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Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic in the entire world. A valley lined with towering granite peaks; numerous waterfalls drop over these granite cliffs falling hundreds of feet into the valley below. It's nature showing off her beauty. Visitors come to Yosemite all year long, but it's during the winter that the park puts on a coat of snow that brings out her very best.
Well, that's the idea anyway.
A group of 13 eager photographers met instructors Brian Rueb and Ellie Stone at the Yosemite View Lodge for a weekend of winter wonder photography. We began with orientation on Friday, which included wine tasting and a birthday sing-a-long for Brian, who was celebrating his (insert low number here) birthday that day. When the song had ended, the class began with introductions, so the students could tell Brian and Ellie about their experience level, gear, and goals for the class. The participants came with a wide variety of backgrounds, but there was one central theme: they all wanted a piece of Yosemite in the winter.
After orientation and some social time, we all went to our rooms, to get some sleep before the early 6am meeting time the following morning. There was snow on the forecast for the weekend and everyone hoped that at some point we would have the winter wonderland Ansel Adams had photographed so often.
:: DAY ONE ::
Morning came and our eager group was gathered promptly, and ready for the day. No snow had fallen, but even without fresh snow, Yosemite is quite a stunning place to visit. The first stop was along the Merced River where the class walked to the edge and photographed some of the magic reflections of El Capitan, and the other great granite peaks in the area. Ellie and Brian worked with the students on the use of polarizers and graduated neutral density filters to help balance the scene and get the most out of their images. The class got some really nice reflections of the granite peaks, and learned how to work better with their manual camera settings, reading histograms, and working in-camera to achieve the best images possible.
With reflection photography on full mode, we went to our second iconic stop for reflection photography along the swinging bridge, which doesn't actually swing, but still provides very nice reflections of upper Yosemite falls.
The class lined the riverside while Brian and Ellie worked with them on composition and their filters to get the best of the scene. When the main portion of the river shoot was done, Brian walked the group down the trail a bit to a little nook that had some better rocks to use in the foreground, and still provided some outstanding reflections of the waterfall.
Even without the snow, Yosemite was still cold and the temperatures hung below freezing, which led to some cold fingers and toes after being exposed to the weather for awhile. It soon became time to head to the Valley Lodge for some coffee and breakfast before hitting our last morning stop.
With fingers revived, and bellies warmed with tea or coffee, it was off to the Tamarack Creek Falls. These little falls are not as iconic as the others in the park, but they provide some stunning vistas, and many opportunities for some intimate shots of falling water and cascades. It's a really nice place to teach composition, and working on getting the right exposure for the waterfall.
Each waterfall has a different power level and make-up. It's like math, trying to figure out which exposure that particular waterfall needs to make it look its best.
The class scampered about all over the rocks, like junior mountain climbers, each trying to find the right spot to get their own take of the scene. Even though it wasn't as iconic as Half-Dome, or El Capitan, the class still spent over an hour there finding shots and coming away with some really nice images.
The highlight of the afternoon session was the view from Tunnel View. It has one of the most impressive vistas of the entire park. You can see El Capitan on the left, Bridal Veil Falls on the right, and Half-Dome right in the middle. It's a picture perfect example of all that makes Yosemite so amazing.
The issue with Tunnel View is that EVERYONE in the world knows it's the best view, so they all want to get there as well. Our class arrived over an hour before sunset to ensure we got prime spots along the wall, so everyone in the class could get some of those iconic Ansel Adams-type shots. The clouds were SO amazing that, even though we were early for sunset, we still had great opportunities to shoot the valley and use telephoto lenses to grab some additional closeup shots of Half-Dome, and the other icons.
Sunset had some little blasts of color in the sky, and even made a small encore performance after most figured the color was gone. The whole class got some really outstanding images, and while the vibrant pink alpen glow never showed up, some of the class began to shoot in monochrome, and the result was very nice! One student brought a version he'd processed during the night to class the next morning and it was stunning!
When the light had finally faded for good, it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner, and some rest before another early morning. Everyone went to bed hoping for those few inches of snow the weatherman promised!
:: DAY TWO ::
Weathermen are always wrong. The class woke to no new snow, and no precipitation whatsoever that would indicate it had snowed anywhere near by. No worries, Yosemite is still beautiful, and easy to enjoy.
The first stop of the second morning was Valley View, a similar vista to Tunnel View, only at ground level and without Half-Dome. The valley is harshly back lit in the morning, so it was important to find places to photograph that have iconic subjects, but still work with the given light. And the lighter granite of El Capitan makes it a prime subject for morning photography.
The class spread out and Brian and Ellie worked with them to find interesting foreground rocks and foliage to balance out their images. The light was very nice for the first few minutes as some of the small clouds in the sky lit up with orange and pink. The class again turned to the grad-filters and polarizers to make some really nice vertical and horizontal images of this iconic riverside location.
The next stop in the morning was the Pohono Bridge. (Pohono actually means, FUN TO PHOTOGRAPH in a few different languages...we think.) The bridge is an old stone warrior that has withstood many floods of the Merced River. Our class spread out along both banks and used some of the interesting red and orange tinted sand mixed with the jade green water and rocks to create some very tranquil Zen-type images. The students did a lot of macro and close up photography from this spot. There were numerous interesting patterns in the moss on the trees along the river, and the ponderosa pines have some beautiful textures and patterns that make great abstract images. Yosemite is grand in the way it provides numerous opportunities for the un-iconic scene, as well as the bigger postcard-type shots.
After we crossed that bridge when we came to it (twice actually), it was about time to head back to base camp to allow people to check out, grab some breakfast, and prepare for a long afternoon in the park.
The last half of our day took us to many locations, iconic and lesser known. We started by hitting the little red church in the valley. The little church, while quite nice when covered in snow, is also fun to photograph without the snow. This is where the class worked a lot with Ellie and Brian on shallow depths of field and photographing different foliage while letting the background blur. They also pulled off a tremendous group shot on the steps of the church.
The best shots from this location, however, came from the snow. While there was no snow on the ground, there was a melted pool that had some nice reflections of the church, and of upper Yosemite Falls. It looked hilarious watching the entire class all photographing straight down into the puddle while surrounded with all those other iconic vistas.
The next stop was a brief opportunity to photograph Half-Dome from the nearby bridge. Using polarizers to give the sky more pop, and bring out the reflections in the river, gave the entire class some really nice postcard-style shots of this oddly shaped granite monolith. The sky was clearing and we had some nice white clouds above the mountains, which helped balance the sky and give us nicer compositions.
We took a brief stop in the valley for sandwiches and snacks before heading off for our last, and probably most memorable, shot of the day - Horsetail Falls.
A few weeks a year, when the light and conditions are just right (and by just right we MEAN, juuuuuuussssssst right) the last rays of light in the evening hit a small strip of water falling over the side of El Capitan. The result looks like a rope of lava falling over the side of the granite. It's amazing to see...and that is why EVERYONE wants to see it.
Horsetail Falls is like the super bowl for landscape photographers. They show up this week in February in droves, set up chairs, bring BBQs, drink to excess, and wait on the hope that the conditions will pan out and they'll get their own version of the image. If the conditions look at all favorable, it's worth the chance to try and capture it, although it's always funny to see everyone's reaction to the spot.
"What are we looking at?" is very commonly heard when you arrive at the spot and see 300 cameras with big lenses all pointing to the heavens.
The waterfall, even under great conditions, is small and hard to see. It's the mist that the waterfall creates that catches the light, and gives off that lava-like look that everyone wants to see.
Thankfully, to make the process of finding the waterfall easier, we had help from Yosemite's local legend, Edie Howe. Edie knows everything there is to know about Horsetail Falls, and she is NOT shy about letting the masses know as well. Edie generously offered us sips from the "little brown jug" (which contained whiskey) while we waited for the light to get just right.
As the line of the shadow moved across the face of the granite, Edie gave an inspired play-by-play of what was happening, and pointed out the numerous other interesting shapes and curves in the area around the falls. There were upside-down bananas, wizards (with hats), and even parts that were referred to as both parts of the female anatomy AND a horse's behind. Even if not everyone saw the wizard, or the banana, we all appreciated the entertainment a great deal, and it helped pass the time while we waited for the light.
The light never hit quite the way the masses had hoped (although it was VERY close). Even after a rousing version of "You are My Sunshine" sung by most of the groups in attendance, the falls failed to hit the magical light. Despite not being perfect, it was still gorgeous to see, and added to what was, ultimately, an epic winter weekend in Yosemite National Park!
Until next time,
Brian, Ellie, 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.