Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” -Ansel Adams
I've always liked that quote to describe Yosemite National Park, and the fact it was made by a man who spent a majority of his life photographing there makes it all the more appropriate. Nothing can really prepare you for seeing Yosemite for the first time if you have never been before. For those who have been to the park before, the vastness and grandeur of the place will always reveal something new on each visit, or cast light on something in a way that you've never seen before. It's one of the best places for photography in the world.
A group of 13 wonderful photographers met myself and Paul Porter just outside the gates to the park for a Friday orientation and 2 full days of travelling the park in search of fall light.
Our first morning we start at 5:15am to get the jump on the light, and travel into the high country of the park to set up on the rocky, granite shores of Lake Tenaya. I like this lake because it's surrounded by granite, and the rocky, cracked, shoreline makes for some really nice leading lines, and foreground subjects. The morning is cold, but everyone is bundled up and eagerly searching for compositions as Paul and I make our way around and offer up suggestions on settings, polarizers, and using a grad filter to help balance out the tricky exposures.
Over the course of the sunrise we cover a lot of topics, including white balance, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and composition. A few people work with longer exposures to blur out the waves on the surface of the lake, and give the images a more painterly effect.
Once the sun raises the juxtaposition between warm light and cool shadow is stunning. I point out to people how nicely some of the foliage along the shoreline looks backlit by the morning sun.
Our second stop of the day is Olmstead Point. The sun is up now, and warming us after our cold morning. We continue to work with light and shadow here as well as compositional ideas using some of the gnarly trees in the area. This location offers us a great view of Half-Dome across the valley, and gives us the chance to use zoom lenses to get some compression between all the many layers of granite.
The final stop for the morning is Siesta Lake. We're not here for a nap; we're here to photograph the reflections and the nice array of warm fall foliage colors that surround this little lake.
In addition to all of the colors around the lake there's some nice options for abstract shots using just the reflections on the surface of the water and some of the water plants that are growing from the depths.
Time flies, and it's almost 1pm by the time we make it back to the hotel for our lunch break. Everyone enjoys the plentiful lunchtime food options (haha) and grabs a little rest before we head up to the highlands again for sunset.
Glacier point might be my favorite view in the whole park. Our group arrives on scene with time to spare and sets up high on a granite ledge looking out towards a postcard worthy view of Half-Dome a few miles across the valley. There isn't a cloud in the sky so we're confident that we'll get one of those famous range of light alpen glow moments by the end of our time out on the ledge. While we wait for the light to get right Paul and I make sure everyone is dialed in with the right settings, filters, and compositions in order to get a beautiful shot. We also spend some quality time joking, and cringing at some of the tourists who choose to walk out on the ‘diving board' rock in the area with its 2000-foot death plunge. Stupid people love ledges.
Sunset was gorgeous, the play of light and granite is very pretty and everyone gets some really lovely images of that transition between alpen glow and the salmon colored light after the sun has dropped below the horizon.
With sunset in our rearview mirror it's time to head to the hotel for a late dinner, and then a group of students were still not done shooting the park…they wanted to photograph the stars. I took 6 eager photographers in our group back into the park for a couple hours of instruction on how to shoot stars, and start trails. It was a little chilly but the clean mountain air gave way to a sky full of stars.
Late nights always lead to early mornings in the landscape world. 6:15am we were up and back at it heading down to the Merced River for some early morning reflections of El Capitan, Catherdral Peak, and the 3-brothers. The class is awesome and everyone settles right into exploring the area and setting up their compositions. Paul and I walk around to help offer suggestions on composition suggestions, and help position a filter or tweak a setting to get the best exposure. This is such a beautiful stretch of river everyone is completely into the moment and having fun shooting…until the ducks show up and try their hand at ruining reflections.
We spend almost 2 hours along the Merced working the angles before setting off for a brief stop at the Yosemite Chapel. This little church is an icon of the valley, and it's always worth a small stop so folks can get a shot or two of it. It's early, and everyone is really ready for a nice cup of coffee and breakfast at the Yosemite Lodge.
Breakfast is a great time to fill bellies and build group camaraderie. Everyone warms up again, and is ready to face the rest of the day.
Our afternoon is processing time first and foremost. Paul and I gather the troops and go over some of the different ways to process images, I help the night shooters process their star trails, and everyone is able to sift through a day and a half of images, get some feedback, and then see how these images look after some processing from Paul and I. We saw some really great images coming through the screens.
Our afternoon was spent back in the park gathering up more images. We spent time along the river shooting reflections, and backlit leaves…and even getting a little moving water action with slower shutter speed.
The favorite spot was along the Merced looking out over Half-Dome. This little bend in the river is seldom visited by the other masses, and offers what I think is one of the truly special views of the mountain. By this time our group is dialed in with their settings, and Paul and I need to offer only minor aesthetic suggestions and filter tips.
Sunset we spend at the iconic Valley View. This location is one of the big ones in terms of places a photographer must visit at the park. The lower water level reveals a lot of rocks, and offers everyone a chance to really get out and find that nice composition with a good foreground.
The light here is similar in quality to that at Glacier Point…the last rays of light eventually cast a nice pink glow on the face of El Capitan…which is reflected in the river giving a nice sense of balance.
The temperatures are perfect and it's easy for everyone to really enjoy the photography on this fall evening. Once the light fades though the temperatures begin to drop, and it's time for everyone to get back to the hotel for dinner, sleep, or beginning that long drive home. A few hearty souls were even planning a return trip to the park for some more night shooting!
Paul and I would like to thank everyone for their enthusiasm all weekend long and providing us with such a fun group of photographers to work with in the park. The group dynamic was a blast all weekend long!
Until next time,
Brian, Paul 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.