No Secrets

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
.6 seconds
F/11
ISO 50

It amuses (and frustrates) me when photographers guard their information like state secrets. Photography isn’t a competition, and I’ve always felt that the more photographers can foster a sense of community, the more everyone benefits. (I will, however, protect locations at risk of being damaged by too much attention.) With that in mind, I’m sharing below some of the photography insights I’ve learned from a lifetime of Yosemite visits, and encourage you to share your own insights, wherever and whatever they may be, when the opportunity arises.

Yosemite FAQs

I get asked all the time, what’s the best season to be in Yosemite? For many reasons, including the fact that everyone defines “best” differently, that’s an impossible question to answer. So instead I try to identify the pros and cons of each season in Yosemite and let the questioners decide for themselves what sounds best to them.

  • Winter: Because the crowds have vacated, Yosemite is at its most peaceful in winter. And it’s never more beautiful than when  smothered with fresh snow, but in the relatively warm temperatures of Yosemite Valley, snowstorms only happen a few times each winter so I try to time my visits so I can be there during a storm.
  • Spring: With its booming waterfalls, vivid greens, mirror-like vernal pools, and ubiquitous dogwood blooms (okay, so technically they’re bracts), spring is classic postcard Yosemite. Spring is also when the crowds return.
  • Summer: For tourists only—but if you find yourself in Yosemite on a crowded (understatement) summer day, rising at the first sign of pre-sunrise light will give you at least a couple of hours of glorious peace.
  • Autumn: By autumn the crowds have left, and while Yosemite’s waterfalls have fallen silent, the low and slow water turns the Merced River into a reflecting ribbon that splits Yosemite Valley. The resulting mirror reflections of granite monoliths mingling with the season’s red and gold are one of my favorite things to photograph in Yosemite.

Another question I get asked a lot is some version of, “Where in Yosemite should I photograph sunrise/sunset.” Again there’s no absolute answer, so I just try to provide enough information for the questioners to make their own decisions.

  • Sunrise: Yosemite is not an inherently good sunrise location. In fact, on a typical California clear sky morning, it’s pretty lousy. That’s because most of Yosemite Valley’s best views face east, toward shaded subjects against the brightest part of the sky. Clouds flip the equation, subduing the bright sky and (fingers crossed) filling it with color. But even the cloudless days aren’t an excuse to stay in bed. On these days try to be in position for the first light on El Capitan, about 15/20 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise. And in winter Yosemite Falls also gets beautiful morning light.
  • Sunset: Even without clouds, Half Dome gets nice sunset light year-round. In the long-night months (from the autumnal equinox to the vernal equinox) so does El Capitan. In the long-day months (from the vernal equinox to the autumnal equinox), the late light goes to Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall.

Send in the clouds

Regardless of the season, clouds change everything, especially when storm clouds that swirl about Yosemite’s monoliths. Even high or thin clouds can be difference makers that paint the usually boring sky with color and (if you’re lucky) reflect in foreground water.

Unfortunately, storm clouds often drop all the way to the valley floor, obscuring all the features you traveled to photograph. Rather than giving up, my approach to stormy weather in Yosemite is to wait it out. A clearing storm is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography, an experience that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s witnessed. And when I say wait it out, I don’t mean just returning to your room and looking outside every once in a while, I mean circling the valley in your car, or parking somewhere with an eye on the sky. Tunnel View is a great spot for this.

My other tip for photographing a clearing storm in Yosemite is not staying in one place too long. If you wait until it’s not beautiful anymore before moving on, you won’t leave until the show’s over everywhere—instead, remind yourself that it’s just as beautiful everywhere else, and move on when you find yourself repeating compositions.

Reflecting on reflections

Regardless of the location or conditions, a reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. That’s especially true in Yosemite. Yosemite’s reflection spots change with the season: in spring, they’re best in the vernal pools that form in the meadows, and a small handful of Merced River spots, where it widens (like Swinging Bridge) or pools near the river’s edge; in autumn (and late summer), pretty much the entire Merced River is a mirror. Winter Merced River reflections can be nice too, depending on the weather and amount of runoff.

A lifetime of Yosemite visits helps me pursue its reflections. But even if you don’t know the spots for Yosemite reflections, they’re not hard to find if you keep your eyes open.

The most frequent reflection mistake I see is photographers walking past a reflection because it doesn’t contain an interesting subject. Maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.

Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter any reflective surface, I scan the area for a reflection-worthy subject and position myself to intercept my target subject’s reflected rays, moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my reflection appears. Another important aspect of reflection management is juxtaposing the reflection with submerged or exposed objects in the water.

Putting it all together

These cloud and reflection factors aligned for me in last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop. Based on the weather forecast when we wrapped up the previous night, I gathered the group early enough for our sunrise departure to swing into Tunnel View for quick survey of Yosemite Valley. If there had been no clouds, clearing storm clouds, or zero-visibility clouds, we’d have stayed there. But when I saw a nice mix of high to mid-clouds, I went with Plan-B and beelined to Valley View.

We arrived more than 30 minutes before sunrise and I was pleased to see only one other car in the parking lot. I’d already brought my group here once, so everyone already had an idea of what they wanted to do—a few went just upstream from the cars to the nice reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall; the rest made their way out to the new-ish (last couple of years) and quite conveniently placed logjam that provides a perspective of El Capitan that previously would have required walking on water to achieve.

I left my gear in the car, moving back and forth between the two cohorts and and monitoring the sky. I’ve photographed here so much, I had no plan to this morning, but when the clouds overhead started to pink up, I couldn’t resist. Rather than grabbing my entire camera bag, I just pulled out my tripod and Sony a7R IV with the Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens already attached and trotted down to the natural platform formed by the log jam.

I knew I didn’t have much time, so I quickly found a spot where, by dropping my tripod a little, I could frame El Capitan’s reflection with several of the many protruding rocks. Since Bridalveil Fall wasn’t flowing very strongly, and the light on El Capitan was better, I went with a vertical composition that featured El Capitan only.

The pink was so intense that for a minute or so, it slightly colored the rocks. Before the color faded, I managed to capture several frames with this composition, each with a slightly different polarizer orientation, but I ended up choosing the one that maximized the reflection.

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Yosemite Autumn Reflections

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10 Comments on “No Secrets

  1. Beautiful photo Gary! I’m glad the weather gods were kind to you and your group. And thank you for the super helpful (as usual) info. I arrived in Yosemite this evening to lowering clouds and rain, to be followed by snow tomorrow, so was in a bit of a quandary as how to proceed, but have a clearer idea now thanks to your insightful post!

  2. Your Yosemite images are beautiful!! I enjoy and appreciate your articles. I don’t have near the talent that you have with your photography, but when asked questions I gladly share.

  3. Pingback: Variations on a Scene | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

  4. Beautiful pictures. God’s beauty is everywhere ,if you just open your eyes you will see it

  5. Absolutely stunning. My husband thinks this is the most beautiful spot he has seen. I don’t know if you sell your prints or not but I would love to have one to surprise him for Christmas. The last time we were there was at least 35 years ago and did not have a good camera. Interested in Autumn one or the Fall with the red tree on the right.

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