For a fine art landscape photographer, the Yosemite Valley is Mecca. John Muir is probably the person most responsible for making Yosemite known to the wider public, but it’s the work of Ansel Adams that has immortalized the valley and its features. The first time you make the journey into the valley is indescribable. The vision you are met with as the valley begins to open up, while nice in pictures, can’t be captured. For me, the response is visceral, purely emotional. I should add that this response isn’t limited to the first time you go. For me it is every time. Standing there, looking up at the granite cliffs, waterfalls, rivers, wildlife and sky is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The only national park that I’ve been to more times is Rocky Mountain National Park, and that is only because it used to be 45 minutes from my front door. Now, Yosemite is only 3 hours from my current front door. It feels like I can go whenever I want. I can put down my pen at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening and be in the park for sunset on a summer evening if I drive fast enough (unfortunately I don’t drive that fast anymore). Today I want to share some of the images that I’ve made from the park over the last couple years. I hope it inspires some of you to pay homage to this great valley at least once or to come back to visit again. Just writing this has inspired me. Let’s begin with an image of the only major feature to take its namesake from the valley, the tallest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite falls is undoubtedly spectacular. But its sheer scale and location in the valley make it challenging to capture in a photograph. This is absolutely a challenge I am willing to take on and one that I will probably be trying to master for the next 30-75 years.
Unlike Yosemite Falls, which gets its name from the valley, the most visually iconic feature in the park, and maybe the country, got its name in a simpler way. There is no other way to describe this feature other than Half Dome. Also unlike Yosemite Falls, Half Dome is visible from so many vantage points that it poses a different problem when it comes to capturing its image. Where do I shoot from? In my experience, it doesn’t matter where you’re shooting from, or what time of day or night, Half Dome makes a willing and able centerpiece. Whether you want to shoot from the valley floor:
Or from Glacier Point:
Or maybe Olmstead Point:
Shooting Half Dome at sunrise poses a challenge because the sun is typically rising right behind the dome. But with the right conditions and from the right angle I’m confident that anything is possible. There is also always the option of shooting in the middle of the night. You might even get lucky and catch the lights of climbers on the face of the cliff to give your shot some extra interest.
I have about a million other vantage points on my list of places to shoot from (Sentinel Dome, Diving Board, on top, the list goes on).
When it comes to pure grandeur, nothing tops El Capitan. When you’re standing there looking at it the proportions don’t seem to make any sense. There is no way that a solid granite wall could rise 3000 feet above your head. Yet it does. Honestly, the only thing that I’ve ever seen that rivals El Cap is the Giant Buddha of Leshan. Maybe it's that I just finished reading "Yosemite in the 50s" by Dean Fidelman, John Long, and Tom Adler but something about this rock makes me want to go climb mountains!
The challenge of El Cap is how do you go about capturing something so immense and give it the due it deserves? If any of you have the secret I wouldn’t mind if you let me in on it. Here are some of my attempts (the first person to spot the climbers wins a cookie!).
Between Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Cap, we’ve covered the three most famous features in the park. But there are so many others. And there is so much else to see and shoot and so many vantage points. One of my favorite spots, and one that still hasn’t relinquished the perfect shot to me, is the Gates of the Valley. I just love the way El Cap, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Merced River frame the valley and draw you in. This spot is so different in every season and really poses a challenge. I know I’ll just be coming back here for the rest of my life waiting to make that perfect image.
If Yosemite Falls didn’t exist Bridal Veil Falls would hold its own in the discussion of top features in the park. It almost isn’t fair that such a spectacular waterfall has to compete with a big brother that is just around the corner. One advantage Bridal Veil has is that it tends to flow for most of the year, unlike Yosemite Falls. That means that you can almost be assured of getting some water unless you are visiting in the dead of summer. I also love that there seem to be an infinite number of angles to shoot this waterfall from. There might not be quite as many vantage points as Half Dome but you definitely won’t get bored quickly.
Finally, there are just so many iconic things to shoot that don’t even make the list as features. Like the Merced River:
Or Dogwoods in bloom:
There are so many other places that aren’t on my list above that will be one day. I mean we’ve only talked about shooting the valley and Yosemite is definitely more than just the valley. There is Tuolumne Meadows, Mariposa Grove, not to mention the High Sierra. But if you are a student of the valley you might have noticed that at least one location is conspicuously missing.
Maybe the most famous photograph of Yosemite and the first image that comes up with you google Ansel Adams was taken from a place called Tunnel View (or thereabout). I’ve been there, trust me I’ve been there, but I haven’t gotten that one image that makes me feel good about it. But that is part of the fun. It is what drives me to keep going back again and again. So be on the lookout because these will most definitely not be the last photos from Yosemite that you see from this guy!
Until the next time,
P.S. I am starting a new thing where you can book an hour-long virtual consultation with me where I can answer any questions you have about shooting. Check out the website for more details. And, as always, all of these images are for sale as prints so if you're interested shoot me an email.
Camera - Nikon D850, Nikon D3
Tripod - Manfroto 190X Pro 3 with 804 Mark 2 head
Lenses: Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8
Filters: Hoya 5 stop ND, Hoya 10 stop ND