San Juan Mountains Trip Log – Part 2

This is the second part of our trip log to San Juan Mountains. You can see the first one right here. For the second part of the trip, Lola unfortunately could not join me (she was too busy shooting important events) and I was fortunate to have Sergey accompany me on another photo tour to southeast of Colorado.

Let me start off with my favorite image of the second part of the trip that I captured at Maroon Bells in Aspen (image as is, no post-processing):

Maroon Bells at Night

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 29mm, ISO 800, 30/1, f/3.2

Can you believe I captured this at 12:30 AM at night? After I took some shots at night during our trip to Mesa Verde, I could not wait to get another clear night to take some pictures. This time, we were at Maroon Bells – the perfect photography spot. We arrived at around 12 AM in the morning and it was so cold outside, that Sergey refused to get out of the car to take pictures. Plus, he thought that it would be a waste of time and energy to try to shoot at night and he was certain that none of the pictures would come out good. I told him about the images I took at Mesa Verde at night, and he finally agreed to come with me to the lake to take a few pictures.

As soon as he saw the first image on his camera, he could not believe his eyes. The moonlight was so bright that all fall colors were visible and the perfect reflection also added to the scenery. Sergey was shooting with his Canon 60D DSLR and I was shooting with my Nikon D3s. Neither Sergey nor I felt like standing in front of our cameras for hours to capture star trails, so we mostly took 15-30 second exposures in order to get the stars look like stars instead of a bunch of lines. Typically, even a 30 second exposure for an ultra-wide angle lens is too long (the above image was shot @ 30s), so I generally try to stay between 10-20 seconds. The speed of the lens also plays a huge role when doing night photography – fast-aperture prime lenses with good wide open performance typically yield the best results. Unfortunately, I did not have any fast primes with me, so I had to shoot with my 24-70mm that is not very good at the edges when shooting wide open. To get slightly better corner results, I stopped it down to f/3.2 @ 28mm focal length.

That night was also the night when I messed up an important setting on my camera – image quality. Since I had my gloves on, I kept on moving ISO from one value to another on the back of the camera and accidentally hit the “Quality” button (which is near the ISO button) and moved the rear dial. This is my first complaint about the D3s – why did Nikon decide to put the Quality setting right next to ISO?! It is not one of those settings that you would normally touch… At that point, I had no idea that I changed anything on the camera and I kept on shooting…

As I have stated in some of my posts from before, Maroon Bells attracts hundreds of photographers from all over the world. Here is a typical non-busy morning at Maroon Bells. On a good day, photographers stand shoulder by shoulder, tripod into tripod. Sergey and I once almost left because we could not find a spot.

Maroon Bells Photographers

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm, ISO 3200, 1/8, f/8.0

When you shoot RAW and all of a sudden end up in the 8-bit JPEG/TIFF realm, you suddenly realize how important it is to shoot RAW instead of JPEG. The dark part of the image on the left is practically impossible to recover…

Maroon Bells Panorama

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/8.0

Aspens were beautiful as always. One thing about the sun in the frame, you have to be careful about how you place it in your frame. Often times, if you put the sun at a certain angle, lots of flare and ghosting will completely ruin your images. Another thing to watch out for, is filters – either use high quality filters or remove them completely, since they could add more flare/ghosts to your images.

Fall Aspen Colors

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 40mm, ISO 200, 1/100, f/10.0

I have never hiked to Clear Lake, which is right under the Maroon Bells basin. It is only 2 miles away from the parking lot (moderate hike), but certainly worth a visit – except not in the fall. As you can see, the lake was almost dry with not much to see around it. I did not bother taking pictures except this one just to show what it looks like at this time of the year:

Clear Lake at Maroon Bells

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/8.0

After a somewhat tiring hike to the Clear Lake, we ate lunch and then headed out to Dallas Divide near Ridgway, CO. We arrived there at around sunset and only managed to take a couple of pictures of Mount Sneffels. The peaks this time had some snow on them, but the haze was horrible. I used a polarizing filter to get rid of the haze, but obviously could not completely get rid of it:

Mount Sneffels at Sunset

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 122mm, ISO 200, 1/20, f/8.0

Our next morning was certainly unproductive, since we had no idea where we needed to be at sunrise. We drove around by ranches and took pictures:

Moon at Sunrise

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 200, 1/40, f/16.0

Again, these were captured in 8-bit TIFF, so they are basically as-is, directly out of the camera.

San Juan mountains with a fence #1

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 40mm, ISO 200, 1/60, f/14.0

More mountains with fences:

San Juan mountains with a fence #2

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/14.0

And plenty of roads:

Fall colors and road

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 66mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/16.0

As we drove around taking pictures, I found a field with lots of odd-looking flowers:

Bee on red flower

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/500, f/8.0

Not sure what it is, does anyone know?

Our next stop was at an old mine that is accessible by a 4×4 road. It was an easy drive that gave us some opportunities to take pictures of the mine with the fall colors:

Aspens and an old building

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm, ISO 200, 1/160, f/8.0

As we started taking pictures, my camera showed that I ran out of memory. I could not understand what was going on, since I knew that I did not take so many pictures to fill up two 16 GB cards. I then looked at the camera settings and realized that I had been shooting TIFF all this time…how stupid of me! Out of around 1,200 images I shot with Sergey, around 1,000+ were in TIFF format. What a waste! I obviously switched back to RAW, but it was already too late.

Thankfully, I do have some good images that were taken well and do not need to be touched in Lightroom or Photoshop. However, it is still crazy that I did not even bother looking at the camera settings for two days, thinking that I was shooting RAW all that time…

Old Mine #1

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 56mm, ISO 400, 1/80, f/8.0

I took a couple of images of the above building with the background peak and scenery, but it was too boring. I then saw some guy walk towards the building, so I patiently waited and then took a shot.

Here is the Yankee Girl Mine up close:

Yankee Girl Mine

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/8.0

Don’t remember the name of this building, but it was on our way out:

Old Mine #3

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 58mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/8.0

After our night photography success at Maroon Bells, Sergey did not mind to take some more pictures at night. We returned to one of the lakes we took pictures of during the day and set up our cameras on tripods. Milky Way was beautiful as always, with the snowy mountains and vegetation getting plenty of light from the Moon:

Milky Way

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 38mm, ISO 1600, 15/1, f/2.8

I obviously could not resist to take some more pictures of the Milky Way, so I pointed the camera up and took the following picture:

Milky Way with Colors

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 3200, 10/1, f/2.8

This time, I went for 10 seconds at f/2.8 (wide open on the 24-70mm) and bumped up the ISO to 3200 to capture the stars without any trails. Aghh…if only I had the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G with me! I could have certainly created better pictures at lower ISO levels…

Next morning, I was caught by surprise. As I got out of the car to start setting up my camera, I looked down the canyon and saw something furry and brown. It turned out to be a bear cub! He is obviously not that little anymore (probably 2nd year), but he certainly did express some interest in checking out what I was doing. I had my 24-70mm mounted on the camera and my longer lens (70-200mm) was in the car. I ran towards the car and told Sergey about what I saw. I then mounted the 70-200mm on my D3s and took some pictures of this fur-ball:

Black Bear Cub #1

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 800, 1/10, f/4.0

He looked at us a couple of times, then proceeded to his business with consuming plants and fruits:

Black Bear Cub #2

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 340mm, ISO 3200, 1/50, f/4.8

After eating some of his breakfast, he disappeared into the woods.

Black Bear Cub #3

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 340mm, ISO 3200, 1/80, f/4.8

My theme was definitely fences this time, so I found some and took more pictures with mountains:

Fence at Sunrise

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 40mm, ISO 800, 1/50, f/16.0

Before leaving, we returned to the same spot where Sergey and I took pictures of the Milky Way at night. The sky was still cloudless, but I still like the way the below image came out:

Mountain Reflection

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 55mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/14.0

We then hiked some more and found a small lake in a private area:

Small lake

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 58mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/11.0

Lots of aspens with fall colors awaited us again:

Fall Aspen Colors

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/11.0

So I took another shot with the sun in the frame. By the way, when you include the sun in your frame and you do not know how to shoot in manual mode (or do not want to), the simple trick is to switch your camera metering to spot metering, then point your AF point to a darker part of the frame that you want to expose properly. If you do not do this, the image might come out too dark because of the bright sun.

Sun through Aspens

NIKON D3S + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 38mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/11.0

And here is the last picture I took before we took off back to Denver:

Mountain overlook

NIKON D3S + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 400, 1/80, f/10.0

Stay tuned for a trip log from Yellowstone!


  1. 1) Mirsanjar
    October 17, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Like it, but i think flower is purple :)) and bear is brown :)))) love you guys

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:49 am

      LOL, the bear is brown in color, but it is a black bear! :)

  2. October 17, 2010 at 5:08 am

    Да, это круто. Очень. Надо срочно делать визу. Но надо продумать план:)

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:50 am

      Алексей, говорил же, предупреждал же! :) На этот год уже позно, давайте на лето/осень 2011 года!

      • October 23, 2010 at 12:51 am

        Да, в декабре начну процедуру. На вас можно ссылаться в плане – куда едешь или лучше не надо?

  3. October 17, 2010 at 5:11 am

    How far away was that bear Nasim? Couldn’t have been too far?!

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:51 am

      Aaron, I shot it with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + 1.7x TC, so it was very close :)

      • 3.1.1) Aaron Priest
        October 22, 2010 at 4:19 am

        You’re a brave man! Great shots!

  4. 4) daniel
    October 17, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Hi Nasim

    Do you think think 24 1.4 would be ok on dx for landscape? Also how does the 17-55 2.8 compare to the 16-35 ?
    I have upgraded my 85 1.4 to the new 85g based on your review and found it just as you said. It ‘s a great lens. Thanks

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:53 am

      Daniel, 24mm f/1.4G is perfect for landscapes on FX, but might feel a little too long on DX…

      I have not done a comparison between the 17-55mm and the 16-35mm, but I certainly like both! :) I’m glad you like the 85mm f/1.4G, so far I have not gotten a single complaint from those who bought it…

  5. October 17, 2010 at 6:27 am

    The photos are so beautiful, they make me want to weep :)

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:53 am

      Thank you Mimi! I will post some wallpaper-sized versions hopefully tomorrow.

  6. 6) Erica L Honeycutt
    October 17, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Breathtaking works of art! Beautiful!

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:54 am

      Thank you Erica, appreciate the feedback! :)

  7. 7) Guzal Fakhriyeva
    October 17, 2010 at 2:42 pm


    Насим ака, можно где-нибудь скачать 1-4-6 фотографии для wallpaper?

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:55 am

      Гузаль, я завтра постараюсь выставить :) Если не получится, обязательно выставлю через неделю (уезжаем завтра вечером).

  8. 8) Tom
    October 17, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Is the flower not a Thistle? Kinda late bloom if it is. The shots are great, looks like a great trip and the bear, what a bonus!!!! Good for you. Thanks for the post.

    • October 22, 2010 at 1:56 am

      Tom, I think you may be right – it sure does look like a Thistle! Thank you!

      Yes, the bear was a nice bonus. I will post more pictures of bears that I captured in Yellowstone later.

  9. 9) Kevin
    October 18, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Hi Nasim,

    If you were here in New Zealand I would say that you had taken a photo of a Scotch Thistle flower, they are a common weed here on sheep and beef farms.

    I really enjoy your reviews and the photos are fantastic, very inspiring thanks.



    • October 22, 2010 at 1:57 am

      Kevin, it certainly does look like Thistle, which we have here…maybe a late bloom like Tom indicated.

      Thank you for your feedback, I appreciate it :) I will post some wallpaper-sized versions later tomorrow or next week.

  10. 10) Noreen
    October 18, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Great series of pictures, Nasim! I loved every bit of it…even those shot with jpeg…:)

  11. 11) Peng
    October 18, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    The images are fantastic! Make me want to go back to Aspen after looking at the images you shot. Great work Nasim!

    Do you have any recommendation on how to shoot Halloween’s night? I have D90 with the following lens
    1. nikon 35 mm f1.8
    2. nikon 50 mm f1.4
    3. tokina 11-16 f2.8
    4. nikon 18-200 vr
    I’m planing to walk on the street and shooting people in their costume on Waikiki beach walk. It’s going to be a fast action because everyone keeps moving (people might not be staying still for me to trial and errors on all my lenses) and the light would be challenging. I wonder the shorter focal length of 11-16 f2.8 can compensate for slower speed compared to 35 mm f1.8 and 50 mm f1.4 to keep my object in focus. Or should I stick with the prime lenses? My question is which lens is the best choice for shooting people at night. Thanks in advance. Anyone has any recommendation?

    • October 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm

      Go for 50mm 1.4 as it is the fastest lens and as you will be shooting in night. Just try to find any light sources around you. They are lot’s of them usually.. Good luck! ;)

    • October 22, 2010 at 2:01 am

      Thank you Peng!

      Have you seen some of our images from Halloween last year? I used the 50mm f/1.4 lens with the 24-70mm primarily + a single off-camera strobe and umbrella in a shoot-through configuration. If you cannot shoot with a flash, then the fast glass like your 50mm would be very useful.

  12. October 18, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Simply great images!

  13. 13) Andy
    October 18, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Breathtaking. ……

  14. 14) Scott
    October 19, 2010 at 4:08 am

    Great shots. Could you please post what your in-camera settings are for saturation and contrast?

    • October 22, 2010 at 2:04 am

      Thank you Scott! I shoot in RAW format and post-process in Lightroom, so saturation and contrast are factory defaults (in the middle). Let me know if you have any questions!

  15. 15) Dennis
    October 20, 2010 at 6:00 am

    Thanks for sharing. This is a nice post with trip description. Just love the pictures that you shot, especially the milky way. Is just so beautiful.


    • October 22, 2010 at 2:05 am

      Thank you Dennis! Sometimes I think about doing some astrophotography, but it is a whole different beast that requires telescopes and other equipment…

  16. 16) Alan
    October 26, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Hi, I love your photos, they are awesome, not only because they look nice, but educational too, as you have the original file with camera settings in which they are taken at, it makes them very useful to me.

    I am new to dslr and photography in general, and i like to ask you some (perhaps silly) questions. The photo you took of the stars (10 sec at f2.8 iso 3200). What would happen if you do a 30 second exposure on that setup? and what iso and exposure time would you be using if you have had your fast lens with you? will it be a lot better?

    I asked because i am interesting in getting a fast wide angle lens to practice with but do not fully understand this principle. Thanks!

    • 16.1) Mark de Vrij
      October 28, 2010 at 5:40 am

      Hi Alan,

      If Nasim had used a 30 sec exposure (without any other changes to the other settings) he would have had a brighter picture with longer star trails (instead of looking like points of light they would look like short lines of light.) You can see the effect on the stars between the first and second set of night pictures where in the second set of photos the stars are much sharper and distinct at 10 seconds vs 30.

      For the answer to your other question, i reccomend first reading the following article on this site:
      This will help as it explains the basics of how a faster lens (lower f number a.k.a wider appature) can affect the shutter speed, iso and depth of view.
      However a quick summary would be that a wider appature (i.e. 1.4 insead of 3.2) would allow a faster shutter speed or to use a lower iso number which would improve the quality of the picture (lower shutter speed = shorter star trails, lower iso = less noise). Of course there are other issues to think about but hopefully this gives you a starting point.

      I hope this helps.

      • November 17, 2010 at 11:45 am

        Thank you for filling in Mark, I agree with everything you have said here.

    • November 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Thank you for your feedback Alan!

      If I shot the same image at 30 seconds, the stars would not appear as dots and would have trails – not something I wanted to do for that particular photo. If I had a fast lens like the 24mm f/1.4G – I would have shot at wide open aperture of f/1.4 (since it is so sharp at f/1.4) and used a lower ISO number like 800, which would have given me much less noise.

      Hope this helps.

  17. 17) Cori
    November 8, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    These landscape images are absolutely incredible! I am fairly new to DSLR photography and have been taking lessons. I own a Nikon D90 and was wondering if you could recommend a few lenses that would work well for Landscape shots. Our family is going to Hawaii in March and I would love a new lens to take with me.

    Thanks for inspiring me!

    • November 17, 2010 at 11:50 am

      Cori, thank you for your feedback!

      For a DX body, I would say the new Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR or the new Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 VR are both great lenses for landscapes. The first will give you a wider perspective, but less range, while the second will be a little narrower, but certainly very flexible in terms of range.

      Let me know if you have any questions!

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