Chasing Light: Dawn patrol

Intense morning alpenglow on the face of Buffalo Mountain, above Silverthorne, Colorado.

It’s always worth getting up early to catch the start of the day outside if you can, and during a short weather window from mid-November to late December, dawn brings an alchemical magic to the shores of Dillon Reservoir.

Not every morning, but on those days when the temps really dip down, like today. At 5:30 a.m. it was 4 degrees Fahrenheit outside. That’s cold enough to turn the surface of Dillon Reservoir into a frozen fog — I’ve often though of this transformative process as boiling in reverse, as the molecules of water vapor slow down and eventually crystallize to a solid, as opposed to the rising level of mollecular excitement above a boiling pot of water.

I’m not a physicist, just a photographer, looking for fog and frost in the morning light. But I’ve always been curious about those crystalline formations. Sometimes conditions are so perfect you can visibly see the crystals grow on branches, and in the first few days after the reservoir ices over, the surface is sometimes covered with millions frost flowers. The same formations also occur on a smaller scale on other ponds, as well as slower sections of freezing streams.

The same process has been observed in the Arctic on a much vaster scale, and it now appears, as scientists study the formations, that the frost flowers may play a role in Earth’s carbon cycle, specifically by swallowing heat-trapping CO2.

The early start enabled me to make sure I had all the proper charging gear, gloves and hot coffee. I started the session with some headlight painting of foreground trees, which made me realize I want a really bright flashlight so I can experiment with this technique a bit more. Then, because of prevailing winds, I headed for Dillon, where clusters of pines, aspens and cottonwoods catch the icy mists as they drift off the reservoir surface.

Two of the shots in this set are edited iPhone captures. Can you tell which ones? The other two with the early-gen Canon EOS Rebel and a Sigma 80-300 zoom.