Missing snow so far this winter, I’m going through some of my old snow images and came across this one from a few years ago. I’d traveled to Yosemite with the promise of snow in the forecast, but the night before the trip’s final day I went to sleep to the steady hum of rain. The next morning dawned damp and gray—and gloriously silent. Outside a thin veneer of fresh snow dusted the trees, and without even considering breakfast I headed to Tunnel View to survey the valley and plan my morning. By the time I arrived a patch of sunlight had burned a hole in the clouds above Cathedral Rocks and hints blue sky mingled with the clouds behind me. I knew the show there would soon be spectacular, but I’ve photographed many clearing storms from Tunnel View and wanted something different.
Without leaving my car I headed back down into the valley, stopping first at El Capitan Bridge, arriving just before the clouds atop El Capitan started lifting. I photographed there for about 15 minutes, long enough to see El Capitan’s nose go from obscure shadow to distinct outline to fully exposed granite. Before the clouds parted completely, I packed up and made a beeline for nearby Cathedral Beach. In the short time it took to drive a half mile most of El Capitan had emerged from the clouds and I rushed to grab my gear. The road to the beach was closed so I set out on foot, running most of the quarter mile to the river.
I found two other photographers at the west end of the beach and rather than compete with them for real estate, I trudged through the brush and fresh snow to an open space just downstream. There I was able to set up in solitude and move around at will. I was quite pleased to find a snow covered snag protruding from the river, adding a little depth to the foreground.
The beauty of photographing a Yosemite clearing storm is that no matter where you are, something spectacular is happening. Often in these situations I move between locations much more quickly than normal, but this morning I took my time and just enjoyed the show.
Wringing out as many compositions as possible, I started wide with both vertical and horizontal compositions that included El Capitan and the reflection. Next I went a little tighter, capturing just El Capitan, or just the reflection, or some of both. Finally I switched to a telephoto and started picking out individual elements: the swirling clouds and brilliant highlights on El Capitan’s vertical edge, the snow covered snag in the river, and so on.
A couple of related technical issues raised by this image: First, the focus point of a reflection; and second, where to focus when elements are spread from near to far throughout the frame. It’s counterintuitive to many that a reflection’s focus point is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In other words, since El Capitan is at infinity, its reflection is in focus at infinity, and not when focused on the snag. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.
Given that knowledge, and the fact that I generally want whatever’s in my foreground to be in focus (even if it means the background is slightly soft), I had to find a compromise focus point to ensure that both the reflection and the snag were in focus. With an extremely wide focal length and small aperture I was confident I could get the entire scene acceptably sharp if I focused carefully.
There are different approaches to maximizing focus range, such as relatively accurate but awkward hyperfocal charts, and rule-of-thumb guidelines like focusing a third of the way into the frame. Both have merit, and many excellent photographers employ them, but I prefer a more seat-of-the-pants approach that relies on my own experience and understanding of focus range. I generally find the closest subject I want in focus—in this case the snag—and then focus on something a little behind it.
Here I estimated the distance of the snag, found something behind me that I thought was a little farther away, and focused there. At f/16 that gave me a pretty large margin for error and I was confident the image was sharp throughout. Is this an approach I’d recommend for others? Perhaps, though it takes trial and error to perfect. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with hyperfocal distances–you don’t need to memorize them, but a basic understanding of the relationship between f-stops, focal lengths, and focus distance is invaluable for decisions like this.
Here’s an article from my Photo Tips section that might help: Depth of Field.