My Lifelong Relationship With Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Alpenglow, Nevada and Vernal Falls from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Alpenglow, Nevada and Vernal Falls from Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1 second
ISO 100

My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that I’m still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory (and I have the pictures to prove it—see below). The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.

While my relationship with Yosemite may not have a beginning or end, it does have a few hiccoughs. The most recent, and by far most significant, was the abrupt halt to my regular, and often unscheduled, visits to Yosemite. BC (before COVID) I’d make 20 or 30 trips per year to my home-away-from-home, some planned far in advance (both workshops and personal trips), but many only after dropping everything with just a few hours notice, when it looked like something special might taje place. But COVID closures, and further restrictions that required me to apply for approval to visit, saw my 2020 visits plummet. Let’s see, from March 2020 through January 2021 there were only three: two last July for Comet NEOWISE (8 hours of driving for 1 hour of photography each time), and one for my late October fall color workshop (my only 2020 workshop since February, anywhere).

Glacier Point plays a role in many of my Yosemite memories, but none are more permanently embedded than a visit when I was probably 8 or 9. My father was a serious amateur photographer whose his own relationship with Yosemite influenced me. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning firing across the valley.

Being Californians with little lightning experience, we had no idea how foolish this was—the lightning was a couple of miles away, which seemed a safe distance. But later that afternoon we attended a ranger talk at Glacier Point, we learned that lightning can travel more than 10 miles and that elevated and fully exposed Sentinel Dome is probably the last place you’d want to be in an electrical storm. He said this with a chuckle, as if to imply that he knew no one present would be foolish enough to attempt this. The kicker to this story came at Glacier Point later that afternoon, when seemingly out of nowhere a rainbow arced across the face of Half Dome. I’ll never forget my father’s excitement—the resulting image was the source of his greatest photographic pride, and the print he made still graces my mom’s wall.

Gary Hart Photography: My first workshop

Lecturing my first workshop group on the virtues of tripod use

As I grew older, I started creating my own Yosemite memories. On countless trips into its vast backcountry, I relished reclining beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipping from streams that started the day as snow, and nights beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. A big part of my “new” (it’s now more than 15 years) career is the opportunity to share Yosemite with other photographers. But despite the fact photography is now my livelihood, visiting Yosemite is never work. Now I get to live vicariously through their excitement, watching them experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures, or opening their eyes to new perspectives of familiar Yosemite scenes. I’m humbled that I might be a catalyst for others’ nascent or expanded relationships with this special place, and that they might spread their love to others.

Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished (no, Horsetail Fall is not the Firefall), and backpacking requires difficult-to-obtain permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. In recent years, the new park vendor has spoiled many of Yosemite’s institutions with what I can only label as corporate greed that places their bottom line above the visitor’s experience.

But I’m thrilled to return to something resembling the old normal. Each time I return I’m reminded that despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.

About this image

An extremely dry winter allowed for the early opening of Glacier Point, just three days before the start of my Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop. It’s a always nice to share this spectacular view with others, and this year’s group had a large number of Yosemite first-timers, a particular treat.

When we arrived I was pleased to see that it wasn’t too crowded, but I still had to spend a little time negotiating space along the rail facing Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon for a few people in my group. One potential spot, where the railing protruded from a steeply sloping granite boulder, was especially precarious (not dangerous, though you definitely didn’t want to drop anything), with tricky footing that required grippy shoes, creative tripod arrangement, and a firm grasp of the bar to stay upright. A couple of people tried it and decided it wouldn’t work for them, so after finding no more takers, I ended up settling there.

Though we did have some nice clouds behind Half Dome and distant Mt. Conness, there was no sign of clouds further south. I focused most of my attention on Half Dome and the clouds, but once the sun set I pointed my camera toward the lovely alpenglow deepening on the eastern horizon above Nevada and Vernal Falls. I thought the nearby trees and vertical granite face made a nice foreground, but couldn’t quite get them all in without also including the wall and railing I was braced against. After even more tripod machinations, I managed to elevate my tripod to the maximum height possible—high enough. Using the trees and cliff face on the right of my frame to balance the visual weight of the waterfalls on left, I focused on the dead tree and clicked.

My Yosemite

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Yosemite, weather or not

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
ISO 125

Photography weather and tourist weather are polar opposites: What’s good for photography—clouds, rain, snow—isn’t usually so great for being outside. This is especially true in Yosemite, where stormy weather can add an entirely new dimension to the park’s already renowned scenery (not to mention inclement weather’s crowd-thinning effect).

Sometimes Yosemite’s clouds simply diffuse the light, subduing shadows into a much more camera-friendly range, and extending the quality photography window. Other times, the clouds become subjects themselves, contorting into diaphanous curtains or towering pillars whose beauty rivals Yosemite’s granite icons. But rain or shine, there’s always something to photograph in Yosemite if you know where to look.

Wet weather gear

Regardless of the forecast, I never travel to Yosemite without my rain gear duffel containing everything necessary to keep me head-to-toe dry and focused on photography: hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and waterproof boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. I haven’t found a satisfactory rain cover for my camera, but a plastic garbage bag is quite handy for keeping the camera dry while it’s on my tripod but I’m not shooting (searching or waiting for a shot). Another essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet despite my best efforts.

Elm in Blizzard, Cook's Meadow, Yosemite

Elm in Blizzard, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

The teeth of the storm

Some of my favorite Yosemite photography has been in the teeth of the storm, when rain or snow has forced all but the most hardy indoors, and obliterated the recognizable landmarks, forcing me to look a little closer for subjects. A bonus during these extreme weather shoots are the occasional cameos by Yosemite’s star attractions (so stay alert).

My go-to mid-storm subjects in Yosemite include: the elm in Cook’s Meadow, the Cascade Creek waterfall above the bridge on Big Oak Flat Road (the road descending into Yosemite Valley from the Big Oak Flat entrance), Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall, Fern Spring and the Pohono Bridge, and El Capitan Bridge. But really, you’ll find shots wherever you look.

Clear skies

As much as I enjoy photographing in stormy weather, I don’t put my camera away when skies are clear. My favorite clear sky spots are the frequently shady locations on the south side of the valley, such as Bridalveil Creek and the forest near Fern Spring and the Pohono Bridge. Depending on the season (the closer to the winter solstice, the better), these spots can offer several hours of shade at the beginning and ends of the day.

Clear skies also open the door to night photography—all those popular spots that were packed with gawkers and washed out by the harsh midday light are peaceful and photogenic by moon- or starlight. My favorite moonlight (full moon) subjects are Yosemite Falls and El Capitan, because they’re the first to be illuminated by the rising moon—the face of Half Dome doesn’t get moonlight until the moon has dropped toward the western horizon, well after midnight on a full moon night. On the other hand, Half Dome does make a nice starlight subject because most views are to the east, where the sky is darkest before midnight. An unappreciated key to successful Yosemite night photography is finding a spot unsullied by headlights.

Midday in the summer, when it’s virtually impossible to find shade that’s not stained with sunlight, is a good time to break for lunch, take a hike, or (especially) explore.

Clearing storm

Gary Hart Photography: Warm Light, El Capitan Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Warm Light, El Capitan Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Venture out to photograph during Yosemite’s harshest weather is the most reliable way to ensure a clearing storm opportunity. If you wait out the most miserable stuff by the fire, you risk missing the best stuff, which often happens with startling suddenness—for hours visibility might not extend beyond 100 yards, then you blink and there’s a rainbow.

With its bird’s-eye view east, up Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View is the most popular location to photograph a Yosemite clearing storm, but it’s easy to be so mesmerized by the show there that you miss all the great photography elsewhere. Because the west side of Yosemite Valley is where storms usually clear first, I often wait out the storm at Tunnel View, photograph its initial clearing there, then force myself to move on (believe me, it’s not easy to leave) while the shooting is still good.

The best subjects for a Yosemite clearing storm are the icons—El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome—but not necessarily from the standard locations. Pretty much any spot with a view of one or more of these subjects will work, but I often try to include the Merced River and reflections.

Wet and dry seasons

Blue skies rule Yosemite’s summer, with clouds and rain the exception (but still possible). Yosemite’s wet season comes in late fall, winter, and and early spring, with rain and snow always a possibility. In general, in Yosemite Valley rain is far more common than snow, but snow can happen any month from November through April, with December, January, and February being your best bet (but some of my best snow experiences have come in November and April, and in 2015, Yosemite Valley didn’t get any significant snow until April).

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley


With its east/west orientation and primarily east-facing views, Yosemite is particularly well situated for afternoon rainbows. Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Valley View are great rainbow spots, but pretty much any valley location with a view of Half Dome, or a view of El Capitan’s west-facing wall, will work.

When the sun is  lower than 42 degrees above the horizon (late afternoon in the long-day months, all day in winter), look for signs of clearing in the west (where the clearing usually starts). Sometimes you’ll see a few patches of blue, other times you’ll notice that the sky is brightening slightly. Find your shadow, which will point to the rainbow’s center (if there’s no shadow, draw an imaginary line from where you guess the sun is, through your position, and toward the scene opposite the sun)—if it’s not pointing toward anything interesting, move to another location—set up your shot, cross your fingers, and wait. And don’t forget to remove your polarizer, or orient it to maximize reflections (the opposite from the standard polarizer orientation) because an improperly oriented polarizer will erase your rainbow.

Winter wonderland

You know those images with every Yosemite feature draped in white? Those scenes happen just a handful of times each year (if

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

we’re lucky), and rarely last for more than an hour or two after the snow stops falling. So simply taking a trip to Yosemite in winter is very unlikely to net you fresh snow opportunity. In fact, even if you hear that it just snowed in Yosemite and beeline straight to the park, you’re almost surely too late.

To get that coveted Yosemite winter wonderland shot, you actually need to be there during the storm. And when the snow stops (see clearing storm reference above), move as quickly as you can, because the trees will begin shedding snow almost immediately.

Those of us within a reasonable driving distance of Yosemite have a distinct advantage if we’re good about monitoring the weather forecast. I look for storms with predicted snow levels below 4,000 feet, then try to arrive before the worst weather hits.

About this image

Because I avoid the crowds and blue skies of summer, I don’t make it to Glacier Point as frequently as I do locations in Yosemite Valley. But a few weeks ago my brother and I went to Glacier Point to photograph lightning, then hung around until the storm cleared.

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Unlike the California winter storm fronts that originate in the Pacific and sweep eastward across the Central Valley and into the Sierra, summer thunderstorms are usually borne of subtropical moisture encountering High Sierra convection and billowing into towering thunderheads above the Sierra crest. In the right conditions, these thunderstorms can slip far enough west to soak Yosemite Valley and stab the rim with jagged lightning.

At its most intense, the storm that afternoon nearly obscured Half Dome, completely drenching us. With the rain came lightning that soon chased us to the safety of the car. When things calmed we ventured back out to the vista to photograph the storm’s clearing. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch the shifting clouds that seem to create an entirely different image with each passing minute. For the this shot I waited for the cloud to part enough to reveal Nevada (above) and Vernal Falls, going wide to frame them with Half Dome on the left, and Mt. Starr King on the right.

The many faces of Yosemite weather

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

Glacier Point moonrise

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1.3 seconds
21 mm
ISO 100

May 12, 2014

I’ve been in Yosemite for my annual Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop. Monday night I took the group to Glacier Point for sunset—an unexpected benefit of California’s drought that allowed Glacier Point Road to open weeks earlier than normal. I knew a nearly full moon would be rising above the Sierra crest that evening, but figured that since it would be so far south, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot with it. But when I arrived Glacier Point and saw the moon rising above Mt. Starr King, I realized that shifting slightly south, away from the popular Glacier Point View, might just allow us to include the moon and Half Dome in a wide shot. Hmmm. But because we had people in the group who had never been to Glacier Point, I decided now was not the time for exploration.

As always happens at Glacier Point on these predominantly clear evenings, the light on Half Dome warmed beautifully as the sun dropped to the horizon behind us. Organizing an expansive landscape into a coherent image can be difficult, especially for first timer visitors. But as I moved between the students positioned along the rail, it seemed that all were doing fine and realized that my greatest value at the moment was to stay out of the way. Appreciating the view, I just couldn’t get that moon, blocked by trees from our vantage point, out of my mind.

When a couple of people in the group asked why I wasn’t shooting (it always makes them nervous when the leader is looking at the same view they’re photographing but shows no interest in shooting), I told them I was simply enjoying the view (quite true). But when someone asked if I had any suggestions for something different, my ears perked up. I told them if I were to be shooting, I’d go back up the trail a hundred yards or so to see if I could get around the trees and find something that included the moon.

When several people sounded interested, I warned them that there’s no guarantee we’d find anything photo-worthy, and relocating so close to sunset would risk missing the show entirely. Much to my delight, a couple of people said, “Let’s do it,” and that was all I needed to hear. I told Don (Don Smith, who’s assisting this workshop—for those who haven’t been paying attention, Don assists some of my workshops, I assist some of Don’s, and we do a few workshops as equal collaborations) that I was taking a few people back up the trail and off we went.

I ended up with five (nearly half the group) at the view just below the Glacier Point geology exhibit. I chose this spot for its open view, and for the way it allowed us to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left, triangular Mt. Starr King and the moon on the right, and Nevada and Vernal Falls in the center. With a couple of trees and dark granite for the foreground, the scene couldn’t have been more ideal if I’d have assembled it myself.

I took out my 16-35 and composed this scene that pretty much seemed to frame itself. Even though I had subjects ranging from the fairly close foreground the the extremely distant background, at 21mm I knew I’d have enough depth of field at f11. I used live view to focus on the foreground tree, more than distant enough to ensure sharpness throughout my frame.

While I almost always rely on my RGB histogram to check my exposure, my general exposure technique when photographing a full moon in twilight is to forego the histogram and concentrate on the moon. As far as I’m concerned, a shot is a failure if the moon’s highlights are blown (a white disk), but since the moon is such a tiny part of the frame, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram. What does register is the blinking highlight alert that signals overexposed highlights. When the foreground is dark, I’ll continue pushing my exposure up until the moon just starts to blink (not the entire disk, just the brightest spots). I know from experience that I can recover these blown highlights in post processing. I also know that this is the most light I can give the scene, because the moon’s brightness won’t change as the foreground darkens. (While I don’t blend images, for anyone so inclined it’s quite simple to take two frames, one exposed for the foreground and the other exposed for the moon, and combine the two in Photoshop.) In this case I spot metered on the foreground to ensure enough light to retain color and detail in the rapidly darkening shadows, then used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky and (especially) protect against blowing the moon.

*      *      *      *

About this scene

This is the view looking east from near Glacier Point. From left to right: Cloud’s Rest (just behind Half Dome), Half Dome, Vernal Fall (below—the white water beneath Vernal Fall is cascades on the Merced River), Nevada Fall (above), Mt. Starr King (triangle shaped peak).


Join me as we do it all over again in next year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop


It’s personal

Top of the World, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Some of my oldest, fondest Yosemite memories involve Glacier Point: Craning my neck from Camp Curry, waiting for the orange glow perched on Glacier Point’s fringe to grow into a 3,000 foot ribbon of fire; stretching on tiptoes to peer over the railing to see the toy cars and buildings in miniature Yosemite Valley; standing on the deck of the old Glacier Point Hotel my father’s breathless excitement at the sudden shimmering rainbow arcing across Half Dome’s face.

The National Park Service doused the Firefall in 1968 and my father died almost eight years ago. While El Capitan’s Horsetail Fall delivers a no less spectacular (albeit less reliable) February show across the valley, and my father’s rainbow image is a vivid reminder on my mom’s living room wall, those Glacier Point memories are irreplaceable.

Glacier Point closes with the first significant snow each fall, and doesn’t open until the snow melts in late spring–avoiding summer’s crowds and interminable blue skies means I don’t make it to Glacier Point much anymore. So I was thrilled to learn that this year’s dry winter enabled the NPS to open Glacier Point on April 20, early enough for me to share it with last week’s workshop group.

Because I already had plans for Mirror Lake, moonrise, and moonlight photography later in the workshop, I decided that the workshop’s first sunset was the best time time for the Glacier Point trip. Stopping first at Washburn Point just a short distance up the hill, we were treated to a harbinger of what was to come later–a mix of wave clouds and alto-cumulus above the Sierra crest to the east, and wonderfully warm light on Half Dome. Not knowing how long the light would last, I hustled the group to Glacier Point, arriving soon enough to get a front row seat for what turned out to be the best sunset experience I’ve ever had at Glacier Point.

The light held out all the way to sunset, warming from amber to pink and finally red, painting the sky and saturating the granite landscape with shades of magenta. As it turned out we had many other photogenic moments (dogwood, a moonbow, and the rise of the “super” moon above Yosemite Valley) in the workshop’s remaining three days, but this sunset on Glacier Point will be my fondest memory.

That’s Half Dome front and center, Cloud’s Rest behind it to the right, and Nevada (top) and Vernal Falls in the lower right.

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