It's Yosemite. No matter the weather or the season, the magnificent beauty at every turn will take your breath away and one of the many reasons why over 3 million people visit the park each year. The 3000' shear cliffs of granite, towering waterfalls, and expansive meadows, invite gazes of wonder and amazement. So it was as I drove into the park on a gorgeous day in May, I found myself smiling again at my good fortune for the opportunity to witness and share in its grandeur.
On this past Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of working with friend and newest Aperture Academy instructor, Paul Porter for another memorable ApCad workshop in this incomparable place. The idea was to guide our ten eager and enthusiastic photography students to some of the iconic and not so iconic spots in the park, but with an emphasis on night photography.
Only 3 months each year, a popular phenomenon occurs if all the required elements are present. A full moon in a clear sky, waterfalls flowing with spring run-off, enough of a breeze to help kick up the falling mist, and being in the right place and time at just the right angle, will create the perfect recipe for a lunar rainbow, or moonbow. For our students to capture this event with their cameras would be a bonus, but photographing Yosemite by moonlight is a unique experience in itself.
Paul and I met our group at the Yosemite View Lodge to get acquainted, learn of our student's skill levels and aspirations for the weekend so we could better tailor our instruction to their individual needs. With the promise and anticipation of an enjoyable experience and increase in their photographic abilities, it was time to begin our adventure and for our students to make some magic with their cameras.
With the ApCad van on duty in the Pacific Northwest, Paul and I chauffeured the group and all of their gear in two mini vans heading into the lush and green Yosemite Valley. Our first stop was the Swinging Bridge and nearby meadow. From the bridge, a lovely shot of Yosemite Falls and its reflection in the Merced River is a photography favorite. Mother Nature decided to supply us with a breezy weekend making clear reflections impossible, but students were still able to capture foreground interest and add scale with brightly colored rafters floating on the water. The bright spring green of the meadow framed by evergreens and gray granite allowed for some wonderful compositions with layers of light and subject matter. Paul and I worked with students in capturing backlit scenes with the afternoon sun filtering through the new green of aspen trees, and dead tree branches and stumps offered instruction to think in terms of black and white images.
As memory cards filled quickly it was time to leave for another location, but once back at the cars we found park service had implemented traffic control restricting access to only one lane on Southside Drive and delaying our ability for quality time at our next stop. I opted for an earlier dinner break in order to make our sunset destination. We managed to find parking at the Lodge and gathered in the cafe to enjoy conversation and some shop talk while we refueled ourselves for the long evening ahead. Our preferred destination was Glacier Point, but again traffic management restrictions prevented us from getting to this location in time for sunset, so we opted to shoot at Tunnel View with a brief stop at Inspiration Point. Many of our students took to the hills to find a slightly different view using longer focal lengths to draw in the impressive El Cap and Half Dome. We then made the short trip through the tunnel and found the area almost devoid of photographers who were probably all down in the crowded valley securing their spots and a chance to capture the moon bow.
We were treated to a lovely pink sunset as the golden light washed over El Capitan and clouds framed the sky behind Half Dome. Paul and I worked with students on composition of this classic scene and the use of graduated neutral density filters to balance out the brighter sky against the valley now in shadow. Though disappointed at missing a chance to shoot at Glacier Point, our students still came away with some lovely shots from this wonderful location. As our plan was to shoot later into the night, we returned to the hotel for a break and much needed rest before meeting again at 11:15PM.
Everyone was rested, ready, and eager for the opportunity to capture the magic of the night sky, so off we went to Cooks Meadow. Once at the meadow, Paul and I helped our students set up for test shots using a higher ISO, wider aperture, and shorter exposure to fine tune their compositions and focus. Our plan to shoot later in the evening gave us the area almost completely to ourselves. This year has not been great for rain and snow in California, but there was enough water in Yosemite Falls for our students to capture the elusive moonbow. A few oohs, aahs, and wows later there were some lovely shots of the falls, the lunar rainbow, stars in the sky, some nice reflections from the grassy foreground pond all witnessed on the back of everyone's camera. Students were then instructed on the use of a lower ISO to reduce noise, stopping down apertures for better depth of field, and keeping exposures to 30 seconds or less to bring out pin point stars in the night sky.
As the moon continued its travel, the rainbow began to fade and we made our way to another spot for a better angle and yet another composition, adding some light painting to bring out the foreground still in the moon's shadow. Having the students set up and ready with their comps and exposures, we counted down so that everyone could shoot at the same time while Paul and I used flashlights to light up a boardwalk and trees at the edge of the meadow. More moonbows and pin point stars were captured and more unique shots of Yosemite at night filled our student's memory cards.
By now it was about 1:30AM, but feeling bad that we missed out on two of our destinations due to the crowds and traffic, I offered a bonus shot to anyone willing. 6 out of 10 were game to shoot the valley by moonlight and as Paul drove 4 students back to the hotel for a good nights rest, I took the others up the hill to Tunnel View. Again, this intrepid group set up tests shots for composition and focus before capturing one of the most recognized images in the world, but with a unique twist. As a starting point and once they were ready, I instructed them to use the best exposure combination for their particular camera and lens combination they had achieved down in the valley. Bridalveil Falls was still in shadow, but the rest of the valley and its iconic elements were awash in moonlight and topped off with more pin point stars in the clear night sky. I returned everyone to our hotel around 3:00AM totally exhausted, but happy with this final conquest of our first day out.
Although a good nights sleep was sacrificed to get the shot, all but one met us at 8:45AM in good humor and ready for another day of photographic adventure. Our first morning stop was to Pohono Bridge and Fern Springs. Paul and I were again able to instruct students on depth of field to highlight a particular subject while softening the rest of the scene, and the use of filters to achieve longer exposures for flowing water in the brighter light of day. Students also learned of balancing exposures between shadows and the bright light filtering through the trees. Thankfully, traffic was not yet an issue in the morning hours and we made our way over to Cathedral Beach to try and capture reflections of El Cap in still waters. Again, Mother Nature gave us a breezy day with rippling waters, but we did find some smaller areas of standing water along river's edge so our group could learn to capture reflections while using polarizing filters to cut glare and bring out the details below the surface.
Our morning complete, it was time to return to the hotel as some of us needed to check out, have time for lunch, then meet in the lobby so Paul and I could review images and offer critiques on compositions thus far. Some of our crew came prepared with laptops so we could work with them on post processing their work, providing tips on how to bring out the best in their shots while maintaining their own creativity using programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop. At 2:00PM everyone was ready for a final adventure as we gathered again in our vehicles to spend the rest of the day up along the Tioga Pass.
Our first stop was at the meadows of Crane Flat. A gorgeous day greeted us with mild temperatures and light, fluffy clouds sailing overhead. Now feeling more confident in their photographic abilities, everyone headed out into the meadow finding their niche whether for macro shots of the delicate shooting stars or textures of skunk cabbage backlit by the afternoon sun. Cloud shadows moved across the meadow allowing for some wider shots with beautiful depth between green grasses and layers of evergreens. Our next stop was for Tenaya Lake and students really enjoyed all that this lovely place has to offer. From reflections in quiet coves to the details found beneath the surface, the use of a polarizing filter was again emphasized to cut glare from the water. Paul and I helped individuals in finding leading lines and foreground interest for their compositions working with both exposures and depth of field to get the most impact from their images.
After spending a good amount of time at Tenaya, we made our way to our final destination of the evening and of our workshop. Olmstead Point is famous for its view of Half Dome at the end of the rugged Tenaya Valley, as well as for a single Juniper which grows from the cracks of a great mound of granite. We first gave everyone a chance to capture the lonely tree with Half Dome in the distance and then set up for our group shot, even getting silly trying to jump up at the same time when the camera timer went off and without anyone falling down! Then we made our way down the trail to a place where everyone could spread out and find one of numerous compositions for a final sunset shot. At over 9000', just one of our students found the elevation difficult, but was able to recover by resting in the van.
Paul and I moved back and forth between our students helping them to find compositions using elements of rocks, trees, and cracks in the granite as leading lines showing Half Dome in the distance. Wide angle shots and those with longer focal lengths to compress the view and draw in subject matter were determined for the best use of the area each individual chose to capture. Though getting a bit chilly, everyone stood their ground as cameras clicked away capturing the golden evening light on Half Dome and a few minutes later with soft clouds reflecting a lovely pink sunset. Memory cards were filled and a great group of happy photographers made their way back up the trail for the drive back to El Portal and the close of a very productive weekend of photography.
Paul and I would like to extend our appreciation for having the privilege of spending time with such a great group of photographers whose understanding on this very busy weekend in a very popular national park, helped in maintaining their wonderful sense of humor and dedication to their art.
"The students enjoyed the workshop so much they didn't want to leave as they drove slowly away at 14mph." Love you for that, Dianne! :)
Until next time,
Jean, Paul and the entire Aperture Academy team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.
See more action photos below the comments!