March 10th, 2016

The Art of Being Flexible

Autumn Sunrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

Autumn Sunrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite – one of the examples in my latest article for Photograph magazine

We can’t control the weather. We don’t determine where trees grow, mountains form, or rivers flow. In landscape photography we have almost no control over our subjects, so we have to adjust to the conditions at hand.

Craft & Vision just released Issue 15 of Photograph magazine, which includes my piece called “The Art of Being Flexible.” I think flexibility is an essential skill for landscape photographers. Since we have so little control over our subjects, we have to be willing and able to react to changing weather and conditions, and try to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, even if those opportunities weren’t what we expected. The article discusses this subject in depth, and includes several examples showing how to anticipate the weather and light, recognize possibilities, and take advantage of the opportunities you’re given.

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March 6th, 2016

A Stormy Weekend

Morning sunlight on Yosemite Falls, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Morning sunlight on Yosemite Falls, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

After a very dry February the weather pattern has changed, with a series of storms dumping large quantities of rain and snow on California this weekend. Yosemite Valley received almost four inches of rain since Friday as a wet “atmospheric river” lined up to hit the northern and central parts of our state.

It was a warm system, with snow levels over 8,000 feet during most of the storm. The dry, sunny weather over the last month had already created exceptionally high flows in Yosemite’s waterfalls for this time of year, but all that rain over the last few days gave them an extra boost. I drove up to Yosemite Valley this morning and found the waterfalls roaring. They looked more like May than March. And there were small, ephemeral waterfalls everywhere.

Before the storm started to clear this morning I photographed Lower Yosemite Fall in soft light, and then as the sun began breaking through I decided to stay and photograph the upper and lower falls. The sun reaches this waterfall earlier in the morning during March than it does in April or May, making the light much more interesting. You don’t get many opportunities to photograph it this time of year with so much water – and with mist around the upper fall. Here’s one of the photos from this morning.

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February 28th, 2016

Looking for Poppies

Poppies in the Merced River Canyon, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Poppies in the Merced River Canyon, April 2014

Spring has arrived early this year. It seems the poppies in the Merced River Canyon west of Yosemite liked the warm February weather we’ve been having, and they’ve been appearing in greater numbers over the last two weeks. On Friday, when Claudia and I drove up to Yosemite Valley for the Yosemite Renaissance opening reception, we saw some vibrant patches of poppies on the north side of the canyon (opposite Highway 140) a few miles easts of Briceberg. Other spots further east were just starting to show tinges of orange, but I expect those areas will become more colorful. It’s shaping up to be a good year for poppies in the canyon, but it’s just getting started, and the flowers are likely to last for several more weeks if the weather cooperates.

I’ve also seen photos of brilliant poppy displays in the southern Sierra foothills (east of Fresno and Bakersfield). And Death Valley is having a good bloom right now also. But southern California has received below-average rainfall so far this winter, so some of the best wildflower spots in the state like the Carrizo Plain and Antelope Valley probably won’t have great displays this year unless they get more rain soon.

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February 21st, 2016

The Power of Visualization

Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

“The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, it is one of the most important concepts in photography.”
— Ansel Adams

I’ve become increasingly aware of the power of visualization over the years. Looking back through my own work, it’s clear that my best photographs were created when I had a strong response to a subject or scene, knew the feeling I wanted to convey, and was able to visualize in advance how I wanted the finished image to look.

But what does visualization mean, and how does it apply to digital photography today? Although Adams mostly talked about visualization in relation to technique, he also made it clear that visualization was part of the creative process. He wrote: “Visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject. Not only do we relate to the subject itself, but we become aware of the its potential as an expressive image.”

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El Capitan and Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan and Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite

I rose early yesterday morning to go up to Yosemite Valley, thinking the storm might clear just after sunrise. But showers persisted, and the sun didn’t break through until almost ten o’clock. By the time I finished photographing it was almost noon, so I decided to stay in the valley until sunset.

In the afternoon typical after-storm condensation clouds formed around the rim of the valley. Thinking those clouds might add something to a photograph of Horsetail Fall, and allow me to capture something a little different from my other images of this waterfall, I headed for a spot with a good overall view of El Cap and Horsetail.

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February 17th, 2016

Horsetail Fall Update

Horsetail Fall backlit at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail Fall last night, 5:27 p.m.

February has been completely dry around here so far, with very warm temperatures. That warm weather has been melting the snow on top of El Capitan and creating a strong flow in Horsetail Fall – easily the most water in the fall since 2010. Yesterday was another clear, warm day (the high in Yosemite Valley was 67 degrees), with nearly ideal conditions for Horsetail. I wondered when I might see such conditions again, so I decided to head up to Yosemite Valley.

A first-hand look at Horsetail actually revealed less water than I expected. With the exceptionally warm weather we’ve been having I thought Horsetail would really be gushing, perhaps even approaching the high flow shown in this photograph from 1995. But nevertheless it was flowing well. I’d say the water level was a little above average for February (and, of course, way more than anything we’ve seen during the last four years of drought).

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February 14th, 2016

Gesture in Nature Photography

Tundra swans at sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, CA, USA

Tundra swans at sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This photograph of tundra swans seemed appropriate today. Swans mate for life, so you always see them in pairs, or in a small group when parents are joined by their young cygnets. The two subjects of this photograph were undoubtedly a mated pair.

One of the challenges of photographing these swans was that they kept their heads underwater for long periods of time while they were feeding. Periodically one of their heads would pop up briefly, but then plunge underwater again, and it was rare for both swans to have their necks raised at the same time. I expended many pixels trying to capture moments when both swans had their heads up. Even when I managed to catch both of them with their heads visible, often one of the swans would have its back to me, or be in some other awkward position.

But I stayed alert and patient, and eventually things came together. Both swans lifted their heads for maybe ten seconds – an eternity, it seemed – while I held down the shutter button. At one point the swan on the left even turned its head and looked back at the swan on the right. Perfect. That little gesture made a big difference in the photograph by creating a visual connection between the two swans.

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February 8th, 2016

Telling a Visual Story

Ross's geese in the fog at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Ross’s geese in the fog at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Claudia and I have made several trips to California’s Central Valley this winter to photograph birds. It’s one of our favorite things to do this time of year, when large flocks of waterfowl take up residence in the valley’s marshes for a few months before migrating northward in the spring. I love watching and photographing the movements of these flocks, especially the white geese – the snow geese and Ross’s geese. Seeing 10,000 geese take off in a single, noisy, coordinated wave is simply awe-inspiring, but there’s magic and beauty in their smaller comings and goings as well.

My approach to photographing wildlife is similar to my approach to photographing landscapes. Rather than making closeup photographs of individual animals, I’m trying to incorporate the animals into the landscape, looking for ways to capture a mood and convey what it felt like to be in a particular place at a particular time, watching a unique and beautiful moment.

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February 2nd, 2016

A Clearing Storm by Starlight

Stars, mist, Three Brothers, and the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Stars, mist, Three Brothers, and the Merced River, Yosemite, Sunday night

Every storm has to end eventually, of course. Even Noah got a reprieve after 40 days and 40 nights. I didn’t have to wait quite that long for this past weekend’s storm to clear, but at first it seemed like the timing was less than ideal.

There was a small chance that the storm might clear before sunset on Sunday, so Claudia and I drove up to Yosemite Valley that afternoon. It was snowing when we got there, and kept snowing, and it soon became apparent that clearing wasn’t imminent. I photographed snow-covered trees until it got dark, then we joined our friend Charlotte Gibb for drinks and dinner at the Yosemite Lodge bar.

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January 31st, 2016

Waiting for the Storm to Clear

Misty sunset over Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Misty sunset over Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Two weather systems have brought over two inches of precipitation to Yosemite Valley since Friday night. It was very warm at the beginning, with snow levels at 9,000 feet, but now the temperature has dropped, and it’s snowing in Yosemite Valley. I can even see flakes falling outside my window in Mariposa, at 2,800 feet, but it’s a little too warm for the snow to stick.

It looks like the storm might clear this afternoon, but these things are always hard to predict. Radar images show the tail end of the precipitation approaching, but that can be deceiving, as showers often linger over the mountains longer than you would otherwise expect. I’ll be keeping a close eye on things this afternoon, especially since there’s no precipitation in the seven-day forecast, so this might be the last chance to photograph a clearing storm for awhile. We’ll see what happens!

In the meantime, here’s a photograph from a clearing storm back in January of 2012. Chances are low that this current storm will bring an opportunity like this, but you can always hope.

— Michael Frye

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