Archive for October, 2010

Quick Note About Yosemite Valley Color

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010
Big-leaf maple... from a few years agoBig-leaf maple… from a few years ago

Fall Color in Yosemite Valley is late—really late. I reported last week that about 50 percent of the maple leaves had turned, 20 percent of the cottonwoods, 20 percent of the dogwoods, and 5 percent of the oaks. Well it’s nearly a week later and I’d say the percentages are the same! Hardly anything has changed. There is some good color in spots: as before, the best places are around Pohono Bridge and underneath Cathedral Rocks along Southside Drive. I heard a reliable report that the dogwoods along Highway 120 are about half turned.

At this point don’t want to even try to predict when the color will peak, or what kind of autumn it might be, as this season is progressing more slowly than any fall I can remember. I’ll let you know if things suddenly start to turn.


Photo Critique Series: Star Trails and Cathedral Peak by Rick Whitacre

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
Star Trails and Cathedral Peak by Rick WhitacreStar Trails and Cathedral Peak by Rick Whitacre 

This week’s photograph was made by Rick Whitacre at Upper Cathedral Lake in Yosemite. By having his image chosen for this critique Rick will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.

When I saw this image among the submissions for this series, it occurred to me that I hadn’t critiqued a nighttime photograph before, and that doing so might help provide some lessons and insights into night photography.


Horsetail Fall by Moonlight

Monday, October 25th, 2010
Horsetail Fall by MoonlightHorsetail Fall has become a celebrity, attracting more lenses than Brangelina. In February hundreds of photographers try to catch the fleeting sunset light on this little waterfall. Suitable vantage points are limited, so it’s hard to find new and different ways to portray this iconic subject. But it occurred to me that if I could catch the moon setting at just the right angle I might be able to photograph it at night. 

It turns out that the right conditions for moonset light on Horsetail Fall are quite rare. The moon’s path varies greatly as it waxes and wanes. It has to set at the right angle while close to full (to provide enough light), before sunrise (so the dawn light doesn’t wash out sky), and there has to be water in fall. Such conditions may occur only once every other year, at most.

Fortunately I found perfect conditions last spring. As I walked up to one of my favorite Horsetail Fall viewing locations at about 4 a.m., I saw an amazing sight: that beautiful, low-angle backlight on the waterfall, with the cliff behind it in the shade. It looked exactly like it does at sunset in February, only with stars in the sky above it.

Our eyes can’t see color in the dark, but cameras can, so as soon as I made my first test exposure I could see that now-classic orange glow on my LCD screen. I used both short and long shutter speeds, but ended up liking the short ones, with pinpoint stars, best.

This photograph was selected to be part of the Best of Nature show at the Ordover Gallery in the San Diego Natural History Museum. Two more of my images, Winter Sunrise From Tunnel View, andWinter Morning Along the Merced River, were also chosen. The opening reception is November 13th, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and will be on view until January 30, 2011. Hope to see some of you at the reception!

Speaking of Horsetail Fall, right now is it’s mirror season. The light is identical to February, and the only reason hundreds of photographers don’t try to photograph it in October is because there’s usually no water in the fall. But Yosemite Valley received almost four inches of rain in the last 48 hours, so there should be plenty of water in Horsetail Fall for the next day or two.


2011 Workshops Announced!

Friday, October 22nd, 2010
Spotlight on Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park
Spotlight on Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park


The Ansel Adams Gallery posted their 2011 workshops on their web site today, and they’re open for registration. I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be teaching five classes with the Gallery next year, including a Photoshop and Digital Printing Workshop in January, the Spring Yosemite Digital Camera Workshop in April, and my Hidden Yosemite workshop in July. You can see the complete list on myworkshop page.

There are a few errors on the Gallery’s site, which we’re working to fix. The descriptions on my site are correct, so please refer to these for now, and email me if you have any questions. But I wanted to let you all know that the registration is open, since these classes often fill up quickly.

As you probably know from reading this blog, I love teaching. It’s immensely satisfying to help people find their photographic vision and master the craft of photography. So I’m really looking forward to these workshops next year! Hope to see you in one of them.


Yosemite Valley Color Report

Thursday, October 21st, 2010
Big-leaf maples along Southside DriveI spent the last two days in Yosemite Valley doing a private workshop. The weather was fantastic—we got to photograph lots of interesting clouds and chiaroscuro light patterns. More potentially photogenic stormy conditions are predicted through the weekend. 

The autumn color in the valley is improving every day, but it’s still not quite there yet. There are four main types of deciduous trees in the valley: big-leaf maples, dogwoods, cottonwoods, and black oaks. The maples usually change color first, and this year is no exception. You can find nice displays already near Pohono Bridge and along Southside Drive underneath Cathedral Rocks. I’d say about 50 percent of the maple leaves in the valley have turned as of today.

The other trees are a bit further behind. Perhaps 20 percent of the dogwood and cottonwood leaves have changed so far, and perhaps only 5 percent of the oak leaves. The dogwoods and cottonwoods need at least another week, and the oaks maybe two weeks.

But while the show consists mostly of maples so far, these trees produce the most consistently vibrant and beautiful color in the valley, and they are changing rapidly. I saw a noticeable increase in yellow leaves in just the last 36 hours. So they may peak soon—maybe even this weekend.


A Trip to the Eastern Sierra

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
Aspen hillside
Aspen hillside


Claudia and I made it over Tioga Pass on Sunday, and spent the last two days around Lee Vining photographing aspens. It rained off and on, so we had to wait out a few showers, but the moisture intensified the colors, and gave us some interesting clouds and weather to photograph. I made hundreds of exposures, drained two robust batteries in one day, and got thoroughly soaked, but we had a great time—it was just beautiful. I have a lot of images to process, but here are a couple of early favorites.

A lot has changed in the last week, and autumn has finally bloomed in the eastside canyons. Some of the middle and upper elevation areas are at peak, and the lower groves around June Lake and Lee Vining Canyon are getting there. We found some beautiful orange aspens along the Virginia Lakes Road, just above Conway Summit. The Dunderberg Meadow area was gorgeous. Of course the spots that are good now will probably be past peak soon, but I expect June Lake, Lee Vining Canyon, and Lundy Canyon will all be beautiful this weekend.

As for Yosemite Valley, I’ve heard that the color has really started to come out recently, and I’ll be up there the next two days to check first hand.

I have a busy workshop upcoming workshop schedule, and of course I have to get out and photograph the fall color! So I won’t be doing a critique this week, but will post one early next week. Stay tuned—and let us know about autumn color that you find.

Multi-colored aspen leaves
Multi-colored aspen leaves



Last Week’s Snow, and a Quick Fall Update

Friday, October 15th, 2010
Aspens and snow in the Bishop Creek area, October 5th—Photograph by Evan RusselAspens and snow in the Bishop Creek area, October 5th—Photograph by Evan Russel 

After Tioga Pass closed last week I was stuck on the west side of the Sierra, but my friend Evan Russel, Ansel Adams Gallery staff photographer and one of my workshop assistants, made it over there a day earlier, and captured some some great images of snowy aspens after the storm on October 3rd and 4th. Here are a couple of examples. You can see more of Evan’s work on theGallery’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile in Yosemite Valley autumn is progressing slowly. After some color suddenly appeared last week I thought that the leaves might turn quickly, but apparently the warm weather has slowed things down. I spent the last two days in the valley, and saw some trees that have partially changed, but none fully clothed in their fall colors. Claudia checked out the dogwoods along Highway 120 between the entrance station and Crane Flat and saw mostly green leaves, so it seems that even the higher-elevation trees haven’t changed yet.

Aspens and snow in the Bishop Creek area, October 5th—Photograph by Evan RusselAspens and snow in the Bishop Creek area, October 5th—Photograph by Evan Russel 

While we may have to wait a bit for more color in the valley, this could also mean that all the deciduous trees will change at the same time. Usually the dogwoods and big-leaf maples turn earlier than the oaks and cottonwoods, and the color is spread out over several weeks. But occasionally all the trees turn together, creating some exceptional conditions.

On the eastern side of the mountains the color is not yet at its peak in the middle and lower elevations, but things are starting to change quickly, and color can be found in many of the medium-to-high-elevation aspen groves. I described some of the progress in my last two posts, but will add that on Tuesday I found some nice orange trees in the upper reaches of Lee Vining Canyon, along Highway 120. These aspens had shown very little color only three days earlier. The next two weeks could be great in places like Lundy Canyon, Lee Vining Canyon, June Lake Loop, and Conway Summit.


Yosemite and Eastern Sierra Fall Color Report

Monday, October 11th, 2010
Mono Lake, Sunday eveningMono Lake, Sunday evening

Claudia and I finally made it over reopened Tioga Pass on Saturday, and visited the Bishop Creek area, Rock Creek, Convict Lake, June Lake Loop, Lee Vining Canyon, and Lundy Canyon. Most of the aspens in those areas are still green—in fact, many are dark green. I saw more green aspens than I’ve ever seen along the eastern side of the Sierra this time of year. Autumn is very late on this side of the mountains.

The good news is that those green trees appear to be in good shape, and we’re having a spell of warm days and cool, but not freezing, nights—perfect conditions for creating colorful leaves. So when the aspens do finally turn we might see some great color—maybe in another week or two, but these things are always hard to predict.

Now on to some specifics. There is some decent color high up in the Bishop Creek area (west of Bishop) near North Lake and Lake Sabrina. By most accounts North Lake was better a week ago, but there is a band of aspens along the northwest shore that hasn’t completely turned yet. It’s mostly yellow with some green, so it may be better in a couple of days.

North Lake, Sunday morningNorth Lake, Sunday morning

There is some nice color on a hillside above the road in Rock Creek Canyon, but this seems like a hard place to find good compositions. Further north, Convict Lake on Saturday was almost entirely green, as were the June Lake Loop and Lee Vining Canyon yesterday.

Lundy Canyon had probably the best color we found, although it’s not close to peak yet. The lower part of the canyon was about half yellow, half green yesterday. Further up, below Lundy Lake, everything was green. Beyond the “resort,” along the dirt road, there was a nice patch of color on the south side of the canyon near one of the beaver ponds. We hiked up to the highest beaver pond, and found mostly lime-green aspens, but we always enjoy visiting this area.

We’ll be scouting Conway Summit, Virginia Lakes Road, Dunderberg, and other spots between Lee Vining and Bridgeport this afternoon, and I’ll let you know what we find.

I haven’t been to Yosemite Valley since last Wednesday, but I’ll be there in two days and will give you an update. On my last visit it looked like the maples and dogwoods were starting to turn, so I’m anxious to see if they’ve progressed.

Good luck to all you fall foliage photographers! Let me know if you find anything I missed.

Creek below Lake Sabrina, Sunday morningCreek below Lake Sabrina, Sunday morning

Reflections in a Lundy Canyon beaver pond, Sunday afternoonReflections in a Lundy Canyon beaver pond, Sunday afternoon


Fall Color Addendum

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Stormy afternoon over Conway Summit

Stormy afternoon over Conway Summit

Claudia and I went up to Conway Summit, Virginia Lakes Road, and Dunderberg this afternoon. This area had the best color we’ve found yet. Conway Summit is still mostly green, as you can see from the photo, but getting there. There are some nice patches of yellow and orange above Conway Summit on the road to Virginia Lakes. Most of the Dunderberg Meadow area (between Virginia Lakes and Green Creek) is still green, but should be good in another week or so. We did find a small patch of red-orange trees nearby. Alas, darkness arrived before we made it to Green Creek—too much to photograph along the way!

Yellow and orange leaves near DunderbergYellow and orange leaves near Dunderberg


Photo Critique Series: “Meadow of Loosestrife” by J.J. Raia

Thursday, October 7th, 2010
"Meadow of Loosestrife" by JJ Raia
“Meadow of Loosestrife” by J.J. Raia


This week’s photograph was made by J.J. Raia at Troy Meadows, Green Acres, New Jersey. By having his image chosen for this critique J.J. will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.

Before I get to the critique, I’d like to once again thank all of you who have submitted photographs for this series. There are many outstanding images in the collection, and I wish I could write about all of them!

For these critiques I usually pick photographs that are good, but could be improved in some way. Discussing those potential changes often provides valuable lessons, or good points for discussion. But I chose this image not for its imperfections—it has only very minor ones—but just because I like it. Sometimes it can be helpful to figure out why a good photograph works.

Before we go further, take a moment to look at this image and define some of the elements that make it work in your mind. Or, if you think something doesn’t work, see if you can figure out why.

To me, there are several key ingredients that make this photograph successful. First, the purple flowers, gold grasses, and subtle green hues create a pleasing overall color palette. Next, the low-angle light, raking across the meadow from behind and to the right, highlights the textures and patterns of the meadow. And then there’s that fog. The combination of color, light, and weather create a sunny, optimistic mood. It’s morning in America! Or at least in New Jersey.

Of course it’s no secret that great color, light, and weather can produce wonderful landscape photographs. But if you’re lucky enough to find those elements, you still have to frame them well. This composition is simple and clean; we see meadow and tree, and not much else. The tree provides a nice focal point, something for the eyes to latch onto before exploring the colors and textures. The layers of gold and purple, along with the band of the fog, add repetition (our brains love repeating patterns), and a certain visual coherence that helps hold everything together.

J.J told me that he deliberately cut off the top of the tree to avoid including bright, distracting patches of sky above. I agree with this choice. Including the sky would have drawn attention away from more interesting things below. And I don’t miss the top of the tree; we see enough of it to get a sense of its shape, and for it to serve its purpose as a focal point.

It can be tricky to cut off parts of important objects like this. If you do, make sure it looks deliberate. If you trim just the tip of a tree, or a person’s feet, or the corner of a building, it looks accidental—like you weren’t paying attention when you composed the picture (which you probably weren’t!). If you’re going to chop something, chop enough to make it look intentional.

A couple more notes about the composition; J.J. used a telephoto lens—210mm on medium-format film (Velvia 50 with a Mamiya 645). The long lens helped to narrow the field of view and frame only the most essential elements, and also compressed the space, creating the layered patterns in the meadow, and emphasizing the juxtaposition between the flowers and tree.

Also, J.J. told me that he tilted the camera to make the layers of grass and flowers slant diagonally across the frame. I would never have guessed; the tree looks straight, and it appears as if the meadow just slopes slightly from left to right. This is a small thing, but the diagonal lines help give the photograph more energy.

The photograph is technically well executed. The exposure looks perfect. Everything appears to be in focus, which can be difficult to do with a long lens raking across a field like this; the grasses at the bottom of the frame are much closer to the camera than the trees in the distance. J.J. said that he used a small aperture, f/22, and focused carefully using the depth-of-field scale on his lens.

This was captured on film, so the image was obviously scanned (with an Epson 2450 scanner). JJ then took the scan into Photoshop and made some minor adjustments. The overall contrast looks good.Viewed larger, I can see some dust spots in the mist—an easy, if tedious, thing to fix in Photoshop or Lightroom. The only other problem I see is that the color balance looks a bit too magenta. While that magenta tint might help boost the color of the flowers, it makes the trees look somewhat purple. In this next version I took the image into Lightroom and pushed the Tint slider to left (-23) to remove the color cast, then restored the saturation and hue of the flowers with the HSL panel (Magenta Hue -27; Magenta Saturation +17). The same thing could be done in Photoshop by using a Color Balance or Curves adjustment layer to correct the overall magenta cast, then adding a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to tweak the color of the flowers.

After changing the white balance
After changing the white balance


There’s one more story about this photograph that you might find interesting. J.J. told me that he spotted this field of flowers while driving his daughter to camp one year. He thought the sun would rise at a good angle to sidelight the scene, so he came back a day or two later and made a vertical composition. He returned again the following year, found more flowers and more mist, and made this horizontal composition.

This illustrates how important anticipation and planning are to landscape photography. It’s rare to stumble upon a great subject when the light and weather are perfect. You need imagination to visualize how a scene might look with different light, and knowledge of sun movements and weather patterns to figure out when to come back. Of course some luck helps, but so does persistence. J.J. made a very nice photograph one year, came back again a year later and made, I think, an even better one.

So back to my original question: What are the elements that make this work in your mind? (Did I miss anything?) Or is there something you think doesn’t work about this photograph? Please let me know in the comments!

Thanks J.J. for sharing your image! Be sure to check out more of his outstanding work on Flickr.

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As part of being chosen for this week’s critique J.J. will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique in two weeks. Thanks for participating!