:: Day 1 ::
When winter hits Yosemite Valley it changes everything. The area transforms into a winter wonderland. Other than the towering granite walls the valley takes on an entirely different look. It's magic, and it's what keeps the masses flocking to the park even in these cold, icy months. If there is one group in particular that feels an even greater draw to the park in winter its photographers. Snow is also rarer in the valley than people realize. It comes in short bursts, and stays only briefly after it arrives. To really enjoy the park in the snow you need to be there when it happens. Lucky for 14 photography enthusiasts they signed up for the Aperture Academy's winter Yosemite workshop and were going to get the chance to see the park in its full winter coat.
Friday night the group assembled in the Yosemite View Lodge to meet professional photographers, and instructors Brian Rueb and Scott Davis. Assisting on this workshop were instructors, Scott Donschikowski, Alicia Telfair, and one of our gallery superstars, Kristen Guldner. The orientation gave the group a chance to discuss the plan for the weekend and what the group could expect in regards to weather, and route. For many students it was a chance to get caught up with one another. Many of the students on this workshop had been on previous Aperture Academy workshops and gotten to know the instructors and other students very well. Even though the orientation covered a lot of topics, it was very clear that there was a tremendous level of excitement at having access to the park so soon after a big snow. That day had dumped almost 18 inches of new snow, with promise of 6 more during the night. The only thing that separated the class from a crack at the winter wonderland was a good night's sleep.
The group assembled early and made the icy drive into the park. Shortly after leaving the hotel the landscape began to change. The trees and road began to show signs of snow, and within minutes the landscape changed completely from the one at the hotel. The first stop of the day was the iconic Tunnel View. Even though Tunnel View has been captured hundreds of times it will never lose the sense of wonder you feel sitting on the wall looking out over the valley. El Capitan dominates the right side of the scene while Bridal Veil Falls controls the left. Half Dome sits in the middle of the scene as the parks most iconic granite structure. It's an Ansel Adams lovers' dream come true. When the trees in the valley below are covered in a thick blanket of white snow it brings out the scene even more and takes excitement to a new level. Our group lined the wall and the instructors worked the area to help give students tips on composition, using filters to balance the brighter sky, and why a polarizer would be helpful in this situation. Even though the conditions were well below freezing, the excitement of shooting this amazing scene kept the crowd energized and focused (pun intended) on the task at hand.
The clouds in the valley on this morning were awesome. Shooting Tunnel View was just the beginning. The next spot was a lovely little cove along the Merced where the view of El Capitan and its reflection is simply stunning. The class bravely pushed through the deep snow to get into a position along the river where they could see the reflection of El Cap as well the other granite peaks in the vicinity. The snowy bank and river ice made for interesting foregrounds to use in our composition. Composition is one of the skills many of our returning students like to focus on. This spot was a perfect place to help them. Our instructors are not only knowledgeable about how to best compose a scene, but they've researched the areas so that they can help pass this information on to the class. The class really did well making the most out of all the options this nook of the river threw their way. When they'd captured images they felt good about it was time to head into the village for a morning break and a chance to warm up some cold feet and hands.
Breaks are a good time to build group camaraderie as well as discuss photography. Whether it's discussing the use of white balance, or listening to Scott talk about one of his many overseas trips. The breaks are always fun ways to learn while taking in some much needed caffeine.
The break is only that, a break. We were on the move to shoot the mighty Lower Yosemite Falls. However, as any photographer will tell you a big portion of every adventure is left to chance. As our luck would have it we came across a wonderful one in the form of a bobcat who was out for a late morning stroll. We quickly pulled the ApCab to the side of the road and the group piled up and set up to photograph this beautiful cat as he surveyed his area. The cat was a perfect model. Sitting, posing, and just slowly working the area so that the whole group had several chances to photograph him from quite a close distance. It was one of those rare moments that makes any photography outing special, but makes a workshop so much more memorable. The group had more than 40 minutes of time to set up and photograph this cat before he finally lost interest in us and went on in search of a vole or other rodent he could use as a midday snack. Off to the falls...
(Aperture Academy Instructors Brian Rueb and Scott Davis taking good care of the group!)
This falls is absolutely stunning in winter. The falls are flowing at a lower rate which makes them more accessible and easier to photograph due to less mist. Ice forms on the rocks and in the creek making the area far more aesthetic as far as compositional options. Normally the falls would be blasted by sun at this time of day, but due to the ever-changing weather the falls were in the shade for a majority of the shoot giving us ample opportunity to photograph in a beautiful even light.
After an awe-inspiring meal at the food court the photography action resumed. A storm system was moving back into the valley creating dramatic light as well as giving us some more chances at making some moody Yosemite images in untypical style. Everyone is familiar with the big icons, El Capitan, Half-Dome, Yosemite Falls, but some great images can be had using the wonderful snowy landscape in conjunction with some of the other dramatic granite cliffs in the park. The group really did well spreading out and using some of the snow marshmallow shapes to create interesting foreground while granite peaked emerged in the background out of the coming storm.
The goal for the evening was to end up at the iconic, but amazing Valley View along the Merced River. However, the snow and storm was creating some wonderful drama in the oaks on North Side Drive...so again we moved the ApCab to the side of the road and set out to capture some of this pristine minimalistic type imagery using the stark white ground and snowy skeletal trees. It was also a chance for some of the group to make a snowball and just really take in what was shaping up to be a fantastic day in the park. While the group was scattered in the field working with instructors on composition, and exposure to balance such a high contrast scene El Capitan began to emerge from the clouds giving us yet another fantastic view to photograph. The weather in this part of the country can change so rapidly, and within an hour we had gone from sun to clouds to snow to sun again. All part of the adventure!
The final spot of the day was photographing the wonderful Valley View. The class set up along the Merced River with views of El Capitan and Bridal Veil dominating the scene. Instructors placed the class in positions that allowed them to use the snow covered rocks and curvy shoreline as foreground interest to balance a scene that wasn't overly colorful but still very dramatic as the storm again broke leaving the valley in a pristine new layer of snow. After a great day of photography a slightly cold but unfaltering group returned to the lodge to grab some dinner and a much deserved night of rest before setting out again the next morning for another crack at the park.
:: Day 2 ::
What a difference a day makes. The class met the second morning to a clear sky. As we mentioned weather in this area moves fast...which makes the snow we had the first day that much more special. When the system lets up, and the sun comes out it's only a matter of time before all the snow is off the trees and the area begins the transformation back to normal. We gave Tunnel View another try first thing in the morning to see if any magical clouds or fog was going to show up and give us a repeat of the previous mornings' drama...but it wasn't meant to happen. With a few shots and some instruction on composition and backlighting under our belt the group set off to the valley to find some new areas to shoot.
The first spot we chose was the famous little Yosemite Valley Church. This tiny structure is a great way to work on composition and using a man-made object to show scale and give personality to a huge landscape like Yosemite. The class moved along the snow bank setting up a variety of interesting vertical and horizontal compositions. The red church provides a warm breath to an otherwise cool landscape.
The next spot on the day is a beautiful bend in the river near hanging bridge. It offers pristine reflections of the mighty Upper Yosemite Falls as well as a variety of ice patterns that are great for foreground or alone as the subject of a macro shot. This stop is also a great place for the instructors to work with the class on how a polarizing filter can really make the image in a difficult time of day to photograph. This was a classic view and the students came away with some very nice images from this serene location.
From this point the sun got very bright, and the snow got very white. We used this time to photograph a view point of Half-Dome and an old warn out oak in a field. The location can be much more photographic in different conditions but we chose to photograph it in the middle of the day more to show students how a graduated neutral density filter could be used upside down to tone down the snow some and allow for more overall even exposures.
February brings a phenomenon to Yosemite for a very select number of days. Conditions must be perfect in order for it to even be photographed. Of course I'm talking about the ‘Firefalls' on El Capitan's Horsetail Falls. In order for this lava-esque shot to be captured with a camera the valley needs to have received a decent amount of precipitation in the form of rain or snow. The precipitation needs to be followed by a period of warmer weather, and lastly the horizon needs to be free of clouds in order for the last rays of evening sun to light up this small falls as it slides down the granite. This all has to occur, as mentioned, in a short window of time in mid-February. For February 2011 there had only been 3 days where conditions were photographable for this natural beauty. Lucky for us...it was shaping up to happen on our workshop!
We arrived early and secured a position in a meadow near the El Cap pic-nic spot. Cameras pointed to the sky the group set and waited for the Firefalls to begin. Instructors filled the waiting period with lessons on composing the scene as well as using the white balance to warm up the scene and really maximize the warm tones on the golden El Cap granite, and rose lit waterfall.
The sun finally hit that crux in the horizon and lit the waterfall up beautifully. Even though the scene was photographed by nearly 100 individuals, there's still something awe-inspiring about seeing something that is rare and requires a certain bit of luck in order to capture.
Come to think about it that sounds a lot like just seeing snow in Yosemite,
Until next time...
Brian, Scott, Scott, Alicia, Kristen and the rest of the crew at the Aperture Academy.
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.