Morning light, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Morning light, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

After the big rainstorm last week I drove up to Yosemite Valley early Wednesday morning. I knew there wouldn’t be fresh snow, but I hoped for some mist and interesting light. It turned out that mist was scarce, probably due to below-freezing overnight temperatures, but there was a little bit here and there.

I stopped at a couple of places, and found myself at Gates of the Valley (aka Valley View) as the sun started to hit El Capitan and light up the clouds above. After making a few photographs with fast shutter speeds, I decided it would be more interesting to smooth out the water with a very slow shutter speed. My seven-stop neutral-density filter did the trick, allowing me to lengthen the exposure to 15 seconds. Thinking about the nighttime panorama I made from this spot recently, I decided to try that again, using my 24mm Rokinon lens in a vertical orientation, and making four exposures to capture the broad sweep of this scene. After a few minutes the light actually got more interesting, with a thin beam of sunlight raking across the face of El Cap.

One of the issues I had to deal with was the small log in the water near the middle of the photograph. There was no way to avoid this log, and I definitely did not want it to merge with the edge of a reflection, so I deliberately placed the camera so that the log would appear between the reflections of El Cap and Cathedral Rocks. As it turned out, the diagonal line created by the log actually echoes lines created by wakes on the right side of the frame, making a little repeating pattern – a nice bit of luck that helped the log add interest to the composition, rather than becoming a distraction.

I used Lightroom’s Panorama Merge again for stitching the sequence together. The long exposures precluded bracketing because the clouds and light would change too much by the time I finished capturing the sequence, making blending and stitching difficult, if not impossible. So I exposed for the highlights, then after stitching together the panorama I lightened the midtones and shadows in Lightroom. (The high dynamic range and low shadow noise of the Sony A7rII made it possible to lighten the shadows quite a bit without creating any appreciable noise. The settings for each frame with the seven-stop ND filter were 15 seconds at f/16, 50 ISO. I always use manual-exposure mode, but it’s especially important to use manual exposures for panoramas, because it’s difficult to stitch the images together if the brightness varies between frames.)

From the beginning I visualized this photograph in black and white. The sun was pretty high by this time, so there wasn’t much color, and I like the silvery look created by the combination of flowing water, a slow shutter speed, and a black-and-white treatment. By my very high standards this wasn’t the most exciting morning in Yosemite Valley, but there were ten minutes of beautiful light, and the resulting photograph has a certain hard-to-define mood that has grown on me.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Gates of the Valley by Moonlight; Knowing Where to Stand; When Separation is a Good Thing

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.