Published on November 5, 2015 by Thomas Heaton
I need to get this off my chest; Yosemite Valley was stunningly beautiful, but it was one of the worst places I have ever visited as a photographer.
A bold statement, I know. As a tourist, Yosemite is amazing. I enjoyed the sights, hiked up to waterfalls, found myself engrossed in the Ansel Adams Gallery and enjoyed some amazing picnics. As a man with a camera & tripod, I found Yosemite Valley to be busy, noisy, expensive & stressful. The best way for me to describe Yosemite Valley is like a theme park for photographers; the best view points being like the biggest, fastest rides. I have been to busy locations before, but none like this. I have never had to queue for a spot to put my tripod before and I have never had to sit in traffic, watching as the light falls behind the trees, knowing that there is a perfect shot just meters down the road… if only I could get there, how am I in gridlock traffic in one of the most beautiful places on earth? Is Yosemite Valley a victim of its own success? I don’t know. Maybe I was unlucky and arrived during a busy period. I was frustrated during my time there, however I kept telling myself that I am also part of the problem, I am people.
Anyway, now I have that off my chest, I can move on to the positives, for which there are many!
Below is the first image I took. This was taken from Tunnel View and I had to really fight for a spot as you can see by the image at the top of this page. This is a classic view point and I was lucky enough to have clear skies to the west, which allowed for the very last rays of sunlight to catch the top of El Capitan & Half Dome.
The next day the Bridalveil Fire, an on going forest fire, was causing smoke to be blown in to the valley, which offered some much needed atmosphere. Unfortunately this did not last long and by the time sunset had come around the winds had changed and the smoke had dissipated, although I am not sure I would have fancied another go at Tunnel View.
Although California was going through one of the worst droughts in years, the Merced River was healthy and I soon started to realise that it was here that I was likely to find that seclusion, which I so desired. At sunrise, sunset & under dark skies classic view points such as Tunnel View, Glacier Point & Valley View were out of the question if you wanted to be alone. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not a sad loner, in fact I love shooting with other people. The problem is that I like to wonder, I like to explore, I like to test different perspectives and when you are surrounded by 15 other photographers, this is not possible because you will encroach in to someones shot or you will lose your position from 5 minutes ago, which you actually realised was the best spot to start with. The Merced River & the meadows are what I would concentrate on. The river is long and winding, which allows for exploration off road & away from view points and the meadows are vast open spaces where, strictly speaking, people are prohibited; cue the long lens.
The 2 images below were taken whilst exploring the banks of the Merced River. With each turn, a new viewpoint is offered. As an avid climber, a shot of El Cap was a must. I knew what I wanted, a clean, simple image which shows of the form of El Capitan.
This image is a combination of 2 shots taken with a 21mm lens. The first image looking up & the 2nd image looking down. The light on the top of El Cap is early morning sunlight, which really helps lift the image, giving it more interest.
For the image below (See Video) I had to wade in to the Merced River to get the composition needed. Again, the first light on the top of the 3 Brothers really helps lift the image, making it pop.
Although I was in Yosemite Valley during Autumn, because of the drought, a lot of the foliage had long since desiest. The dry weather also meant that any mist or fog was out of the question, which was such a disappointment as I believe Yosemite Valley can look no better than when covered with a dense, low hanging mist. Looking at other images taken in the meadows of Yosemite Valley, my heart sank a little as each morning I awoke to dry, arid conditions.
The image below has been converted to black and white because the original simply has no colour. This group of Cottonwood trees should have vibrant yellow foliage, however due to the drought, this was not the case. I do still enjoy this image and taking it was a pleasure. There’s not much better than waiting for the light to be just right and then pressing that shutter. Magic. There was a slight breeze on this afternoon, so I ramped up my ISO to 250, which ensured a fast enough shutter speed to capture a nice sharp image.
Mist was out of the question, however the Bridalveil Fire would be my saving grace and help me to capture my favourite image from Yosemite Valley. You can see in the image below, the smoke illuminating the sunlight as it streams across the meadow, side lighting the mighty Elm tree.
Yosemite Valley is jaw dropping, but it is busy, a little chaotic and has a very manufactured feel to it. I would most certainly return, but I would do so in the deepest depths of winter in the hope that the madding crowds would be less and the weather would be more dramatic & atmospheric. I would also stay for longer to allow for more exploration and have a greater window for weather. I am in no doubt that the problems I talk about are not actually with Yosemite Valley, but are with me, my expectations & my own prejudices. I think I had built it up too much and was very naive about what to expect. Next time.
For more info check out my Kit Blog, but here is a summery of kit used:
Canon 5D MK III
Zeiss Distagon 21mm Lens
Canon 24-70L f2.8
Canon 70-200L f4 (None-IS)
Garmin Fenix 3 (For navigation)
LowePro Filter Pouch
Lee Foundation Filter Holder
A Range of Nisi Filters
A Heliopan 105mm Polariser
A 105mm Attachment Ring for it to fit on to my Holder
HotShoe Bubble Level (Love this)
A Waterproof Camera Cover always comes in handy
As Does my Leatherman Skeletool
I Always Take a Head Torch