Landscape photography has become quite accessible for anyone to enjoy and partake in…but every so often the environment decides to play hardball and see who REALLY has what it takes to make great landscape photography.
A group of 9 photographers met Joe Azure and I in Yosemite National Park on a Friday for what was predicted to be one of the wettest weekends in the park in a very long time. California has been bone dry for much of the past few years, and a wet winter is on the forecast…would this weekend be the beginning of El Nino in California? We would find out. Thunderstorms were projected to be passing through the entire area all weekend. Rain is by far the trickiest of all weather conditions to deal with, and as instructors our goal and mission is to get our class in the right positions and constantly check the weather to make sure we’re on top of the latest conditions and putting our group where we can to help them make fantastic images. Of course we have a boatload of umbrellas as well, in case Mother Nature really lets loose.
Our first morning we depart a bit after 5am for the Yosemite High Country…Yosemite is an amazing place for landscape photography, captured for years by legends of landscape photography like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell…the high country is a granite playground for light and color to use in creating the perfect scene for photography.
We drove through scattered rain the entire way, eventually arriving to a chilly Lake Tenaya. The rain had let up some and the sky looked ready to give us something great for sunrise. Joe and I helped everyone find some great compositions, and went over the filters and camera settings they would be using for the morning.
As the sun and light changed Joe and I offered up several compositional ideas, filter suggestions, and kept track of the settings for the class…everyone was coming up with some really nice images…there’s so much potential here. As the sun rose above the mountains, a mist rose on the lake creating another layer of drama. It was a great morning for sure.
As our time at Lake Tenaya drew to a close we loaded back up in the van and tried to make a stop at Olmstead Point…The rain had found our location and surrounded half-dome with a sheath of clouds. Not to be detoured from our morning of shooting we went farther inland to Lake Siesta. This little lake is surrounded by some of the best fall color in the park…the colors and textures here make for some great images…We briefly went over how panoramic shooting can really make the most of some of the various shades and tones. There were also some nice reflections and colors surrounding the lake that we were able to take advantage of.
Funny how time flies, before we knew it we were nearing noon…and we’d been out and about for almost 7 hours. After a short break for lunch it was off to Glacier Point. We made a stop at Tunnel View, the iconic look over the valley at El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls…the clouds were SPECTACULAR, and bits of light danced on and off of the face of El Capitan as well…Photography is often all about opportunity, so we weren’t about to pass up a chance for this kind of drama…the rain had subsided, and this was the perfect chance. As we sat on the edge watching the wisps of fog travel through the valley and dance in and around the granite peaks we noticed that Half-Dome was coming out from behind its wall of clouds, so we made the decision to head up to Glacier Point.
We knew there was minimal chance for sunset to be fiery and intense but this is Yosemite, made famous by the black and white images from Ansel Adams, this place is built for stormy drama and monochrome! The drive was off and on rain, but we were glad that when we arrived to our destination we were past the rain, and able to all sit and shoot the awesome clouds and granite before us. Thunder roared and lightning danced in the distance as we sat high above the valley making our photos. Joe and I kept the group on track and made sure they made the adjustments and did what they needed to keep up with the ever-changing light. Some students tried some longer exposures with various ND filters and got some of the clouds to move and streak in their images…it was a fun way to learn as we waited for sunset. We later got back to the hotel with the group tired from a long day of shooting.
Morning came early, and we again set out for Yosemite National Park. This time we kept our focus to the valley and a stop along the Merced River. Before us sat the mighty El Capitan, and we were keen on finding some compositions incorporating the river, and the warm tones of the various foliage around the banks. The weather was ready for us when we arrived and our intense group of hearty photographers were ready to battle rain and hail with their umbrellas…and as we sat getting pelted, and even offered to leave this group was not to be detoured, and waited out the deluge for the fog and drama that came after! Again people were using longer exposures and ND filters to get some really incredible drama.
Joe and I were super impressed not only with the images they were able to get during the intense weather, but the stick to it attitude they all possessed.
After the river it was off to breakfast….and some much needed coffee.
When breakfast concluded the weather began to break and we rushed out to Cook's Meadow to photograph the iconic oak tree and the mighty half dome in the background…it was really a stunning shot with the drama in the sky mixed with the warmth of the granite and foliage.
Back to the hotel in time for check out, and a brief break before we set to a couple hours of post processing. The light was changing rapidly and we made sure that we were back in the park as soon as we could, so we optimized that afternoon.
The waterfalls were all dry when we met on Friday…but 2 days of hard rain left them all flowing at quite a clip, and we set off for lower Yosemite falls and the chance of photographing some moving water. We broke up into smaller pods and Joe and I worked with our groups to get some great compositions of the waterfall with various foregrounds and shutter speeds. I saw some really aesthetically pleasing work on the cameras…and to think, two days earlier it wasn’t even possible.
After we concluded the falls the rain returned again and we made the choice to follow the small patched of lighter sky and head to Lot A and a spot along the Merced with a stunning view of Half-Dome. Here the river is slower and reflections of this granite icon are easy to find. We helped the group set up the simple, yet beautiful compositions and again use their grad filters and polarizers to get the most of the scene. The sky had broken above the dome, and we had some really nice puffy white clouds filtering the scene. A few deer even showed up to share the view with us, and give the group a little chance to shoot some wildlife.
Sunset we made the choice to go to Valley View. When the sky is cloudy and inclement weather seems likely, sometimes the only place to get any chance of light is Valley View. The light can sometimes find a way and break the clouds and shine on to El Cap'. It’s not a promise, but it often happens, and was our best shot at ending with a bang.
The group were the only photographers on scene when we arrived…everyone got set up, Joe and I got them dialed in with their exposures and filters, and then we waited for magic…and boy did we get it. Though tons of clouds lined the valley, the sun did find a way through, and ended up providing an AMAZING light show on El Cap, and the clouds…all lighting up a vibrant gold before fading to a stunning “Think Pink” pink, how appropriate!
It was awesome, and the fact not many others braved the conditions to get out and shoot made it even sweeter. Landscape photography is all about being in the right place at the right time, and our group had done that…and been richly rewarded.
What a great way to end what turned out to be a fun time in the park playing hide and seek with the storm of the month.
Until Next Time,
Brian, Joe, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
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