Snow has a way of making everything seem new and fresh. It adds a new definition to familiar scenes and makes landscapes pop. A fresh layer of snow can even make Merced look like a winter wonderland. When Yosemite National Park is blanketed in snow, there are few places on earth as spectacular. Unlike Merced, Yosemite is still amazing and beautiful even without snow... which was perfect because Yosemite National Park has lacked much of the white stuff for the majority of the winter. The sheer granite rock face, waterfalls and the Merced River all provide ample opportunities to create stunning landscape photography. There was also a chance that the very seasonal and lava-esque Horsetail falls could light up and provide the class a rare opportunity at capturing that coveted phenomenon.
The 2-day Yosemite Winter workshop began the moment a group of photographers met professional photographers Brian Rueb and Scott Donschikowski at the Yosemite View Lodge outside the park. The customary orientation had a little different slant this time; it addressed what to expect for a winter photography workshop... without any winter.
The class enjoyed a glass of wine while Scott and Brian explained the plans for the weekend, and got to know the students' gear, and experience levels. For this workshop, most of the attendees had a lot of previous experience shooting. The main goal of most of the participants was composition and how to improve their compositions...which was perfect as there would be plenty of chances to make exciting landscape compositions starting at 6am the next morning.
:: DAY ONE ::
Sleepy but ready, the class met in the dark outside of the hotel lobby where Brian and Scott picked them up in the ApCab (the blue Mercedes workshop wagon). We drove into the park in the dark, and stopped near a scenic spot along the Merced River. The mountains in the park are over 9,000 feet tall, which adds a lot of drama to the scenes we photograph, but it also makes it hard for the sun to create any really nice sunrise light, making everything back lit. Without much in the way of morning clouds to help diffuse the direct sun, our best bet to create winning images was to shoot reflections along the Merced of the mighty granite monoliths looming on the other side. And it turned out beautifully!
Scott and Brian worked with the class to find compositions that simplified the scene, used curves and texture to create leading lines into scenes. When the light hit the peaks, it was a perfect chance to work on images that utilized the blue of the sky and the gold of the light on El Capitan to create images with a strong complimentary color scheme. The spot we chose along the river was great in that it allowed us opportunities to shoot many different compositions with different peaks in the area, or images that included several of the peaks, including the mighty El Capitan.
Our second stop of the morning, once the light had hit, was to photograph the reflections of the mighty Upper Yosemite Falls from the banks of the Swinging Bridge....which doesn't actually swing. In addition to the shots from under the bridge, there are numerous opportunities for interesting shots along the river banks. Students were directed to some rocks along the river which allowed for some different compositions utilizing strong foreground lines and helped balance the images. A few students walked with Brian into a field to shoot some contrasting images of dark oak trees mixed with a row of trees in the direct sun.
One nice thing about this location is that it also provides numerous opportunities to utilize a polarizing filter to help bring out the reflections, and really zoom in tight to get some nice abstract shots of the different trees and shapes. While flat blue skies aren't ideal for photography, they do help provide excellent reflections, and when those reflections contain brilliant gold granite, then you have some really nice images possible.
While we didn't get the winter snow, we certainly had some of the winter cold, and after over an hour of shooting along the river, everyone's toes and fingers were cold and ready for a brief warm up in the valley food court. The breaks are great ways for the class to build a strong camaraderie as they talk about different photography experiences they've been on, places they'd like to go, and a bit more on photography philosophy and approach.
We spent the afternoon in the fields looking out at Half-Dome. The light had moved and gave us a bit more contrast on the mighty granite dome. Brian and Scott helped the students switch their cameras over to monochrome, and even though it was tough light, the switch to black and white helped students focus on the compositional elements that were at our disposal: light and dark, contrast, texture, and repetitive shapes. Even though the dramatic conditions every photographer dreams of weren't present, there were still numerous options to create interesting images using those that were available.
A lot of students used the clumps of field grass to act as leading lines and add interest in the foreground. Other students did more shallow depth-of-field images where the implied image of half dome and the shift in focus on something in the foreground created unique images.
It was lunch and break time after our shoot in the meadow and everyone had been up photographing for a while and was deserved of some much needed power napping before our afternoon and sunset shoot.
While everyone in the park on Saturday evening was there for Horsetail Falls, our instructors felt that a large cloud bank on the horizon, and lack of water flow, would be too much to create the iconic shots that people from all over the country came to see. Rather than join the tailgating masses to shoot the falls, our class opted for a better situation at Valley View. Once at Valley View, we had our pick of many of the numerous nice compositions this iconic location has to offer.
When the class was set up, Brian, AKA the Human Cloning Tool, shed his socks and shoes and went into the river for over 20 minutes to remove the clutter and distracting branches that had lodged in the scene. Everyone was appreciative, and one other group even gave Brian a cold beer for his hard work and cold feet.
A few clouds had rolled in around the peaks, and the light and conditions for sunset were super nice. Scott and Brian worked with students on the placement and use of their graduated neutral density filters, and polarizers. The class got some great shots of this iconic vista with the mighty El Capitan on the left and Bridal Veil Falls on the right. Light never hit Horsetail Falls that night, and as we finished up shooting the images of Valley View, we got a chuckle at the endless line of cars leaving the park filled with disappointed photographers.
:: DAY TWO ::
The next morning we met early again and went directly to Lower Yosemite Falls. During the afternoon and early evening the falls are jam-packed with people scrambling over every rock and inevitably there are always three to four people in a composition. When we arrived first thing Sunday morning, we had the entire place to ourselves. Scott and Brian split the group up and showed them a few different locations that offered great views of the falls and nice opportunities for the foreground.
The night brought on much colder temperatures, and there were several areas where ice had formed around the rocks and created more interest and texture in the foreground. The class really did well to scour the rocks and find great compositions that used the moving water and rocks to help create lines of movement to draw the eye through the composition.
The highlight of the morning, however, was when Brian noticed the lower portion of the falls was catching a lot of bounce light from a nearby granite wall, and the light gave the falls a really nice warm glow. He noticed the way the mist from the spray would get mixed up in the sun and create some fiery rainbows. The class switched lenses to their larger glass and everyone got some really nice detailed shots of the mist and the rainbow it created.
When the class finished the morning shoot at Lower Yosemite Falls it was off for a brief stop at the Pohono Bridge, where we worked on the composition of the bridge using the colorful water and sand as a leading line briefly before the sun crested the peaks and blasted out our scene. With the sun not playing nice, it was time for our morning break so the class could check out of their hotel, and grab a brief bite to eat before we set out to spend our entire last afternoon in the park.
Weather is funny. When we left the park, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. When we returned, the clouds followed us. For our first stop at the little red iconic chapel, we had a sky full of blue and white clouds in a variety of interesting shapes and textures.
The class took a variety of nice images of the church that utilized the cloud patterns. In addition to the traditional compositions of the church, the instructors also worked with students to switch up their thinking and use shallow depths of field and focus in on pine cones and nearby foliage to switch the emphasis from the church to a different subject.
By the time we left the church, the wind had picked up, the temperatures had dropped, and our defined sky had gone almost flat grey. We made a stop at the scenic Sentinel Bridge to photograph Half-Dome, and its reflection before stopping at the local deli so everyone could grab a snack or sandwich before we made our way towards Tunnel View for an attempt at sunset.
On our way to Tunnel View we stopped along the path to photograph the mighty Bridal Veil Falls, which was nice to shoot because it was in soft shaded light. The cloud cover acted as a natural soft box and gave the scene some very even light. Students shot both wide images to encompass the entire falls and river, as well as zoomed into shoot some close intimate details of the granite and water as we had practiced earlier in the morning at Yosemite Falls.
Tunnel View is perhaps one of the most iconic locations in the whole park. The whole valley opens up from the vantage points along the wall. You can see Bridal Veil, El Cap, and even Half Dome. Even when conditions aren't ideal, this view is hard to beat. The sky was flat and grey, and the wind was making things chilly, but our class bravely took their spots along the wall and waited to see what conditions would bring.
Scott worked with the class on how to underexpose, and discussed using a blue slider in post processing to bring out detail in even a flat sky. The clouds did change a bit and for a few moments some lower moving clouds came in over Bridal Veil and gave the sky even more definition. It definitely looked to be a monochromatic type of shooting conditions, which is perfect, as most of the historically important shots from this spot were taken in just that mode.
The class waited almost an hour, and all were rewarded and got some nicely exposed images of this stunning vista before the sky gave up, and all of our definition began to fade. With or without color, some very nice images were created. When the chances of any light looked to be gone for good, it was time to pack up and call it a wrap.
The natural conditions were not always optimal, sometimes a little tough, as can be expected during winter months, but Scott and Brian used their experience to take advantage of the weather, season and locations. As a result, we saw some really nice work on everyone's cameras! Conditions allowed students to see outside of the typical box and create some unique and different images of this iconic, heavily photographed park...very well done!
Until next time,
Brian, Scott and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.