Capturing the Grandeur of the Tetons

by | November 1, 2012

© Bret EdgeStanding along the shoreline of String Lake, whose placid waters offer a mirror image of the imposing Tetons, I catch an erratic flicker of movement in the trees to my left. This is grizzly country. They may appear brutish, but grizzly bears are quite capable of deft movement, especially when they’re sneaking up on a lone photographer too absorbed in what he sees through the viewfinder to realize the food chain is about to invert. At least, this is what goes through my head until I identify the source of the movement—a curious pine marten spying on me from above. Soon my heart rate returns to normal and the first warm light of sunrise gathers in an increasingly intense glow on the granite peaks above. Mist rises from the lake and birds chatter. It is another perfect morning in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929. Thirteen years later, Ansel Adams made one of the most famous landscape photographs of all time at Snake River Overlook. That photograph and many other more recent but no less iconic images inspire photographers from around the world to visit the Tetons. Image making opportunities abound in every season, but early summer is my favorite time of year to photograph the Tetons. Meadows filled with colorful wildflowers stand in contrast to craggy, snow covered peaks. Creeks rush through the forest, filling alpine lakes with frigid snowmelt and capturing crystalline reflections of the surrounding landscape. Fresh green leaves adorn stately aspen trees and wildlife, including bison, moose, elk and bears, roam freely as they enjoy the warm weather of a short alpine summer.

Grand Tetons with mountains reflected in water © Bret Edge

Some of my favorite summer locations in the Tetons include String Lake, Schwabacher Landing and Colter Bay. As one who lives in the desert I don’t often have the opportunity to photograph reflections. Perhaps this accounts for my affection toward these three locations—all are fabulous spots to catch a mirror image of the Tetons!

Grand Tetons with sky and tree reflection in water © Bret Edge

String Lake is a small lake nestled between the much larger Jenny and Leigh Lakes with commanding views of the Cathedral Group to the south and Mount Moran to the north. Smaller lakes tend to be calmer, offering clearer reflections, and String Lake is no exception. I typically start a morning shoot on the southern end of the lake. Here you will find a cluster of impressive peaks (the Cathedral Group) looming over 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Pre-dawn and sunrise light offer many fantastic opportunities for photographers to make portfolio worthy images. Moving north along the lakeshore you’ll leave the Cathedral Group behind and will soon stumble upon the hulking massif of Mount Moran, my favorite peak in the Tetons. Grand scenics are easy here but there are also options for some lovely intimate landscapes, if you’re tuned into them. Unlike some of the more popular locations in the park, it is easy to find solitude at String Lake.

Black and white tree in Grand Tetons © Bret Edge

One of the most iconic locations in the park is Schwabacher Landing, where beaver dams have created scenic reflecting pools below the familiar skyline of the Tetons, including the tallest of them all, the Grand Teton. Arrive early—really early—if you want to have first rights to the prime tripod spots. I recommend arriving at least one hour before sunrise to stake your claim. Whether you arrive early or not, you’ll have no trouble filling memory cards with stunning images. In addition to the landscapes, this can be a great area to photograph wildlife. I’ve seen bison, beavers, moose and even a family of badgers here before. If you’re really lucky, you might find a bull moose wading in the water below the Tetons!

Grand Teton mirror image © Bret Edge

The Teton Range runs south to north and most locations inside the park photograph best at sunrise. However, if you wander north to Colter Bay on Jackson Lake you’ll discover that the setting sun provides some striking side light on peaks towering over the lake. If the lake is choppy consider experimenting with longer shutter speeds to smooth out the ripples. Colter Bay is especially interesting in stormy conditions when a sky filled with dramatic clouds adds an extra layer of interest to an already breathtaking scene. Pack dinner and enjoy a meal at one of the picnic tables along the lakeshore as you wait for the light show to unfold.

Colter Bay on Jackson Lake © Bret Edge

Regardless of where you end up in the Tetons you’ll find world class scenery that will linger in your memory long after you’ve returned home. I’ll leave you with one final tip: bring more memory cards than you think you’ll need because, trust me, you’ll use every last one of them!

Mountain range, Grand Tetons © Bret Edge

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