When you drive into Yosemite National Park, its immensity is immediately apparent. There are no questions as to why photography icons like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell spent so many hours shooting there. Winter in the park is a special time of year...even when winter decides at the last minute to up and leave town, as it did this past weekend.
Early March is an ideal time in Yosemite Park. The chance of snow in the valley is still a good possibility, but the days are also beginning to get longer and warmer, which melts the snow in the high country and gets the waterfalls moving. We plan our Aperture Academy workshops around this time to take full advantage of these conditions.
On Friday night, instructors Stephen Oachs, Brian Rueb and assistant Kelly Baldwin met the class for a brief introductory meeting to go over the weekend itinerary and get a good feel for where the class was at, skill-wise, and what specifically they wanted to come away with on their weekend in Yosemite. Many students had not been to the park before and the instructors were looking forward to showing them the icons, as well as a few hidden gems.
Our group met bright and early Saturday to make sure we were in the park to take full advantage of every bit of light. Forecast for the first day was to be overcast with a chance of rain. One thing we get asked a lot at our workshops is, "What do you do if it rains?"
The short answer: we shoot.
Weather is a huge part of photography, and professionals have to shoot in every type — even under gray and overcast skies. Knowing what to photograph, and when to photograph it, can really help you maximize your day shooting. Overcast days are perfect for photographing waterfalls, and as it turns out, Yosemite has a couple of nice ones.
We began our morning photographing the upper portion of Cascade Creek Falls. Instructors led the class down a steep pitch and had them set up in various positions along the water. Emphasis in this location was put on learning about shutter speed and composition.
A large portion of students in every class always want to know how to make water seem silky and dreamy...and this spot was perfect for us to get a grasp on that concept, so when we photographed some of the more iconic waterfalls, we could place more emphasis on composition.
The second stop was Bridal Veil Falls. We shot this popular waterfall from the area around the viewing platform near the base. Because of the height of the falls, we spent some time working on selectively composing portions of the falls, and making compositions that were strong but avoided using any of the harsh gray sky.
On the hike out from the falls, we spent time showing students how the use of GND filters could be used to help balance out snow in exposures. Many photographers get locked into views on how and when filters are to be used. It's always fun to give the students new and exciting ways they can use their filters to help achieve the images they visualize in their heads.
Also included in the first morning was a stop along the Merced River, near the Yosemite Chapel, where we focused on capturing the reflection of Upper Yosemite Falls. The trail to the viewing areas for the Upper Yosemite Falls is very strenuous, and in the winter months, also very difficult...but that doesn't mean you still can't capture unique images of the falls by searching the areas along the river.
During all of our multi-day workshops we try to schedule in several breaks throughout the day so the group can catch a snack, and recover some of the calories they've burned throughout the day. It also helps us get to know each other a bit and discuss a variety of other photographic subjects.
Rested and fed, we spent the next portion of the day exploring Lower Yosemite Falls. This time of year is perfect for photographing this iconic waterfall. Water levels haven't reached their spring peaks, and capturing images that really show its beauty are far more possible due to the easier access of the cascades near the base of the falls and the decreased amounts of mist. The group spent a good chunk of time there as the instructors fanned out and took students to some of their personal favorite spots for photographing the area. We expanded on the lessons learned earlier in the day to really work on shutter to create dynamic movement in the water, and further worked with the students on creating good composition.
Despite the fact it was winter in the park, most of the day was very mild in temperature, and the rain that had been forecast was keeping away for the most part. We even saw patches of daylight breaking through the clouds, which meant there was a chance of getting something spectacular from Tunnel View, the classic spot made famous by Ansel Adams.
We arrived at Tunnel View early, to make sure the students had a chance to grab one of the pole spots for photographing. Big time iconic places fill up quick with photographers on days when the conditions favor drama. We always want to make sure our classes are in the right places at the right time to capture the best shots, should the light cooperate.
Unfortunately, the light decided to go south in a hurry thirty minutes after we had set up, leaving us no choice but to go back to the hotel for an Aperture Academy tradition...a crock pot meal!
Twelve hours of photography can leave you hungry. A meal of pasta, bread and salad is just the right thing to help polish off a long day. Group camaraderie is a big deal to us at the Aperture Academy...we look forward to the time at the end of day one to relax, unwind, and joke with our students. When dinner was complete, the group mosey'd down to the bar to have a nightcap before heading off to get a good nights sleep — day 2 was going to be an earlier start. One of our students had been practicing all week at getting up before dawn to be ready for the experience...and what kind of hosts would we be if we didn't give him the chance to wake up before 5 am?
:: Day 2 ::
We began the day along the Merced watching the sun hit the face of El Capitan. Sunrises in Yosemite Valley are tough...the morning light is often slow getting to places of interest and the chances of getting a morning with a spectacular and colorful sunrise is slim. However, great images can be easily made by wandering the banks of the river looking for reflections. Morning on day two felt more like winter. Temperatures had sunk below freezing the night before and the group was icy and cold. Some students spent time using the soft morning light to create a variety of interesting macro images of the frozen leaves and textures along the river.
The cold soon got to the group and the next stop was breakfast in Yosemite Village. The day was looking very promising and we knew that while it began on the cold side, it would surely warm up as the day progressed.
The second shooting location for the day was photographing the reflections of Upper Yosemite Falls from a different vantage point. It gave us a good example of how important light is to composition. The sunshine made the reflections so much more vivid, and really gave students time to work on using their polarizing filters as a creative tool to help capture the reflective surface.
We also spent some time working on looking for different compositions, whether it was close up shots of the colorful tree bark, or finding a spot in a tree grove where students could point their cameras upward and get a totally different view of the park. Photographing any location is as much about photographing the little details as it is the larger scenes. A park the size and magnificence of Yosemite certainly has beauty in both.
The sky was getting harsh with sun in the mid part of the day, so we let the group go back to the hotel to freshen up, eat some lunch, and catch a power nap before we set off into the afternoon to work with the light when it was better.
One of the best spots we found for the afternoon was a meadow looking at Half-Dome. We found some areas of snow melt that created interesting reflections of the granite monolith as well as had some nice foreground textures in the grass clumps that dotted the field. As we photographed the meadow, the weather again began to shift, and the sun became obscured by a system of clouds moving through the valley. PERFECT time for more waterfall photography!
We worked our way through the valley to the lower portion of Cascade Creek Falls. The lower portion of the falls has a variety of trails and areas for photographers to explore. Brian took a small group to an area high in the boulder field, closer to the falls, while Stephen took the rest of the group to work the cascades near the road. A few students took the opportunity to explore on their own and work on compositions they could come back and share with the group. Every group found unique and beautiful areas to photograph.
Our last stop for the evening was to give Tunnel View another try. The sky had opened up and the chance of a nice sunset seemed promising. We arrived early and took our spaces along the wall. The sky really toyed with us, and while we never got the entire vista in sweet light and color, there were definitely some areas of the valley that had some great light and color. We worked on using longer glass to select those areas and use them for our compositions. Ideal conditions are rare, and the more skills you have at your disposal, the better prepared you'll be at capturing something memorable...no matter what the conditions give you.
The class spent nearly twenty hours in the field photographing over the two days we had them, and by the end, everyone looked beat. Miles had been put on their shoes, and images had been gathered in large quantity on their memory cards. The last thing left to do was head back to the hotel so the students could either wander back to their rooms for one more night of hard earned sleep, or off towards home. Wherever their destination was for the night, I think they were all excited to process their images...and we're excited to see the finished products!
Until next time,
Stephen, Brian, Kelly, 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.