Yosemite Fall Photography Workshop | October 2009

Yosemite Fall Photography Workshop - October 24-25th, 2009

Just knowing you're going to Yosemite is exciting. It is truly amazing. Every season brings a new set of characteristics to the park. As instructors, we ALWAYS look forward to Yosemite. Not only for the exceptional offerings it presents photographically, but for the chance that something truly amazing will happen in one of the world's most amazing locations.

At the Aperture Academy, we strive to be our best for every workshop. We put in a great deal of effort before the workshops begin. We also show up a day or two ahead of time so we can be sure we bring our students to the best locations at the best times of day.

Thursday and Friday before this workshop, from morning until well after dark, the instructors, Stephen Oachs, myself (Brian Rueb), and Scott Davis, were in the park, researching each spot we had planned to use for the workshop, and making sure it was going to provide for opportunities to teach. By the time Saturday's workshop rolled around, the schedule was set, and all that was needed was a group of willing victi...I mean, students.

Friday night we had an orientation meeting, so we could all get to know one another a little bit, and so Stephen and I could layout the itinerary and plans for the weekend. On this workshop, we were pleased to introduce Jeanette Smith, our Photoshop® and software instructor. She attended this workshop to help students with Photoshop questions.

It was awesome to see that out of our 12 students for the weekend, six were returning for more punishment...ok, I meant "education." This workshop also set a record for the student who has traveled the farthest to take an Aperture Academy workshop. Cheers to you, Adam Baker, for coming from Ithaca, NY to attend the Yosemite Fall Workshop!

Our workshops are designed to provide students with the opportunity to learn in the field, not in a classroom. In order to do that, we need to be ready when the first rays of light hit the scene. So, after the introductions and orientation, it was time for a good night's sleep before meeting at 4:30am. There was a sunrise in the Tuolumne Meadows at 7:15am and we needed to be there to catch it!

The drive to Tuolumne Meadows is a long one. In the darkness of night, it's not even pretty...but I think that given the state of most of our sleepy students, they weren't in the mood to sight-see anyway. Besides, the ride gave them a good opportunity to wake up...and if it didn't, I bet the 23 degree morning in the meadows did!

It was COLD. The sunrise was going to show up whether we were there or not, so everyone bundled up, grabbed their gear (in Sue's case, that was A LOT of gear) and went to the river to set up.

The first shoot of the day is a good chance for instructors to gauge the needs and abilities of our class. The idea is to meet each student where they're at, and then help bring them further in the direction they'd like to end up. We have students of all levels...and everyone has different objectives. Our goal is to help them all achieve their individual objectives.

On this morning, we split the group up. I took half to go work on shooting towards the east, and Stephen's group worked on shooting the morning twilight to the west. There was a lot to shoot in the meadows...from the river, mountain peaks, and soft morning light to an abundance of frozen grass and plants, where we could work on shallow depth of field and detail shots. Yosemite can often be overwhelming with the many grand scenes it presents, but we certainly never want to overlook the amazing and simple little things it has to offer for photography.

Lake Tenaya was the second stop of the day. We used the spot to work more on composition, using the leading lines of the cracked granite to help create balance in our scenes. There were also plenty of colorful plants to shoot, as well as a shot Stephen helped set up with a ring of trees, and a upward perspective.

While the drive in the dark is very unflattering, the drive back is amazing! The students, some of whom were visiting the park for the first time, were amazed at the granite walls, deep canyons and lakes they had driven past and not even seen.

Our third stop overlooked one of the valleys, near Olmsted Point. We found a great old juniper tree we could use as an example of detail, and using the contrast in the bark, we created some dramatic monochrome images. The students really came away with some dynamite images from this brief stop.

The fourth and final stop, before lunch, was at a little lake at a near 8,000 ft. elevation that was surrounded by the brilliant reds and gold of fall. Its location in the park keeps it out of the wind and this makes for an awesome reflection. Instructors took students all around the lake looking for different compositions, and stopped in one spot so everyone could "work the log" for some great images. This spot was by far everyone's favorite of the morning...but, because we'd left so early, many were fading a bit and really in need of some food and rest.

Aperture Academy workshop instructors take pride in providing students with a chance to learn in some of the world's best locations...and in taking care of the little things. Not only did we make every effort to provide students with transportation during the duration of the workshop, we also provided them with a lunch on their first day. We stopped at the Tuolumne Grove area, so students could make sandwiches, grab some cookies, a bottle of water or soda and so Tucker The Wonder Beagle could get out and stretch. (Tucker isn't a regular addition to the workshops, but he wasn't feeling well and Stephen figured some mountain air, squirrel chasing, and a chance to be the trip mascot would cheer him up.)

With lunch in the books and tummies filled, it was time to head back to the hotel for a brief break before our afternoon and evening shoot. Rest time was brief, but even a power nap can help everyone to get that little bit of energy they need to get through a very full day of learning and photography.

The first stop of the afternoon was the famous Tunnel View made popular by photographers like Ansel Adams. Tunnel View is a spectacular vista any time of day, but the light in the late afternoon provides even lighting of the valley. We were fortunate; clouds were starting to find their way into the valley to help give our images that extra pop. This also gave us some possibility of having a decent sunset at Glacier Point.

Our spot for sunset was Glacier Point, which provides easily one of the Valley's BEST view points. Yosemite Falls, Half-Dome, Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, The Eastern Sierra and more is ALL visible from this 8,000 ft. perch. For most of our really iconic stops, we bring students to the scene early, so we ensure they've got the best spots to capture the scene should something spectacular take place...and something spectacular DID take place.

The clouds began to roll in and for the most part, sunset was nice. Not spectacular, but very nice. Then at one point, the light seemed to fade, and many photographers gave up and left thinking the night was done. Experience has shown us, however, that in this region the show ain't over until the light is GONE. And on this evening, the show was just beginning.

The sunset that night at Glacier Point was nothing short of unreal. Stephen and I agreed that it was easily one of the top ten sunsets either of us had ever seen over the course of our years in photography. We were THRILLED with the shots the students came away with, as were the students. One even got to photograph a marriage proposal! How awesome is that?! Even Tucker had a taste of their celebratory champagne while they were checking out the view.

The images we got that night were the icing on the cake of a great day of photography...but the cherry on top was that during the 14 hours we spent in the field that day, our dinner was slowly cooking its way to perfection back at the hotel.

When we arrived back at the Yosemite View Lodge, we treated the class to a meal of shredded pork tacos with all the fixings, chips and salsa, and an ice cold beer or soda.

If the full day of photography didn't quite tire out the group, dinner surely finished them off. When dinner was done everyone happily retreated back to their rooms to sleep, and recharge their bodies, and batteries, for another full day of photography... beginning at 6am.


The workshop is called, Yosemite Fall Colors, and we timed it perfectly. The valley was full of intense yellows and gold, and our entire second day was dedicated to capturing the color of Yosemite in autumn.

For sunrise, we picked out a scenic portion of the Merced River and focused on capturing reflections of El Capitan and the other granite peaks in the area, with the Tule fog drifting from the river. This was a great spot to also work on filter use, one of the topics we cover extensively in all our in-field workshops. (Students receive a discount on Singh-ray filters, which is a brand we definitely recommend.) GND (Graduated Neutral Density) filters are perfect for this type of photography, as the morning light often casts more direct sun on the peaks and top portion of a scene, but leaves the shadow areas very dark, and in need of more exposure.

The iconic Yosemite Chapel was the second stop of the morning. We split the group up, with half of the students working on capturing the chapel, and surrounding color and the other half working on detail shots of some amazing colored leaves from a nearby tree. We were fortunate that a group of deer came and positioned themselves perfectly near the chapel, which provided that little extra in the images. It also gave the folks with larger glass a chance to work on some wildlife photography.

Yosemite is such an amazing place, and literally has something new to photograph at every turn. The first two spots took up most of our early morning, and everyone was in need of a caffeine break, and a chance to warm their feet and hands before heading out again.

Our afternoon session focused on capturing the color along the river and roadways of the Yosemite Valley. We made several stops in the locations with the most vibrant colors. Students enjoyed photographing the roadways lined with bright yellow trees in peak color, or wandering the Merced looking for moving water, rocks and seasonal foliage that had already fallen. One student made the comment, "I could spend all day just walking up this river looking for new compositions."

I think we all could.

We took our lunch break in the Yosemite Village so the students would have an opportunity to refuel, at the establishment of their choice, and explore all the exhibits and stores in the park. Some enjoyed spending a little time in the Ansel Adams gallery...and getting inspired from one of the park's photographic pioneers.

The highlights after lunch included a trip up to lower Yosemite Falls. Normally during this time of year, the park's waterfalls have all but dried up, but an early storm the previous week had brought a lot of snow to the higher elevations, which was melting and creating some nice flows on the main waterfalls. Students enjoyed working their way along the river, finding that perfect composition where the moving water and curves in the rock created the leading lines up to the waterfall. We also experimented with shutter speed and using various settings to capture the water in different degrees of movement. Creatively, water is a lot of fun to experiment with and an image can have a vastly different impact on the viewer simply by changing the speed of your shutter.

The final spot of the evening was "Valley View," which has been made iconic by people like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. The area was a bit messy with logs and debris that had lodged in the rocks and grass from times of higher water flow. These objects aren't very photogenic, so I put on my waders and cleaned the scene up a bit, so we could focus on really capturing the beauty of this location.

While the sunset wasn't quite as spectacular as the previous night, it was certainly beautiful. Pink, wispy clouds showed up, right on schedule, and gave our skies that little extra pop they needed to make them dynamic. The conditions provided numerous opportunities to continue to work on all the skills we had practiced over the course of the workshop. We worked on composition, with vertical shots of El Capitan being the most popular. We continued to use our filters; polarizing filters to bring out the colorful reflections, and GND filters to help balance out the exposure between the top and bottom halves of our image. We worked on shutter speed to help give the water that ethereal silky quality, and used our tripods and shutter release cables to minimize movement and give us tack sharp images. It's always a treat for us as instructors to see students combining the lessons we've given them to create images that only a couple days prior would've been daunting and difficult.

It was the perfect way to end an epic weekend of shooting, learning and most of all fun!

Thanks to all of you for making the Fall Yosemite Workshop one of our best!!!

Until next time,

Brian, Stephen, and the rest of the Aperture Academy staff

P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign-up here.

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