• Alyce Bender

Photographing Autumn in Utah


red aspen leaves fall foliage close up in wasatch mountains utah 2021 | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/8 | 1/400 | ISO 800

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." - Robert Burns


Salt Lake City, Utah, like many western cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Denver, was built within a valley system. To the north and east the city is hemmed by the Wasatch Mountains, a segment of the Rockies. To the west, the Oquirrh Mountains sit beyond the Great Salt Lake. With as many times in the last several years I have visited Salt Lake City, it never occurred to me that this might be a good location for autumn colors. In the past I have used Salt Lake as a place to photograph migrating shore birds before heading further north into Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone. This year was no exception and I had planned just that - until opportunities and unforeseen circumstances (a.k.a. life) happened.


I arrived in the Salt Lake City area in mid-September to host my first in-person photo adventure since the emergence of Covid-19. This particular trip was the Antelope Island Photo Adventure where we focus on the millions of migrating shorebirds that use the Great Salt Lake as a stopover spot and refuel on the tiny but abundant brine shrimp. This year presented new challenges as the water levels in the lake are so low due to the ongoing drought that there were fewer options for areas where the birds were accessible at eye level.


Antelope Island at dusk reflected in the Great Salt Lake with low water Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/10 | 1/80 | ISO 800 | 10 vert image pano
Millions of shorebirds flock over the Great Salt Lake in Utah with church temple spire seen in background | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 400
A flock of long-billed dowitchers in flight over Antelope Island Great Salt Lake Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Long-billed dowitchers | Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 800

Yet we persisted and were rewarded with several sessions of American avocets feeding within reach of our lenses.


Two American Avocets wade in the shallow water of the Great Salt Lake Utah with reflections | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 500
Two American avocets wade feeding in the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake Utah with reflections | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 500

The avocets are a favorite of mine as I think they are exceptionally delicate and unique looking. They feed by sweeping their long, curved bills through the water in order to snatch any brine shrimp they find. This method of feeding combined with the shallow and calm waters often creates images with minimal background distractions and wonderful reflections.


An American avocet skims its bill through the water while feeding on the Great Salt Lake Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 400
An American avocet is reflected in the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake Utah while feeding off Antelope Island | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 500
An American avocet with reflection lifts its bill out of the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake Utah while feeding | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 400

Side note: Brine shrimp are often sold as "pets" for children under the name "sea monkeys."


The low water levels have changed the surrounds and therefore the images. Now that many of the birds are wading in water that barely covers their feet, their reflections are broken with mud protruding in the foreground.


An American avocet searches for food in the drought shallowed waters of the Great Salt Lake Utah with reflection broken due to visible mud | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 500
An American avocet skims for food in the drought stricken shallows of the Great Salt Lake Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 400

One of the other animals seen frequently on Antelope Island are the American bison. Antelope Island has been home to this semi-free herd since 1893. Annually the bison are rounded up and a portion of the population is sold off to ensure the island population does not outgrow their home range's capabilities to support them. As there are no natural predators on the island large enough to take down a bison, this form of population control is left to the state natural resource managers. During the round-up, the herd also receives their annual health and wellness checks and vaccines to ensure one of the nation's largest and oldest public bison herds continues to thrive.


During the photo adventure we were able to see a bachelor herd - a small group of all male bison - grazing in the late hours of the day. Positioning ourselves uphill helped capture images of the bison with their heads up, not a position they are known for holding for long.


An American bison lumbers through the brush on Antelope Island State Park Utah while tossing its head and flicking its tail against pestering insects | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 5000

Taking the opportunity when the herd crossed the road in front of our vehicle, I captured this high key head shot portrait of one of the older males in the group. You can see that even this late in the season, the bison were being pestered by swarms of insects as there had yet to be a cold snap to knock those populations down.


A black and white head shot portrait of an American bison on Antelope Island State Park Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/400 | ISO 2000

Upon wrapping up the photo adventure, I raced across the valley to join Tamron and Pictureline, the Salt Lake City-based camera store, in the Wasatch Mountains for a sunset photo walk based around landscapes and fall colors. Unfortunately, we were just a few days too early for the fall colors to have set in, even at 9,000 feet. However, there were pops of color starting to turn and the timing allowed participants to absorb the information and go out in the coming weeks to practice on their own time. Between teaching and circulating to make sure I was answering everyone's questions, I didn't shoot much myself. One image I did capture was the one seen below of a freshly fallen aspen leaf intertwined with grasses that were just starting to change colors. Not a true macro, this is a close-up taken with the Tamron 18-400mm lens.


A yellow aspen leaf on a bed of green yellow and brown grasses with dew water droplets Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/400 | ISO 4000

The photo walk event gave me my first taste of the Wasatch Mountains and I knew I would want to revisit the area at a later date. There was so much potential in just the small area I had seen that evening! What I didn't know was how soon I would actually be making that return trip.


The next morning, when I was slated to be heading up to Montana and Wyoming, I received some news that had me making a beeline back to San Antonio, TX (nothing serious, just urgent enough it couldn't be handled on the road). Well then...there went my plans of car camping across Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Sigh.


Once home and matters handled, I wasn’t sure what my next course of action should be since I hadn’t planned on being in San Antonio during that time. Texas doesn't have fall colors in September, and I did not have enough time to drive back across the country to make the Tetons before having to be in Oregon the first week of October. But I didn't want to sit home like a bump on a log either. Weighing my options, I considered flying to a few locations: the Tetons, to the Smokies, or right back to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake won out and how glad I am that it did!


I have it on good authority that this year's colors were the best they have been in at least four years if not longer. It was spectacular! As an added bonus, during my first night back in the mountains, I witnessed the first snowfall of the season. Of course, this set things up for the following morning where we had snow dusted peaks and frosty fields at altitude.


Snow capped mountain peak under stormy skies with a foreground full of layers of ridges with fall autumn colors and evergreens in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/11 | 1/500 | ISO 800

A light cover of snow on the ground, a hiking trail curves around a patch of yellowing bushes and disappears into a forest of bright yellow and green aspens in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/9 | 1/30 | ISO 125 | Tripod mounted

Up early each morning for sunrise and to bed late after sunset, I enjoyed three days of chasing colors all up and down through the Wasatch range to the east of Salt Lake. Huge shout-out to Brendon Porter and Drew Armstrong for sharing your neck of the woods and local knowledge with me. It was really great to be able to meet up and adventure with y’all.


Due to the unexpected weather conditions and the extreme colors everywhere, I was able to shoot a bit of everything - from the grand landscapes to more intimate scenes and forest details. Below is a selection of those images for your enjoyment.


An intimate landscape of yellow aspen stand leaves trunks in the Wasatch Mountains Silver Lake Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/14 | 1/125 | ISO 800 | Tripod mounted
Wasatch Mountains Utah view with 2021 fall foliage at sunrise with clouds in the sky, prominent rock formation in the foreground | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400 | f/10 | 1/640 | ISO 800
Wild grass seed and stalk glow in the autumn sunset light against a soft background of golden grasses in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/250 | ISO 500
Yellow aspen leaves in focus and glow against a soft background of out of focus aspen trunks in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400 | f/6.3 | 1/125 | ISO 125
Aspen trees and autumn colored forest captured in an impressionistic abstract look using intentional camera movement Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/16 | 1/4 | ISO 64 | ICM Vertically
Stormy skies over a scene of fall colored aspen reflecting in a lake in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/16 | 1/30 | ISO 500 | Tripod mounted
Pink light at sunset colors the view of clouds over distant mountain ridge with a stand of yellow aspen in the foreground in the Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/22 | 1/2 sec | ISO 800 | Tripod mounted | 5 vert image pano
A stand of white aspen trunks overlaid with a red maple foliage and yellow brush at the base in the Wasatch Mountains Utah fall foliage intimate landscape scene | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/5.6 | 1/400 | ISO 800
Intimate detail landscape scene of a white aspen trunk framed by red aspen leaves set against soft orange bokeh in the Wasatch Mountains Utah fall 2021 foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6.3 | 1/800 | ISO 800
Red maple leaves and white maple seeds with wings on the tips of branches against a green background Wasatch Mountains autumn 2021 fall foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6.3 | 1/200 | ISO 4000
Red maple leaves with white maple seeds with wings hanging from the tip of a branch against a dark background with soft red bokeh Wasatch Mountains Utah autumn 2021 fall foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6.3 | 1/3200 | ISO 640
A yellow aspen leaf fallen on an evergreen branch backlit with golden light against a dark background Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6.3 | 1/1000 | ISO 800

I wonder if it isn't scenes like this (above) that gave tradition makers the idea to put lights on winter holiday trees.

White aspen trunks fill the frame with one in focus and the rest softened Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6 | 1/1000 | ISO 800
Layers of trees along the Wasatch Mountain ridges decked in fall colors from green to yellow and red, Utah 2021 autumn | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/5.6 | 1/640 | ISO 2000
Layers of aspen branches with yellow leaves create an abstract image of color and texture in the Wasatch Mountains Utah 2021 autumn fall foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/6.3 | 1/400 | ISO 800
Red maple leaves frame a young but well textured white aspen trunk Wasatch Mountains Utah | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/9 | 1/200 | ISO 320
Yellow foliage extends across the frame and from the rocks in the foreground to the mountain sides in the background under blue skies in the Wasatch Mountains Utah 2021 autumn fall foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | f/22 | 1/8 | ISO 100 | Tripod mounted
A small cluster of evergreens stands tall amongs the vibrant yellows and oranges of surrounding aspen trees in their fall foliage in the Wasatch Mountains Silver Lake Utah autumn 2021 | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400 | f/7.1| 1/3 sec | ISO 4000 | Tripod mounted

With such great success on my recent trip, I have decided to update my 2022 photo adventure schedule to move from Antelope Island to the Wasatch mountains for a fall foliage adventure instead. This change comes in the face of the dropping water levels at the lake and the multitude of photo opportunities that present themselves on the other side of the valley. Be sure to check out all the details in next month's newsletter if you are interested.

Who knows, we may even be lucky enough to see some moose next year as well. Until next time, cheers!


A female moose cow stands at the edge of a forest thicket framed by yellow bokeh in low light Wasatch Mountains Utah 2021 autumn fall foliage | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/800 | ISO 3200

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