(More) Tunnel View magic

Moon at Twilight, Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

This post is for everyone who woke up this morning thinking, “Gee, I sure wish there were more pictures from Tunnel View in Yosemite.” Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Okay, seriously, the world really doesn’t need any more Tunnel View pictures, but sometimes I just can’t help  myself. Call me biased, but I’ll put this view up against any in the world. I’ve been here hundreds (thousands?) of times, but still try to make it my first stop every time I enter Yosemite Valley (even though it’s a slight detour from my standard route into the park). And Tunnel View’s position overlooking the west end of the valley makes it the first place to clear after a storm, so it’s usually where I wait out any weather.

Since most of my workshops usually include a few people who have never experienced Yosemite, I get vicarious thrills by making Tunnel View my first workshop stop. Of course we usually return as I have many favorite times to share this view: any clearing storm, a crescent moon rising in the predawn twilight, a fiery sunset, Bridalveil Fall’s colorful ascending prism each spring afternoon, Half Dome and El Capitan against a post-sunset pink and blue pastel sky, a rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley, and a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. Nevertheless, with a vast portfolio of  all these magic moments, I rarely photograph here anymore.

So what possessed me to take out my camera on the first sunset of last week’s Yosemite workshop? I’m guess still a hopeless sucker for a clearing storm, but the tipping point for me that evening came when I moon popped out, a rare opportunity to photograph something a little different from anything else I have. Including the moon in my frame required going a little wider than I normally do here, about 30mm in this case, which reduced the moon to a small accent punctuating the scene. If you read my post on visual balance, you understand why I like a small moon that’s not necessarily the focal point the frame.

But enough about me. As much as I enjoyed photographing this, it was more fun watching everyone else watch the sunset unfold. The swirling clouds went from gray, to white, and then pink, before finally parting to reveal blue sky and the moon suspended above Leaning Tower. Between clicks I heard giggles of excitement and even a few audible gasps. Pretty cool.


Forest Autumn, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
200 mm
1/25 second
ISO 200

I love sweeping panoramas, but when I’m alone I often gravitate to the intimate locations that make nature so personal. In Yosemite’s dark corners, places like Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall, and the dense mix of evergreen and deciduous trees lining Merced River near Fern Spring and the Pohono Bridge, I scour the trees and forest floor for subjects to isolate from their surroundings.

Helping your subjects stand out is often the key to a successful image. Sometimes subject isolation is a simple matter of finding something that stands out from its surroundings, an object that’s physically separated far from other distractions. But more often than not, effective isolation requires a little help from your camera settings, using  contrast, focus, and/or motion to distinguish it from nearby distractions.

A disorganized tangle of weeds or branches can become a soft blur of color when you narrow your depth of field with a large aperture, close focus point, and/or long focal length. Likewise with motion, where a long shutter speed can smooth a rushing creek into a silky white ribbon. And a camera’s inherently limited dynamic range can render shadows black, and highlights white, creating a perfect background for your subject.

After finding these dangling leaves, just across the road and a little downriver from Fern Spring in Yosemite Valley, I juxtaposed them against the vertical trunks of background maples and evergreens. Zooming to 200mm reduced my depth of field, separating the sharp leaves from the soft background of trunks and branches. A large aperture further blurred the background to a simple, complementary canvas of color and  shape. Slight underexposure and a polarizer (to remove glare) helped the color pop.

On my website you can read more about my favorite Yosemite photo locations.

A gallery of isolation

Sweet moment

Winter Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite

Last November I planned a trip to Yosemite to coincide with the full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. When a prematurely cold storm blew through and blanketed Yosemite with snow. While the photography was fantastic, I resigned myself to waiting another year for the moonrise I’d hoped for. And I certainly didn’t complain. After a full day of photography in conditions than ranged from overcast to downright stormy, as sunset approach I saw nothing to give me hope for the anticipated moonrise. Nevertheless, I headed to Tunnel View to finish the day.

What happened next was a reminder of why I never try to predict Yosemite’s weather in five minutes based on Yosemite’s weather right now. As many times as I’ve visited Tunnel View (surely it must be in the thousands), the view as a storm clears can still take my breath away. That evening I arrived to find Yosemite Valley coated in a sugary glaze; within minutes Mother Nature served up the next course, turning the clouds above Half Dome cotton candy pink. Then, as if by magic, a gap materialized in the clouds to the right of El Capitan to reveal the moon, like a glowing lollipop. Within sixty seconds the clouds had swallowed the moon and the visual feast was over.

Making sense of nature

Cascades, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

I love the iconic captures as much as the next person–scenes like Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in FebruaryAntelope Canyon’s heavenly beam, or McWay Fall’s tumble into the Pacific, are gorgeous and a thrill to photograph. But standing elbow-to-elbow with tens (or hundreds!) of photographers, each recording identical images that are already duplicates of thousands of prior images, while lots of fun, isn’t enough to stimulate my creative juices. What keeps me going is the opportunity to experience nature with more than just my eyes. Nothing in photography makes me happier than enduring images (my own or others’) that stir the non-visual senses, evoke emotion, and soothe the soul. Colorful sunsets and dramatic clouds might draw the ooohs and ahhhs so many photographers covet, but give me images that convey the sound of running water, the fragrance of evergreen, the texture of granite.

Once upon a time photographing even the most popular scenes in solitude wasn’t difficult. The tourists who overwhelm the best known views during the comfortable times of day would vacate just when the photography started getting good. But the proliferation of digital photographers, combined with the easy exchange of information in our connected world, means there are no secrets anymore and opportunities for solitude have become few and far between. Today if you capture a beautiful image, posting it anywhere is sure to immediately draw photographers like cats to a can-opener.

Given that Yosemite Valley’s eight square miles attracts nearly four million visitors each year, you’d think it would be impossible to find the solitude I crave. But on even the busiest summer day, rising for sunrise will give you at least a couple of peaceful hours. And of course in Yosemite’s backcountry, while relatively crowded by wilderness standards, solitude is always just a short detour away. But even when I’m not in the backcountry, and the sun is up and tourists teem like ants at a picnic, I still have a few quiet spots that get my creative juices flowing.

Near the top of my list are the cascades beneath Bridalveil Fall. Here in the shadow of Yosemite Valley’s shear south wall, with just a little bit of scrambling I can photograph in hours of quiet (contrast-soothing) shade. Variety is no problem here because Bridalveil Creek is different each time I visit:  In February it might be frozen solid or smothered by snow; in May the creek roars with snowmelt; in August it’s a quiet trickle beneath a canopy of green. My favorite month might be October, when the gentle stream tumbles through a carpet of colorful leaves.

This fall Yosemite’s color was a little late. Rather than the explosion of color I often find in late October, the leaves were simple accents for the whispering cascades. After playing with some tighter compositions that featured individual leaves among the rocks, I spent at least an hour with this set of cascades–the longer I stayed, the more I felt there would never be enough time to capture everything I saw. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that images like this won’t excite people the way my more dramatic images do, but they make me happy, and that’s what matters most.

Chasing the moon (the cure for boring skies)

Twilight Crescent, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Whether I’m shooting on my own or (especially) leading a photo workshop, there are no weather conditions I stress about more than blue skies. As nice as it is to be outside on a sunny day, cloudless skies are not a photographer’s friend. Not only do blue skies limit productive photography time to a ninety minute (or so) window sandwiching sunrise and sunset, even in the best light, they’re just plain boring.

In recent years my antidote for blue skies has been to plan as many trips as possible around the moon. The obvious example is Death Valley, which averages about one inch of rain per year and is therefore quite possibly the blue sky capital of the world. Scheduling my Death Valley workshop to include a full moon ensures that, even with cloudless skies, we’re at least able to do moon and moonlight photography. With careful planning I’m able to get the group in position for two sunset moonrises and two sunrise moonsets–always a big hit (for students and instructor).

Of course Death Valley isn’t the only place I photograph that suffers from blue skies. Yosemite is much more likely to have interesting weather, but it’s by no means a sure thing. To hedge my bet in Yosemite I try to time as many workshops there around the moon. For example, I love the way the autumn full moon aligns with Yosemite’s Half Dome and always schedule a fall workshop to coincide with this. But since I can usually fill at least two fall workshops in Yosemite, and there’s only one full moon per month (who do I talk to about that?), I try to plan a second Yosemite fall workshop around a crescent moon.

Because it’s always in the sky opposite the sun, a full moon is relatively easy to photograph if you know what you’re doing. But a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky–the thinner the crescent, the closer to the sun it is. A waning crescent precedes the sun in the east at sunrise, shrinking each day until one morning it’s obliterated by the rising sun. A day or two later the “new” moon reappears at sunset as a waxing crescent, trailing the sun to the western horizon just after sunset–each evening it sets a little later and larger (and “older”).

The crescent moon’s proximity to the sun is a particular problem in Yosemite, as Yosemite Valley is a bowl that’s in deep shade when a crescent moon is in the sky. My solution is to find an elevated location–such as Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, or Olmsted Point–with a view of Half Dome (which is elevated and always brighter than the valley floor).

The trick is to align the moon with Half Dome. For the workshop that just ended Sunday, I determined that the best moon location was Olmsted Point where, on Saturday night, a 12% crescent would hang high above Half Dome at sunset. Moon or not, Olmsted Point is one of my favorite easily accessible locations in Yosemite–it offers a perspective of Half Dome that’s different from the standard views, and glacial erratics (boulders deposited by retreating glaciers) on Olmsted’s sloping granite make great foreground subjects. I knew a thin moon in an otherwise empty sky above Half Dome would make a perfect accent.

I got my group up to Olmsted early so everyone had time to get familiar with the surroundings and find their compositions. The moon was visible when we arrived, but wasn’t prominent enough to photograph until close to sunset, when the sky darkened enough to allow the daylight-bright crescent to stand out. We photographed until darkness was nearly complete, starting with wider shots that included the moon and the reflective granite foreground illuminated by the glowing sky, and continuing until the only shots remaining were moderate vertical telephotos that featured the descending moon above the darkening Half Dome.

Staying out this late, gazing toward the horizon where the sun just disappeared, is a great reminder of how vivid sunset color is, even when there are no clouds. (Next time you watch a sunset, don’t leave when the sun leaves–stay out at least a half hour longer and watch the color in all directions–if you didn’t know better, you’d swear God was taking liberties with the saturation slider.) Eventually our scene became too dark to photograph, but the color just kept getting deeper and deeper. The last few minutes were spent not photographing but appreciating.

You had to be there

Moonset, Candlestick Butte, Canyonlands National Park

If you read my blog enough, you know that I do lots of advance planning, particularly when I want to put the moon in my frame. I have my own workflow for determining the moon’s position relative to the landscape, a workflow I established long before tools like “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”  simplified the process immensely. (TPE is a new trick, and I’m an old dog, so I stick with my tried-and-true methods.) But even the best resources and plotting are no substitute for familiarity, not a big problem at nearby locations like Yosemite or the mountains, but not quite so easy at the spots I only get to once a year.

After two years of co-leading Don Smith’s Arches/Canyonlands workshop with mostly boring blue skies, I suggested to Don that we try the approach I use for my Death Valley workshop. Death Valley is notorious for its blue skies (it averages one inch of rain per year), so despite the fact that I schedule that workshop for the middle of winter to maximize the chance for weather, I also synchronize it around the full moon–even if we get shut out in the weather department, we can still add interest to the sky by including the moon in several sunrise and sunset shoots. And moonlight photography beneath clear desert skies is always a highlight.

So this year Don scheduled his Arches/Canyonlands trip for the October full moon, and as feared, a few days before we started the National Weather Service confirmed that Mother Nature would be serving us a week of blue skies. This time, rather than stress, we found solace in our secret weapon: the moon.

As we always do, Don and I arrived a day early to re-familiarize ourselves with the area we hadn’t seen in a year. That night we made the trek up Delicate Arch for sunset, and to get an idea of where the moon would rise relative to the arch. We saw immediately that we’d need to get creative with our position to line the moon up with the arch (that’ll be a post for a different day).

Since I’m the designated “moon guy” on our trips, following the Delicate Arch shoot I immediately started thinking about locations for moonrise and moonset for the rest of the week. The next morning I purchased a topo map (my trusty topo software doesn’t include Utah) and started studying the options. Don and I hate taking groups to spots we haven’t scouted thoroughly in advance, so after an hour or so with the map, I decided to forego the workshop orientation and head up to the Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district to scout the possibilities.

I returned three hours later feeling giddy. Not had I found the above unmarked vista that would align the setting moon with the Candlestick on our penultimate sunrise, I also found a great sunset spot that would allow us to photograph the full moon rising above the La Sal Mountains the evening before. Those two shoots turned out to be the highlight of the workshop, not just because of the moon, but also because we got a perfect mix of unexpected (and welcome!) clouds to catch the color.

On the drive to this sunrise shoot the group was still buzzing about the sunset shoot the night before, but quickly forgot as we made our way to the canyon’s rim and saw the moon hanging low above the Candlestick. There was room here for everyone to spread out, and while the foreground when we started was too dark to allow lunar detail, the light rose quickly, filling the sky with glorious pink pastels to complement the red canyon below. We found something for every focal length, from ultra-wide compositions with lots of foreground (like this image), to long telephoto frames that isolated the moon above the Candlestick. Don and I spent a great deal of time reminding people to bracket their compositions, but in between we managed to capture a few frames of our own.

One of the great pleasures of these workshops is seeing the variety of compositions possible at a single location. At image review that afternoon it was clear that everyone had not only captured the scene well, but had also found their own unique perspective. Pretty cool.

Monument Valley by moonlight

Big Dipper Above Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona border

After a successful and satisfying week co-leading Don Smith’s Arches/Canyonlands workshop, Don and I detoured to Monument Valley on our way home. The evening of our arrival we hired a guide to take us to Teardrop Arch at sunset, but with cloudless skies and a 14+ hour drive home to Central California, we decided to pass on a sunrise shoot that was unlikely to yield anything the world hadn’t seen before. Instead, we rose at 4:30 to photograph Monument Valley by moonlight.

Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation; access to pretty much any location off the main road or hotel grounds requires a Navajo guide. Unable to explore, Don and I trekked, still bleary-eyed, to the vista platform adjacent to the hotel restaurant, a hike of at least 150 feet from our room (not to mention a 10 foot elevation gain).

The first thing I saw from the platform was the Big Dipper, to the left of the Mittens, but not so far left that I wouldn’t be able to use it in a composition. I do so much moonlight photography that exposure and focus are routine, so almost all of my time was spent cycling through a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions covered the entire scene and most of the focal range of my 24-105 lens.

Whether it’s extreme weather, a strenuous hike, or sleep deprivation, I find it interesting how frequently the most memorable shoots result from the most difficult conditions. It wasn’t easy to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m., but the experience that followed was one of my most memorable in a long time, and surely had lots to do with the drive home being much better than we expected.

Tuba City, Flagstaff, Kingman, Needles, Barstow, Tehachapi, Bakersfield, Kettleman City, Santa Nella…. Home!

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