Winter morning, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Winter morning, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA



The big storm finally ended last night. Yosemite Valley received about four-and-a-half inches of liquid precipitation since Thursday. It started as snow, then changed to rain for awhile, and then changed back to snow, with about a foot of snow accumulating on the valley floor. Precipitation for this water year is still well below average, but this storm was a big help.

The forecast called for snow showers to continue all day Saturday and linger into the evening. But you never know, so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning in case the storm started to break earlier than expected. After getting rudely awakened by the alarm I checked the radar and satellite images, which showed clear skies approaching from the west. But it didn’t look like they would reach Yosemite Valley until at least a couple of hours after sunrise. And besides, showers often linger in the mountains, and all the forecast predictions showed showers continuing in Yosemite all day. I went back to bed.

I awoke around 7:30, looked outside, and could see patches of blue sky. I checked the radar and satellite images again, and it didn’t look like the showers were going to linger at all. In fact it appeared that skies could start clearing in Yosemite Valley any minute. Damn! Claudia and I hurriedly got dressed, grabbed some breakfast, and started driving up to the valley.

We found about a foot of fresh snow on the ground, and the trees decked in snow. A regular winter wonderland. Although we saw blue sky and backlit mist on the drive, it was still overcast in Yosemite Valley. Apparently I hadn’t missed any great light. But it looked like the sun could start breaking through the clouds any minute.

I worked my way through the snow to a location along the Merced River with a view of El Capitan. There was a surprising amount of ice in the river, which blocked some of the typical reflections. But at one spot the ice formed some beautiful swirls, with curving lines leading the eye toward El Cap. Interesting foregrounds are rather rare in Yosemite Valley, so this was a pleasant surprise. And the ice added a new element to a scene I’d photographed many times before.

Getting a clear view of the ice required a high vantage point in order to see over some messy branches, so I ended up putting the tripod on top of two snow-covered fallen logs. And then I waited. There was a little mist around El Cap, but the sun still hadn’t broken through the clouds. After awhile a few small patches of sunlight hit some distant cliffs, and then, finally, those patches started reaching El Cap.

I stayed at this spot, photographing the changing light, clouds and mist, for about an hour. But the strongest images were captured when some broken clouds drifted past El Cap. At times the pattern of the clouds seemed to mimic the pattern of the ice, creating a visual echo between the foreground and background.

Last week I wrote about seeing abstractly – the importance of looking for lines, shapes, patterns, and textures, and then building compositions that emphasize those designs. But although I was talking about photographing sand dunes – a subject that lends itself to abstraction – the same principles apply to photographing any subject, big or small, abstract or not. Good compositions of big, sweeping, wide-angle landscapes almost always have a strong underlying design. Finding such compositions means looking at the lines and shapes of the mountains, trees, rocks – whatever elements you’re trying to build a composition around – and figuring out how to arrange those elements into a cohesive design.

A key part of most strong designs is repetition. And when you’re trying to incorporate a foreground into a scene, it’s vital that the foreground and background echo each other by having similar lines and shapes. Without some visual connection between foreground and background the image will look disjointed – like two different photographs randomly stuck together.

The ice yesterday provided an interesting foreground, with curved lines leading the eye toward El Cap. There are some vague echoes between those curves and some of the lines in the background, but when that fan-shaped pattern of clouds appeared the echo became much stronger. Seeing that, I zoomed out a bit to include more of the clouds. In this case the similarity between the ice and clouds was serendipitous, but learning to recognize those patterns and repetitions is an essential photographic skill. It’s a skill that anyone can practice and develop, and it starts with consciously looking for patterns, and visual connections between the foreground and background.

Snow showers returned to Yosemite Valley yesterday afternoon, and lingered most of the night. I drove up to the valley again this morning, and while there was no mist, I enjoyed photographing the snowy trees and cliffs. I haven’t looked at those images yet, but if any of them turn out I’ll post them here soon.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Abstract Vision; When Should You Include a Foreground in a Landscape Photograph?

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.