Yosemite National Park is one of many located in California, and for most people, including myself it's their favorite, not only in California, but the world!
Undoubtedly my favorite time of year to visit Yosemite is in the winter. Even though the amount of snow can vary from year to year, it's always beautiful, and a lot less crowded then the summertime. These may also be the reasons that our Yosemite in Winter Photography workshops have become so popular. They are so popular in fact that we conduct three every winter. For the first of three workshops, Scott Donschikowski and myself where on tap to guide and teach our 13 eager pupils, on two days of wintery fun!
With wine in tow, Scott and I met up with our students on Friday evening at the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. We got to know everyone, their skill level, gear of choice, and expectations for the weekend. After we were acquainted with everyone, Scott gave everyone a quick run down of our shooting locations for the next couple of days, along with our bright and early departure time for the next morning.
I drove our 13 passenger, roomy Mercedes sprinter van, (affectionately known as the ApCab) into the park at 6:00am, with Scott and our 13 sleepy yet excited photographers.
Our first stop of the day does not really have a name on the map, so it feels almost a bit like our own secret spot. As we make our way down a small hill, we approach the Merced River, and some awe-inspiring views of the magnificent granite monolith that is El Capitan. Scott and I get everyone situated with a good vantage pointed, based on their equipment. All are set with the appropriate aperture for their chosen composition and after a few minutes the light starts to slowly light up the face of El Capitan. The sky was just perfect, a beautiful shade of blue, with white streaking clouds, and to top it all of, the golden light on El Cap, was just breathtaking. Scott and I made sure that everyone who was using a polarizer, had it dialed in properly, to capture the stunning reflections displayed in the river. We stayed at this fantastic spot for quite a while, getting the most of this spectacular morning light. Our next location was the swinging bridge. Now the bridge doesn't swing per say, but it does offer up some beautiful and iconic views of Upper Yosemite Falls. There are areas along the shore where the water is calm, so the full reflection of the falls is easy to capture. Once again, Scott and I ensured that everyone had the proper aperture for their chosen composition, and polarizers properly adjusted. The use of graduated neutral density filters worked wonderfully to create a balanced exposure, from sky to foreground. The area around swinging bridge is rich in photographic opportunities, so we spent time and thoroughly explored the area, before heading to the village for a morning pick me up. A short break and a cup of hot coffee, was just the thing on everyone's mind. The day was off to an awesome start and all were excited to think of what the rest of the day would bring.
After our midday break for lunch and a siesta, we once again headed back in to the Yosemite Valley floor. The sky was a bit overcast, so it was the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Pohono Bridge. The soft light provided by the high clouds, make for the perfect conditions to shoot flowing water. Scott was on one side of the small and quaint stone bridge, while I was on the other. Both sides are equally photographic and offer up some nice foreground elements and compositions. I changed my picture style to monochrome, in order to demonstrate how nice these images looked in black and white. Ansel Adams made the landscape of Yosemite famous through his stunning black and white photographs. Once our students had their fill of the Pohono Bridge, we made our way to another bridge, the Sentinel Bridge. Now the sentinel bridge is one that we don't actually photograph, but we photograph from on top. When standing on the center of the bridge, there is an iconic and amazing view of half dome. The Merced River flows beneath the bridge, so a faint reflection of half dome is displayed beneath us. As we stood there, people would come and go. Most simply wanted to simply witness the beauty of this stunning scene before us. Graduated neutral density filters helped to balance out the contrast of bright sky, against the darker water. After everyone captured some nice shots, we made our way to the sunset location. Valley view is one of Yosemite's most iconic and most popular locations to shoot sunset, and there's good reason. Often referred to as “the gates of the valley”, this spot boasts views of El Capitan on the left and Bridal Veil falls on the right. Scott and I made sure everyone had a nice yet unique vantage point. Once the sun started to set that golden hour light bathed over El Cap and scene before us was almost surreal. The deep orange light popping up on everyone's LCD screens was simply awesome. Once again Scott and I made sure that all were set with the proper filters, to have nicely balanced exposure. Mother nature was kind to us, and the clouds lit up with a lovely pink glow, which made for a fitting close to day one.
On day 2, we were lucky enough to get a little extra sleep, as we departed for the valley and lower Yosemite falls at 7:00am. We arrive at the falls in the early morning in order to capture the magical rainbow colors that are displayed in the mist. Just as we arrive on scene, the color display begins. Scott and I have all the students use their telephoto lenses, in order to capture a frame full of colors. Polarizers dialed in for maximum color saturation and varying shutter speeds provided some really unique and exciting images. We stayed there for quite some time, as there were several vantage points to capture sweet images, and the size and intensity of the colors seemed to increase before our eyes.
We drove back to the hotel, with just enough time for checkout and a quick siesta, before Scott and I met the group in the hotel lobby for some post processing techniques and image review. Scott is our adobe certified expert, so everyone was sure to attend the afternoon session. While we were going over our tips and tricks for working in adobe lightroom and photoshop, a nice gentleman approached and asked a few questions about our group. Turns out he is from the New York Times and is putting together a story about all the excitement surrounding Yosemite this time of year. The excitement that I speak of is Horsetail falls and the fire fall effect. Photographer Galen Rowell made this famous. Now people from all over the world flock to Yosemite during the approximately two weeks per year that the phenomenon occurs. As warm late day sun is starting to set, there is a small section of the buttress of El Cap that contains a small waterfall, which is fed by snowmelt. All the conditions have to be right in order to capture that famous image of Galen's. The intense orange light illuminates the granite cliff in a small area, right where that water flows…. Now that's if it's flowing. We had two of the three conditions in our favor on this final day. We were there at exactly the right time of year, no clouds were present to block that needed golden light, but the one thing that was lacking was an abundant flow of water at horsetail falls. It was still worth it to make our way out to capture the famous shot.
Scott and I brought the leftover wine from our orientation on Friday, along with some cheese, crackers, and what picnic wouldn't be complete without dark chocolate. Scott found us a fantastic spot, which had a great vantage point, but was far enough away from the crows, that we felt like the scene was all ours. We got everyone set up with a good composition, got focuses all locked, and polarizers dialed in, now we wait for the light. We talked and joked over the snack spread. It felt almost like tailgating for the big game. Time flew and the light was growing warmer and warmer. Everyone back to your cameras, it's starting, I proclaimed. Even though we did not have the perfect flow of water, it was still a really cool thing to see and photograph, as the small section of granite illuminated to a deep glowing orange.
Batteries were starting to get low and memory cards filling, just as the last of the light faded, perfect timing to end a fantastic weekend of photography, camaraderie, and learning.
Until next time,
Ellie, Scott 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.