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Yosemite is the jewel of the Sierra. No other National Park has as many iconic images contained within its boundaries as Yosemite. With inspiration by the likes of Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, aspiring photographers travel to Yosemite from all over the world to give landscape photography a try. Such was the case as eight eager photographers met in the Yosemite View Lodge lobby on an October Friday night for orientation with professional photographers and Aperture Academy instructors, Brian Rueb and Scott Davis. Three miles away, the leaves were changing and fall was heading to Yosemite National Park. Little did we know something other than fall was heading to Yosemite as well...
At 5am Saturday morning, our group assembled in the dark under a dreary sky that was spitting out a light rain. We loaded up the van and set off for our first shooting location — the granite lined wall of Lake Tenaya. As we headed there, the sky was still spitting rain but it had added a bit of snow, too. Luckily for us, when we arrived on the scene, the weather let up a bit and we were able to photograph a very moody Lake Tenaya.
Lake Tenaya is one of our group's favorite spots. The shoreline is literally filled with endless opportunities for great foreground, and the granite walls and forest that surrounds the lake makes for an equally dramatic backdrop to the scene.
Scott and Brian worked with students on exposure, composition and adjusting white balance to help create interesting and different images. Even though the fog and clouds kept the mountains mostly hidden, the occasional glimpse of the rock walls, and the moody mist filling the voids between forested layers, was awesome.
The best part was that we had the entire area to ourselves. We spent well over an hour photographing the scene, and the instructors were very pleased with the uniqueness and willingness to learn that the group demonstrated. In fact, it was hard to get everyone back in the van to leave!
Our second stop of the morning was along Highway 120. A small section of that road has several majestic juniper trees that have been weathered by time and almost have personalities of their own...and are a real treat to photograph. Brian and Scott helped the students work on some macro images of the great color and detail in the trees. The rain from the morning had really helped to bring out the great warmth and richness of the amber and gold tones in the ancient wood. The instructors also shared how to use very shallow depths of field to create interest and focus in the images.
On the way back to the van, Brian spotted an area of fallen pine cones that provided the group with not only an interesting place to photograph, but a good lesson in helping to create a more aesthetic scene within the area you're photographing. (We're not saying students "placed" pine cones in more scenic and aesthetic locations in order to photograph them; we're just saying that an instructor might have done it and then allowed the students to stumble on a very photographic area.)
Siesta Lake was the third and last stop of our Saturday morning shoot. A small tree-lined lake in the heart of the Tioga Pass Road, Siesta Lake is always lined with some of the high country's best fall color. Reds, golds, yellows and oranges line the calm lake and give a great contrast to the green of the vines and trees in the area.
Our group of slightly wet photographers worked over the shoreline with instructors to find the best compositions and learn f-stops and shutter speeds necessary to create some lovely "un-iconic" images from Yosemite. It's an area not often seen in photographs, but an area that really shines during the fall. Scott worked with several students on creating some almost painterly impressionistic shots of the various plant life along the water's edge, and Brian helped students to find some of the more interesting foregrounds and compositional strong points along the lake.
No sooner had we started to wrap up our last shoot than a Ranger from the Park Service showed up to tell us that they were closing Tioga Pass and we needed to head back to the valley. The timing couldn't have been more perfect...we needed lunch and an afternoon break.
Fed and rested, our group met in the early afternoon to make the drive up to Glacier Point to witness one of the park's best and most awe-inspiring vistas. When the van made the final approach to Glacier Point, everyone turned and looked out the windows to see mighty Half Dome emerging from a bank of white clouds. A "oooooooooooh" and "ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh" was heard...and the group quickly gathered gear and set off for the vantage point in order to capture this amazing scene.
Unfortunately, the moment passed within minutes and Half Dome again was overrun by the weather. We stayed put for almost an hour and waited for her to come back out...but it wasn't to be. Photography is often about a very brief moment in time, and while we were not able to capture this one on our chips, everyone will always remember how beautiful the peak looked as we sat behind "Dr. Man Love" waiting for him to stop gawking and find a parking spot so we could try to shoot.
Aperture Academy prides itself on our workshops, and one of our favorite parts of every workshop is crockpot night. While our group was out photographing during that first day, their dinner was slowly cooking to perfection back at the hotel.
Even though we got shut out so-to-speak at Glacier Point...the crockpot never disappoints, and provides a powerful and stunning experience all its own. Our group took over a small section of the lobby and enjoyed a great time together talking about the day, and photography in general. Even though the last portion of the day was more weather than photography, everyone was still upbeat, happy with the morning's shoot, and looking forward to better weather on the next day.
:: Day 2 ::
Our group met at 6am. Workshop participant Jackie used the term "pissing rain" to describe what was happening with the weather. That term fits, mostly because anything pissing is unwanted, and generally unpleasant...and that's exactly what was happening. The weather had gotten worse. We were 38 days short of needing an ark and two of every animal.
We didn't quit, though. There was photography to be done, so we found the spots and made images. The first spot we stopped at was the famous Tunnel View vista. Our group sat in the van while we waited to see what the weather was going to do, and while it never stopped raining (it was fall, after all), the rain went from pissing to merely piddling, and we seized the opportunity to grab a few minutes of photography. Even though El Capitan was playing a game of "maybe I'll come out and maybe I won't," Bridal Veil Falls was out and creating some opportunities for some moody vertical compositions utilizing the great fog that hung low in the valley.
Twenty minutes into our morning, the sky opened up again and the rain fell at pissing velocity once again. Whenever you're spending more time wiping the lens than shooting with it, it's time to head out. We took our break early and opted to head back to the hotel to do image review and allow the instructors time to help students with some post-processing techniques while we waited for a break of any kind in the weather.
Even though there was no photography being created, the post processing tips really allowed students to see how much a few simple techniques could help bring out the essence and magic in an image.
The afternoon came and the rain was not letting up, but not to be denied an effort, the group set off again for the park to make a few laps in the valley in hopes that they would get a small break.
The weather break wasn't happening, however, so the group decided to make a walk to Lower Yosemite Falls. The waterfalls were all roaring due to the rain, and even though we couldn't make images of the waterfall, we could treat the scene like we would if we WERE going to make photographs, and talk about composition, camera settings we would use...and show the students some of our favorite vantage points to shoot the falls.
Sometimes seeing without the camera is as valuable as seeing with it. Mental cameras can record the beauty of a scene every time, and weather is never a factor. On the walk back from the falls, a little magic happened. The rain let up. Excitedly, the group piled into the vehicle and set off to create as many images as possible during the lull. The first (and only) spot we stopped at was in a burned out section of the forest. The black trees made a great contrast with the rich warm tones of the fall foliage that carpeted the forest floor. The group spread out and focused on using the foliage as the main focal points for their images. Some students used a shallow depth of field to create a mood with particular trees in the grove.
Speaking of trees...
While our group was busy shooting, we heard a loud crack, followed by a thunderous roar...a huge dead tree was falling. Hundreds of years of nature had finally reached a head and we were there to witness the moment a hundred years (and feet) of tree finally ended its journey. I think the group was as awe-struck as it was petrified with the experience.
If we had any doubts on whether or not we should linger in the forest of falling wood, the rain started again and let us know it was time to leave. We never ever like to end a workshop when the weather is good, however, as much as we can control the fun and educational portions of the trip, we still have trouble controlling that whole weather thing.
Despite the weather, the group was awesome, upbeat and fun the entire weekend. We saw some great images created in the weather restricted time we had shooting...and there were still a lot of chances to learn both inside and out. It was an experience we're sure will stick with this group for a long time after the gloves are dry and the images are processed.
Thanks for a great, wet weekend,
Brian, 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.