We’re having some unusual weather for May. Higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada received over a foot of snow on Thursday. A second storm brought more rain and upper-elevation snow last night. A third storm is forecast to arrive on Tuesday, with another storm possibly coming on Friday.
This kind of weather pattern is fairly common during California’s winter rainy season. In May, as the summer dry season approaches, it’s not unusual to see a small system come through and deliver some light rain. But a series of strong, wet, cold storms like this is practically unheard of.
This strange weather means that there are bound to be some interesting, unusual opportunities for photographs. While there’s no snow forecast for Yosemite Valley, rain could bring mist and clouds to accompany the roaring waterfalls, bright green spring vegetation, and flowers.
Of course the downside to photographing May storms is that the sun rises way too early. I kept my eye on Thursday’s storm, and it looked like it might clear Friday morning. I checked the sunrise time for Friday: 5:50 a.m. That meant we’d have to leave our house at 4:30. So I set my alarm for – yikes! – 3:30.
But once you’re up it’s not so bad. When Claudia and I reached Yosemite Valley we found lots of mist underneath overcast skies. The snow line was about 5,000 feet, so just above the valley floor (at 4,000 feet). It didn’t look like the sun would break through anytime soon, so we drove up the Wawona Road a bit, looking for fog. Not finding any, we returned to Tunnel View.
Many spots around the valley could have been interesting with mist draping the cliffs. But I hung around Tunnel View because I knew the sun – if it appeared – would rise right between El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. (How did I know that? Because I’d seen it before, and I double-checked with The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D.) That doesn’t happen in winter, but it happens in May.
At Tunnel View on a cloudless May morning the sun would be right in your face, causing lens flare. But on Friday I thought the clouds and mist could block or partially block the sun, allowing me to photograph the sunlight streaming down the valley toward me, backlighting the mist, without flare – another opportunity created by the unusual spring weather.
At first that scenario seemed unlikely, at best. Some forecasts hinted that the skies would clear later in the morning, when the sun would be too high. Other forecasts showed little or no clearing that day. And there was no sign of sunlight or blue sky at 6:30, 40 minutes after sunrise.
But it seemed likely that the sun would break through sometime that morning, so I hung around and photographed misty black-and-white scenes while I waited. Soon a patch of blue sky appeared to the west. Since the clouds were moving from west to east, that meant those clear patches could move over the valley. More blue sky appeared. Then I could see a bright spot in the clouds to the east where the sun would be. A few minutes later the sun started to backlight the mist.
For the next 90 minutes the sun, mist, and clouds put on a spectacular show. I kept thinking that I should try another spot, but then something interesting would happen, compelling me to stay. It’s hard to pick the best moment from so many good ones, so I’ve included a few different versions here.
I’ve watched many sunrises from Tunnel View, and this was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Worth getting up at 3:30 for!
— 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.