February in Yosemite has become like the Super Bowl of Landscape photography. People from all over the world travel to this majestic park in order to capture some of the beautiful scenes with their lenses. The hope of many is to capture the very seasonal ‘Horesetail Falls Firefall.’ Jean Day and myself met 13 brave souls for a weekend of photography, education, and fun in Ansel Adams playground.
We met bright and early Saturday morning and drove under the coat of darkness to our first spot along the Merced River. The sky was looking overcast, but there was still some detail in the clouds…and being able to look at El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and the other massive granite faces makes for a grand vista no matter what Mother Nature throws at you. Jean and I walked around the rivers edge and helped the class to get their settings dialed in, explained the aperture, ISO, and shutter speeds we would be using…and which filters would benefit the scene best. With so many different vantage points we also spent a fair amount of time working with the class on different composition ideas. It’s always fun to work with a group and help them to ‘see’ a little differently, as well as to watch and learn from how the students view a scene.
Nature didn’t throw us a vibrant sunrise, but the reflections were nice, and the smell of fresh clean air is always invigorating!
The next stop was the swinging bridges area of the park where we got right along the river and photographed the reflections of the mighty Yosemite Falls. Again we worked with polarizing filters to help bring out the best of the scene. There were also some really nice details in the foliage along the river, so Jean and I helped with trying to point out some of the subtle parts of the scene. Many times in places as grand as Yosemite, photographers can get overwhelmed with the big picture, and fail to see some of the little treasures just a few feet from their camera.
The overcast conditions made for perfect waterfall weather, so after our breakfast break, we hurried over to Lower Yosemite Falls to get up close and personal with this beautiful waterfall. The water levels were good thanks to some stormy weather the past week. The goal for this stop is not only to appreciate the waterfall, but also to work with composition and getting that smooth silky water image. Jean and I spread the group out over the base area of the falls and worked with getting the compositions just right to maximize interest, and minimize the distracting elements, like the bright grey sky. Sometimes just cutting out the sky from an image can make for a much tighter, more aesthetic image.
In addition to the shots of the over all lower falls, I like to point out the different structure and details in close up shots of the falls. When shot at very fast shutter speeds the different spray, mists, and droplets make for some very moody imagery.
When we finished with Lower Yosemite Falls it was time to move on to a much deserved break…it was after noon, and we needed to recharge those batteries…literally.
Our main goal for the afternoon session was sunset along the Merced River, looking out at the mighty Half-Dome. For many people Half-Dome is the rock they always remember when they come to Yosemite. It’s part of their logo, and photographers like Ansel Adams helped make images so powerful it has been forever imprinted as the half-face of Yosemite National Park. Though it was still overcast, there were some VERY cool textures in the sky, and those made for some of those Ansel-esque monochrome images. Jean and I pointed out some of the best angles to shoot it, and offered up 2-3 ideas for composition…but because we arrived with plenty of time to wait…many of the students had ample time to experiment with different techniques and compositions. A few people brought out the high-stop ND filters to try their hand at very long exposures.
Though the clouds never got any color we still enjoyed our time along the river, and had the treat of getting up close and personal with a group of 8 bucks! At first it seemed like they might be trying to surround us for an attack…but they were just making their way along the river searching for an evening snack.
The first day ended with us seeing some amazing vistas, and getting some really nice moody images. More importantly everyone got to ask a lot of questions, and get some practice in, just in case the next day brought about different light.
One of the hardest parts of landscape photography is learning to ‘punt’ when things don’t look like you think they will. Often times we as photographers get our minds SET on one image, or one location, and we end up missing out on good conditions or opportunities because of our own tunnel vision. As instructors we spend a lot of time communicating with one another, watching weather, and trying to figure out where the best chances at great images will be had…then making that call to go.
Before bed, the forecast for Sunday was mostly cloudy…and that tends to make for great waterfall photography. Our group was eager to hike, so we made plans to make the hike to the curtain Vernal Falls. When we woke on Sunday, conditions had changed…and the forecast called for the storm to break by 9am. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Yosemite, it’s that you need to be available when the storm breaks. We could see gaps in the sky as we warmed up the sky, and low clouds clung to the granite walls as the group drove into the park.
We made the decision to bypass Vernal Falls and drive up to Tunnel View to watch the storm break. The show was great. Low wisps of fog danced through the tops of trees, and bits of color lit up the clouds as morning came to the valley. Not only were there some tremendous shots in color, but there were also some very good monochrome images made by the class as well. Jean and I walked the line, helping with filter suggestions, offering up compositional tips, and making sure everyone was getting what they needed. When the sun finally crested the ridge, it was time to move down into the valley and try a different spot along the Merced.
This second stop proved to have some of the BEST light I’ve seen in the valley for awhile. Low Tule fog gave a great mood to the meadows, and the reflections of the now lit El Capitan in the river really made for some stunning photography. The higher the sun got, the more steam that rose from the meadow and the foliage. The class got some stunning shots of the tress along the river emerging from a thick fog as the morning light cast a warm glow over the whole scene. There was so many different vantage points to shoot it was hard to point out all the possibilities to the class. I saw many of my favorite student images on the backs of the cameras during our time here…and when we got to the processing portion of the weekend, they did not disappoint in the big screen either.
After an epic morning in the park, we took a very brief break and met in the lobby to go over the images, and Jean and I could sit with the students and help them process their images a little. This is always one of my favorite parts of any class. While sitting on a computer is never as interesting as being in the field…it’s still a vital part of the process, and for many newer photographers actually seeing what their images can become with proper processing is as exciting for us as instructors as seeing them get that image in the field.
I saw SO many great photos on the screens, everyone had 3-4 really nice photos to work with...and it was fun to make them pop out a little with what we’ve learned as professionals when it comes to processing.
Fortunately, the processing is not the end of the photography…we still have one more potentially great image left- Horsetail Falls! The iconic ‘lava’ like waterfall shot is only possible for about 2 weeks a year, and only if waterfall levels are high enough, the sun is shining, and the horizon looks free of clouds. Luckily ALL of the necessary conditions were present, and we made the decision to take a crack at getting this Yosemite Trophy shot.
Hundreds of photographers show up for this event, and the park actually blocks off lanes of the roads to use as extra parking. Our hearty group packed our things to a slightly lesser used meadow near the larger masses where we still had a great vantage of the spectacle. We arrived early to make sure we could all get set up. Jean and I made sure everyone had their compositions set, camera dials on the right numbers, and were ready to fire when the action started.
Once the technical parts are set, it’s just a waiting game. We had such a fun group, everyone had a good time cracking jokes, and chatting with some of the others who had gathered in the meadow with us. When it came time for the light show, we got some nice warmth in the waterfall. We had the class dial up their White Balance tom make sure they got the best colors of the scene. While the detail and light was beautiful on the falls…there happened to be a low cloud bank that blocked out the last bits of light, and our show was cut a little short….but not before everyone got a few nice images.
It’s always sad for us to have to drop off our groups at the hotel. Over the course of shooting and working with a group for 2 days you get to know people, and enjoy hanging out with them. I feel that once you’ve woken up before the sun, and traveled with people…you’re pretty much family by that point.
It was a lot of fun, and Jean and I really enjoyed our time with everyone.
Until Next Time,
Brian, Jean and the rest of our Aperture Academy Team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.
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