Last Sunday, for the first time in over a month, we got some significant rain. Well somewhat significant anyway – half an inch.
It looked like the storm would clear around sunrise on Monday morning, which could be good timing. I drove up to Yosemite Valley early, and, as I often do, went to Tunnel View to get an overview of the valley and assess the conditions.
And the conditions looked promising, with lots of mist, and some higher clouds that could light up at sunrise.
Of course I’ve photographed misty scenes at Tunnel View many times before. I could have decided to go somewhere else perhaps, but under those conditions that seemed like the best spot – the location with the most potential to make interesting, expressive photographs.
It’s a popular spot, so I wasn’t alone. There were only two other people there when I arrived, but by sunrise I’m sure there were at least 20 or 30 photographers. My friend William Neill posted an image on Facebook of all the tripods lined up, and this image spurred some debate. You can read all the commentary here, but the gist of it was that some people couldn’t understand why anyone would want to photograph this scene that’s been photographed so many times before.
It’s a good question. And especially for someone like me, who’s photographed that scene many times before. Why would I want to photograph it again?
I think the primary reason is because I enjoy it. I had a great time there Monday morning. It was so much fun photographing that scene under those conditions. And it was incredibly beautiful. I’ve been to Tunnel View many, many times, under all kinds of amazing lighting conditions, but I never get tired of seeing such beauty. That morning was exceptional, and I’m glad I got to experience it.
I remember telling my friend Karl Kroeber that I didn’t want to visit The Wave, because it’s been photographed to death. And he said, “Yeah, but it’s so amazing. It’s one of the wonders of the world.” And that made me pause. Perhaps I was actually missing a wonderful experience because I was only considering the place through the lens of photography, and the desire to make photographs that were “different” and “original.”
I have similar feelings about Horsetail Fall. I understand why many photographers won’t go near Horsetail in February. Why deal with all the crowds of other photographers just to make a photograph like everyone else’s? But Horsetail is absolutely amazing. The photographs don’t do it justice – not even close. Viewing Horsetail under the right conditions is an incredible experience.
In my photographs I try to capture the beauty of nature in all its forms, big and small, well-known and seldom seen. I’d prefer to avoid crowds, and I enjoy finding new, never- or seldom-before photographed locations. But I also don’t go out of my way to avoid an iconic spot if that seems like the best location at a given time.
I don’t particularly care if a certain scene or subject has been photographed by other people before. All I care about is whether I’m inspired by it. I’d rather not repeat myself, if possible, so if I can find a new location, or new subject, or new way of seeing a familiar place, that’s great. But I’m not driven by the need to be “different” at all costs. First and foremost, I want to enjoy myself. And I enjoy myself most when I follow my instincts and photograph whatever I’m inspired to photograph, without worrying about how the resulting images might compare to other people’s images, whether “it’s been done before,” or any of that external mental baggage.
I hope that somewhere along the way I make photographs that are original – for me. But I find that works best (again, for me) if it’s an organic process, not a conscious effort to do something different.
And just because I photograph a lesser-known spot doesn’t make the style of the image different or original. I think we all bring our way of seeing to whatever location we visit, so while the scenery may have changed, the point of view is the same. I think it’s actually more challenging to make photographs that are different or original (for you) in a familiar location than to do what you always do in a different location.
That morning at Tunnel View was a wonderful experience. It was so beautiful. And while I didn’t have it to myself, I embraced the social aspect of it, chatting with William Neill, and running into someone I didn’t expect to see there, Josh Cripps – all the way over from Mammoth.
As the light and clouds shifted I captured wide views of the whole scene, and tighter views of mist and trees. Later I ventured into the valley and photographed many other scenes, big and small. I had a great day, and to me, that’s what matters most.
— 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.