In any season Yosemite offers something that makes it special, but the most beautiful place on Earth is never more spectacular than when it’s blanketed with fresh snow. For a brief time immediately after a cold storm, every exposed surface for as far as the eye can see is brand new and pristine.
Capturing this magic is all about timing. At just 4,000 feet, Yosemite Valley gets significant snow only during the coldest storms, usually just a handful of times each winter. And when the snow stops, the relatively mild temperatures (usually in the 30s), brilliant sunshine, and even the slightest breeze, conspire to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, park visitors driven inside by the weather, swarm outdoors to gape, quickly adding footprints and spreading mud with their boots, bikes, and cars.
The key to photographing Yosemite with pristine snow is to be in the park while its snowing—if you delay your Yosemite departure until you hear that it snowed, you’re too late. It’s fun sharing this visual treat with my workshops, but because I must schedule these trips over a year in advance, there’s no telling what weather we’ll encounter. So imagine my delight when, after six weeks of dry weather and blue skies, Mother Nature cranked up Yosemite’s snow machine just in time for my 2011 Yosemite Horsetail Fall winter workshop. Each morning greeted us with scenes that seemed designed to outdo what we’d found the day before.
Among my many snowy-Yosemite go-to spots is Cook’s Meadow. On this trip, until the snow arrived, the meadow was a field of lumpy brown grass, its sentinel elm a bare skeleton in the shadow of Half Dome. But six inches of overnight snow transformed this once bland meadow into an undulating sea of frozen white waves. Attempting to emphasize the snow, I dropped to my knees and found a vertical composition that leads the eye across the snowfield to the elm and ultimately to Half Dome. I minimized the brooding sky because, while interesting, it lacked the power to compete with the foreground.
I should add that many in the group had signed up to photograph Horsetail Fall, but since Horsetail Fall requires clear sky for its fiery show, at the beginning of the workshop I advised everyone that Horsetail Fall wasn’t likely in our future. Some were disappointed at first, and a few were puzzled by my enthusiasm for what was in store, but by the time we finished, I don’t think anyone would have traded our experience in the snow for even the most spectacular Horsetail Fall shot.
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