Claudia and I recently returned from another trip to the redwoods, and once again we had a great time. I love this area so much; it feels like one of my spiritual homes.
One of the reasons I love this area is because it’s so foggy. In fact I sometimes half-jokingly refer to our redwoods workshop as the “chasing fog” workshop. Every morning I get up early and check the weather, trying to find out if there’s fog, and if so, where. And wherever there seems to be the best chance of finding fog, that’s where we go. Fog adds so much mood to any scene – especially redwood forests – so it’s well worth chasing.
But while the far northern California coast is a pretty foggy place, the fog is almost completely unpredictable. Sometimes the fog will settle into a repeating, similar pattern for a few days, but that’s rare. In fact the more time I spend in this area, the more I realize how fickle and unpredictable the fog is.
The most “typical” pattern is for coastal fog to move onshore in the evening, or at night, then burn off late the next morning. But sometimes the day will dawn with perfectly clear skies, only for fog to roll in later in the morning and stick around all day. Or fog can move in during the afternoon. Or fog can start to follow the “typical” pattern, then abruptly dissipate – or just as abruptly reform.
The elevation of the fog matters too. Sometimes a fog bank (or marine layer) can hug the ocean at sea level; at other times it lifts to become a low overcast – which could become dense fog in some of the higher-elevation redwood groves.
And there’s more than one kind of fog along the northern California coast. There’s the usual coastal fog, the marine layer that moves and shifts and drops and lifts in hard-to-predict ways. But when the coastal fog goes away, leaving clear skies at night, you’ll often find valley fog in the meadows and river valleys the next morning. And sometimes you can get both coastal and valley fog at the same time.
Weather forecasts aren’t much help. I don’t think meteorologists in this area expend a lot of effort trying to predict exactly when, where, and at what elevation fog will appear, because fog is really hard to predict, and, well, it’s the northern California coast in summer, where everyone expects to see fog on a regular basis, and most people don’t care about its exact movements.
For example, there was no fog predicted for the first morning of our workshop. But we found fog in Del Norte State Park. In fact that was the only morning we found fog in that area. The forecast was a little more helpful on our third morning, when the National Weather Service predicted low clouds or high fog, and we got that – a cloud layer just low enough to engulf the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in fog. The coastal stratus then dissipated, but on our last morning we found some valley fog in the aptly-named Elk Meadow, complete with about 40 elk.
But while fog can add a wonderful mood, and makes photographing forest scenes easier, it’s certainly not a requirement. Any light can work. I made some of my favorite photographs of the trip on clear, sunny evenings along the coast and in the redwoods. We look for fog, or hope for interesting clouds at sunset, but when conditions aren’t ideal we have to look a little more deeply, and sometimes that’s when we make our best images. Here’s a small portfolio of images from our trip, with and without fog.
— 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.