Photography Workshops During a Pandemic – Aspen and Alpenglow in the Colorado Rockies

By John Ellis

Fall Colors

I’ve always belonged to communities. Family, friends, neighborhoods, schools, cities, jobs…….

Well, you get the idea. We ALL belong to communities.

One of these communities is the photography community. Since I first picked up a camera and took a picture, I felt something special. I felt a part of that community, even before I knew there was one.

Since joining Arizona Highways PhotoScapes as a volunteer photo guide, I’ve found an exciting new community. I’ve also found that it can be tiring at times with longer than expected hours, early mornings and late nights sometimes blending into each other. It helps to have a good sense of humor, and knowing when to really listen, and when to offer an opinion or not. It takes a passion to help others see the possibilities they have in front of them and maybe miss your own chance to capture an image. It takes a love of walking, sometimes 5 miles a day (uphill in both directions, wait, that’s my dad talking), or eating food that might not be your first choice. It takes a lot of energy and dedication, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  Now it also involves being safer than ever before by wearing a face mask and reminding others to do the same. And by extra cleaning and re-cleaning and checking on your companions as you share the great outdoors.

In March 2020 pretty much everything shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools, theaters, stores, restaurants, travel, and with that, Arizona Highways PhotoScapes shut down all in-person workshops as well.

A tangible dread permeated the air, a dread of an unknown virus and an uncertainty of the future. But with the resiliency of our species, and solid information from experts, we adapted and will continue to do so. Slowly and safely we are re-opening and so is PhotoScapes.

From September 22nd to the 27th,  2020, a PhotoScapes ‘in person’ photography workshop took place after almost seven months on hold. ‘Aspen and Alpenglow: fall in the Colorado Rockies’ happened.

Leaf me Alone

Preparation for the trip began with a virtual meeting one month earlier hosted by team leader Amy Novotny. The meeting introduced those attending to each other and gave instructor Jim Steinberg an opportunity to cover the itinerary and answer everyone’s questions. It also allowed Amy to cover the CDC guidelines and outline and prepare the participants for the precautions and expectations that Arizona Highways PhotoScapes would now (and for the foreseeable future) follow.

AHPS instructor Jim Steinberg, photo guides Amy Novotny and I traveled to Ouray (U’ray), Colorado to meet with seven adventurous participants and photograph during a pandemic.

Welcome to Ouray

This five day workshop would normally begin with everyone involved meeting in one location and then photo guides driving one or possibly two vans to Ouray. Instead it began from the comfort of each individual’s home as, with keeping with CDC guidelines, there would be no van full of participants. We would all drive ourselves to Ouray and the Matterhorn Inn – our basecamp for the workshop.

All the participants, save one, had been on previous AHPS workshops in the past. The one who hadn’t had been on photo workshops with other groups, so everyone knew what to expect – to some degree. But being the first group to participate in a workshop during this pandemic, everyone knew there would be noticeable differences and adjustments. Jim, Amy and I also knew that we were setting an example and a standard for future workshops through AHPS.

The tone was set for the workshop the first morning, as we gathered in the parking lot. Everyone wore a mask – which we did every time we were within 6 feet of each other. The extra swag handed out this trip included a spare surgical mask, tissue, and a small, easy to carry, bottle of hand sanitizer.

Something else new to PhotoScapes would be a mandatory pre-session health check which included several questions to each participant on their general heath as well as a temperature check using a touch-free thermometer. This was accomplished quickly with ready compliance from all involved, including instructor and guides. A spreadsheet was kept to record everyone’s answers and temperatures.

The first few days of instruction for this workshop were at varied locations. We became a caravan with a long line of cars and SUVs at times snaking out over a half mile as we drove the beautiful highways surrounded by the autumn colors of Colorado and the San Juan Mountains.

Afternoon light in the Uncompahgre Mountains

We took dusty roads up into the Uncompahgre National Forest for a long day of breathtaking beauty, lighting analysis, learning opportunities and getting to know each other with social/physical distancing in place. Jim explained cross lighting and the layers of natural light to look for when photographing landscapes and how understanding this was a major tool to take advantage of during the workshop. This was an eye-opener and great information to receive on our first day.

Crystal Lake – Morning cross-light on hill side

Other locations on the trip ranged from the quiet reflectivity of Crystal Lake lying in the shadows of Red Mountains One, Two and Three, to the Dallas Divide, to the Ironton ghost town and area mines. This last being reached via an afternoon ‘Switzerland of America’ Jeep Tour.

But the highlight of the workshop was a journey to the heights of Imogene Pass and over the mountains. At just above 13,000 feet over the pass and then down into Telluride, Colorado, the Jeep/Truck tour was an 8 hour trip in open air 12-passenger vehicles driving on rough rock and washboard roads. We photo guides had extra cleaning duty before our two jeep rides, following not only the CDC guidelines but AHPS guidelines as well by wiping down many touch points on the vehicles. Even though there were only ten of us total, two of these vehicles were utilized to afford a safe distance between the participants, giving ample room with only five of us in each jeep. Layered clothing was recommended as the temperatures ranged from the low forties at our peak height up to the mid seventies as we returned to Ouray and the hotel.  In addition, the wind up on the pass was incredibly powerful and no one ventured too close to the edge. Mask wearing had another benefit other than recommended CDC safety – it kept us warmer in the cold mountain pass. It was truly ‘other worldly’ on the barren wind-swept slopes.

Group Photo (This image courtesy of Jim Steinberg)
Down off the barren pass
On the way to Telluride – Look closely and you can see the Telluride ski slopes in the back range
Tight Squeeze – With rock walls to the right and sheer drops to the left. Sometimes ‘bigger’ IS better
Dallas Divide – Practicing safe distancing and photography
Sunset – From on top of Log Hill overlooking the town of Ridgeway, Colorado. Looking just off center right and you can see into the valley that leads to Ouray and the heart of the San Juan Mountains between the Uncompahgre and Sneffel ranges.

Abandoned iron ore mines in the Red Mountains were plentiful and gave us the opportunity to photograph everything from weathered wood siding, mud puddles and macro photography of flowers to the beautiful color changes in the surrounding aspens. For four and a half days Instructor Jim Steinberg did an amazing job of finding locations that both allowed for ten vehicles and afforded breathtaking views in all directions.

Yankee Girl Mine
The Straggler

Because of CDC guidelines, Jim hosted the two image critiques virtually via Zoom with everyone comfortable in their rooms. Jim discussed several of each participant’s images during both of these sessions and offered guidance for finishing touches through various software applications. A great benefit of the critiques, as pointed out by Jim, was being able to see how everyone envisioned the same locations differently. I myself learned by observing and absorbing from everyone during the workshop.

Down in the Valley
Quaking Aspens – This technique was introduced by Photo Guide Amy Novotny.

Yes, there was a warranted nervousness at first with facing the unknown and worrying for the health of everyone involved. We were then, and still are, in the middle of a pandemic and no one has the answers for many of our questions. But in following the CDC guidelines, a comfort level was reached fairly quickly and a trust in each other to watch out for one another as well as ourselves.

This workshop was an experiment, you might say. An experiment to prove that PhotoScapes could and will continue to conduct photographic journeys to locations both near and far. A return to ‘normal’ will happen eventually but for now we adapt. Preparations will be different as well as day to day health and safety checks. But the photographic community that has been built through AHPS is incredibly adaptable and up for challenges. One thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that watching out for each other is something we all need to do more of. There are no guarantees, but with diligent planning and execution by AHPS and the participation of everyone attending, there is still a beautiful world waiting for us.

We look forward to seeing you out there, happy shooting!

Jim Steinberg will be taking another workshop into the Ouray, Colorado area for the Summer Colors of the Rockies in July 2021. Check it out on the Arizona Highways PhotoScapes web site.

Practicing Safe Photography

John Ellis is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.