5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

 Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

 Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

 Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

 Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

 Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

 Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

Why I Moved to Canada...

This is more of a personal post. Forgive me for straying from the subjects of photography and travel. This past June marked 1 year of living in the Great White North. I intended to mark the occasion with a post, but here we are 4 months later and I’m just getting around to it. Time flies. Times change. I’ve been a very busy beaver (pun intended).

Some may speculate that my wife and I made a swift and unexpected move to Canada because of political reasons. While I can’t deny that the deterioration of progressive politics in the U.S.A. and our former home state of North Carolina did play some role in our decision, it was not the sole reason. I don’t believe people should uproot their lives and head to another country in some knee-jerk reaction just because they don’t like who’s in office for the next few years. We weren’t in a situation where our lives were at stake anyway…as white middle class people, little would have changed for us under the current administration. I’d like to clarify further the real reasons for which my wife (a Canadian citizen) and I chose to move north as well as the things we love about living here.

 There’s no shortage of inspiration in the rockies. Jasper National Park, Alberta, Autumn 2017

There’s no shortage of inspiration in the rockies. Jasper National Park, Alberta, Autumn 2017

HEALTHCARE COSTS, TAXES & EMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

Say what you will about the Canadian healthcare system. If you’re American, most of what you’ve heard is made up by politicians to make you believe that paying an arm and a leg to fix your toe is the best way. The misrepresentation of the Canadian system (and European systems) goes so far as to paint a picture that resembles WWI field hospitals in which people are waiting so long for such poor care in such vast numbers that patients are dying left and right. That’s far from reality.

Canada has 10 different healthcare systems (each province has its own), each with their own advantages and disadvantages (each with their own problems and solutions to those problems). Overall, the situation is quite rosy through the eyes of someone like me who used to pay $300 a month for mediocre health insurance and still had to pay out of pocket for doctor visits and medications. That monthly sum was set to rise steeply within a year of our relocation and continue to rise throughout my life. Today I enjoy paying nothing monthly and nothing for doctor visits and treatments (Alberta’s healthcare is particularly good based on my experience) and very little for prescription meds. It’s covered by tax dollars.

Somewhat ironically, and despite popular misconception, we actually pay less income tax here in Alberta, Canada than we did in North Carolina and we have higher incomes (this fact blows Canadian minds). Our first tax refund for Canada was higher than our U.S. refund for 2017 on more income. In Alberta, sales tax is less as well.

The major reason we actually moved to Alberta so abruptly was that my wife, who only casually applied for jobs in Canada, was offered a position that she really couldn’t say no to. It is a couple steps higher up the ladder than her previous job with much better retirement and health benefits (on top of the standard Alberta Healthcare that every resident is entitled to). It gives her the opportunity to work with a more diverse group of students with various needs (she’s in higher education). In North Carolina, she was in a situation where she couldn’t advance in position or salary (thanks to hiring and pay raise freezes by the state legislature). She felt rather stuck. So did I.

 My first visit to Peyto Lake and Banff National Park, Alberta, July 2017

My first visit to Peyto Lake and Banff National Park, Alberta, July 2017

THE GREAT OUTDOORS & PHOTOGRAPHIC OPPORTUNITIES

I was having a bit of a struggle making photography a full-time gig (or even part-time) in North Carolina. I even quit my day job to put as much time into it as possible. Still, after a couple years, the wheels were turning very slowly. I contributed to our household by heating our home with wood, growing vegetables, hunting game, and even baking all our own bread in order to offset costs. We were actually doing pretty well, but every dollar I made as a photographer was one I had to chase like a wild goose. I was often doing weddings and portrait shoots instead of hiking the woods of Appalachia making meaningful nature images like I wanted. Magazines ignored my emails and submissions. My work barely sold in galleries. For whatever reasons, my Blue Ridge Mountain images weren’t being licensed all that much from stock agencies either (my travel images were doing a bit better). It was time for a change of scenery.

Moving to Alberta meant bigger opportunities (and bigger mountains and bigger wildlife) for the “starving” nature photographer. Not only am I now flush with new subjects to photograph within a short drive of home, there are simply fewer other photographers to compete with. There is no shortage of talented photographers here, don’t get me wrong, but because Canada has a much smaller population than the U.S., that means less competition. And because Canadian publications and companies want (or are required to use) content from Canada residents, that means it’s easier for me to get noticed. I’m no longer competing with every photographer on earth who is willing to give their shots away for free. I’m generally only competing with Canadian photographers for paid work. Also, my stock image portfolios are doing much better as they are now filled with more dramatic mountain imagery and a diversity of wildlife (not to mention lots of new travel imagery). It also helps that there are better tax advantages for the (very) small business person up here than in the states.

 Bighorn Ram portrait, Jasper National Park, 2017. I had dreamed of seeing wildlife like this since I was little, watching Marty Stouffer’s  Wild America  on Public Television.

Bighorn Ram portrait, Jasper National Park, 2017. I had dreamed of seeing wildlife like this since I was little, watching Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on Public Television.

The next point came as a surprise to us. We can actually travel more cheaply from Edmonton than from North Carolina. Because flights from Charlotte or Raleigh were so expensive, we usually drove all the way up to Baltimore/Washington to fly abroad. Even with the seven-hour drive we’d save $300-500 each for a flight to Europe vs. flying from NC. Now we don’t have to do an extra day of driving to save money. The airport is 30 minutes away, and fares are much more reasonable to most European, Central American, and Asian locations (we flew to Munich last summer for $600 CDN each). We can also fly to any major city on the U.S. west coast and several awesome places in western Canada for as little as $200 ‘round trip! That means I can travel more frequently and longer than before.

 Waiting to board the float plane to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary,  British Columbia, May 2018

Waiting to board the float plane to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary,
British Columbia, May 2018

CULTURAL DIVERSITY

I live way up at the 53rd Parallel in Canada’s most northern provincial capitol, and yet some days I can still not hear a word of English (or French) spoken in the downtown area. Canada is diverse. Of course, the U.S. is also. But a respect for diversity is a firm pillar of Canadian society and not a dividing factor in politics. I’ve sensed almost no xenophobia here (and a lot less political tension in general).

The advantages of living in a culturally diverse place is that there are lots of great restaurants and festivals to attend (and photograph). And lots of different perspectives to influence legislative decisions. I wouldn’t call it a “melting pot.” It’s more of a mosaic. The current Prime Minister described Canada as the World’s first “Post-National Country.” Having spent over a year here I can understand why that is. While in the states there are loose laws to protect people from discrimination, Canada’s acceptance of diversity (and celebration of it) is built into the fabric of society as well as in the Charter of Rights. It became very tiring living in rural North Carolina, where many people had never even seen an Asian in real life.

To be sure, Canada faces a lot of the same issues as the U.S. (immigration, environmental, economic, etc), but it tends to go about dealing with those issues in a much more level-headed and dignified way.

THE BEST DECISION WE’VE EVER MADE

We moved to Canada, for very specific and practical reasons. We had a short time to make a plan, but we pulled it together. It wasn’t an impulse decision. It wasn’t easy, either. We had to prepare and list our home for sale in a stale real estate market (luckily it sold within a couple months). We had to get rid of about 80% of our belongings through sale, donation, and storage in a short amount of time. We made the four-day drive up with our two dogs and only what we could fit in, or on top of, our small SUV. I had to go through the complex and expensive process of applying for permanent residency, which took 6 months to achieve with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Thankfully, all of that hard work and stress paid off. After our house sold, we began a path to stronger financial stability. We’re almost completely debt-free (we chose to rent instead of buy again). We no longer feel burdened by the stress of a politically volatile environment where people no longer respect differences. My wife is enjoying her new career and my photography business is growing steadily (thanks largely to readers of this blog!). We’ve also survived our first Canadian winter…Things are good.

 Bow River, Banff, Alberta, January 2018

Bow River, Banff, Alberta, January 2018

Special thanks to all my regular readers and subscribers to the Maps & Cameras email list. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here: https://www.mapsandcameras.com/signupsheet
- Jon

Alberta's Elk Island Bison

Somewhat ironically, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park is more famous for its bison than elk. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot the elusive elk on a few occasions (there are approximately 400-500 elk in the park and yet they are rarely seen by casual visitors), but it’s the bison herds that make themselves known with their gigantic bodies dotting the landscape. They are often hanging out in herds of several dozen in the open fields and along the gravel roads that penetrate the dense boreal forests. I’ve made many trips to Elk Island NP, it’s located only a 40 minute drive from downtown Edmonton, Alberta. I love it there in all seasons. It provides me with necessary breaks from city life, for which I may ultimately be ill-suited.

A Brief History of Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta. It is composed of 194 square kilometres of boreal plain, forest, and wetland. Several large lakes are in its protected boundaries, as well as seemingly countless smaller lakes and ponds. The area was established as a big game sanctuary in 1906, after several Albertans petitioned the government to protect some of the last remaining elk herds in Canada. It is also the first federally protected wildlife area in Canada. In 1930, Elk Island became a national park. The name “Elk Island” refers to the elk for which the area was established to protect, as well as the islands that dot Astotin Lake.

In 1906 there were only 24 elk, a few moose, and a dwindling number of mule deer within Elk Island’s boundaries. Bison were reintroduced from Montana and arrived in Elk Island in 1909. The eradicated population of beaver was also reintroduced in 1942. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations of wildlife proliferated. Elk Island National Park is a conservation success story. Today thousands of visitors come from all over Canada to enjoy birding, camping, canoeing, hiking, northern lights viewing, and to see bison in the wild. The elk population has rebounded to over 400, and moose are a fairly common sight near the lakes in fall and winter.

There are two major herds of wild bison in Elk Island: plains bison and wood bison. The plains herd is located in the northern section of the park, north of Alberta Highway 16. The wood bison herd is located in the woodland to the south of the highway. This separation keeps the two groups from interbreeding. At present there are around 400 plains and 300 wood bison in Elk Island. Elk Island’s population has helped repopulate bison in other parts of North America as well; they were recently reintroduced in Banff National Park and have been used to increase herds in the United States. According to Parks Canada, “If you see a bison in Canada, chances are they came from Elk Island National Park at some point!” For more information on the parks history, visit the Elk Island National Park webpage.

Photographing Bison in Elk Island National Park

Despite their size and relative abundance, bison can sometimes be hard to find in Elk Island. The roads and trails within the park only provide visitors with easy access to a small part of the protected area. Most of the time a large herd of plains bison can be spotted grazing in the fields near the gravel road labelled “Bison Loop.” They are also often seen near the forest edge in the newly opened turnout across from the Bison Loop. I’ve had much better luck locating plains bison than wood bison, as they are usually out in the open. Wood bison can only be accessed by a trail that loops through the forest (accessible on the south side of the highway).

The plains herd can often be photographed from the safety of a vehicle. You don’t want to approach bison (approaching a bull is illegal). It is against park regulations to get any closer than 100 metres on foot. Bison will often get pretty close to your vehicle. They don’t seem to be very skittish of cars, but people on foot can freak them out. They seem docile, like cows grazing in a field, but they are very dangerous and surprisingly fast animals. I’ve watched a spooked herd of a few dozen bison cut and run in a thunderous dusty rumble across the fields and roads of Elk Island simply because a person got out of their car. You don’t want fifty 2,000 lb bison running at you!

For the best photographic results, I use either a 70-200mm or 200-500mm lens. Often large bulls will be hanging out alone near the road sides, so the shorter telephoto is sufficient. My bison portraits have been made using the Nikon 200-500mm VR, most of them handheld from my SUV. I’d like to point out here that I’m very ethically conscious when it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in winter when animals shouldn’t be stressed out because their energy and food supply is low; a picture is never worth disturbing the subject. The few times I’ve photographed bison on foot were from a safe distance on a hiking trail or a stand of trees at least 100 metres away from the nearest animal. Don’t make a lot of noise, sudden movements, and never approach directly. If an animal changes it’s behaviour at your presence, you’re too close!

Go Out, Stay Out

Elk Island National Park is an amazing place. It really is a privilege for me to be so close by. Some of my favourite images that I’ve ever made were made there. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from listening to loons calling and elk bugling while the northern lights dance above me, to watching large bison walk across vast frozen lakes. It’s a special place.

Want to see more from Elk Island National Park? Here are a few other articles I’ve written:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park Mini-Guide

Budapest by Twilight

It seems the latest trend in landscape photography is to capture scenes during “blue hour.” That’s not sunrise or sunset, but the time just before sunrise and just after sunset. Essentially twilight: the time between night and day when the sun is below the horizon and the sky is dark blue, but not black as night. When in the field, I always used this time to prepare for the sunrise or hike out of the woods in near darkness while I could still just see the path. On my recent trip to Budapest, Hungary, it was my favourite time of day to shoot.

Twilight is the best time to capture cityscapes when the lights are on. This isn’t night photography. By the time the sky is black it is difficult to get good exposures. The city lights can be blown out and the sky and shadows can be plunged into the blackest part of the camera’s histogram. At twilight, it is much easier to get even exposures. This time of day only happens briefly, just as sunrise and sunset do. When it comes to photographing cities and architecture outdoors, one can still capture great images even if sunrise and sunset are a bust. City street lights are typically turned off just before the sun comes up and turned on just after the sun goes down when there is no colour (except that ethereal blue cast) left in the sky. So, it’s worth getting out earlier and staying out later.

During my trip to Budapest, I was struck by the architecture and how photogenic the city is. There is an amazing view of Budapest’s grand architecture from any point along the Danube. Most of my images were made during twilight from Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, or the banks of the river near the famous Chain Bridge. I experienced some great light during sunrise and sunset, but when the city lights were on at twilight (“blue hour”), that’s when the magic really happened.

 View of the Danube river, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament from Buda Castle.

View of the Danube river, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament from Buda Castle.

 Boats on the Danube and Hungarian Parliament at twilight.

Boats on the Danube and Hungarian Parliament at twilight.

 Hungarian Parliament just after sunset.

Hungarian Parliament just after sunset.

 The Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament by the Danube at twilight.

The Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament by the Danube at twilight.

To find out what’s in my camera bag, click here. To view my Travel Photographer’s Master Packing List, click here. Thanks for reading and best of light.