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Fall at Oxbow Bend

Oxbow IntroTips & Suggestions for Photography at the Oxbow During Foliage Season

Oxbow Bend is one of the most popular locations in Grand Teton National Park. Each year, the fall foliage attracts large numbers of tourists and photographers from around the world. When the “stars align”, we get calm mornings with majestic Mt. Moran and a row of colorful aspens reflected in an unparalleled scene. I’ve been photographing Oxbow Bend for quite a few years, capturing it in all seasons and with its many moods. This page is intended on helping you capture your own version of “the show” with it’s constantly changing cast of characters. I included dates where possible to help you see the patterns of dates.

Oxbow Bend is located a few miles West of the Moran Junction entrance station or a few miles East of Jackson Lake Junction. You can find it easily on the Grand Teton map you’ll receive as you pass through any of the entrance stations.

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The Classic Shot at the Pullout: There are places to park along the road at Oxbow Bend and at the pullout at the east end. During peak foliage periods, all of them will be full all morning, but can usually find a spot. This image was taken on October 1, 2011. The haze near the bottom of the mountain was from controlled burns which seem to always coincide with foliage season. Some days are worse than others. Click this image to see it much larger!

Foliage Season

Each year is different, but if you were to observe foliage seasons at Oxbow Bend over a decade, you might start seeing a pattern. Peak foliage at the Oxbow usually begins a few days before the end of September and continues into the first three or four days into October. (2014 appears to be an early foliage season…by maybe a week. Keep an eye on What’s Hot? What’s Happening? to see foliage reports) The bank of Aspens near the middle/right in the image above is the star of the show. While they can all turn at the same time, the aspens usually start on the far left and merge across to the right over a couple of days. Leaves can hold onto the stems for several days, but gusty winds can bring down the curtains on the show long before we get our fill of the event. Wind, especially early morning winds, can spoil the mirror reflections.

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Clouds

Besides the wind, clouds are important variables on any given day. Most people prefer “some” clouds, but too many clouds can spoil the scene by obscuring the mountains. Likewise, too many clouds in the East can kill the morning sunlight. Thick fog can block the entire scene during a morning sunrise. Luckily, it usually burns off, but sometimes not until after the best light of morning has come and gone. When you hit it right, clouds can add a unique, moody element to the scene.  Clouds can pick up the amplify the color in morning’s first rays of light. On good mornings, you might experience spectacular hues or pink, magenta, peach, orange, lavender, and purple. In almost all cases, you have to be there early to capture the colors. October 4, 2010

Oxbow 2007

Additional Cast: This shot from September 26, 2007 shows an early snow on the mountains and low clouds hovering just over the valley floor. Without clouds, most shots at Oxbow Bend look “sterile” or lifeless to me. By the time, I took this image, wind had picked up and spoiled the mirror reflections.

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I’ve spoken with a few people who actually like clear blue skies. We get enough of those days to make them happy in most years. Sometimes, to the consternation of the photographers, a person in a canoe or kayak shows up at Oxbow bend during peak foliage. They can ruffle he water and disrupt the scene…or they can be used a foreground element. September 28, 2012

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Fog can add to a scene, but it can also ruin a morning’s shoot. Timing is everything! The image above and below were taken the same morning from the same spot. September 26, 2012 Click this image to see it much larger!

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Loons, Swans, Pelicans, Cormorants,  and Mergansers show up at Oxbow Bend during the fall. I like to include them when possible. Like the people in the canoe, some photographers don’t like them in the area because they can ruffle the water. September 26, 2012 Click this image to see it much larger!

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Different year….different Cormorant? Maybe he’s just a showboat and returns each year!

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Get There Early?

One of the best times to photograph Oxbow Bend is during the saturated light of the Alpenglow period. This usually occurs around 30 minutes before the first rays of light start hitting the peaks. For this shot, you need a good sturdy tripod and you have to be there very early. Check out:  Alpenglow: Morning’s Fleeting Phenomenon

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How Early? More than likely, a few of the photographers in the middle of this shot were at “their spot” at 4:00 am, or before. They’ll protect “their spot” as fiercely as a gold miner protects their claim. By sunrise, many people will line up side by with tripods interlocked. The shore will also be lined with photographers and most parking spaces will be filled.

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Let There Be Light: At least for my purposes, there are two prime “periods” for photography each morning. The first one is the Alpenglow period before first light. The next one occurs when the first light hits the bank of trees at the east end of the bend. Everyone shoots the period in between, of course, but when the mountains are being lit up, the aspens will be dull or in silhouette. October 2. Click this image to see it much larger!

Locations and Strategy

Near the top of the page, I mentioned the “classic” shot. It is taken somewhere near the middle of the group of photographers and tripods shown just above. Besides having to be at “their spot” at an insane hour and waiting several hours for hints of light, most of those photographers will end up with essentially two shots. One at Alpenglow will be their best for that period and one will be their best when the light hits the row of trees. The rest will be lesser shots or fillers. The other option is to roam the shore line and shoot a variety of shots at a number of locations. That’s my preference. In other words, I get a lot of “bang for my  buck”. Better yet, once the squatters at the pullout get their shot with the light hitting the trees, they leave! I get my shots without having to stand there all morning.

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Snow Capped Mt. Moran: Every few years, we get an early snow storm dusting the peaks just in time for peak foliage. This shot was taken from the ridge just above the road. It is difficult to imagine the mass of humanity, campers, cars and trucks just below the ridge. September 26, 2007.

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One year, I opted to walk south along the back edge of the “bend”. There weren’t any clouds, so I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing a good shooting day. I included the shot here in case you can see opportunities in the image. Typically, I walk a lot of areas like this a day or two before during the hot light part of the day, scouting for unique opportunities or angles. October 3, 2009

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Alternative Angles: It’s a good idea to occasionally look to the side or even to the back to see if there is anything else of interest happening. This was taken from the shore line looking directly south. September 27, 2011 Click this image to see it much larger!

Panoramics

October 2, 2011

Panoramic Opportunities are abundant in GTNP, and especially so at Oxbow Bend. While it is possible to shoot a wide angle lens and get a lot of the scene in one shot, you’ll end up losing too much of the image’s data once it is cropped to a panoramic aspect ratio. Check out this earlier Feature Post for more information and instructions: Panoramic Images: Tips for Getting More of the Tetons in a Shot. If you are new to shooting stitched panoramic images, I’d suggest practicing quite a bit BEFORE attempting them on a peak morning at Oxbow Bend. October 2, 2011  Click this image to see it much larger!

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On most days, morning light will become bright by 9:00 am and images will have too much contrast. However, when clouds filter the morning light in the east, it is possible to shoot well into the middle of the day. Some of my better shots happen long after the throngs of people and photographers have left the area. If wind kills the mirror reflections, I usually leave, too, but it is possible to isolate just trees and mountains with a short telephoto lens. October 4, 2010

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People have been photographing this area for 75 years. It is difficult to invent an angle or position that hasn’t been taken thousands of times before. The light, shadows and color are the tools that can give you something at least somewhat unique. Each year is different, each day is different, and the scene can change drastically within only 10 minutes. October 2, 2011  Click this image to see it much larger!

A Few Alternatives

Light Painted Aspens

Light Painted Aspens: I stayed late one evening in 2009 and “light painted” the bank of aspens using a couple of 2 million candle power flashlights. I would have preferred some stars in the sky, but a few clouds blocked them that night.

Oxbow Starry Night

Starry Night Over the Oxbow: Other people have surely taken a similar shot over the recent years, but it is a much less common image of a common location. July 9, 2013

Last Glow

Last Glow: The Teton Range is famous for its sunrises. Sunsets are much less dependable, but if you are willing to gamble some of your sleep time to get a killer shot, occasionally Mother Nature pays off. October 2, 2009

Photography Comments and Suggestions

Bodies and Lenses: After posting all the photos, I thought I’d add this section. Maybe it will help a few people! For quite a few years, I used a Nikon D300 body for almost all of my photography. It was a DX camera with a 1.5 crop. I was pretty happy at Oxbow bend using a 24-70mm lens on my trusty D300 bodies. A few years ago, I bought a Nikon D4 and later a Nikon D800 body, both of which are full frame. When I put the same 24-70mm lens on the full frame bodies and tried shooting at Oxbow Bend, everything felt “wrong”. Now, with the full frame bodies, I more often use the Nikon 70-200mm lens and it works fine for most shots at Oxbow Bend.

Tripod: While it is possible to shoot at Oxbow Bend hand held, a good tripod will be a great asset. Both of mine have leveling pan heads so I can get set up quickly.

Levels: One of the tricky aspects of taking photos at Oxbow Bend is getting the horizon level. The bank below the row of aspens at the far west end can fool you! I suggest either using the internal “virtual horizon” utility built into many of the newer cameras or use a “spirit level” or bubble level. I like the old fashioned bubble level myself.

Filters: A lot of people use a one or two stop neutral density filter when shooting sunrises at Oxbow Bend. In the film days, a neutral density filter was a necessary tool. With digital photography, I use them much less, even though I often have one in my pocket. It is usually in the same pocket as my polarizing filter. It gets a lot of use in the fall as it deepens the blue sky and brightens the yellow leaves. At Oxbow, the light normally comes in directly from behind, negating most functionality of a polarizing filter. Then I shoot towards the South at the “corner” of the Oxbow, I’ll put it on and shoot away. The edges of the river can be quite muddy.

Triggers: I have several options for triggering my camera. On many days, I simply set the camera to a two to three second “shutter delay” and shoot away. The delay lets the cameras mirror raise and settle down before the actual exposure. On my Nikon bodies, I know it is in the d-4 menu. You also use a hand held trigger, either wired or wireless and you might fall in love with a CamRanger. Again, I typically just shoot with the Shutter Delay at Oxbow.

Boots: I like to wear a pair of Muck boots so I can move around without fear of ruining shoes.

Post Processing: There will likely be people in your shots no matter where to go if shooting a sunrise during the peak season.  You might find this Feature Post of interest: Abracadabra: Now You See Them—Now You Don’t!

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Also, note the copyrights associated with each image. All images are fully protected through submissions to the US Copyright Office. No unauthorized use of any image in any manner is allowed. MJ

 

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Comments (4)

  1. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, wonderful images at oxbow bend. I like the way you showed the times of the day to shoot at oxbow and letting us know how important it is to be early. Just about all your images there, are nice and clear and from our experience at Oxbow we can say that we got there very early in the morning and Mt Moran and lake are was either covered with heavy fog or smoke. It was like that almost every where around the Teton mountain range. Only in the afternoon it started to clear up but you could not get good shots of the tetons, which mostly was side light or shadows. We did get some decent images on the opposite side of Oxbow bend in the late afternoon.

  2. Maurice Horn

    Hello Mike,
    I prefer the white background in the Enewsletter much more than the black background in the web site.
    Maurice

  3. Mike, I recently met a college buddy I hadn’t seen in over 40 years at a local restaurant. We are going to go out Sunday morning on a shoot. We’ll probably start at sunrise at Oxbow (Sunday could be the “prime day”) and then would have the rest of the morning for more iconic shots. What would be your suggestion after Oxbow that would include good morning color that won’t take over a lot of travel time?

  4. Can’t go wrong with the String Lake and Jenny Lake area. Or follow along If I Had Only One Day in the Tetons

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