I don’t like getting up early. I’m really more of a night owl, and it’s always an unpleasant shock when the alarm jars me out of a deep sleep at oh-dark-thirty. But I force myself to rise early any time there’s a chance for an interesting sunrise, because if I don’t I might miss something special, and then I would kick myself.
After a very dry autumn we finally got two storms last week. The second storm moved through on Friday and Friday night. All signs indicated that it would clear sometime around sunrise yesterday (Saturday), which could be great timing. So I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., pried myself out of bed, made some breakfast, and drove to Yosemite Valley.
Of course even after I’m up and on the road I wonder whether the lack of sleep and long drive will be worth it, or whether I should have stayed in bed. While there are always things to photograph, anytime, anywhere, you hope for something special. And by definition, special conditions don’t occur frequently. There have been plenty of mornings when I’ve risen early for sunrise, and thought later that perhaps more sleep would have been a better choice.
But you never know unless you get out there. And every so often you get to photograph a really beautiful, special sunrise, and you remember why you keep getting up early and trying – and why you photograph landscapes in the first place.
Saturday morning was like that. It was one of those magical Yosemite days when I wished I could be in twelve places at once, or have a universal remote with a pause button so I could stop time and run around taking photos.
Lacking the ability to clone myself or pause the universe, I began at Tunnel View, then worked my way around Yosemite Valley, trying to put myself in the right places at the right times to catch moments when the sun first reached the valley floor. The ground and trees were soaking wet after three inches of rain, so when the sun would hit a spot for the first time it would evaporate that moisture, creating wonderful mist, and a succession of beautiful scenes.
One of my first stops was a view of Half Dome with the Merced River in the foreground. I got there just in time to catch the sun breaking through the mist, casting sunbeams and creating a beautiful corona. To top it off, the cottonwoods below Half Dome still had color, and some wonderfully-patterned clouds were passing overhead and reflecting in the water. I’ve photographed misty sunrises from this spot before, but never quite like this.
Later, when the sun reached El Capitan Meadow, I photographed pines, oaks, and mist with lovely backlight. And continuing around the valley I found backlit mist and oaks below Bridalveil Fall.
This kind of run-around-and-try-to-catch-everything photography doesn’t suit everybody. It’s easy to get scattered, and make mistakes, and end up taking a bunch of good-but-not-great photos, when it might have worked better to stay longer in one or two locations and make fewer images, but concentrate on making those few images really good.
I sometimes find myself chasing fog, or a rainbow, and later wish I had stayed in one place. But yesterday morning I could chase the mist without feeling too rushed or scattered because I had photographed Yosemite Valley under similar conditions before, and was able to anticipate the light, rather than just react to it. It always helps to know an area well, so you can better predict what the weather might do, how the light will change, and what spots might work best under certain conditions. And it’s easier to concentrate on what’s in front of you when you’re not second-guessing yourself and wondering if the light might be better somewhere else.
Any time you’re reacting to quickly-changing conditions it also helps know your camera well, and have a solid routine for taking photos. Having a routine, or a field workflow, means doing things in the same order every time you take a picture, so you can avoid getting flustered and forgetting something important.
After running around familiar-as-the-back-of-my-hand Yosemite Valley yesterday morning I finally tore myself away after the last of the mist dissipated around 11 a.m. But it was a great morning, and a reminder of why I love landscape photography. What other activity pushes you to go to beautiful places at their most beautiful moments – and makes rising at 4:30 a.m. seem worthwhile? I’ll try to think about that the next time the alarm wakes me out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night!
— 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.