-Day Fall Canadian Rockies Photography Workshop - September 2016 | Sojourn Series, Aperture Academy

Banff 7-Day Fall Canadian Rockies Photography Workshop | September 2016

The Canadian Rockies are one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. Unlike their American sisters, which are made up largely of granite, these rockies are made up largely of shale and limestone. That combination of stone makes them appear to almost shine as they perch above the forested lands below. Formed by glaciers many millennia ago, the valleys below the mountains are home to lush forests, icy blue-green rivers, and some of the most exquisitely blue lakes you’ll ever see.

Photographing the Canadian Rockies is a no brainer. “Mountain Goat” Phil Nicholas and myself met a group of nine eager photographers in Calgary, Alberta Canada, for the start of our week-long photography adventure into these very rockies.

Day 1

Our travel day. Folks arrived from all parts of the globe...San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, NYC, and Southern California. Darkside Photography Workshop Students Everyone had a long day of travel (some multiple days), and we kept our first night to orientation, where we could outline the course of the trip, and find out a little bit about everyone’s photography level. The real fun was to begin on...

Day 2

Our check-in to our hotel in Banff wasn’t until later afternoon, so we let the group sleep in a would be the last time they had that chance for the next few mornings, as all of our departure times were under the cover of darkness.

The drive to Banff was beautiful. Fall had definitely come to the Rocky Mountains. Shades of golden yellow covered the trees in the valley all the way up the hillsides and into the mountains. Once we arrived in Banff, we took some time to explore downtown and have lunch at one of the many fantastic restaurants that line the downtown area.

After our lunch, it was time for a brief check-in to the hotel, and then we were right out in the mix looking for wildlife, and giving the group a chance to see some of the wonderful sights in and around the Banff area. We made a stop on the banks of Lake Minnewanka, where we were witnessing some of the awesome clouds and light dancing on and around the neighboring peaks. Phil and I helped with some of the basic settings and pointing out different compositions that could be utilized to include some of the interesting rocks and shapes along the lake's edge.

Our goal for the night was to drive along the Vermillion Lakes area of Banff and shoot sunset with one of the lakes and the mighty Mt. Rundle in the background. The water level was nice, and it allowed us to get down to the edge and look for curves and rocks to use in our foreground. The fall color had spread down to the lakeside grasses as well, and that helps to give a bit of a warmth to the overall scene...which included some moody skies and cooler tones.

Mother Nature was going to be trying all week to give us a run for the money with her rain and snow...and unfortunately, the rain began to fall shortly after we arrived. It looked to be staying put, too.

We opted to leave the Vermillion Lakes region and set out in search of wildlife along the Minnewanka and Two-Jack loop. We were rewarded with a couple bull elk in a meadow near the Two-Jack area. We walked out within range and the class began to get some shots of these two large males in their element. Phil and I made sure we had the ISOs pushed up, and everyone was shooting as fast of a shutter speed as they could get...speed is the key to wildlife shooting. The goal is to freeze the action as it’s happening.

The light was fading, and everyone was ready to head back to the Buffalo Mountain Lodge for some rest, and food.

Day 3

We met early and drove to our first sunrise shoot--Two-Jack Lake. Though it was dark, we could see wisps of clouds in the sky nestled between the stars. A faint sky glow on the horizon let us know that there was a chance for something awesome.

We arrived first to our location and scurried under the cover of darkness to our spot along the lakeside. We had everyone work on getting their composition dialed in using the water's edge, Mount Rundle, and the nearby tree island. That little island of pine trees really helps give the lake a different feel.

The only problem we ever run into on this shoot is that sometimes the sky behind us tends to get really exciting, and it makes the spots we are standing in feel a little depressing. We had secured the area, so we encouraged the group to break off from time to time to go shoot the other direction, where the clouds and color were getting quite nice. Using polarizing filters and graduated ND filters was really helpful in making a balanced image.

Once the color from the sky managed to spread to Rundle, it was again time to run back and have the class set up their original compositions. The light and clouds were quite nice, and we encouraged the group to really experiment with longer exposures so they could smooth out the chop on the water.

Our next stop that morning was along the Two-Jack Loop, where we could photograph some fall foliage in the trees and brush with some great morning light and clouds. We had the whole group laying down in the grass looking for low angles to show off the reds of the foliage with the great morning light. We again used those grads and polarizers to really help balance the images.

The next item on the agenda was to explore the exquisite fall foliage along the Mule Shoe area of the Bow River Parkway. The colors were absolutely amazing. Phil and I showed the class how to make some classical aspen compositions, as well as get a little artsy and do some hand-held motion blur to make some abstract type images.

A few folks even found a little vantage point to shoot a reflection pond and the passing Canada railway trains as they drove through the countryside.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent the same way; cruising the Bow River Parkway, looking for mountains and fall foliage, which we found in spades. It was hilarious for us to be set up shooting wonderful color and mountains, and have people stop us to ask, “What are you looking at?”

We got a tip that there were some elk hanging out at the Banff Springs golf course, so we made our way there and, sure enough, we found a few hanging out on the fairways. We made a brief stop so the folks could grab a few snaps of these large rocky mountain residents.

We were close to Bow Falls, a nice sized waterfall that falls right inside the Banff city limits. The sky looked like it might light up in this vicinity, so we set up shop for sunset there. We encouraged the group to get low, use the reflections in some of the pools, and use the rocks as interesting foreground.

Sunset was really pleasant, and folks got some nice moody shots of this little city gem.

Day 4

Snow Day!

We woke to snow falling from the sky. This put a damper on our planned Vermillion Lakes sunrise, but didn’t mean we would give up. We set off in search of any wildlife, and looking for bits of fall color in the snow. We found all of the above, and more!

The real treat was the elk we found just off the road in the snow. This big bull wasn’t fazed in the least by the sheets of powder falling from the sky. The group got some nice images of this giant specimen, for sure.

The rest of the morning played out much the same as the previous day...except we were looking for the same compositions with the newly fallen snow! We went back to Mule Shoe, shot the train and fall colors, and then on down the Bow River Parkway looking for mountains coming out of the mist...we got close. A few peaks danced in and out of the weather and let us get some very minimalist-looking images.

Despite the weather, it turned out to be quite a productive morning of shooting! We took our customary lunch break in Banff, and then set off up the Mt. Norquay ski area to a vista point that overlooks the entire town of Banff...and of course, Mount Rundle!

We did a little group shot here, and noticed that the storm of the morning was breaking up quite nicely, so we made our way back down to the Vermillion Lakes, so we could try to capture some nice light.

The group was giddy to see the light was changing and the chances of capturing something magical was there...Phil and I helped with the settings, and compositional suggestions as always...and the rest was up to Mother Nature. We had beautiful clouds, and awesome reflections to work with, and of course, all that wonderful golden foliage.

What a great end to a long day in the snow!

Day 5

We woke with plans of photographing Castle Mountain and the Bow River. The weather was still lingering around, so we made a brief stop at Tim Horton’s for some coffee and snacks to keep us tied over while we waited to see if the mountain would make an appearance.


We saw the mountain briefly when we arrived, and it threatened several times to jump out of the clouds and give us a show. It never really did...but we got some nice light over the bridge, and a few folks made some very nice compositions of the bridge, sunrise color, and rocks with the river flowing through the middle. Phil noticed that the mountains to the west were starting to poke out and get some nice light, so we opted to bailout on Castle Mountain and head towards our next spot.

With the mountain not playing nice, we opted to head to Marble Canyon to shoot some ice blue water and rocks. On the way, we spotted some great light on the peaks and make an emergency photography stop on the runaway truck ramp. If you got really low, you could crop out the road and were left with forest, golden-lit mountain, fog, and fall was spectacular.

Marble Canyon is also spectacular, and with the icy blue water, fall color, and stone, it was also an amazing place. We really could’ve spent the morning along this drive with the river, canyons, and wonderfully snow-capped rockies.

Phil and I had other plans. Peyto Lake is a great spot in the middle of the day. The sun is in the right spot so the whole area is evenly lit, and with the blue sky opening up and the cool mountains dusted with fresh snow, we wanted to make sure we were there to witness it.

The hike up to Peyto let us know it was going to be spectacular. Snow covered the whole trail, and it resembled a bobsled run more than a trail...but we forged on and got out to our little cliffside perch above the lake.


Perfect clouds, color, and even some reflection in the lake. It was as good as it can be. Phil and I encouraged polarizers, and using a variety of compositions, and panoramas to take the whole shot in. Everyone was positively giddy with the scene.

We definitely earned lunch that day!

After lunch, we checked into our next hotel, the magnificent Fairmont at Lake Louise. This has to be the hotel with the best view in the world. High mountain peaks, glaciers, and an icy blue lake. It doesn’t get much better. This 5-star resort would be our home for the next two nights...and whatever time we couldn’t fill with photography would be spent in luxury, for sure.

That night, we set off to Herbert Lake in hopes of reflections and sunset our luck would have it, we got both!

We set off around the side of the lake so we could see the reflection of the rockies in the water, and towards the end of the day, the sun broke through and cast some warm light all over the mountains and was stunning.

Phil and I helped the class get their compositions set up, and then sat back to watch the show with the rest of the group.

On the way back to the hotel we saw our first grizzly bear of the trip, right near the road. Though it was far too dark to photograph him, it was still really great to see one so healthy, and so close to the safety of our vans.

Day 6

We woke to shoot from the comfort of our own hotel. No car rides, and a little extra rest! We started our shoot right on the banks of Lake Louise, a short three minute walk from our hotel door. Coffee in hand, we walked to the spots, and set up.

The reflections were dynamite, and everyone got dialed in with their chosen composition. Phil and I helped with the settings, which were getting pretty well cemented in for most everyone by this point. It was just offering up a few suggestions on compositions, and working with a few very minor exposure issues

The sky began to take on a little color, and all were hopeful it would “go green,” as Phil likes to put it, but sadly, we weren’t so fortunate...but that didn’t mean that all those blue tones, reflections, and rocks didn’t make some spectacular images!

After sunrise, we let the group relax for a few hours and enjoy their awesome hotel. We met in the afternoon for a couple hours of post-processing techniques, where we unveiled some of the magic that can go into making a finished piece. I think everyone learned a few new tricks, and it gave Phil and myself a chance to see all the fantastic work the class had gotten so far in the trip.

That afternoon we made the hike up Johnston Canyon to see some of the great waterfalls up there. It’s a 3-mile round trip hike, so we took our time and enjoyed this unique trail that winds up the river canyon on a series of catwalks perched along the edge. Even without the awesome waterfalls, it was still a beautiful hike.

The lower falls is probably the most photogenic, with the way it cuts inside of the rocks and falls into a perfectly blue pool at the bottom. Everyone got some great images here of the warm rock and cool water...should make for some nice images.

We encouraged everyone to take their time, enjoy the hike, and stop to shoot whenever they felt the urge on their hike out. When everyone was done, it had been quite a long trek, and everyone was ready to head back to the hotel for the night. Although, if sunset looked great, we were right on the banks of a beautiful lake, so shooting was always an option!

Day 7

Time flies! We awoke early, and our awesome group was all packed and ready for departure. Moraine Lake is arguably one of the finest of the lakes in this region for photography, and thusly gets packed with photographers quite early. We wanted that pole position, so we made sure we were on scene well over an hour before sunrise. Hiking up the grizzly-rich woods in the dark is a little intimidating, but we all arrived to our spot without incident...and, first in line, so we had the choice of whatever composition we wanted.

The sunrise wasn’t colorful, but between the mountains, trees, rocks, and reflections, it was still pretty darn wonderful, and everyone got some really nice images.

It was a trip that seemed to just fly by...everyone aboard was energetic, and ready for whatever Phil and I had planned for them, and we kept them busy almost every day for hours and hours at a time. The conditions were wild and crazy, and made for some amazing light and photography. I hope everyone enjoyed this adventure as much as we did bringing you on it.

Until next time,

Brian, Phil, and the rest of the Aperture Academy family

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