:: Day 1 ::
Of all the images of Yosemite National Park, there are none more iconic than those taken in winter. The snow covered landscape looks peaceful and quiet in those famous Ansel Adams shots. It would appear that those conditions are the norm for this awe inspiring park. While snow is quite a regular occurrence in the Yosemite high country, snow on the valley floor is very rare. A group of eager photographers met Aperture Academy instructors Brian Rueb and Scott Davis on a Friday night in February with a big snow on the forecast and an opportunity to witness one of landscape photography's most impressive scenes.
Friday was orientation. Brian and Scott met the group in the lobby of the Yosemite View Lodge to go over the weekend's itinerary, and what the class could expect as far as dress, and locations for the weekend. This meeting also gave the instructors a chance to get to know the new students a bit more, and reconnect with the returning alumni. One of the big topics of the orientation was the weather. Was it going to snow? As of 9pm when the class retired to get some sleep rain was falling, but the snow had not come.
Magic happened over night and when the class met in the morning to head into the park a couple inches of fresh snow blanketed the landscape….which meant that there would be considerably more in the park. The class was giddy and loaded up into the new Aperture Academy's workshop machine known affectionately as the "ApCab" and set off for the winter wonderland.
The snow was piling up fast on the road, and it was looking like the instructors would have to stop and chain up the "ApCab" on its maiden voyage to Yosemite…but luck smiled on the group and a snow plow pulled in and led the way into the park, and the first stop of the day the iconic little Yosemite Church.
The snow was still pouring down as the group unloaded and set up to shoot this wonderful little vista. The church is a staple of many photographs and is quite lovely in every season, although none more than winter. The church in winter takes on another level of beauty. It's warm red walls standout and radiates warmth in the otherwise monochromatic landscape. The class spread out to take full advantage of the area which had yet to be disturbed with even one footprint. Instructors used this as a spot to work with the newer students to find out if they had any basic questions as to f-stop or shutter speed, and work on composition with the returning students.
The second stop of the day required no driving only a walk in deep snow across the street to the edge of the river. The group set up and worked a number of different compositions. The snow covered bridge across the Merced was a popular spot as the snow had built up beautifully along the bank and created some great curves for the class to use as an interesting foreground. They also photographed an ancient oak tree, covered in snow as it stood out against a backdrop of dynamic icy granite. Even though the class was up to its knees (literally) in snow and photographic possibilities they kept the enthusiasm levels up, and made the most of every angle and opportunity. The snow was starting to lighten up a bit, and patches of blue could be made out in the sky. ..The day was shaping up to be better by the second! Snow has a way of zapping the energy from batteries and feet, so it was time to leave the winter wonderland for a bit and go get some coffee and breakfast in the lobby before continuing the day in the park.
With energy levels higher, feet warmer, and shutter fingers ready to fire again the class left the village area and set back out for more photography. The clouds had come back in and left the valley in more diffused lighting, so the group shot an area near half dome with a nice view of a cluster of trees standing like frozen skeletons isolated in the middle of a field. The hike out took several attempts as Scott post-holed up to his waist on the first route which made for a good laugh…but a difficult walk. Eventually the class found its way to the middle of the field, dug a small snow seat, and set up to photograph not only the trees, but half-dome as well as it was just revealing itself for the first time of the day.
The mountain, clouds, and fresh coating of snow was amazing. Funny how the sight of the park in this condition can help alleviate the cold feet and fingers many students were experiencing due to the below freezing temperatures. For some students this was the first time they've ever been to Yosemite. It was truly special for them to see the park in conditions those of the group who had come to the park numerous times hadn't even seen.
The next spot of the day was a field with another view of Half-Dome. The snow had been melting some, creating a great reflective pool filled with little dabs of marshmallow like snow that made for excellent tools to help teach foreground and composition. The class spread out, dug in, and spent a considerable amount of time shooting this scene. The snow had stopped, but the photography was still excellent and the class was maximizing every possible second of shooting. When conditions are this good so quickly after a new snow it's often a great time to head up to Tunnel View to get that iconic shot of the whole valley, covered in snowy goodness.
The class had tried earlier to head to this spot, but was turned back due too much snow on the road, and parking area. The plows had come through while the class was eating lunch, and now the area was open and ready to be photographed. The shot was by far the class's favorite of the day. Even though it was sunny and a time of day many consider to be 'unphotographable' the clouds created a perfect level of drama in the sky, and the snow and light was perfect in the valley. The shutters clicked and the memory cards filled. Scott and Brian helped the students to work on proper settings, and using polarizers and graduated filters to help balance out the scene before them. Even though it was time to see other parts of the park, the class was still excited to shoot and we made the decision to return for sunset that night to see if we could get the scene with a colorful sunset.
The remainder of the day was spent in the park watching as conditions began to deteriorate. Clouds came back in and covered up half dome when the class assembled on the bridge to photograph it. We waited and waited but with a small exception the mighty half dome was gone. The snow also began to fall again, which was not ideal for sunset, but welcome none the less as it would leave more snow for us the following morning.
Sunset from Tunnel View was not epic in color, but did provide some moody drama as the storm returned to the valley and clouds danced around El Capitan and Bridal Veil. Some of the class was a bit cold and decide to wait for the color in the "ApCab" while the rest of the class set along the wall holding them spaces and telling tales from their time in photography. Even though it wasn't ideal photography, it was a lot of fun for the class to bond while on the edge of such a magnificent vista.
Despite the lackluster conditions at the final stop, the day was FULL of great photography, and the class came away with a lot of nice images. The reward was waiting in our hotel lounge for over an hour for pizza along with what seemed like every other person in Yosemite. The time was spent discussing the day, and continuing what was shaping up to be tremendous group camaraderie.
:: Day 2 ::
Funny what difference a day can make. The class met pre-dawn under starry skies. Not a cloud in the area. It was such a dramatic change from the previous day. We loaded up in the "ApCab" and set out into the park again for another full day of photography. The first spot was along the Merced, where we waited for the sun to hit the face of El Capitan and give us some nice reflections in the river. It was colder than the previous morning, but the class kept its spirits up, and when the sun finally did its thing the class was ready and captured some nice images of the granite giant.
The next stop was Lower Yosemite Falls. This required a slow and steady walk up an icy path to the bridge at the base of the falls. The morning light at this time of day is a bit harsh, but still photographable and the sun creates some nice rainbows along the base of the drop which are perfect for really showing the power of a polarizer. The instructors also used this area to show off some smaller more intimate details the park has to offer. Whether it was water flowing through ice in the river, or some icicles hanging from the side of a tree, the area has a lot of great little places to work on composition and still create some nice winter imagery.
The morning break was taken at the hotel, so the participants that were leaving that night could get checked out on time, and the rest of the class could warm their feet and get a bite to eat. The break was brief though, and within an hour the "ApCab" was heading back into the park and ready for the rest of the day.
The class spent time shooting reflections of the mighty Yosemite Falls in the river, flowing strong from the recent snowmelt. Students wedged into a tight grove of trees to get some upward perspectives of the trees against a brilliant blue sky. Some students braved thigh-deep snow with Brian to head into a burnt out section of forest to photograph some contrast scenes of backlit trees covered in snow. This section provided a bit of excitement as well when chunks of snow would fall from the tree tops and pelt the students as they tried to create their images. This spot was perfect for teaching how repetitive shape and contrast can be effective ways to get nice images in a harsher time of day. The class also took the Aperture Academy's first ever snow-man group shot.
After lunch it was time to work on shutter speed along the Merced in some of the snowy twists of the river where the snow hadn't melted from the rocks or trees, and we could still take advantage of the types of scenes we had seen the day before. The spot, while not an icon from the park was still fun for the students to shoot, and gave the instructors some time to work with the newer students on different shutter speeds to capture the mint green water as it rushed over the rocks and sped downriver.
February is a prime time of year in Yosemite for capturing a natural phenomenon known as 'Horsetail Falls Firefalls” The sunset light during a couple weeks of the month is lined up just perfectly to illuminate only this seasonal waterfall, causing it to glow like a stream of lava pouring down the face of El Capitan. This spot has become quite the destination for landscape photographers all over the world. The snow from the previous day, along with the sun of the day caused the parks photographer to swoon with excitement at the possibility of shooting this rarity.
We do a lot of research on our workshops, and we've been there and done the shots before. We know what it takes to make this shot happen. We took the class to the popular location so we could show them where the falls were, and that they were not flowing. Even though the sun was out, the temperature in the valley had never risen above freezing for very long, which meant several thousand feet above the floor where the falls began the temperatures were still too low to get the water flowing with any kind of force. Not to mention there was a set of large storm clouds that were beginning to roll across the sky, which would probably obscure that last bit of evening light needed to create the shot. The instructors explained the situation to the class and then took them to the iconic Valley View area where the chances of creating a nice image were much higher, and we wouldn't have to battle as large of a crowd.
Valley View was nice. The colors toyed with us in the sky for a bit, but never reached down on to El Capitan much…however the scene was still gorgeous and many students came away with very nice vertical compositions that utilized their filters and placed the drama on the El Capitan portion of the scene, which was providing the best conditions of the area (Bridal Veil Falls was in shadow, and had few clouds) As the light began to fade, the snow returned, and the crowd fizzled out. The class could see that it was a good thing we'd arrived early, as the whole viewpoint was filled with other photographers, and out class had procured the best vantage points. They could also watch as the light disappeared from Horsetail Falls well before optimal time, leaving over 100 people with nothing to shoot.
The snow started picking up intensity, and the class packed it up into the "ApCab" and called it a workshop. The weather was unpredictable, but often amazing. The group was cold, but always enthusiastic, and the images were in the camera waiting to get home and be processed…
What a great weekend! Until next time...
Scott, Brian 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.