Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California, USA

Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California. Some dense coastal fog helped simplify this forest scene and add a soft, ethereal mood. 35mm, 1.5 seconds at f/16, ISO 200.

I half-jokingly refer to our redwoods workshop as the “Chasing Fog” workshop. The northern coast of California is definitely fog-prone (though there are never any guarantees). And fog can add so much to photographs of the redwood forests, or scenes of the meadows, rivers, or coast, so I try to take advantage of fog whenever and wherever I find it.

But fog is also fickle stuff. We’ve been going up to this corner of California every year since 2011 (except 2020), and every year I see the fog behave in new ways. Sometimes the fog will get into a pattern for a few days in a row, but inevitably that pattern gets disrupted by something – high pressure, low pressure, a cold front, a wind shift – and the pattern changes, or the fog disappears completely.

There are two main types of fog in that part of California: coastal fog and valley fog.

We saw both types of fog during our visit to redwood country. Two days before our workshop began it rained. Clear skies were forecast for the next morning, and I knew the combination of recent rain and clear skies could create valley fog. A look at some of the weather models confirmed that was a possibility, so Claudia and I got up early and drove out to a nearby river valley, a place we knew from past experience could be a good spot to photograph this type of fog flowing down the valley and out to sea.

And sure enough, we found that valley fog. And the next day, the first morning of our workshop, the pattern repeated itself, so we took our group to the same area.

The next morning it looked like the coastal fog could move back in, though that possibility seemed a little iffy. It’s that coastal fog that sometimes penetrates into redwood groves, so we hiked a trail in a fog-prone area of redwoods, and found a little fog, but it was rather ephemeral. We came back in the afternoon, and found more fog, but again it was fleeting.

Forecasts for the next morning indicated a higher likelihood of getting coastal fog, which sounded promising. But fog is always hard to predict, so I never count on any forecast. And it’s hard to get an accurate forecast predicting the height of a coastal fog layer, which is a critical ingredient in that part of the world.

As it turned out, we did get some nice, dense fog in one of my favorite redwood groves. And then it dissipated. And then it came back. And then it dissipated again. And then it came back again. Finally, late in the morning, it cleared for good, but gave us a brief period of sunbeams before departing. That’s just the nature of fog; it comes and goes in unpredictable ways, and we felt lucky to get any fog at all.

Here’s a selection of images from our time in redwood country, all containing fog of one sort or another. Fog can be maddeningly fickle and unpredictable, so I try to keep a relaxed attitude about it, knowing that sometimes things will work out, and sometimes they won’t, and that’s just the life of a landscape photographer. There’s always something else to photograph. But to me fog is worth chasing, because I love how it adds so much mood and interest to so many scenes.

— Michael Frye

Foggy coastline, Northern California, USA

Foggy coastline, northern California. While scouting before our workshop I found a high viewpoint looking down over a low bank of coastal fog. Minutes after taking this photo the fog dissipated, as winds pushed it to the south. 145mm, 20 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, ND filter.

Fog along the northern California coast at sunrise, USA

Fog along the northern California coast at sunrise. The first morning of our workshop we found valley fog streaming out of a river valley and pouring over nearby hillsides. 94mm, 15 seconds at f/13, ISO 100, ND filter.

Sun breaking through fog along the northern California coast, USA

Sun breaking through fog along the northern California coast. Made while scouting before the workshop as valley fog flowed out of a river mouth, and sunlight started to hit the breaking waves. 1/125 sec. at f/11, ISO 400.

Sunlight and fog, northern California, USA

Sunlight and fog, northern California. As this valley fog was dissipating these reflections on a river caught my eye, so I put on a 16-stop ND filter to enable me to use a slow shutter speed (30 seconds) and blur the water, while still retaining detail in the highlights. 70mm, 30 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, 16-stop ND filter.

Redwoods in fog, northern California, USA

Redwoods in fog, northern California. I found some ephemeral fog in a redwood forest, and liked this arrangement of trunks, branches, and ferns. 50mm, 1.5 seconds at f/16, ISO 100.

Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California, USA

Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California. This was a rare appearance of coastal fog in the late afternoon (I told you it was unpredictable). The light was getting dim, and a slight breeze caused the flowers and leaves to waver, so I pushed up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion. 35mm, 1/4 sec. at f/16, ISO 800.

Fog and sunbeans in a redwood forest, northern California, USA

Fog and sunbeans in a redwood forest, northern California. We did see sunbeams briefly during the workshop, and I found this composition with radiating beams and a corona around the sun. Near the top of the frame you can also see a faint rainbow (which we later learned is called a 22-degree halo). I bracketed exposures to get detail in the corona as well as the shadows. 16mm, five bracketed exposures, two stops apart, at f/16, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

Related Posts: Simplifying Forest Scenes; Return to the Redwoods

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.