A Weekend in Yosemite

The Iconic Composition from Tunnel View Lookout

I took my 75 year-old father to Yosemite in April to revisit some of his old stomping grounds.  He worked there as young man building trails and roads.  Because he is not very mobile, we stuck to the valley floor.  Yosemite is very different in each season.  A great book to showcase this is Four Seasons of Yosemite by Mark Boster, an LA Times photographer.  Mid-April is a great time to see the waterfalls run, but the trees are still bare from winter, and the grass is still brown.  We had pretty bald skies, so nothing very dramatic.  Here is what we saw.

Waterfalls and Rainbows

Upper Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow

The best thing about spring are the dramatic waterfalls.  I was able to catch “waterfall rainbows” at the Lower Yosemite Falls in the morning, Upper Yosemite Falls in the mid-morning, and Bridalveil Falls in the afternoon.  One caveat here – the spray was significant – almost raining, so trying to get a decent photo in these conditions is difficult.

Bridalveil Falls Double Rainbow

Here is what you need to do.  You will need to hand hold without a tripod, so set your ISO as high as you can, 800 ISO or more.  Set the shutter to burst mode or continuous shooting mode.  Shoot in aperture priority of at least f/11, and make sure you get a fast shutter speed AND BRING A TOWEL.  I approached with my back turned toward the falls and my camera covered with the towel.  I was getting soaked.  The falls create their own wind.  I got my hands in position, turned towards the falls and fired away.  After 8-10 frames or so, I covered my camera again with the towel and ran to a dry area and reviewed my shots and made adjustments and did it again, up to three times.  Only the first 2-3 photos in each burst will look good, because your lens will get covered in hundreds of water drops within seconds.  Be patient and you will get the shot.

Lower Yosemite Falls

Tunnel View Outlook

This is the classic shot (see cover photo).  This is a sunset spot, so make sure you get there early and position yourself.  Believe it or not, I noticed about a 10 foot wide area that was ideal, so don’t just settle on one spot, walk around and get the best angle.  There is a nasty tree on your lower right hand side that can disrupt your favorite composition.  I finally decided just to zoom in to get rid of it.  I am actually surprised that a group of photographers have not felled it already.  Watch as the shadow of El Capitan creeps across the valley.  Finally zoom in on Bridalveil Falls as the last bit of yellow sunset light illuminates it.

Telephoto of Bridalveil from Tunnel View at Sunset

El Capitan from the El Capitan Meadow

Sunrise in the El Capitan Meadow

In general, Yosemite is not a sunrise location, except for shooting El Capitan from its namesake meadow or from Cathedral Beach.  This time of year, you can also see Horsetail Falls running.  You may have seen the Horsetail Falls in a deep red or orange color that can only be captured in mid-February and made famous by Galen Rowell.  Here is what Michael Frye has to say about it.

Horsetail Falls
Afternoon in meadow east of Valley View

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow

Yosemite Falls dominates the view of the valley from almost any point south of El Cap.  There are a number of viewing points that give you different looks.  You can shoot it from the Swinging Bridge to get the Merced River in the foreground.  You can shoot it from Cook’s Meadow near the Chapel and you can shoot it from Cook’s Meadow near the Lodge or Sentinel Bridge.

Upper Falls from the road-side parking area east of the Swinging Bridge

Mirror Lake

We made it to Mirror Lake in the middle of the day and did not have ideal shooting conditions, but here is what you might see.

Classic Mirror Lake Image

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge

Telephoto of Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge, early afternoon

If you do not do sunset from Tunnel View, then this is the second best spot in the Valley.  We spent about an hour watching the light change and creep up the face of Half Dome and finally just lap the top of it.

Last light kisses the top of Half Dome

The road to Glacier Point opened the day we left and we did not make it up there.  It is, of course, an incredible view of Half Dome and there is the famous dead tree.  This was my first time to Yosemite as a photographer.  We did not have dramatic weather and I set out only to get some iconic shots.

In the color photos above, you will notice that the sky is very blue.  I am disappointed in this and I know better.  At higher elevations and with terrifically clear skies, a polarizing filter over-darkens the sky.  I know this.  However, when you are looking through the viewfinder or looking at the LCD monitor on your camera, it looks so good.  So, remember, at higher elevations and with very clear skies (no haze and no smog), oftentimes a polarizer will create a bluer sky than you intend, so be diligent and don’t “over-cook” the sky, like I did.

Here is an excellent short guide by Michael Frye to get these iconic shots and many more.  To see and buy more of our fine art photographs, please go to www.pamphotography.com.


    1. pamphotography

      Deb, thanks for the note. You are right, I could use Viveza and just reduce the exposure or saturation in the sky. My wife, Mary, who is an excellent photographer and even better processor, says that I “cooked” my photos a tad much, but I like them that way. It’s like a drug for me.

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