Favorite: El Capitan Reflection

El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite 
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
ISO 100
27 mm

I can’t believe this image is over ten years old. It represents a significant milestone for me, because I captured it about the time I made the decision to turn a 25+ year serious hobby into my profession. With that decision came the realization that simply taking pretty pictures, or being a very good photographer, wouldn’t be enough—there are plenty of those out there. I made a very conscious decision to start seeing the world differently, to stop repeating the images that I, and other photographers, had been doing for years—no matter how successful they were. I won’t pretend to be the first person to photograph a reflection and ignore the primary subject, but seeing my scene this way represented a breakthrough moment for me.

I’d arrived in Yosemite mid-morning on a chilly November day. A few showers had fallen the night before, scouring all impurities from the air. The air was perfectly still, and the Merced River was about as low (and slow) as it can get. This set of conditions—clean, still air and water—is ideal for for reflections. The final piece of the reflection puzzle, the thing that causes people to doubt at first glance that this is indeed a reflection, was simply lucky timing. I arrived at Valley View that morning in the small window of time when El Capitan was fully lit while the Merced remained in shade, creating a dark surface to reflect my brightly lit subject.

A couple of other things to note, not because I remember my thought process, but because I know how I shoot and like to think that they were conscious choices: First is the way the rock in the foreground is framed by El Capitan’s curved outline—merging the two would have sacrificed depth. That rock, along with the thin strip of misty meadow along the top of the frame, serve as subtle clues that this is a reflection. And second is my f22 choice—believe it or not, even though the entire foreground is just a few feet from my lens, the depth of field is huge. That’s because the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. So, while the El Capitan reflection is at infinity, the closest rock is no more than four feet away. In other words, to be sharp from about four feet all the way out to infinity required a very small aperture and very careful focus point selection. I’m guessing that I focused on the second foreground rock, which was about 7 feet away, to ensure sharpness from about 3 1/2 feet to infinity.

Since this image, reflections have been a personal favorite of mine. I blogged about their power in my “Reflecting on reflections” blog post, and included a sampling of my favorites below.

Photo Workshop Schedule

A Reflection Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.


6 Comments on “Favorite: El Capitan Reflection

  1. As always, Gary, great image and insightful post. I always pick up at least one gem of information. My favorite image above is Half Dome from Sentinel Dome.

    • Thanks, Gail. That one was one of those images I’d visualized for a long time and was thrilled when I realized it was actually going to happen.

  2. Gary, these are fantastic. I’m going to have to return to Yosemite during a fall season. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Gary, many of us are glad that you made that choice years ago, for a variety of reason. Most obvious is the stunning, thoughtful images that you capture; less obvious, but perhaps more important is your ability (and willingness) to clearly describe the process that went into each image. Other photographers are able to inspire us; few are able to instruct us as well. Thank you for your unique gifts.

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