Returning to the scene of the crime

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite


My Bridalveil Dogwood image is eight years old now. It remains one of my most popular images, and is still a personal favorite because it represents so many of my personal goals for each image:

  • Use camera’s unique vision to reveal nature’s frequently overlooked details
  • Manage the front-to-back plane to create the illusion of depth
  • Guide the eye and create location context with selective focus
  • Render the world in ways that allow others to imagine a world without human influence

My goal that morning, crystalized on the drive to Yosemite, was to juxtapose a sharply focused, foreground dogwood flower against a Yosemite icon softly focused in the background. I wandered Yosemite Valley in a light rain for a couple of hours before stumbling upon this blooming dogwood tree with Bridalveil Fall in the background. To frame Bridalveil with this pair of flowers I had to drag a log over to stand on, and extend my tripod’s center post much farther than I’m comfortable with (the center post is not terribly stable). An extension tube enabled a close focus that exaggerated the dogwood and softened Bridalveil Fall. Focused that close, getting Bridalveil sharp enough to be recognizable required me to stop down to f22. Fortunately there was no trace of wind.

Someone recently told me they overheard a couple of photographers stalking this tree, talking about my dogwood image, hoping they could duplicate it. While I was flattered, this need to replicate images makes me scratch my head. It’s what creates tripod traffic jams in Antelope Canyon on sunny days, at Mesa Arch every sunrise, and beneath Horsetail Fall each February, to name a few. I’m not saying I don’t have my share of derivative images, but they just don’t give me the satisfaction I get from creating something that I feel is uniquely my own. I tell my workshop students that images that move them to action are great, but they should be the starting point and never the goal. In other words, take an image that excites you and find put your own creative twist to it.

For example, while I have no desire to duplicate any image (my own or anyone else’s), I do return to “my” dogwood tree because I love the way it aligns so perfectly with Bridalveil Fall. A couple of years ago I was in Yosemite during an early snow storm. Many (shocked) colorful fall leaves remained on the trees, suddenly fringed with snow. Wanting to create something that showed the collision of fall and winter and still said Yosemite, I thought of this dogwood. Sure enough, I found a host of colorful leaves clinging like Christmas ornaments and composed something that achieved my goal.

Fall in to Winter, Yosemite

The dogwood were blooming beautifully during my Yosemite workshop that ended Saturday, so one morning I took my group to the Bridalveil dogwood tree. Of course the conditions were entirely different, but from what I saw on several LCDs and during the workshop image review, lots of new images were created. I even tried my own hand at something different, breaking out my 100-400 lens and isolating a sunlit branch wide open at extreme telephoto. I haven’t had a chance to see whether I captured anything worthwhile, but I’ll let you know….

Every picture has a story

Bridalveil Dogwood

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite National Park
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
ISO 100
48 mm

Every picture has a story. (And as Rod Stewart reminded us, every picture tells a story as well, but it’s not necessarily the same story and that isn’t really what I want to talk about anyway.) The story of a compelling nature photograph can include every bit of the good stuff that makes for gripping narrative in a book or movie: adventure, peril, suffering, and yes, sometimes even romance, humor, and foolish mishaps.

The story of this image goes back to the beginning of the story of my path as a nature photographer, all the way back to an afternoon when the ten-year-old me joined my father, a serious amateur photographer, on a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. For those unfamiliar with the most beautiful place on Earth, Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome is a towering, rounded knob of granite that does indeed appear to stand sentinel above the surrounding terrain. At 8,000 feet, its summit provides a 360-degree highlight reel of Yosemite’s most dramatic features: Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome, among others, are all on prominent display here. With the exception of a single gnarled jeffrey pine, exquisitely captured by Ansel Adams and many other photographers (and now dead and lying on its side), Sentinel Dome’s summit is also as bald as a bowling ball.

On the day of our hike thunderstorms had been firing all afternoon, stabbing the granite near El Capitan and Yosemite Falls just across the valley. Dad’s goal was to photograph lightning, and what vantage point better than Sentinel Dome with its panoramic view, not to mention a photogenic tree for the foreground. My dad wasn’t a stupid man, but personal experience has since helped me understand how his desire to “get the shot” can temporarily overwhelm good sense. So, when the storm crept closer and rain started to fall on our location, rather than descend to safety, Dad handed me an umbrella and asked me to extend it high above his treasured Leica.

So there I stood, proudly and without question, perched atop an elevated and completely exposed peak, extending heavenward a metal rod. I have no memory of fear or even of being aware of the foolishness of our efforts—I just remember sensing Dad’s intense desire to get his shot, and wishing with all my heart for the lightning bolt that would make it happen.

We didn’t get our lightning that day, and more importantly, the lightning didn’t get us. But later that afternoon, as the whole family enjoyed the view in a light rain just down the road at Glacier Point, the storm broke and delivered without warning a brilliant rainbow that arced magnificently across the face of Half Dome. My father, despite being transformed by family priorities from photographer to tourist, still dangled his Leica from his neck—he simply had to lift the camera, meter the scene, and click to get the shot of his lifetime.

Here’s my dad’s Half Dome Rainbow, captured on a summer afternoon in the mid-sixties.

I’ll never forget the contrast of Dad’s emotions that afternoon, which ranged from frustration and disappointment atop Sentinel Dome, to shear euphoria at Glacier Point. I experienced them as strongly as if they were my own, and while photography dropped from my radar as I spent the remainder of my youth occupied with the typical distractions of adolescence, few childhood memories are more permanent than that one. In hindsight it’s clear that Dad’s emotions were a microcosm of the reasons I became a nature photographer. For every success there are ten disappointments, but every once in a while you’re gifted with a surprise that makes all the frustration worthwhile.

Fast-forward to 2004. A gentle spring rain falls as I wander the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. I have image in mind. Like that afternoon on Sentinel Dome, I have no guarantee of getting the shot I want: a dogwood bloom with one of Yosemite’s landmarks in the background. I make several stops, and as I search I’m only vaguely aware of the steady but light rain (fortunately, there’s no lightning).

I can’t remember how much my thoughts this wet morning drifted to the afternoon on Sentinel Dome with my dad all those years ago, but I have no doubt that it was prime catalyst in my path from enthusiastic assistant, to serious amateur, and ultimately to full-time professional photographer. I now completely understand that need to get the shot with little concern for the consequences, and how easy it can be to mentally eliminate distractions, discomfort, and physical obstacles (and sometimes good sense).

I got my shot that day, a raindrop-festooned dogwood blossom, large and sharp in the foreground, with a roaring Bridalveil Fall soft in the distance. On my drive home I was cold, wet, and happy. Photography’s funny that way. Thanks, Dad.

A sampling of personal favorites

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

%d bloggers like this: