Photographing the Canadian rockies

For many of you who have never been to Jasper and Banff national parks or David Thomson country, you’re missing out on some of the most spectacular and easily accessible landscapes on earth.

There are misconceptions about most of Canada being a very wild, primitive country.

We don’t live in igloos. I’ve only seen them in photos. Mounties don’t always get their men and beaver trapping logging isn’t the primary source of income for most of us.

Cross the border from the U.S. into Canada and you’d be hard pressed to see a difference. Only the lack of American flags would give it away.

The mountain parks of Alberta are very much like the rest of Canada. There are areas that are easily accessible and drop dead gorgeous and there are vast tracts of wilderness where you could hike into the back country and not see anyone for days.

It isn’t necessary to mount a major expedition into the wilderness to get great scenics. That’s because of the Icefields Parkway. It’s a modern, paved two lane highway that passes from Banff National Park into Jasper National Park.

There probably have been more published photos have been taken within ten meters of the highway than on almost any other place on earth. The photo above taken Jasper is only a few meters from a paved two lane highway. It’s typical of how accessible great shooting locations are.

Accommodations in the Canadian rockies range from modern, clean hostels starting around twenty dollars a night to luxurious five star hotels around a thousand dollars a night. Hostels dot the highways in Banff, Jasper and David Thomson country and are a great way to stay in the mountains during the winter on the cheap.

Not interested in sleeping in a dorm with other outdoor enthusiasts? Many of the hostels have private rooms which run around seventy dollars a night. Hostels have changed greatly from when I first started staying in them in the seventies. It’s not necessary to bring a sleeping bag as almost all but the most primitive supply clean bedding. Some have hot tubs and fire pits for when the sun is down and your camera gear is put away.

One of the best kept hostel secrets is the Shunda Creek Hostel in David Thomson country. Among the most iconic winter photos of the Canadian rockies are those of Abraham Lake. Shunda Creek hostel is only a few minutes drive from Abraham Lake, saving you an hour plus drive from Jasper and Banff. If money is a concern you needn’t stay in Lake Louise or the Saskatchewan River crossing motels which are much more expensive. You can’t beat hosteling for an inexpensive and clean place to stay.

The Icefield Parkway has scenic mountain lakes and rivers all along the length of it. The highway is open year round and unless there is a blizzard dumping snow, when it’s closed temporarily for a day to remove the snow and reduce the avalanche risk, it’s easy and safe winter driving.

You could spend a lifetime driving the highway and never run out of things to photograph. If you can’t find a few great photos along that stretch of road you had better sell your camera gear. It really is that easy.

A few local entrepreneurs offer photo tours of the area. I don’t think it’s necessary because you won’t have any problems finding great places to shoot. They’re always only a few steps from your vehicle.

From the comfort of your car, you’ll soon recognize that many of the great mountain photos that you’ve seen published in books, magazines and calendars were taken from the road.

Do you need a guide to photograph the mountain parks? If your primary interest is wildlife. Yes. Although the park is full of animals of all sorts, knowing where they are and when they’ll appear is important. If your time is limited, you don’t want to leave that to chance. You’ll always see elk and mountain sheep. It sometimes hard to miss them. If you’re interested in wolves, I see them once in a while but it’s hit or miss.

If your interest is landscapes, a guide isn’t necessary at all. Drive the highway and keep your eyes open.

You won’t get lost, the highways are well traveled. There are always tourists, tour buses and parks staff buzzing up and down their length.

Stay tuned. In a later blog, I’ll post some of the best places to shoot in Banff, Jasper and David Thomson Country.

Happy shooting,

Dan

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~ by Dan Jurak on January 28, 2011.

13 Responses to “Photographing the Canadian rockies”

  1. Another inexpensive approach is to stay in Rocky Mountain House, which is also quite close (relatively, when coming from the east) and inexpensive. The Tim Horton’s is very close to all the Hotels!

  2. @ Les, thank you. I forgot about that. It’s almost exactly an hours drive from Rocky to Abraham Lake. And the Tim Horton’s makes the drive a little easier. :)

  3. Just find a good spot to shoot around sunset, then again at sunrise. :-)

  4. Interesting reading and great photography, Dan – looking forward to seeing your list of the best places to shoot in this area.

  5. Dan,

    I would like to visit the area but would like to come when there are fewer visitors. It seems as if spring might be the time least cluttered with tourists????

    How would you rate the spring photography and what are the best dates for spring shooting?

    Thanks for any input.

    James

  6. @ James, spring is probably the most difficult time of the year in Jasper and Banff. There are a few weeks where everything looks brown and barren. If you have to come at that time, I think it would be best to stay near the icefields where it looks more like winter.

    Best time of the year to photograph? Easily from the second week of September to the first week of October. It can be spectacular. Fall colors, fresh sprinklings of snow. Very few tourists.

    Dan

  7. Very few tourists in fall???? Wow! I will look into that then. Looking forward to your secret shooting spots. James

  8. Dear Dan,

    I’m still thinking about you last post’s advice. Recently I have been shooting exclusively with a 35mm lens–that’s it. (I only have 2 lens, a (kit) zoom and the 35 mm which I just got for Christmas.) Yesterday you noted the trees full of snow and I wondered if I captured them fully with my limited technology or just the opposite–is my minimalism forcing me to become a better photographer? Haven’t processed them yet so the jury is still out. Today’s post has one of my best 35 mm shots (which of course is more like 50mm to my camera.)

    Coming to Alberta, would be a dream come true…Among other thing$, I don’t know how to drive so for now I rely on your blog for my daily dose of nature at it’s finest…

    http://www.lesliegoodchild.wordpress.com

  9. A good example of Dan’s theme: Put the money into a car rental instead of a “photo guide”. You don’t hear too much about people that put a whack of money into a tour and got rained out.

  10. @ Leslie, you and not your equipment is the most important part of the formula for creating good landscapes. I’ve written before that I could shoot with the camera I used thirty years ago. The results would be different but not worse.

    The standard focal length is great. I use a wide zoom because I prefer the look it gives me. I learned to shoot with a standard fifty mm lens on a 35 mm camera.

    Dan

  11. Hi Dan! I really love your recent post, love those water scene with the mountains in the back, is so beautiful! You’re right, the landscape over there seem fantastic. Visiting Alberta is not on my plans, but your blog is. ;)

  12. Hi Dan,

    Great post as usual. I’ve been planning a trip to the area and have made a Gpogle map of spots we would like to see. We plan on staying in a place in Canmore and renting a car so we have the freedom to go when and where we want. Some of your readers might find it useful so here’s a link to the map.

  13. @ Michael, that’s a great idea. Canmore is on the edge of the mountains and the motel rates are cheaper than inside the national park.

    Dan

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