I love the iconic captures as much as the next person–scenes like Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in February, Antelope Canyon’s heavenly beam, or McWay Fall’s tumble into the Pacific, are gorgeous and a thrill to photograph. But standing elbow-to-elbow with tens (or hundreds!) of photographers, each recording identical images that are already duplicates of thousands of prior images, while lots of fun, isn’t enough to stimulate my creative juices. What keeps me going is the opportunity to experience nature with more than just my eyes. Nothing in photography makes me happier than enduring images (my own or others’) that stir the non-visual senses, evoke emotion, and soothe the soul. Colorful sunsets and dramatic clouds might draw the ooohs and ahhhs so many photographers covet, but give me images that convey the sound of running water, the fragrance of evergreen, the texture of granite.
Once upon a time photographing even the most popular scenes in solitude wasn’t difficult. The tourists who overwhelm the best known views during the comfortable times of day would vacate just when the photography started getting good. But the proliferation of digital photographers, combined with the easy exchange of information in our connected world, means there are no secrets anymore and opportunities for solitude have become few and far between. Today if you capture a beautiful image, posting it anywhere is sure to immediately draw photographers like cats to a can-opener.
Given that Yosemite Valley’s eight square miles attracts nearly four million visitors each year, you’d think it would be impossible to find the solitude I crave. But on even the busiest summer day, rising for sunrise will give you at least a couple of peaceful hours. And of course in Yosemite’s backcountry, while relatively crowded by wilderness standards, solitude is always just a short detour away. But even when I’m not in the backcountry, and the sun is up and tourists teem like ants at a picnic, I still have a few quiet spots that get my creative juices flowing.
Near the top of my list are the cascades beneath Bridalveil Fall. Here in the shadow of Yosemite Valley’s shear south wall, with just a little bit of scrambling I can photograph in hours of quiet (contrast-soothing) shade. Variety is no problem here because Bridalveil Creek is different each time I visit: In February it might be frozen solid or smothered by snow; in May the creek roars with snowmelt; in August it’s a quiet trickle beneath a canopy of green. My favorite month might be October, when the gentle stream tumbles through a carpet of colorful leaves.
This fall Yosemite’s color was a little late. Rather than the explosion of color I often find in late October, the leaves were simple accents for the whispering cascades. After playing with some tighter compositions that featured individual leaves among the rocks, I spent at least an hour with this set of cascades–the longer I stayed, the more I felt there would never be enough time to capture everything I saw. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that images like this won’t excite people the way my more dramatic images do, but they make me happy, and that’s what matters most.