Despite being one Yosemite Valley’s most dramatic sights, Yosemite Falls can frustrate photographers. Its best light comes on winter mornings, when frigid temperatures in the high Sierra hold most of Yosemite Creek hostage until spring. But by the time the spring thaw has arrived, the sun rises behind Half Dome Yosemite Falls is in shade until midmorning. Adding insult to injury, not only do we miss out on the best light while the fall is at its peak flow, we’re cheated of a wonderful rainbow opportunity as well.
Rainbows feel like random gifts from heaven, but there’s nothing random about them. Sun or moonlight entering airborne water droplets is separated by refraction into its component colors and reflected back as a rainbow to any viewer at the right angle.
When the rainbow is caused by rain, it’s impossible to be certain sunlight and raindrops will mix, but you can still get yourself in position in the event that it does happen.
One spring afternoon I saw that the conditions were ripe for a rainbow above Yosemite Valley and altered my plans to get myself in position to photograph it. I got wet, but I also got a spectacular double rainbow.
On the other hand, when the source of the airborne water is a waterfall, photographing a rainbow is simply a matter of knowing where and when to be on a sunny day. Yosemite, with its waterfalls and easily accessible vistas, is ideal for this kind of rainbow chasing.
In fact, with just a little knowledge, it’s possible to photograph multiple rainbows on the same waterfall on the same day with a little strategic placement. In many of my workshops we photograph the Yosemite Falls rainbows in the morning, and Bridalveil Fall rainbows in the afternoon. And in the spring we return to Yosemite Falls after dark to finish the day with a moonbow.
This year my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop students benefited from a recent storm and unseasonable warmth that sent more snowmelt than we usually see in early December into Yosemite Creek and over Yosemite Fall. Naturally, we took full advantage of this unexpected treat.
On the workshop’s first morning, a stiff breeze conspired with early morning sunlight to paint a prism of color at the bottom of Upper Yosemite Fall. After a successful sunrise shoot we were on our way to breakfast, but I didn’t hear too many complaints when I aborted that mission when we rounded the corner and saw the rainbow.
Everyone hopped out of the cars as soon as I pulled over and I nearly got trampled. With composition possibilities that ranged from wide to telephoto, I attached my Sony 100-400 GM lens to my (brand new at the time) Sony a7RIII and went to work. Many of my frames were tightly focused on the rainbow, but for this one I went a little wider to get the entire upper fall and just a little blue sky. With the wind whipping the fall, I gave each composition several clicks to capture the fall in a variety of shapes. Breakfast that morning was particularly tasty.
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