How to take pictures like aspenmike

Anyone who’s been on the forums for any length of time has enjoyed aspenmike’s photography, and wondered, “how could I possibly take pictures like that?” I recently discovered at least one key element: Ride up mountain passes in Colorado.

I was in Estes Park for a non-unicycling event, but being me, I brought a unicycle, and I had a day free to use it. My plan was to head towards Rocky Mountain National Park for a ride on the Old Fall River Road, a one-way dirt road up to the pass, and then to ride down the paved Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuous paved road in the U.S.) back to town.

I set out on my geared 29er, passing the Stanley Hotel (Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining), where the climbing began in earnest. Unfortunately, as I entered the park I was informed that Old Fall River Road was closed due to damage from the harsh winter. Bummer deal; that meant I’d needlessly added about 4 miles onto my ride, and I had to ride pavement all the way up. Ah well, nothing to do but go for it.

Estes Park sits at about 7800 feet, which means that not long into the climb, I reached the highest elevation I’d ever ridden on one wheel (9000 feet, Mr. Toad’s in Tahoe). At first it wasn’t too bad; the climb on road is very gradual, and I was able to crank the high gear until the intersection with Highway 36 at approximately 9500 feet. At that point, though the road didn’t get any steeper, my oxygen supply didn’t allow for heroic effort, so I switched down to low gear. I had 150mm cranks on my 29er, which meant I was now moving quite slowly, but would not have any problems with leg power. (Lung power was another question).

After the turn, I had my second unfortunate discovery; I was riding on the same day road crews were putting down a new layer of chip seal, which is a major pain to ride on any kind of cycle. It was a weekday, so the traffic wasn’t too bad, but there would sometimes be lines of 8-10 cars and trucks kicking up dust and gravel.

Other than the road itself, the conditions were perfect; light wind, temps in the 70s, not too humid up on the mountain, and gorgeous views. I just kept cranking it up and stopping occasionally for photos and snacks.

After passing Rainbow Curve (~11,000 feet), I saw ahead what looked like a pass, and got energized to reach it. My third unfortunate discovery was that what had looked like the pass was only a hanging glacial valley, and the road continued to climb off into the distance after I crested the rise. Still, nothing to do but continue on, so I kept pushing.

At this point the altitude was becoming a serious problem. Even though I was riding very slowly and consciously monitoring my breathing, I was having trouble keeping forward momentum. My body was starting to shut down; I stopped a few times for water and food, but my stomach was clenched and didn’t want to consume anything new. My head was pounding and I began to question the wisdom of continuing on.

I passed signs warning people to be mindful of the alpine tundra; I was above the tree line, and now had to deal with a headwind as well as the altitude. I saw a couple of yellow-bellied marmots on the rocks. I was now stopping more often than I could reasonably justify for photographic reasons, and my physical condition was not improving as I went higher. After stopping at the Forest Canyon overlook (~11,700’) I cranked over one small rise hoping to see the pass, but again saw the road rising depressingly off into the distance. I also felt a few drops of rain from a cloud coming over the mountain. Out here unsupported, I decided it was unwise to push myself further, and turned around after reaching about 11,800’. I was perhaps 400’ of climbing and 2 miles short of the summit, but I’d have to leave it for another time.

On my first downhill stint back to Rainbow Curve I was still feeling the altitude, but after a rest I was able to get into the high gear groove and start making time. At one point I came upon a long line of cars moving very slowly, and passed at least 20 or 30 of them before coming to the pullout at Many Parks Curve, where one of the guys on the road crew (who caused the backup) asked to try my uni. He was able to ride it in low gear and made a passable attempt at high gear, not bad for someone who hadn’t done it before.

I cranked back into town just ahead of the rain, arriving just at Beer O’Clock.

I have to give mad props to aspenmike for doing this kind of ride all the time; it’s incredibly difficult to exert yourself at this kind of altitude, even for someone in great shape. The man’s a beast!

As for the pictures, it sure helps.

Sweet pics! Thanks for sharing your ride with us :slight_smile: I too am very jealous of Mikes riding abilities

If you want to learn about photography itself, there are 4 basic things that if you get right… will put your images at the top, even if they aren’t composed well, or the lighting is crappy.

They are

  1. White balance - all lighting situations have a different color balance, you can have an awesome photo, but if the color balance is off, it will look HORRIBLE
  2. ISO (Film/Sensor Sensitivity) - low light situations make your camera try to boost the lighting, and it makes your images super grainy. Low ISO = less grain
  3. Shutter speed - high shutter speed captures action, low shutter speed creates blur, you must understand these and use them to your advantage (hint: blur can be COOL)
  4. Aperture - Most people think aperture is mostly related to depth of field (how much area is in focus) but that is more dependent on the type of lens you are using. Adjust your aperture for the look you desire, and so that you can properly expose the scene you are trying to photograph.

Long lens (100mm+) = shallow depth of field (low number apertures like F2.8)
Short lens (20mm-) = wide depth of field (at proper apertures, like F11+)
Lens choice itself is subjective, wide angle lenses distort reality, long lenses compact it.

Properly expose your images. Your camera records total values of 256 continuous tones, anything above 256 is just white (with no detail) and anything below 0 is just black (with no detail). Contrast is good, but you still want detail in all the important areas.

Tripods ALWAYS help, no matter what you are shooting, if you slap it on a tripod, you’re going to spend longer getting the image right, and it will be sharper.

These are very basic tips, but they will help you immensely in trying to make good looking pictures/video.

Is it ever not Beer O’Clock at the end of a Tom Holub ride? :slight_smile:

Beautiful pics! But I think you guys are leaving out a couple of details on how to get AspenMike-like pics:

  • You got the first one, which is ride in beautiful, high places (Mike's pictures from Hawaii were great too)
  • But methinks your pictures were not posted straight out of the camera, were they? Mine aren't
  • For landscape-type shots, I usually lighten the shadow areas
  • Then I often increase the Contrast (or Clarity) a bit
  • I always turn up the Vibrance, or Saturation quite a bit
  • I also decrease the Highlights if necessary, and/or darken the sky

My photo manipulation software of choice is Adobe Lightroom. All of the above adjustments can be made non-destructively. Though I shoot all RAW these days anyway, this also works with JPEGs.

It depends on how you are shooting. Many consumer cameras do adjustments in-camera automatically for contrast and saturation. Aspen mike could be doing absolutely nothing, those environments are perfect for auto-exposure cameras because vivid blue skies and green plant life are decently close to 18% gray, which is how auto-exposure reads the environment. But he is consistent with his images, so I would venture to guess that Mike knows at least a thing or 2 about photography :slight_smile:

I shoot images in RAW to maximize my sensor data, but RAW images are flat in contrast and saturation by nature, so they always need a little adjustment. I use camera RAW for my global adjustments and CS5 for local adjustments.

The thread title was intended as a joke, but to give some serious technique tips:

Get a portable prosumer camera that gives you some decent flexibility. I use the Canon Powershot G11, which is nice because it has metal ISO and exposure compensation dials, along with a bunch of other manual controls. Any compact camera will have significant design compromises compared to a DSLR, but any DSLR will be too big and too expensive to take on MUni rides, so use a decent compromise camera.

Throw out most of your images. Never post two pictures of the same scene; decide which one is better and get rid of the other one. This will help improve the average quality of your image pool, and help you develop better photography instincts.

Mental focus comes before camera focus. When you’re looking at a beautiful mountain vista, there’s no way you can capture it in a two-dimensional still image. So you have to pick an element to highlight which hopefully captures a bit of what it felt like to be there.

Shooting in RAW isn’t entirely necessary, but it makes it easier to correct for camera settings which weren’t optimal when you made the shots. When you’re shooting on the run with a camera you just pulled out of your backpack, it’s good to be able to fix things later.

Right now I do general management of photos with Picasa, and edit in Photoshop Elements, with batch processing with Canon’s Digital Photo Professional. I’ll probably buy Lightroom at some point.

…off the photography topic…

Mike’s a beast, 'tis true, but, besides being in great shape, he plays, works, and most importantly LIVES at high altitude year-round. That’s key.

No matter what shape you’re in, going from sea level to aerobic exercising at 10K+ feet will bring the symptoms you mentioned. And you made the right decision not to push further than you did. You probably just would have been more uncomfortable, but you do risk blowing a brain gasket and other gnarly injuries.

This is good advice. I’ll often come upon a scene while riding that grabs my attention so I stop for a photo. The good pictures almost always come when I spend several minutes trying to focus on some aspect of the scene, usually by taking a series of shots (with the camera or in my mind) that help me to refine the subjects and composition.

Looks like an awesome ride. Great pics, too.

I’m going down to Estes Park next summer for my brother’s wedding. Sounds very exerting to ride up there. Regardless, I have every intention of bringing my 36er (I’ll need some longer cranks though :roll eyes:).

Never post two pictures of the same scene.
Never post two pictures of the same scene.
Never post two pictures of the same scene.
Never post two pictures of the same scene.

That’s an area I have to work on… Here are my “random” shots from rides so far this year.

A good photographer can take multiple shots of the scene, and no-body would be able to tell that it was the same location :slight_smile:

That’s fine; there are plenty of different images you can take and post from a single location. What you shouldn’t do is post three different more or less identical images with slight differences in framing. Or if you’re shooting action and you take three shots of a unicyclist as he goes by, choose the one that captures the action best, don’t post all three. (Or post them as a triptych).

I had had a few days to acclimate (arrived in Denver on Sunday, Estes Park on Wednesday, was riding on Thursday), but indeed my thoughts were along those lines. If I ever take another shot at the pass, I’ll base myself out of Estes a few days earlier and do a warm-up ride.

Or bring a bike.

Yeah, the title of this got my attention. I am so grateful to live and play and work in the high country; they call the Colorado Rocky Mtns- long winters/short summers :roll_eyes:
It is the riding I know/have, so it is what I do. Riding at elevation is a different animal all around. Controlling heartrate is a huge challenge every climb, I will stop to let the heart catch up. My body works great at about 150-165 bpm, above that I start to go anerobic. Although this last weekend I rode a ton of high elevation climbs and maintained 170 bpm for minutes.
It will be great to see the US Pro Cycling Challenge in just a few weeks, here in Colorado. The pros will still fly up these mtns, but I have a feeling we might see some Colorado pro riders that are not on their respective first teams, that will climb better than some of the better Grand Tour pros. They live and train here, good point Steveyo. It takes a month or better to fully adjust though. Whats best is to train at altitude and sleep at sea level. Down in Co. Springs, I believe there are machines that allow the Olympic athletes this luxury for top training benefits.
Tom, so glad you gave it your best up Trail Ridge, and was smart enough to turn around. That is one of the classic mtn climbs in the world, and not very easy either. I tried to go up it this June, just a few weeks after it opened to check out the snow banks. I didnt make it either, the road was closed at Rainbow curve due to 3’ drifts on the road up top. However, I did ride up past the closure until it got too damn cold, wet and windy. I wasnt ready nor interested to ride in a blizzard that day.
Thanks for all the kind words ya’ll, and glad you like my ride photo’s. It is an amazing place to share. Cheers.
Tom: This pic is from 5 weeks ago, yours is almost from same location:)

I always enjoy when your share your rides with us Mike. You gonna ride your uni beside any of the pro’s when the race goes by? :stuck_out_tongue:

I will be helping my daughter get settled into her new life, College :astonished: when the race is in Aspen, so I will watch it on TV that day.

Very cool write up and photos Tom. I did this ride (trail ridge road) from Estes on my touring bicycle two summers ago. Fully loaded and weighed down with all my gear (camping/cooking/water/food/etc), nice and slow. I did the ride in early July and when I got to the alpine tundra area, it started storming…snowing even, and I was literally blown off my bike by the wind. I had to take cover for a few minutes, and then the sun came right back out and I continued the ride down to a campground on the other side.

I love Colorado, and will definitely be moving back at some point. It is a shame you didn’t stay longer and do some muni, that is where the fun is!

Also, I am not as much of a fan of Trail Ridge Road for cycling - it gets too busy and narrow for my liking, my favorite road climb is Mt. Evans, it feels a lot safer than sharing the road on trail ridge. Next time you go back to CO you will have to give Mt. Evans a go and some epic trails (monarch crest)!