Yosemite Valley: Worth getting up for

Autumn Glow, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
35 mm
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Yosemite isn’t an inherently great sunrise location. Because most of the views in Yosemite Valley face east, not only are you looking up from the bottom of a bowl, you’re composing toward the brightest part of the sky, at the shady side of your primary subjects (Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls). This is one reason I time my workshops to include one more sunset than sunrise. But I’ve come to appreciate Yosemite Valley mornings for its opportunities to create unique images that don’t resemble the beautiful but oft duplicated afternoon and sunset pictured captured when the iconic subjects are awash with warm, late light.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of favorite, go-to morning spots for Yosemite. I love the first light on El Capitan, which starts at the top about 15 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise and gradually slides down the vertical granite, is a particular treat when reflected in the shaded Merced River. Other morning favorites include pre-sunrise silhouettes from Tunnel View (especially when I can include a rising crescent moon), the deep shade of Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall, and winter light on Yosemite Falls.

And then there’s Cook’s Meadow. Each spring you can photograph the fresh green of the meadow’s sentinel elm, Yosemite Falls booming with peak flow, and Half Dome reflected in still, vernal pools. In winter the tree is bare, exposing the twisting outline of its robust branches. The highlight each autumn is the few days when the tree is bathed in gold. On the chilliest fall mornings, sparkling hoarfrost often decorates the mounded meadow grass, and if you’re really lucky, when the air is most still, you’ll find the meadow hugged by an ephemeral mist that rises, falls, disappears, and reappears before your eyes.

On last week’s workshop’s opening morning, after a nice sunrise silhouette shoot at Tunnel View, I rushed my workshop group to Cook’s Meadow in time for the first light there. We hit the autumn big three: a hoarfrost blanket, the elm’s autumn gold still going strong, and even a few wisps of mist. The image here I captured toward the end of our shoot, just as the sun kissed the valley floor. My wide, horizontal composition emphasized the foreground, which was far more interesting than the bland (and contrail scarred) sky. I dialed in a small aperture to enhance the sunstar effect, and used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-transition neutral density filter to moderate the bright sky.

Within minutes the light was flat and the mist was gone, but the group was happy. Not a bad start to what turned out to be a great week of photography.

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A Yosemite Morning gallery

Click an image for a closer view, and to enjoy the slide show




7 Comments on “Yosemite Valley: Worth getting up for

  1. Gary, these are so beautiful. Even more so since I have seen most of the areas. Envy you living so close to Yosemite.

  2. How fortunate you didn’t have 20 others photographers trying for the same image of that great elm tree, Gary! Last time I was there, we had three workshop groups all there at the same time, sadly. It was very challenging to get a composition you wanted without someone in it. We had to go back and got better luck the second time, but no frost like this. Beautiful image!

    • Thanks, Brenda. Yeah, my pet peeve at Cook’s Meadow is the photographers who ignore the line of photographers at the back of the meadow and walk right up to the tree. Fortunately, unlike some spots (Mesa Arch), there’s room for a lot of photographers to shoot at Cook’s Meadow. When my group was there Bill Neill was there with a couple of private students, but we talked and negotiated the territory in advance—he wanted a different angle than I wanted, and I kept my group back far enough, and it worked out fine. On the other hand, a couple of years ago another group walked right into everyone’s image like we were invisible. Thank God for Content-Aware-Fill. 🙂

      Good to hear from you—hope you’re doing well.

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