Few places inspire such immediate awe as Yosemite National Park. Towering granite peaks surround visitors on all sides giving everyone a sense of "smallness" as they gaze up at the rock monoliths thousands of feet above. Day trippers, backpackers, rock climbers, and of course, photographers all flock to this park to see the natural wonder and spend quality time in one of America's most scenic National Parks.
A group of eleven photographers assembled on a pleasant Friday night with professional photographers and Aperture Academy instructors Brian Rueb and Alicia Telfer for orientation for an exciting adventure in landscape photography. Orientation is important for our groups so that everyone can get to know one another, and our instructors can learn a bit about the gear and experience level of each photographer.
From the onset this group was great. We had a variety of experience levels, and folks travelled from as far away as Philadelphia, Minnesota, Houston and Australia to be there. Some of our group had been to the park many times, while for others our first morning of shooting would be their first Yosemite trip ever.
Fall is beautiful in Yosemite, and we were able to spend some time in the higher country before the winter snows hit the area and closed the high passes.
At 5:30am, students began to gather outside the lobby, and loaded up into our luxurious van, the ApCab, to set out for our first morning of photography. Our first stop in the morning was the beautiful and serene Lake Tenaya.
We arrived to a chilly, but calm scene. The surrounding granite peaks reflected wonderfully in the still alpine waters. Instructors helped each student to find a perfect spot along the shoreline to utilize the interesting cracks and rocks to create dynamic leading lines and foreground elements. Other topics of discussion during the morning were aperture, shutter speed, and the use of filters like polarizers and graduated neutral density to help balance and enhance the images.
The lake was cold but everyone was getting fantastic images, so we endured cold fingers and ears for our art. When the sun had risen above the ridge line, we took our cue to move off to a second location, the iconic Olmsted point, which offers a tremendous view of Half Dome and the surrounding valley. The sun was climbing in the sky, but an array of interesting clouds began to fill the scene, and the early morning light gave us a chance to work in monochrome to bring out the best of the available light and patterns and textures in the granite. Lessons focused on composition and continuing to use filters to help make the most of the scene at hand.
Our final stop of the morning was Siesta Lake, a small alpine lake that is surrounded by a plethora of colorful red and gold fall foliage. The class worked on creating more intimate images using the leaves on the surface of the lake, as well as abstract, impressionistic shots of the trees and shrubs reflecting in the lake. The lake is not an iconic part of the park but, in terms of fall punch, it offers as good color as you can hope to find. The class enjoyed the stop and exploring the lakeside a great deal.
Time flies when you're clicking shutters, and after almost six and a half hours in the field, it was time to take a break and let the class charge batteries, grab lunch, and maybe a small nap, before setting off again for our sunset shoot at Glacier Point, another of the park's iconic vistas of Half Dome.
The view from Glacier Point is so amazing, that it literally takes your breath away...because you're at a 9,000 foot elevation! Our group arrived early to ensure we had prime real estate along the edge for taking our shots. Once we were in place, it was time for the instructors to go over composition and settings so that everyone would be ready when the light show happened.
What a beautiful sunset it was! Clouds, alpenglow, the works really. Everyone came away with some very nice images of the sunset, and was looking forward to a short rest back at the hotel before heading back out for an impromptu night shoot. Somehow the conversation in the van had turned to night photography, and as a special treat, Brian and Alicia agreed to take those up for it back to the park after dark for a brief lesson in star photography.
While a few members of the class were ready for bed, a number of them were ready to set up along the tunnel view parking lot to give night photography a try. Pinpoint stars and star trails was what it was all about. Brian and Alicia worked with the late night class members on some tips to make the most of photographing the night sky, and although the lesson was brief, the class still got some nice images of the valley with starry skies.
At nearly 11:00 pm we returned to the hotel, so everyone could grab a few hours of sleep before heading out on our second day of photographic adventure.
Our second day began along the banks of the Merced River. The river flows at a lower capacity this time of year, which makes it ideal for reflections of El Capitan. The class stopped at a very scenic vantage point with stunning granite peaks in three different directions, including the mighty El Cap. Brian and Alicia again worked with the students to use filters and polarizers to bring out the best of the scene. With a dark river like the Merced, using the graduated filters is really helpful in achieving a balanced, aesthetically pleasing, composition. The class was treated to a spectacular sunrise as clouds lit up with golden hues and reflected in the calm river water.
The second stop of the morning was the iconic Yosemite chapel. The chapel is a small reddish-orange church that attracts visitors from all over the world. We wandered the area for compositions, using the leading lines of the sidewalk and low angles to create drama in our images, and framing the church with nearby trees to give different vantage points. After the class had gathered several different compositions of the church, we stopped to do a fun group shot of all the photographers.
As much as we enjoy being out photographing, nothing switches gears like talk of coffee. A warm cup of coffee hits the spot after a chilly morning of photography and everyone enjoyed the brief stop to grab a bite to eat, and talk about their experiences over a warm beverage.
After breakfast, it was back to the hotel for our guests to charge batteries, check out of the hotel, or grab a nap. We met again just after noon to spend a couple hours going over image review and post-processing techniques that Alicia and Brian have perfected over their years in the business. It's a nice way for the class to see some of their own images realize full potential after capturing them in the camera.
The afternoon that followed was spent photographing a few of the iconic locations in the valley. First we stopped at the grand Tunnel View vista to see the magnificent view photographers like Ansel Adams had made famous. The light was great, and white puffy clouds filled the sky to give our images nice drama and balance. The second stop was the view of Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge. The calm water of the Merced River made for nice reflection, and the sky continued to be great for photography with white clouds streaked throughout.
While photographing the bridge, one of the students noticed a couple large male deer drinking at the water's edge. During the fall, the bucks throughout the park are in rut, which brings them down to the valley in search of doe to add to their harems. Rutting deer can be a bit unpredictable in behavior, so our group put on long lenses and was able to get within 25 yards of them, staying safe and grabbing some really nice shots of these magnificent guys strutting around with their full racks. The sky was beginning to cloud over, so the soft evening light really made for some nice wildlife images.
Our stop for sunset was Valley View, a spot along the river where the views of El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls make for an iconic shot that looks perfect in any portfolio. We arrived early and set up camp along the river, utilizing the many rocks and river plants as foreground elements. The sky had clouded up considerably in a short period of time, but hope was still there that a great sunset was possible. Brian had given a talk the night before, sharing examples of why waiting for the last moment before leaving is an important part of photography...and as fortune would have it, the tip played out perfectly right before our eyes. Just as the last bit of hope was fading for any light or color, the sun found a small break in the clouds and lit up El Capitan with a vibrant, red streak. It was truly spectacular, and because our class had been in position and ready, we were all able to get some amazing shots of the light and reflection in the river.
Many other photographers had already given up and called it a night, but not the Aperture Academy. We're sure to be the first on the scene in the mornings, and the last to leave in the evenings...and it pays off! And that was especially true on this workshop!
Until next time,
Brian, Alicia 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.