We talk with photographer Michael Heiner about the joys of traveling and taking pictures in western Colorado.
Photographer Michael Heiner accompanied writer Laura Pritchett on her Colorado adventure for our April 2019 feature The West on Wheels. He took some time off from his day gig with the Nature Conservancy to do some of the white-knuckle driving on the Million Dollar Highway and to take lots of pictures when he wasn’t at the wheel. We talked with him about highlights of the experience and his approach to shooting expansive mountain scenery.
Cowboys & Indians: How and when did you get into photography? How does it figure into your life?
Michael Heiner: My father liked photography and I’ve enjoyed making photos as long as I can remember. I think it was good to learn with film — before digital photography— because with film you only have a small number of frames, so you really have to think about apertures, shutter speeds, and composition. My work is about studying landscapes and trying to understand their character and bio-geography, and photography is a way capture some of that. I lived abroad and traveled a lot for work, which has been a fantastic opportunity to see and photograph landscapes from the tropics to cold deserts.
C&I: What’s your personal history with Colorado?
Heiner: I grew up on the East Coast and in 1997 spent a summer in Yellowstone, loved the big sky and mountains, and then moved to Colorado in 2000 and to Fort Collins in 2011.
C&I: What were some of the high points of your West on Wheels adventures?
Heiner: It was interesting to see how mountain communities in western Colorado have maintained the historic character of the towns and landscapes. Life in western Colorado was and still is deeply connected to the land and rivers for livelihoods — as well as for the recreation and wildlife. In every town, we met friendly people and heard interesting stories about the history of the place. Memorable high points were the ghost town near Silverton, the creative district in Ridgway, the box canyon in Ouray, good restaurants in Telluride, and driving the beautiful white-knuckle pass between Ouray and Silverton while [writer] Laura [Pritchett] winced. The vapor cave and the museum in Ouray were particularly curious and memorable.
Click on the image above to view the slideshow of Michael Heiner’s The West on Wheels photographs.
C&I: How do you approach shooting in mountain light? Any tips?
Heiner: For shooting mountain landscapes, most photographers would say that morning and evening light is ideal. In midday, the bright sunlight can wash out the colors, so underexposing one or two stops can improve the color balance. In terms of composition, a good general principle is to include some features in the foreground to create a sense of depth from the foreground to the skyline. Of course, the aspen foliage is really stunning in late September and the patterns and mix of colors create a lot of choices for interesting composition.
C&I: Any favorite views and shots from the trip?
Heiner: There’s nothing like a road trip across the mountains of southwestern Colorado when the aspen are turning. Western Colorado is beautiful in all seasons, but I’ve never seen whole valleys and mountainsides lit up like that!
I really like the photo of the Colorado state flag with the mountain backdrop. The location is a small lot along the road outside Telluride where CDOT stores gravel, salt, and equipment — not particularly scenic by itself, but the wind had lifted the flags, the late-afternoon light was good, and the steep, forested valley walls made for a good backdrop.
C&I: When you’re not behind the lens, you work with the Nature Conservancy. What do you do for them?
Heiner: I work for a team that’s focused on bringing conservation science — ecology and wildlife biology — into development planning, mainly for mining, energy, and related infrastructure. Rapid, uncoordinated development of mining and energy resources across a large landscape can add up to do a lot of damage, like death from a thousand cuts, particularly in developing countries. A way to deal with this is to improve proactive, coordinated planning of both development and conservation at a national or regional level to identify and protect critical habitat and consider the cumulative impacts of multiple projects.
Planning for economic development and conservation are usually disconnected, and require science and technical capacity, specifically in geographic analysis. So the Nature Conservancy provides science support to governments, companies, and communities to plan and negotiate big development projects.
The goal is to balance economic development goals with conservation goals across landscapes that are facing rapid development. Recent work has been in Mongolia, Australia, and India.
Photography: Michael Heiner