Redwoods, ferns, and rhododendrons, northern California coast. I’ve photographed sun breaking through fog in redwood forests many times, but it’s always a special treat. At this particular moment the sun highlighted the redwood trunk on the left, providing a visual focal point, with the ferns, rhododendrons, other trunks, and patches of sunlight all arranging themselves in a harmonious way. I consciously planted the tripod at a spot where I could see decent spacing and separation between the trunks.

Claudia and I have been traveling a lot this year, with trips to Mono Lake, Zion, Valley of Fire, Anza-Borrego and the Central Coast ranges for flowers, the Olympic Peninsula, and multiple visits to Death Valley – along with day trips to Yosemite, of course.

And recently we made another trip, this time to the northern California redwoods for our annual workshop there. But even though that was a long drive, it seemed like we were coming home, rather than leaving home. I always feel that way when we return to the redwoods, because I love that area so much.

We’ve visited the redwoods every year since 2011, except the pandemic year of 2020. You might think I’d get tired of photographing the same place every year, but that’s not at all the case, because there’s so much variety in the landscapes of this area, and in the weather. The same scene can look quite different from year-to-year, day-to-day, or even minute-to-minute because of changes in the weather, tides, stream flows, or flower blooms. Which makes it all really fun to photograph.

Whatever the conditions, I’m always looking for opportunities to capture a mood, and perhaps convey something about the character of a place. The landscapes of the northern-California coast have a lot of character, and often a lot of moodiness, but it sometimes takes just the right conditions to make that character and mood come through in a photograph.

Of course I keep an eye on the weather, and try to put myself in situations where the light, weather, and subjects could lend themselves to making evocative photographs. But once I’ve arrived at a location I try to let go of preconceived ideas, especially if it’s a place I’ve visited before. I try to look deeper, beyond the most obvious things that first caught my attention, and be open to noticing scenes and moments where light, weather, and subject might all work together to tell a compelling story and capture a mood. I never know what that might be, or when – or if – that might happen. But I know that walking around with preconceived ideas is like walking around with a blindfold; I’m likely to miss dozens of potentially wonderful images because I can’t see beyond the ideas in my head.

So here are some of my favorite photographs from our trip to the redwoods. None of these were preconceived; in each case I was responding to the surroundings, and made the photograph because I recognized an opportunity to capture a mood, or tell a story about the character of a particular place at a particular moment.

— Michael Frye

Evening light on lupines and oaks, northern California coast. Late-day light and a bit of haze helped create a mellow mood here. I used a short telephoto (70mm) to juxtapose the undulating line of the flowers with similar lines in the oaks.

Rocky shore at sunset, northern California coast. I liked the way the sun highlighted the foreground rocks, so I tried to balance those with the larger rocks in the background, and used a neutral-density filter to get a slow shutter speed to smooth the water.

Trail through redwoods and rhododendrons, northern California coast

Trees and fog at sunset, northern California coast, USA

Trees and fog at sunset, northern California coast. It’s always great to get above the fog like this; the challenge was to find a visual focal point, which the trees provided.

Trees and fog, northern California coast. Sunlight caught these trees at the edge of some river fog.

Redwood and rhododendrons, northern California coast. I liked the flow and gesture of this rhododendron against the redwood trunk.

Fogbow in a redwood forest, northern California coast. An irresistible subject, enhanced by a polarizer. The challenge was finding a composition, but a wide, stitched panorama seemed to work.

Trail through redwoods in fog, northern California coast. The sun was quite high at this point, so including the sun and radiating sunbeams meant pointing the camera almost straight up. Instead I concentrated on what the sun was hitting down below – like this path through the forest.

Ferns and vine maples, northern California coast

Roosevelt elk, northern California

Related Posts: The Primeval Forest; The Wild Coast; Simplifying Forest Scenes

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.