Missing the tree for the forest

Fall Color, Yosemite Valley

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One of my favorite Yosemite autumn destinations is Fern Spring. It’s usually my first stop after entering Yosemite Valley because the leaves here give me a pretty good handle on the status of the fall color: If I can still see lots of water on the spring’s pond, I know I’m a little early; lots of brown leaves and I’m late.

I haven’t actually photographed the spring itself in years; instead I cross the road and explore the half-mile stretch of trail that parallels the river, downstream to the Pohono Bridge, upstream to Bridalveil Meadow. When I brought my fall workshop group here last week, we found so much to photograph that we had to come back. Some of the group stayed at the spring and crafted compositions featuring the stairstep cascade descending from the small reflecting pool. Others followed me to the river and quickly scattered in search of  larger scenes.

When I’m leading a group my priority isn’t my own photography, so that afternoon I stayed in the vicinity of the spring to help people with exposures and compositions. But this was fairly far into the workshop, and as is usually the case, everyone had become pretty comfortable with what they were doing—suddenly I felt pretty inessential.

(Rather than pout) I set my sights on the nearby possibilities. My goal is always to find something new, pretty easy when photographing small scenes featuring ephemeral leaves (in contrast to the relative permanence of Yosemite’s granite). But uniqueness is just the start: To set themselves apart, most scenes, large and small, need (among other things) photography’s often overlooked third dimension, depth. So I’m never content with simply finding a photogenic primary subject—regardless of my subject, if it’s distant I want a complementary foreground; close and I want a complementary background.

I’d been to Fern Spring so much, I was pretty sure I’d pretty thoroughly mined the possibilities here. So imagine my surprise to spy a heretofore overlooked tree with a sturdy trunk and arcing branch, a wealth of untapped compositional possibilities, right across the road from Fern Spring. How could I have missed this in my hundreds of visits here? I can only imagine the number of times I’d rushed past this beautiful specimen in my haste to probe the forest’s more private depths. Shame on me.

But anyway, no time for self-flagellation…. I studied the tree and its surroundings, looking for leaves to isolate. My eyes quickly landed on a solitary branch sporting several leaves in varying stages of fall transition—in a perfect world the leaves would have been backlit (for that fall color glow I so love), but that would have put me on the wrong side of the scene, and the world is rarely perfect anyway.

My lens of choice in these autumn leaves scenes is a telephoto, most often my 70-200 f4 because I almost always prefer its sharpness, speed, and ease of use over the extra reach of the 100-400. So, with 70-200 in place, I circled the leaves until I thought they aligned properly with the tree in the background. Removing my camera from my tripod, I framed the scene through the viewfinder, searching for the best relationship between the yellow leaves and brooding tree. I found that by dropping to the ground I could eliminate the less interesting foreground and frame my leaves with the curved branch.

And on the ground I stayed, for I don’t know how long. I tweaked the composition until I had it “just right,” then (with the composition locked in on my tripod) went to work on the exposure, depth, and focus point. Dense shade makes the area around Fern Spring dark on even the brightest day, but this was late afternoon in autumn, so the sun’s fading light had been further extinguished by Yosemite Valley’s steep walls. As if that wasn’t enough, a bright sheen on the leaves made a polarizer an absolute necessity, subtracting two more stops of precious light. And while it wasn’t windy, neither was the air perfectly still, a problem compounded by my proximity to a road teaming with rushing vehicles.

Fortunately my goal was a soft background, which required a large aperture—had I needed to go to f16 I probably would have been out of luck. Nevertheless, even at f4 I had to go to ISO 800 to expose at 1/12 second, a pretty marginal shutter speed in these conditions. I used live view magnified ten times to ensure precise focus, targeting the veins on the closest leaf, and carefully timing exposures for lulls in the wind.

As I usually do when I have a composition so heavily dependent on depth of field, I bracketed my f-stops, stopping down to f8 in one-stop increments, bumping my ISO even further to ensure a reasonable shutter speed. But at home on my large monitor I wasn’t crazy about the busyness in the leaves introduced as the depth of field increased, and decided f4 was best.

Also on my large screen I was thrilled to see how perfectly sharp the images were (I love that lens), and how noise free they are at ISO 800 (I love my new camera). It’s one of those images that stands up to even the closest scrutiny—the more I examine it, the more I see: small holes, dirt smudges and mote, and even miniscule particles of debris suspended by a delicate spider web,  the “imperfections” that underscore nature’s perfection.

I have no illusions that this image will make me rich—most people are drawn to far more dramatic captures. But when I decided to photograph nature for a living, I promised myself to only photograph what I want to photograph, and never to base my choices on what will sell. I can’t even begin to express how much I enjoyed photographing this scene, and how much pleasure this image (and others like it) bring me. It’s a reminder of why I do what I do, and why success should never be measured in dollars alone.

Fern Spring, Yosemite: Each spring I gauge the progress of the fall color in Yosemite Valley by the leaves around Fern Spring.


12 Comments on “Missing the tree for the forest

  1. Really enjoyed the photo of Fern Spring with the tree covered with moss and the gentle water works in the back ground.
    What were your setting on that one Gary?

  2. Thank you for not only for sharing your work, but for well-written stories that accompany them.

  3. One of my favorite places to shoot in Yosemite is Fern Springs. I’ll have to look for that tree in a few weeks. Will probably miss the fall colors but there is always something to photograph in Yosemite. As mentioned above, not only do I love viewing your work, but look forward to reading your stories that accompany them.

  4. What a stunning image Gary. I love the fall leaves surrounding the falls…. and love the moss covered tree trunk. I could stare at this image all day long.

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