February 12th, 2015

Yosemite Falls by Moonlight

Upper Yosemite Fall illuminated by the rising moon, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Upper Yosemite Fall illuminated by the rising moon, Monday night

After photographing Horsetail Fall on Monday evening I was thinking about heading home, but it occurred to me that this might be the perfect night to make a photograph I had been thinking of, with Upper Yosemite Fall backlit by the rising moon. The moon was due to rise about 11:00 p.m. Consulting PhotoPills, it seemed like the angle and phase of the moon were about right. And with the waterfalls so full, plus cloud-free skies, it seemed unlikely that I’d ever find better conditions.

So I decided to go for it. I had dinner at the Food Court at Yosemite Lodge, then connected to the Lodge wi-fi and answered emails for awhile. About 8:30 I headed up the trail.

Hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in the dark was a strange, surreal experience. I’d been up this trail at night before, but under a full moon. Prior to the moonrise Monday night it was very dark, with the only light coming from the stars. I had to use my headlamp to negotiate the rocky trail, and the bright light ruined my night vision. When I came around the bend where you typically get your first view of the upper fall, I could hear it, and feel the spray, but couldn’t see it at all. I had to turn off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust for a minute, and then I could just make out a tall, skinny triangle of less-than-pure-blackness ahead of me – the waterfall.

I didn’t get as wet as expected going past the base of the fall; I’ve been soaked at this spot before, but the water level apparently wasn’t as high this time. But the waterfall was loud. I arrived at my spot early, and had time to try out different compositions before the moon rose.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 10th, 2015

After the Storm

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Sunday morning

Yosemite Valley got about three inches of rain from the storms over the weekend. That’s not a drought-busting amount, but it helps, and I’m grateful for every drop.

The first wave of rain arrived Friday night, and lingered through Saturday. Early Sunday morning I looked at the satellite and radar images online, and saw thin, high clouds moving in ahead of the next system. Thinking that those clouds might light up at sunrise, I made the trip up to Tunnel View. Soon after I got there a bit of color appeared behind Half Dome, and then within minutes the whole sky caught on fire. It turned into the most colorful sunrise I’ve ever seen from that spot; you can see a photograph above.

The second wave of rain arrived Sunday evening. It started slowly, but around 9:30 p.m. a band of heavy rain passed through Mariposa County and headed toward Yosemite. I was actually out driving during this squall, and had to stop and pull off the road four separate times because it was raining so hard I could only see about 20 feet ahead.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 8th, 2015

Another Beautiful Moonrise

Moon rising above Half Dome from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon rising above Half Dome from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

During my workshop in Yosemite last week we photographed a spectacular moonrise on Monday evening from Tunnel View. A band of lenticular clouds hung in the sky in the distance, and just before the moon rose the sun broke through the clouds behind us and lit up El Capitan and Half Dome with vivid shades of orange.

In a recent interview I did for David Johnston and his Photography Roundtable podcast, we talked about using telephoto lenses for landscapes, and how using a longer lens is one way to simplify a composition. I use whatever lens seems appropriate for the situation – the lens that allows me to include all the essentials, but only the essentials. In the photograph above, that meant using my 70-200mm zoom at 183mm in order to fill the frame with the moon, Half Dome, that lenticular cloud, and the v-shaped notch below and to the left of Half Dome.

Read the rest of this entry »

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

This photograph from 2009 shows what an average February flow in Horsetail Fall looks like

After a wet spell in December, the rain spigot got turned off. Yosemite Valley received seven one-hundredths of an inch of rain for the entire month of January. San Francisco set a record for January that can never be broken, with no measurable precipitation.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t much water in Horsetail Fall. In fact there’s no detectable flow at all – just a little dampness near the top. But forecasters are predicting a significant storm this weekend. They’re actually expecting two pulses, one tonight, and another on Sunday night. Total rainfall for the weekend could exceed four inches if the forecasts are right.

Horsetail should get a short-term boost from this storm. Whether that boost lasts longer depends on the exact snow level. Horsetail is fed by melting snow from a small drainage on top of El Capitan lying between 6,200 and 7,600 feet. The predictions for this storm put the snow level at 8,000 feet. If the actual snow levels are a little lower, and Horsetail’s tiny watershed gets some significant snow, then the runoff from that snow melting could last for a couple of weeks and provide at least some flow during the prime photography period later this month. If the snow levels are higher, and Horsetail’s drainage gets only rain, the water will run off quickly and won’t provide a lasting increase in the flow.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 29th, 2015

How to Shade Your Lens

Ponderosa pines in mist, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Ponderosa pines in mist, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite

Natural light comes in an infinite variety of beautiful flavors. I love them all, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be backlight, because it consistently delivers some of the most interesting images. All of the photographs from my last two posts, the ones from above the fog layer, were made with the camera pointing toward the sun. The photograph above, one I haven’t posted here before, captures a moment when backlit mist rose into the pines in Yosemite’s El Capitan Meadow. This next image, voted my most top photograph of 2014, was also lit from behind, with the sun just above the frame:

Read the rest of this entry »

January 26th, 2015

Oceans of Fog: Part Two

Sunrise above a fog layer, Sierra Nevada foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Sunrise above a fog layer, Sierra Nevada foothills, Thursday morning; focal length was 75mm

As I mentioned in my last post, the fog display on Thursday morning might have been even better than Wednesday morning. It didn’t look very promising at first. There was no fog at our house, and none in Mariposa either, so I knew Mt. Bullion wouldn’t work. Claudia was with me this time, and we decided to take a back road out into the lower foothills. At one point we crested a ridge, and there, below us, was the sea of fog.

Again I was fortunate to find a good viewpoint looking toward the southeast. This time there was a layer of high clouds above the fog, already starting to turn color with the sunrise. Best of all, a double-peaked hill was poking up out of the fog in that direction. The image at the top of this post is an early one from that morning, with a brilliant sunrise above the fog and hills.

After the sun rose, the fog lifted into some nearby ridges, getting high enough to almost – but not quite – obscure that double-peaked hill. Soft backlight filtered through the high clouds, bringing out beautiful textures in the fog (see the two images below).

Read the rest of this entry »

January 25th, 2015

Oceans of Fog: Part One

Fog and southern Sierra peaks from Mt. Bullion at sunrise, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Fog and southern Sierra peaks from Mt. Bullion at sunrise, Mariposa County, Wednesday morning

After the episode of dense fog in the Central Valley that I mentioned in my last post, the fog lifted into what meteorologists call a stratus deck last week – essentially a layer of fog that’s slightly above ground level. From the Central Valley the stratus deck would look like a low overcast. If you were to drive out of the valley into the Sierra, you’d climb into the clouds, and into a layer of fog, and then eventually get above the fog and into sunshine. And if you could find a hill or ridge that rose above the stratus deck, you’d be able to look out over a sea of fog.

That sight should be familiar to people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or anywhere along the California Coast. When I lived in the Bay Area in the early ’80s, I remember driving along Skyline Drive on the Peninsula and looking out to the west over a sea of fog covering the ocean. At that time my interest in photography was in its infancy, but it was a beautiful sight. I’ve had that mental image in my mind ever since, and have long wanted to make photographs from above a sea of fog.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 22nd, 2015

Oaks in the Mist

Oak, sun, and fog, Sierra Nevada foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Oak, sun, and fog, Sierra Nevada foothills

As regular readers know, I love fog. It’s a little like snow in the way it can transform an ordinary landscape into something dreamlike.

We’ve had a lot of interesting fog around here lately. Last week the fog was very dense in the Central Valley, sometimes persisting all day rather than burning off in the afternoon. One morning we made an early trip into the lower foothills of Mariposa County, an area with rolling, grassy hills and scattered oaks (I’ve posted images from there before). I was hoping that the fog would be thick enough to push up from the Central Valley into these foothills, and it was – just barely. We were right on the edge of the fog, which was actually perfect – foggy enough to create a misty, ethereal mood, but not so foggy that it completely obscured the landscape.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 11th, 2015

Wildlife Landscapes

Sandhill cranes, fog, and the setting moon, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Sandhill cranes, fog, and the setting moon, San Joaquin Valley, CA

Although I specialize in photographing landscapes these days, I also enjoy photographing the masses of migrating birds that spend the winter in California’s Central Valley. And while I won’t pass up an opportunity to capture a close-up wildlife portrait, most of the time I’m trying to include some of the animals’ habitat. I’m really attempting to photograph landscapes with birds in them, and, as with other landscapes, use the light, weather, and moment to convey a mood.

Last Tuesday morning Claudia and I made another trip down to one of the wildlife refuges in the Central Valley. As usual, I hoped for fog, but knew that if the fog didn’t materialize there would be a nearly-full moon setting to the west, which also might help to add some mood to the photographs.

As it turned out, we got both. We found some low-lying mist, but it wasn’t thick enough to obscure the moon. I just needed some birds to add to the mix, and fortunately we found a flock of sandhill cranes roosting in a pond with the moon behind them.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 8th, 2015

“Ordinary” Landscapes

Sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, CA, USA

Sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, California, December 18th

I’m grateful to live near Yosemite Valley, one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. But in photography, light is more important than subject. My most popular image of 2014 featured an orchard in the Sacramento Valley – with exceptional light. I’d rather photograph an “ordinary” scene in great light than an extraordinary scene in dull light.

Last month Claudia and made an early-morning drive to one of the wildlife refuges in the flat-as-a-table-top expanse of the San Joaquin Valley. I was hoping for fog, which is common on winter mornings in the Central Valley. Instead, I found the beautiful clouds and reflections shown in the photograph above. In this case, the flat landscape helped, making it possible to catch the orange ball of the sun just as it crested the horizon. The light, clouds, colors, and reflections helped to convey a nice early-day mood.

Read the rest of this entry »