The Canadian Rocky Mountains offer some of the most beautiful scenery in the world from towering glacier covered mountains to landscapes full of lakes, rivers, waterfalls and wildlife. It’s a photographer’s paradise; depending on the season you can see turquoise coloured lakes, the warm autumn colours of the trees or glistening blankets of snow.
The southern part of the Canadian Rockies is where most visitors spend their time, this includes Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks. In any of these areas it would be difficult to find a poor location, you could randomly press the shutter button on your camera and get a beautiful scene. There are a number of classic locations to photograph, hopefully you can try to capture something a little different by putting your own creative spin on them.
In this article we have covered special lighting considerations for mountain photography, the pros and cons of visiting in each season and the top photography spots around Banff and Lake Louise. We have a separate article for photographing the attractions along the Icefield Parkway and the best spots for wildlife viewing in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Photographing In The Canadian Rocky Mountains Is All About The Light
It’s the right light that makes the mountains, lakes, rivers and landscapes come alive. Like so many types of outdoor photography it’s those precious hours around sunrise and sunset that will allow you to create some of the most spectacular images. As the sun rises and sets the mountain peaks and skies can light up with hues of pink, red, orange and yellow. You’ll often hear the word Alpenglow talked about with regards to mountain photography, this is rosy light illuminating the mountain peaks when the atmospheric conditions are right.
Bright mid-day light is not a desirable shooting condition for many outdoor subjects, it’s particularly harsh for mountain scenes causing them to be washed out. Side lighting allows the interesting features of the mountains to show. Images with bright clear blue skies can be a tad boring, lacking character and interest. Days with clouds, mist, fog and stormy weather can make for much more dramatic and moody images.
The weather and lighting change dramatically throughout the day making a particular spot look different from hour to hour. Sometimes it just comes down to luck, being at the right place at the right time when trying to capture the perfect image.
What Time Of Year Is Best To Visit The Canadian Rocky Mountains For Photography?
What is considered to be the most ideal time to visit the Rocky Mountains are the months from June to October, but all seasons of the year have something to offer. It depends on what you want to photograph. Is it landscapes with colorful wildflowers, winter scenery, turquoise coloured lakes or wildlife that you are interested in? Narrowing down your photography focus will help you choose the right season.
Summer – July And August
The months of July and August are the time for turquoise glacier lakes, the driest weather, warmer temperatures and by mid-July there is full access to all the hiking trails including the high elevation and back country ones. There’s plenty of hours of daylight that stretch to as late as 10pm.
The downside is you have to be at your photo location as early as 5 am to catch the sunrise. The other drawback to summer is that you will be sharing the mountain parks with crowds of other visitors, tour groups and locals coming in from nearby areas. Being the most popular time also means the highest costs for accommodation. It’s also not one of the best times to spot wildlife as many of the animals retreat high into the mountains to escape the heat and human activity. Mosquitoes can be an issue in some areas particularly in early summer. If you’re looking to take wildflower photos in the alpine meadows it can vary year to year, but the peak blooming sits somewhere between mid-July and mid-August.
Winter – December, January, February, March
Winter can be a beautiful time to visit the mountains, it’s like a magical white wonderland. The mountain valleys blanketed in snow can make for some incredible photos. If you are into cross country skiing or snowshoeing it’s an excellent way to get out to shoot some photos, often having solitude compared to other times of the year.Keep in mind that in the midst of winter the temperatures can drop down to -30C. or lower during extreme cold snaps. Not all roads are accessible in the winter months and hiking is very limited.
If you are trying to avoid winter take note that it is a lot longer of a season in the mountains. Snow usually starts to fall in November or earlier and continues through March and even longer in higher elevation areas. Spring dumps of snow in April or later are not uncommon. Places like Lake Louise have snow on the ground in May and the lake is usually frozen until early June. Less daylight hours are available in the winter, photo shooting for the day is wrapped up by 4 or 5pm. On the plus side you don’t have to get up at 5am to catch the sunrise. You can get some extra sleep and be at your photo destination as late as 8am. If you want to avoid crowds then stay clear of the holidays through Christmas and the New Year.
Fall/Autumn – September, October And November
Mid-September through October is a beautiful time of the year to visit the Rocky Mountains. The fall/autumn season offers the warm colours of the aspen and larch trees, there are less crowds, lower accommodation prices compared to summer and mosquitoes are not an issue. In October the crowds are thinner because it’s a time of transition. The winter activities have not started yet and the summer ones have ended and it’s no longer warm enough for some visitors taste.
It’s the best time of year for elk photography, the elk rut occurs in early September and lasts well into October. Bighorn sheep are plentiful at this time as well. You can often hear and see the rams clashing their horns together as they fight over the females.
During the Autumn mornings fog can often be seen sitting on the lakes and in the lower valley areas, it’s an interesting element to photograph. The daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking, just a slight bit of crispness in the air without being too cold or too hot. November might be considered one of the least attractive months to visit it can be a bit colourless if there’s no snow yet to create any interest, but there’s always beauty to be found. Being an off season month there can be excellent deals on accommodation.
Planning a trip specifically for the fall colours of the trees can be a bit tricky. The peak of the colour can vary by as much as two weeks each year. The last week of September is a fairly good bet, but there’s no guarantee. The colours can peak out as early as the third week of September or it can push later towards the beginning of October.
Some of the areas known for the fall tree colours in Banff National Park are in the middle section of the Bow Valley Parkway at Hillsdale Meadows and the Sawback Prescribed Burn area where there are groves of Aspen trees. Near Lake Louise there are golden larch trees in the Saddleback Pass and in the Lake O”Hara region of Yoho National Park. Just east of Canmore the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country showcases fall colours of aspen, birch and larch trees.
Spring is a great time to see wildlife, the animals start to come down to the lower valley areas and can be seen feeding on the first areas of exposed grasses. Spring starts later in the mountains, mid-April and into May is considered early spring as the season transitions from winter. The weather and temperatures during springtime can be all over the place, large dumps of snow can still fall or milder warm weather can occur. June is the wettest month, but showers are generally isolated and rarely does it rain all day long. The weather is very location specific, driving 10 to 15 minutes to another area can often land you in more favourable conditions.
The lower elevation lakes start to free of ice by May and lower elevation trails become accessible. Higher elevation lakes take longer, staying frozen until early June or later. Some of the roads to popular destinations such as Moraine Lake, Mount Edith Cavell and Takkakaw Falls do not open until early June or later and most campsites are closed until mid to late May.
Late May and June can be a nice time to capture the green of the lower valleys in contrast to the snow capped mountain peaks. This can be one of the best times to see bears as they are emerging from hibernation and seeking food. June also offers the longest hours of daylight from 5am to as late as 10 and 11pm.
Banff Area Top Photography Spots
Vermillion Lakes is one of the most diversified areas; it’s a great place for photography in every season including winter. The lighting is good at sunrise and sunset and this is when the water is calmest allowing for reflection shots of the mountains. Vermillion Lakes is one of the first areas to green up in the spring and this attracts wildlife such as elk and deer. The shallow lakes also provide a wetland for a variety of waterfowl and birds. You can easily spend hours to the better part of a day here taking photos along the shoreline. A pair of wading boots allows you to get right into the water and capture unique shots. Be prepared for mosquitoes in the summer. From Banff town follow Mount Norquay road and turn left just before reaching the Trans Canada Hwy. (51.183996, -115.594364)
Sulphur Mountain Gondola
From the top of Sulphur Mountain Gondola there are views overlooking the town of Banff, the Bow Valley, several mountain ranges and Lake Minnewanka. The first gondola car of the morning is best or the light from early evening to sunset. (51.147667, -115.555165)
Photo Opportunities In The Town Of Banff
Stroll through Cascade Gardens for flower photography in the late spring and summer or take the classic shot overlooking the gardens and pools of water with Banff Avenue and Cascade Mountain in the background. (51.171379, -115.571838)
From Banff Avenue there is another classic shot looking down the street with Cascade Mountain towering at the end. It’s usually taken close to where it intersects with Buffalo Street. (51.174379, -115.571129)
The Bow River has a walkway and trail that runs along it in the town of Banff. There’s many scenic shots to be taken along it. Head towards Bow Avenue from Wolf, Caribou or Buffalo Street in town. The walkway continues towards the bridge crossing the river and into the forest. (51.173828, -115.574144)
Tunnel Mountain Road
From Surprise Corner you can see the Banff Springs Hotel perched above the Bow River and back dropped by the mountains. (51.167369, -115.559274)
Further along Tunnel Mountain Road there is the Hoodoos viewpoint. There is a parking area a short paved trail leads to three wooden platforms. The hoodoos themselves are not that spectacular but, the views of the Bow Valley, Spray Valley and Mount Rundle are. (51.189189, -115.522444)
On Mount Norquay road as you head up towards the ski hill there is a pullout area that provides a view overlooking the town of Banff and Mount Rundle. In the late spring, summer and fall there is grassy area below the cement barrier is known by locals as the “green spot.” Bighorn sheep often hang out here. The light is best from afternoon to sunset. (51.197074, -115.588624)
The Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is an alternate route between Banff and Lake Louise that runs parallel to the Trans Canada highway on the other side of the Bow River. The slower speed limit of 60km/hr is strictly enforced. There’s several points of interest along the way. At Hillsdale Meadows there are stands Aspen trees that display orange and yellow colours in September and in late spring and early summer there are wildflowers. Moose Meadows is another area that has good photo opportunities with views of Pilot and Copper Mountain. It’s best light is in mid-morning and at sunset in the summer.
Johnston Canyon is one of the main attractions along the Bow Valley Parkway. In the summer months you need to arrive very early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the crowds that get brought in on tour buses. In late spring and early fall the weekends are busy, but during the week it’s quieter. Through the canyon you reach the lower and upper falls on a series of trails and catwalks suspended from the rock walls. In winter you can get some interesting shots of the frozen falls. (51.245081, -115.840577)
At the half way point between Banff and Lake Louise just off the Trans Canada Hwy at the intersection with Hwy 93 South is Castle Junction. At this spot on the Bow River there is the Castle Junction Bridge, old iron structure that offers some of the best views of Castle Mountain. Sunrise and sunset is when the mountain is nicely lit. Get down to the banks of the river for the best shots. Starting in spring there is often a pair of nesting Osprey on the bridge. You can access the bridge from the Trans Canada Hwy or from the Bow Valley Parkway. (51.266560, -115.926661)
Closer to the Lake Louise end of the Bow Valley Parkway is a spot called Morant’s Curve. It’s a beautiful scene all on it’s own but getting a shot of an east bound train as it passes through the S-curve of the railway tracks makes it more interesting. You could be waiting for a while for a train and hopefully the light will be right if one comes by. It’s a pretty scene all year round, including the winter months.(51.399644, -116.128724)
Lake Minnewanka Loop Drive
The Lake Minnewanka Loop is one of Banff’s many scenic drives. Only part of the loop is accessible from mid-November to mid-April.
The Cascade Ponds offer some nice reflection shots during the summer months from sunrise to mid-morning. Lower And Upper Bankhead are areas that have some interesting remnants from the old abandoned mining operation and town. (51.211496, -115.537382)
Johnson Lake has good light at sunset. There’s a trail that goes around the lake offering views of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain (51.199424, -115.490136
Nearby Two Jack Lake has nice light at sunrise or sunset. The calm water allows for beautiful reflective shots of the mountains.(51.230541, -115.498174)
Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park. Take some time to explore along the shoreline, the light is nice at sunrise. Occasionally on clear nights in the winter months some incredible displays of the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) can be spotted in the sky above the frozen lake. 51.2581° N, 115.3731° W
Lake Louise Area Top Photography Spots
The best time for photography at Lake Louise is during the sun rise to mid-morning. The popular areas to take photos from are around the canoe boat dock, the outlet stream and at the front of the lake for reflections of Mount Victoria. In the early summer you need to be there by 5am to catch the soft sunrise light.(51.417660, -116.216929)
The lake starts to freeze up by December and doesn’t completely thaw again until the end of May or early June. About once every decade an early snowfall occurs before the lake freezes over and creates a beautiful scene of snow on the mountains and surrounding ground around the lake.
Lake Louise can be a difficult subject to shoot with the stark contrast between the shadowed lake and highlighted mountain peaks and sky. A graduated filter can be helpful or shoot multiple images to merge in post processing. If you are set on photographing the turquoise colour lake water you are pretty much limited to the months of July and August.
Late June through July is the peak time for photography at Moraine lake when the water level is high and showing it’s beautiful turquoise colour. Any earlier and the water level is either very low or still frozen. The road to Moraine Lake is only open seasonally. Depending on conditions it’s open from early June through the Canada Thanksgiving holiday weekend in October.
Lots of interesting shots can be taken from along the shore. At the canoe dock you can get some interesting photos of the bright boat colours contrasted against the blue water and the backdrop of the mountains.
The most popular shot is from the top of the rock pile overlooking the lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks as seen on the back of past Canadian $20 bills issued between 1969 and 79. Mid to late morning is when the mountains and the water are both lit up. As it gets later the mountains are in shadow. At sunrise you can capture a beautiful warm light on the Valley of the Ten Peaks. A wide angle lens is a must to get all of the scene in frame. (51.321742, -116.186005)
The lake gets so busy in the summer months and during the Larch festival in September that you may find yourself having to park a kilometer or more down the road and walking in. Arrive very early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the crowds.
What Camera Gear, Lenses And Equipment Should I Bring For Rocky Mountain Photography?
The landscapes and terrain of the Rocky Mounains are so varied with different elements that you can easily use lenses from a very wide angle up to 300mm on a daily basis. If you are really keen on wildlife photography and your wallet has afforded you a 400 0r 500mm telephoto lens then by all means bring it. Otherwise a 200 or a 300mm is a nice alternative. I personally have a 200mm 70 to 200 f/4. It’s easy to pack around and I find it very useful for a variety landscape details and wildlife.
What’s on the must have list of photography items?
- wide angle lens – there’s scenes you’ll only be able to get a fraction of without one, such as Moraine Lake and it’s backdrop of mountains. Other mountain scenes are so expansive you might want to shoot several images to stitch together as a panorama.
- tripod – essential for lowlight shots at sunrise and towards the evening sunset.
- polrizing filter – for cutting through haze, enhancing skies, minimizing reflections on water and saturating colours in landscapes.
- graduated neutral density filter – very useful for the contrast between the darker mountain and foreground scenery and lighter skies. A soft edge one is preferable in the mountains as there is rarely a precise horizon line. You can also shoot multiple images in varying exposures to merge together in post processing.
- macro lens or extension tube – to get those great wildflower shots.
- extra batteries – you’re probably going to shoot way more photos than you thought and you don’t want to run out during the day. If you’re visiting during winter take note that the cold sucks the life out of batteries very quickly. Don’t forget your charger!
- clothing while taking photos – bring layers regardless of what time of year you are visiting. The temperatures can greatly fluctute all year round from morning to mid-day and again once the sun goes. Even in summer the mornings can be quite chilly. Genrally the higher in elevation you go the colder it is.
If you are looking to do a photography tour there are not shortage of them. They range from partial to full day shooting events to multiple day excursions including meals and accommodations. You can do an internet search for Canadian Rocky Mountain photography tours and a myriad of companies and local photographers offering these services will come up.