Claudia and I spent Friday in Yosemite Valley checking out the fall color. And it was beautiful. The big-leaf maples, in particular, were quite colorful.
It was a clear, sunny day, so there wasn’t any weather to add drama to the valley landscapes. When the weather and light aren’t that interesting I tend to narrow my focus and photograph smaller subjects. And for those subjects, conditions were perfect. The low autumn sunlight kept some parts of the valley in shade virtually all day, and that soft light was perfect for highlighting the autumn color. Plus, from the south side of the Merced River you could look toward sunlit cliffs on the north side of the valley and find beautiful, golden reflections in the shaded water.
I spent most of my time in the west end of the valley, looking for intimate scenes of fall color along the river. Trees can be beautiful by themselves, but there’s something about water that can add an extra dimension to a photograph. We’re drawn to water; put a human being near a lake, river, or ocean, and they will move toward the water instinctively, like a moth toward light. And visually, water moves, and shimmers, and creates reflections. It’s wonderful stuff.
As I wrote last year, lately I’ve been using wide-angle lenses more often for intimate landscapes. It can be challenging to keep compositions simple and clean when using a wider lens. But when you can make it work, using a wide-angle lens with intimate landscapes can create a sense of depth, which helps to immerse the viewer in the scene, and create a stronger emotional connection with the photograph.
Of course I used a variety of lenses on Friday. I chose whatever focal length made the strongest composition for the situation at hand, and would tell the story I wanted to tell. So the accompanying photographs were made with lenses from 19mm to 200mm, and everything in between.
As I said, the big-leaf maples were beautiful on Friday; about 90% were yellow, with a few bare trees and a few still green or partially green. The other deciduous trees were decidedly mixed. Most of the dogwoods were partially turned – a mix of green and either yellow, gold, or red. They’re further along and more colorful at higher elevations, like along highways 41 and 120, and in the Tuolumne Grove. The dogwoods in Yosemite Valley should look better in another week or two. The cottonwoods were also still showing a lot of green leaves, along with quite a few brown ones, but there were some that had turned yellow. The cottonwoods may get better over the next week or two as those green leaves turn yellow, but it’s just not a great year for them.
Unfortunately, it’s not a great year for the black oaks either. Almost all their leaves have turned brown. Only a few oaks have normal-looking green or gold leaves. I’m not sure why the oaks had this response after a record-setting year for precipitation. Maybe they got too much water after five years of drought?
So this means it’s a typical autumn in Yosemite Valley. Since there are four main species of deciduous trees with autumn color, and they all seem to have different reactions to the weather, the fall color is usually quite a mix. Maybe once every ten years or so all four species have good color, and all turn at the same time. But most years at least one species has a poor year for color. And even when they all have good years they usually peak at different times.
The big-leaf maples are probably the most consistent autumn performers. They’re usually the first trees in Yosemite Valley to turn, and rarely have an “off” year. They were beautiful on Friday, and with the warm weather we’re having they should stay colorful for maybe another week before the leaves drop off. By then perhaps the dogwoods will be looking better.
— Michael Frye
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.