Posted on October 20, 2016
Photographing snow-covered Yosemite requires planning and patience: planning to ensure your arrival before the snow stops; patience to wait out the storm when visibility is so poor that you can barely see the nearest tree.
When the snow stops, Yosemite’s relatively mild temperatures (usually in the 30s when it snows) conspire with sunshine, wind, and gravity to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, park visitors driven inside by the storm, swarm outdoors to gape, quickly adding footprints and spreading mud with their boots, bikes, and cars. In other words, if you delay your departure for Yosemite until you hear that it snowed there, you’re too late. The key is being in the park during the storm.
All winter I monitor the National Weather Service Yosemite forecast and discussion (in-depth forecast analysis) pages for hints of a cold storm. I know there are lots of weather forecast options out there, but most either lack the resources of the NWS, or simply use the NWS data. The NWS may not always nail the forecast, but they’re more consistent and reliable than all the other options.
Sometimes the weather can change at the last minute, but I’m always ready. (It doesn’t hurt that I live less than four hours by car from Yosemite Valley.) In the back of my AWD Subaru Outback all winter are chains (required to be carried in Yosemite in winter, even with AWD/4WD), a portable charger that can recharge a car battery (among other things) in a pinch, and a duffle bag with all my cold weather gear (waterproof pants and upper shell, hat, gloves, umbrella, and ice grips for my shoes).
Once I decide I’m in, I’m all in. That usually means getting a room in or near Yosemite Valley, driving to the park a day early, and waiting for the snow to start. Once the snow arrives, I don’t hole up in my room, I’m out shooting. Even though Yosemite’s storms often erase all signs of its most recognizable features, stormy weather is a great time to photograph swirling clouds and accumulating snow in glorious (and rare!) solitude.
As much as I love photographing Yosemite in near white-out conditions, I sometimes get too cold, wet, or worn out to continue. But even when I reach that point, I don’t go in. Instead, I park at Tunnel View and wait for the weather to clear. Tunnel View is the perfect place to wait out a Yosemite storm because it’s on the west side of Yosemite Valley (where the clearing usually starts), provides an elevated vantage point with a view all the way down to Half Dome on the valley’s east side, and is spectacular to photograph when the storm clears. It even has decent cell service. And if I’m looking for an excuse to turn on the engine and warm things up, I drive through the tunnel for a view to the west, a preview of coming weather.
My final advice for anyone waiting out a storm at Tunnel View is when the storm clears, don’t spend so much time there that you miss opportunities elsewhere. This is easy to do because the photography will remain spectacular long after you should have moved on to other scenes.
Among my many snowy-Yosemite go-to spots is Cook’s Meadow. On this trip several years ago, until the snow arrived, the meadow was a field of lumpy brown grass, its sentinel elm a bare skeleton in the shadow of Half Dome. But a few inches of overnight snow transformed the bland meadow into an undulating sea of frozen white waves and etched the tree in white.
The snow was still falling when I arrived, wet and fast, slanted by a stiff breeze. Half Dome was gone. I positioned my tripod so the elm stood by itself, balanced in the frame by a stand of evergreens. The falling snow added an interesting dynamic to the otherwise static scene and I chose a 1/4 shutter speed that would blur its motion to streaks of white.
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Posted on November 11, 2014
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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Posted on February 21, 2011
In any season Yosemite offers something that makes it special, but the most beautiful place on Earth is never more spectacular than when it’s blanketed with fresh snow. For a brief time immediately after a cold storm, every exposed surface for as far as the eye can see is brand new and pristine.
Capturing this magic is all about timing. At just 4,000 feet, Yosemite Valley gets significant snow only during the coldest storms, usually just a handful of times each winter. And when the snow stops, the relatively mild temperatures (usually in the 30s), brilliant sunshine, and even the slightest breeze, conspire to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, park visitors driven inside by the weather, swarm outdoors to gape, quickly adding footprints and spreading mud with their boots, bikes, and cars.
The key to photographing Yosemite with pristine snow is to be in the park while its snowing—if you delay your Yosemite departure until you hear that it snowed, you’re too late. It’s fun sharing this visual treat with my workshops, but because I must schedule these trips over a year in advance, there’s no telling what weather we’ll encounter. So imagine my delight when, after six weeks of dry weather and blue skies, Mother Nature cranked up Yosemite’s snow machine just in time for my 2011 Yosemite Horsetail Fall winter workshop. Each morning greeted us with scenes that seemed designed to outdo what we’d found the day before.
Among my many snowy-Yosemite go-to spots is Cook’s Meadow. On this trip, until the snow arrived, the meadow was a field of lumpy brown grass, its sentinel elm a bare skeleton in the shadow of Half Dome. But six inches of overnight snow transformed this once bland meadow into an undulating sea of frozen white waves. Attempting to emphasize the snow, I dropped to my knees and found a vertical composition that leads the eye across the snowfield to the elm and ultimately to Half Dome. I minimized the brooding sky because, while interesting, it lacked the power to compete with the foreground.
I should add that many in the group had signed up to photograph Horsetail Fall, but since Horsetail Fall requires clear sky for its fiery show, at the beginning of the workshop I advised everyone that Horsetail Fall wasn’t likely in our future. Some were disappointed at first, and a few were puzzled by my enthusiasm for what was in store, but by the time we finished, I don’t think anyone would have traded our experience in the snow for even the most spectacular Horsetail Fall shot.
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