I always wonder what those first folks that set eyes on Yosemite thought of it. Did they see it from the top first or the bottom? Were they able to see the immense beauty in the country, or did the sheer size and volume of the granite walls give them an immediate anxiety attack at the thought of navigating through? I don’t know any of those answers, but thankfully time has progressed to a point where we have nice paved roads and maps to help us guide our way through the park.
Now that access is so easy people can focus their whole trip on just enjoying the area, checking their maps and seeing which place they’d like to stop at first. One of the most enjoyable past times in the park is photography…and at the Aperture Academy, we know Yosemite and taking photographers through the park in search of great photos is what we do.
Our group arrived Friday night, and Aron Cooperman and I informed everyone on the schedule, and got to know a little more about their shooting background during orientation. The photography would start bright and early Saturday morning, so we try to keep it short so everyone can get some rest.
Saturday morning, our fall workshops typically head to the high country first to visit some of the wonderful granite bound lakes, and check out the fall color. An early snowstorm caused a temporary road closure, and pushed our high country adventure off by a day.
Our morning began at Tunnel View, one of the most iconic vistas within the park. From our cold perch we are able to see El Capitan, Half Dome, and all of the other various granite peaks that line the heart of the valley. It’s views like this that give me the wonder on how early travelers must have felt when they stumbled upon vistas such as this. Everyone grabs their cameras, tripods, and sets up along the wall. The sun rises behind the peaks in this part of the park, so we’re working on getting everyone to shoot in a way that gives them plenty of nice layers of color. The background has a lovely pink glow and the purplish blue of the mountains makes a nice balance. Recent fires have left a haze over the valley that gives some added depth, and helps create an aesthetic subtlety that looks great on the backs of the cameras. Aron and I help the group with aperture, shutter speed, and some advice on when and why certain filters might be beneficial to help with balancing the exposures. A slight breeze is blowing which makes the 36-degree morning feel like a 25-degree morning. As soon as the sun is up we make our way down to the valley to stake out a point at the base of El Capitan along the Merced river.
I love these cool crisp mornings along the river, once the sun has risen the steam begins to rise off the river adding a lot of mood to the shots. Golden light filters through the trees, and we find light beams that illuminate the golden leaves on the maple and oak trees in the area. All the ground foliage has turned a golden color as well. Fall is definitely in effect here…and it’s beautiful. The river here offers up beautiful reflections of El Cap, so Aron and I help the group pick out some great spots to capture it, work with the polarizing filters as well to help them make the most of this wonderful spot. What I really like about spots like this is that you can’t find them on a map…they have no formal name. You just have to know where to stop. The group really got some nice image here. The reflections, the warm morning light, all made for some nice drama.
After a brief stop for breakfast we head back to the hotel for a little break before our evening session.
Our afternoon session started with a visit to the seldom seen Wildcat Falls. This is a small waterfall that surprisingly still had a little bit of water flowing. It is in the shade most of the day, so it’s accessible even during the bright afternoon sun. A lot of people want to work on moving water and capturing the silky looking motion. Here is a perfect spot to get up close and personal with the water and work on different shutter speeds to see how that plays out with the look and feel.
Our spot for the evening shoot was Glacier Point…possibly the best vantage point of Half Dome in the park. We’re situated around 7000 feet looking across the valley at a peak that is almost 9000 feet tall. It’s quite impressive to say the least. They call the Eastern Sierra the range of light for a reason…and as our group watches the sun set, the light on the peak changes from warm gold, to orange, and eventually gives way to shades of pink. The compositions here are classic, and we help the group to utilizes the natural leading lines of the granite to help draw the viewers eye into the frame. As the light fades we encourage them to zoom in more and make the most of the areas that are still lit…then as the whole peak is engulfed by shadow, we can again zoom out and grab a wider angle shot, utilizing grad filters or bracketing to control shadow detail.
When the last rays of sun fade our group takes the moment to get the people gathered to sing happy birthday to Judy, who has turned 70…and we celebrated with some champagne that we’d carried up with us. It was a really fun way to end a long day.
The next day we start earlier, we have checked the maps, and the pass has opened so our group makes the drive up to Lake Tenaya in the Yosemite High Country. This is one of the best of the many granite-lined lakes within the park…and also one of the easiest to access. The edge of the lake has great cracks and lines to help make for interesting foreground subjects. The group spreads out and Aron and I help dial in compositions, and work with those on settings…learning to shoot on manual mode is tough for some people to get used to so we really try to help them see that it’s not all that hard, it just takes practice.
Our second stop of the morning is Siesta Lake. This is another lesser-visited lake but probably the greatest place to shoot reflections of pine trees and fall foliage. It’s not a big or deep lake…but it’s always calm. Here there’s also some opportunities to shoot some colorful abstractions as well. It’s not a long stop by any means…but it’s so pretty it begs to be photographed, so we oblige.
Our afternoon session begins with a processing session. I love the post processing parts of each workshop. I like to see what the group has captured during the first part of the trip, and then help them to make the most of it. Everyone has a different experience level with the programs, and different goal of how much time they like to devote to that part of photography. No matter how much time people like to devote to Photoshop or Lightroom, we can always give out a few new tips and tricks that will help them get the most of their iamges.
The shots from the riverside the previous morning were really nice…as were a lot of the shots of Glacier Point.
Our afternoon session begins along the River again near the Pohono Bridge. Here the river, a small spring, and an abundance of vibrant fall color provide ample options for photos. Backlit trees are amazing, and when the light catches that gold in the leaves…it’s really special. We stop here fairly often when the fall color is great, and I always forget how many different options there are.
Our next stop is to shoot the iconic Yosemite Chapel. This old church, which still functions is a must have in any portfolio of the park. In the fall, the church has a brilliant yellow oak tree behind it, which gives it all kinds of seasonal mood. While here we also saw a giant rock fall…which shot up a huge cloud of dust. We thought a fire might have caused it at first, but a passer by quickly let us know the real reason. Yosemite has had numerous rock falls this year…all part of a rich history of a landscape molded by time and weather. The dust made for some really nice moody light above the trees, so of course we shot that.
On our way out to our sunset location, we stopped at a wonderful grove of oak trees, to shoot some more backlighting, and some great little red foliage with wonderful white flowers. I’ve never seen these little orchid looking flowers before…and with all those red leaves to mix with the gold in the trees…well it was awesome. We encouraged the group to play with shallow depth of field and play the red and gold together.
For sunset we end with an icon…Valley View. The recent winter left the Merced River with an elevated flow, and pushed out a lot of the debris leaving a much cleaner spot for photography with less old branches, and dead leaf piles. The fall river flow leaves numerous small eddies and pools to pull out the reflections of the might El Capitan which looms in the distance. There’s so many compositions here that it’s impossible to really find all the different angles to capture…but pretty much anywhere with rocks, water, and reflection is going to yield something amazing. I loved seeing the intensity of the glow on the face of El Cap in all of the workshop participants images…was a really great way to end a fun trip.
All in all, we mapped out a great route and everyone saw the big, and the small seldom seen parts of the park. Everyone learned a thing or two about their cameras and came away with some really nice new images to go sift through once they get back home.
Until Next Time,
Brian, Aron, 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.