Posted on April 2, 2018
Surrounded by towering granite walls that seem so permanent, Yosemite Valley is America’s poster-park for enduring beauty. But in the grand geological scheme, there’s nothing permanent about Yosemite. In my lifetime Yosemite has been visibly altered by drought, flood, and rockslides (not to mention human interference). Predating my arrival, Yosemite’s Anglo conquerors had a profound affect on the flora and fauna that prevailed in its prior centuries under Native care. And predating all human contact, glaciers performed their carve-and-polish magic on Yosemite’s granite.
But Yosemite’s history of change goes back much farther than that. Though it’s just a drop in the 4 1/2 billion-year bucket of Earth’s existence, let’s flip the calendar back to 100 million years before the glaciers scoured the area we call Yosemite, when layers of sediment deposited beneath a vast sea had been injected with magma that cooled to become granite. This subterranean granite was gradually uplifted by a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates that formed the mountains we call the Sierra Nevada. (Yes, I know this is a gross simplification of a very complex process.)
That’s a time-lapse I’d pay money to see, but lacking an actual 100-million-year time-lapse, I think Yosemite’s clouds make a wonderful metaphor for the park’s constant change. In fact, Yosemite storms are subject to the same the laws of nature that build and erode mountains. Each is the environment’s response to heat, moisture, pressure, and gravity—albeit on a different clock. Different in many ways, there’s also an interconnectedness to these natural processes: Just as the mountains have a profound affect on weather patterns, the weather is the prime force in the mountains’ erosion.
A month ago I got to watch the special choreography of Yosemite’s clouds and granite. Drawn by the promise of snow, I arrived as the storm built during daylight’s last couple of hours. Continuing to build under the cover of darkness, the storm was in full force by the morning’s first light. I woke to find snow covering every exposed surface, while overhead the mesmerizing dance of form and flow played out atop unseen air currents.
My first stop that morning was El Capitan Meadow. In summer, gawkers tailgate here to watch climbers monkey their way to the top of El Capitan. On this frigid morning El Capitan’s summit was a memory beneath a gray shroud, so I turned my camera to earthbound subjects within the small radius of my vision. In intense storms like this, ephemeral glimpses of Yosemite’s icons are a coveted reward that keeps experienced Yosemite photographers glancing skyward. Ever the optimist, despite a seemingly impenetrable low ceiling, I directed frequent glances in El Capitan’s direction as I worked.
The first suggestion of El Cap’s outline above the trees looked more like the faintest hint of a shadow in the clouds. I recognized what could be about to happen and quickly made my way to a better vantage point, watching until the shadow darkened and vague granitic detail appeared. Anticipating further clearing, I worked fast to beat the monolith’s inevitable reabsorption, switching lenses and framing a wide shot. To minimize tree-tilting perspective distortion, I raced across the road to increase my distance from the forest, raising my vantage point by scaling a snow mound piled atop a low fence by snowplows. With a breeze blowing the trees, I’d been shooting all morning at ISO 800, and the morning’s flat and constant light meant was no need to adjust my exposure. When the clouds parted just enough to frame El Capitan’s nose, I focused on the nearby trees and clicked several frames before the hole snapped shut.
An image like this is as much an opportunity to capture Yosemite’s snowy splendor as it is a revelation of something special about El Capitan. And that morning, my only thoughts about the clouds were wishes they’d disappear to show more granite. But as I started working on this image at home, I couldn’t help think about how clouds often provide the change Yosemite photographers seek in this (seemingly) unchanging place. That got me thinking about the nearby scar from last August’s tragic rockslide. On a clear day from the right vantage point, the scar is clearly visible on El Capitan’s east flank. another reminder that the only thing in Yosemite that’s permanent is change.
Posted on March 18, 2015
“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.
Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.
My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.
When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.
So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.
I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.
And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.
For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.
Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.
Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.
Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.
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Posted on February 9, 2013
Sand dunes’ graceful curves and intricate textures move and intrigue the eye, and few things better convey nature’s purity than a windswept dune. Ironically, it’s the dunes’ aesthetic magnetism that hastens their demise as photographic subjects—their fragile sand, so easily sculpted by Mother Nature’s fickle winds, is hopelessly marred by any contact with the humans drawn by their beauty.
While Death Valley has several sets of dunes, by virtue of their ease of access, the most popular by far are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Every day hundreds (thousands?) of gawkers seeking a closer look trudge up and down the undulating sand—with each footstep a small amount of purity is lost. Fortunately, it’s rarely long before Mother Natures has had enough and sends in scouring winds that erase the scars like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch.
This year’s Death Valley workshops landed in the middle of an extended static without significant wind, so I knew pristine sand would be hard to find. To minimize the footprints I take my groups to a spot that’s away from the tourist foot traffic, but this time I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Nevertheless we gave it a shot and managed to find enough patches of untouched sand to isolate with a telephoto and everyone was satisfied. Except me.
So when a stiff wind kicked up the afternoon of our final full day in Death Valley I took them back out to the dunes with fingers crossed. On our drive from Furnace Creek the cars were buffeted by gusts and the entire northern horizon was obscured by dark clouds that I soon realized were in part blowing sand—a very good sign indeed. I pulled up to a spot I’d scouted a few days earlier, far removed from the paved parking area and tall dunes that draw people, and surveyed the conditions. The wind whipped anything not buttoned down and pewter clouds were rapidly overtaking the late afternoon light skimming the Cottonwood Mountains.
The group prepared for strong wind and blowing sand similar to the way we’d prepare to photograph in the rain, but in the five minutes it took to get onto the dunes the wind had mysteriously diminished to an eery calm. Before us spread pure, rippled sand for as far as the eye could see. And except for one distant photographer who quickly passed out of sight, we were the only people out there.
Fearing a shotgun approach to setting the group free would result in inadvertent footprints marring the scenes of others, I gathered everyone and suggested that we move together and agree to stay behind a predetermined imaginary line. The problem, I explained, wasn’t just staying out of everyone’s frame, it was that each step in the sand would ruin all shots in that direction. So they all followed me until I found a nice scene with a good amount variety, which we all photographed for a few minutes before I guided them to another scene. After two or three of these cycles, it seemed everyone had become comfortable enough with the environment and the ground rules that we could scatter without interfering.
I have to say that there is no kind of photography that makes me happier than what we did that evening. With virgin, textured sand and a dramatic, rapidly changing sky, the creative possibilities were off the charts. Surveying the group, it was clear that everyone was as thrilled as I was, each fully engaged in their own photographic zone. I kept telling them that they had no idea how lucky they were to be photographing these dunes without a single footprint, but I’m not sure anyone was listening at that point.
About this image
Most successful images provide a clear path for the eye to follow, or an obvious place for the eye to rest—often both. With sand dunes, so much visual motion (curves and lines) and activity (texture) makes a visual resting point particularly important. The first place I stopped the group was in front of this solitary shrub atop a low, curving ridge of sand. The scene had all the compositional elements you could ask for: elegantly arcing sand, rich texture, a dramatic sky, and a potential focal point. After pointing all this out and encouraging the group to assemble the key elements into a composition that resonates with them, I was pleased to see lenses of all focal lengths, horizontal and vertical compositions, and lots of repositioning to arrange foreground and background relationships.
Surveying the scene for myself, I noticed clouds moving in from the north painted a texture overhead that complemented the ridged sand at my feet. The filtered sunlight on the western horizon, while waning, was still sufficient to warm the scene. Finding the sand and sky equally appealing, and the shrub more interesting for its lofty perch than its inherent beauty, I tried to identify a composition that incorporated these elements.
To emphasize the foreground and sky, and to shrink the shrub, I twisted on my widest lens and dropped to about a foot above the sand. A vertical composition allied the dune’s parallel ridges with the frame’s long side to move the eye from front to back and created the impression that the entire world is converging on my little shrub. The vertical composition also narrowed the frame enough to eliminate incongruous clouds lowering on my left and right. I stopped-down to f22 and focused about three feet in front of my lens, ensuring perfect close sharpness and acceptable distant sharpness. A soft breeze swayed the shrub intermittently so I bumped to ISO 400 to allow a faster shutter speed.
In typical Death Valley fashion, it never did rain that evening. As the storm approached, all menace and bluster, our cocoon of calmness soon gave way to sand-whipping, tripod-tipping winds that lowered a cloudy shroud onto the Death Valley Buttes and Funeral Mountains to the east, cooling the light and creating an altogether different mood (that I’ll share in a future post).
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.