March 14th, 2015

A Good Year for Redbuds

Redbud, rocks, and the Merced River, Stanislaus NF, CA, USA

Redbud, rocks, and the Merced River (April 2002)

I had a chance to drive up the Merced River Canyon (west of Yosemite along Highway 140) yesterday to check on the flowers. It’s not turning into a good year for poppies in this area. There are scattered patches of poppies in shadier spots, but all the south-facing slopes look very dry. There are very few poppies near the beginning of the Hite’s Cove Trail, on Grandy’s Hill, or any of the other prime poppy locations.

But the redbuds are looking great. Overall, they’re close to their peak now, or maybe just before peak. The redbuds in the western half of the canyon are a little further along, and in prime condition, with most in full bloom, less than 5% leafing out, and maybe 10-20% not quite in full bloom yet. The redbuds in the eastern half of the canyon are not quite at peak yet. I saw one or two leafing out, but maybe 60% were in full bloom, while 40% were still on their way. But there are many vibrant, beautiful specimens throughout the canyon, and it looks like one of the better years for redbuds I’ve seen lately.

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Clouds and reflections, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Clouds and reflections, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite

Does every landscape photograph need a foreground? Not always. Some of the world’s most memorable landscape photographs lack any foreground – like Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams, or Galen Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall (go to page 2).

On the other hand, many classic landscape images do have foregrounds – prominent ones – like another Ansel Adams photograph, Mount Williamson from Manzanar, or many images by landscape master David Muench.

So how do you know when to include a foreground in your own landscapes? Ask yourself these questions:

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March 5th, 2015

March Light

Late afternoon view of Yosemite Valley from near Old Inspiratoin Point, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Late afternoon view of Yosemite Valley from near Old Inspiratoin Point, Monday afternoon

It’s the time of year when both El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall get late-afternoon sunlight when seen from the west end of Yosemite Valley. In winter, El Cap get that late-day light, while Bridalveil stays in the shade. In summer it’s the opposite, with the cliffs to the right of Bridalveil Fall (like the Leaning Tower) receiving the last glow in the evening, while El Cap goes into shade earlier. But in early March (and around the end of September) the light balances well on both sides of the valley, making it a great time of year for photographs from Tunnel View and Gates of the Valley (aka Valley View).

Knowing this, I watched the weather closely on Monday. Some showers moved through, and it seemed like the last chance of seeing interesting clouds for awhile, so I decided to hike up above Tunnel View to a spot near Old Inspiration Point (I’ve described previous journeys up this trail here and here). I got there in time to catch one moment with beautiful cloud shadows. I especially like the shadow near the bottom of El Capitan (in the photo above).

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March 1st, 2015

Rocks and Clouds

Half Dome and clouds from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and clouds from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

“Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape… Even if we do not know our geology, there is something in the face of a cliff and in the look of a granite boulder that gives us pause.” — John Burroughs

Photography has a great ability to showcase contrasting textures, which is perhaps why hard rocks and soft clouds fit together so well. In Yosemite the rocks are a given; they’re always there. It’s the clouds that are more elusive, especially during these dry years.

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February 24th, 2015

Signs of Spring

Redbud along the Merced River, Merced River Canyon, near Briceberg, CA, USA

Redbud along the Merced River, Merced River Canyon, March 2013

February has been exceptionally warm, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised to see signs of spring already. But redbuds? In February? Apparently so. Claudia drove up to Yosemite Valley on Saturday, and reported seeing redbuds and a few poppies blooming in the Merced River Canyon west of the park. It’s not unusual to see poppies in late February, but the redbuds are a month early. Claudia said that only a couple of them were in full bloom, but many more were starting.

Temperatures dropped significantly over the weekend, and I’m not sure how that will affect the redbuds, or the poppies. Under normal circumstances the redbuds would continue to progress, and reach peak in perhaps a week or so. But these aren’t normal circumstances, so all bets are off.

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Moon, Venus, and Ross's geese, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Moon, Venus, and Ross’s geese, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

I’ve been working on a book deadline, so haven’t been able to get to Yosemite Valley and check on Horsetail Fall recently. But I did break away from the desk on Friday to go down to the Central Valley and photograph birds. At first the light was rather uninspiring, because the fog I was hoping for had lifted into a low overcast. But it turned out to be a great day. I photographed one of the biggest goose takeoffs I’ve ever seen, with perhaps 30,000 birds lifting off at once; one of the photographs below shows part of that group. Later, the sun broke through the stratus deck to create some beautiful sunbeams, and at dusk Venus and the crescent moon appeared (above).

As for Horsetail, the flow diminished quickly after the last rainstorm, and from reports I’ve heard there is basically no water in it – just a bit of dampness. There is another storm predicted for today and tomorrow. This is expected to be both colder and weaker than the last storm, with snow levels around 6,000 feet, but limited moisture. Horsetail might get some help from this system, but probably not much. Even if this storm turns out to be bigger than predicted, any precipitation in Horsetail’s drainage will fall as snow, so there won’t be a significant boost in flow until the sun comes out and melts some of that snow. It’s supposed to be sunny Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so maybe by Wednesday or Thursday we could see a decent water flow in Horsetail.

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February 15th, 2015

Subject, Meet Light

Ross's geese taking flight at sunset, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Ross’s geese taking flight at sunset, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

It should come as no surprise to any photographer that the interaction between subject and light is important. In fact, I’d say that this interaction is the essence of the whole thing; it’s what photography is all about.

But which comes first? Do you look for an interesting subject, and then find the right light for it? Or do you look at the light first, and then find a subject that fits the light?

I think both approaches can work. But having said that, I almost always think about light first. What’s the light now? What might happen to the light in the next five minutes, ten minutes, hour, or two hours? I try to anticipate how the light and weather might change, decide what kind of subject(s) could work with that light, and only then decide where to go.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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