In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Winter Arrives in Yosemite

Snowy night along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Snowy night along the Merced River, Yosemite. 20mm, 20 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.

I’m not sure who decided that the winter solstice should be the first official day of winter, but I think that official designation is rather absurd. Winter has definitely arrived in many parts of the country, whether it’s official or not, including here in the Sierra. This past week Yosemite got its first precipitation in months, in the form of a cold storm that dropped over a foot of snow on the valley floor.

The snow began on Tuesday, and I kept my eye on the weather, of course, hoping to photograph the storm clearing, and looking for potential rifts in the clouds. Judging by satellite images, some stars might have appeared during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but that was just a brief break before the clouds closed in again. Late Friday morning the sun finally started to poke through the clouds, so Claudia and I headed up to the valley.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunlit dogwoods, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunlit dogwoods, autumn, Yosemite

Thanksgiving is a day for gratitude. While I think we should be grateful every day, it’s nice to take one day to be especially mindful of everything we have to be thankful for.

As I’m writing this I can look out my window and see five inches of fresh snow on the ground. After a dry, warm autumn, it feels as if the weather changed directly from summer to winter. This cold storm is going to cause problems for holiday travelers, but I’m thankful for the badly-needed rain and snow our state is receiving. Fire season is finally over, and further storms are on the way, bringing more beautiful moisture.

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Digging Deeper

Rocks and ripples in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Rocks and ripples in the Merced River, Yosemite. Claudia, Charlotte Gibb, and I noticed some interesting patterns in the water while wandering along the river last year. I made a few compositions at one spot, then moved downstream, where I found Claudia and Charlotte looking at similar patterns with prism effects – little squiggly rainbows flashing across the water. I made a couple of photographs I liked last year, but then went back to that same spot last month, and this time found a sunlit patch of water surrounded by tree shadows, which gave the pattern a natural vignette. I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the ripples, and a small aperture to keep everything in focus, so I raised the ISO to 1600 to get the shutter speed up to 1/125th sec. at f/16. The focal length was 200mm.

Landscape photographers usually hope for great conditions: a clearing storm, sun breaking through fog, a spectacular sunset, great fall color, dense patches of wildflowers, and so on.

I wouldn’t say it’s easy to make good photographs under such conditions. You still have to put yourself in the right place at the right time, find a good composition, and get the exposure and focus right. And all of those things take skill. But it’s certainly easier. In those highly-photogenic situations you just have to capture the gift that nature is giving you.

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Interview with Matt Payne

Moon setting on a misty night, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting on a misty night, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite. I’ve photographed Yosemite Valley many times, but on this night several years ago I found something I had never seen before: moonbeams radiating through the mist in El Cap Meadow.

I had a great time talking with Matt Payne recently on his F-Stop, Collaborate, and Listen podcast. The episode was just released today, so you can listen to it on your favorite podcast platform, or directly on Matt’s website.

We talked about all kinds of things – my connection with Yosemite, early influences, the challenges and rewards of photographing the same place over and over again, obstacles to creativity, ways to create depth in landscape photography, and more. I hope you enjoy the podcast!

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Can Intimate Landscapes Have a Mood?

Big-leaf maple in a burned forest, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Big-leaf maple in a burned forest, Yosemite

I’m always striving to make photographs that convey a mood. I want to do more than show what a place looks like; I want to capture what it feels like to be there at that particular moment.

It seems easier to convey a mood when photographing big landscape scenes during interesting weather. Just describing any kind of weather suggests a mood: sunny, cloudy, gray, overcast, rainy, foggy, misty, snowy, windy, calm – and so on. Combining weather with a compelling landscape almost automatically creates a mood.

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Photographs That Flow

Autumn lakeshore, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn lakeshore, Yosemite. 50mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 100, polarizer.

I sometimes get asked to recommend a book about composition, and my first suggestion is always Ian Plant’s ebook Visual Flow. Ian understands composition well, presents his concepts clearly, and doesn’t have much use for rules.

The title of the book suggests an important concept, but one that’s often overlooked. I think the best landscape compositions have a natural visual flow. Your eye doesn’t get stuck, but travels freely through the frame, pausing briefly at the key areas.

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Judging Compositions in the Field

Dogwoods in autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwoods in autumn, Yosemite. 118mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 1600.

Are you good at picking your best photographs while you’re in the field? Do you always know which ones are going to be your favorites, or do you sometimes find that the ones you thought were going to be great aren’t, while others turn out to be better than you thought?

I’ve been making photographs for a long time, and usually have a pretty good idea of when a photograph will work and when it won’t. Sometimes my field judgements are pretty good, and the images that I most look forward to seeing on a bigger screen turn out to be my favorites. But other times I’m surprised. A photograph I was anxious to see on a large monitor turns out to be disappointing, while another one ends up being a favorite.

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Lenticular Cloud over Mono Lake

Lenticular cloud at sunset, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Lenticular cloud at sunset, Mono Lake, California. 20 seconds at f/14, ISO 100, 7-stop ND filter.

We just finished our workshop in the eastern Sierra, and had a great time. We had to look a little harder for colorful aspens this year, but in the end we found plenty.

The workshop ended on Friday. Yesterday Claudia and I slept in a bit, then did an interview, packed up our classroom space from the workshop, and had an early dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining.

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Glowing Maples

Autumn kaleidoscope, northern Utah, USA

Autumn kaleidoscope, northern Utah. The upper-right portion of this photograph didn’t go into the shade until dusk, so I concentrated on photographing other things for awhile (like the next two images below). But I thought this was worth coming back to, as I loved the mix of colors and patterns. 180mm, 8 seconds at f/11, ISO 100.

As you can probably tell from my last post, Claudia and I had a great time photographing the maples in northern Utah. We even found some spots where the maples were mixed with aspens! Although 99% of the aspens in the area were still green at that time, I loved the juxtaposition of those greens against the reds and oranges of the maples – along with the white aspen trunks.

It’s great to get clouds, as we did for a couple of the photographs in that previous post from Utah. But we don’t have any control over the weather, so we have to adapt to the conditions. It’s hard to make big, sweeping landscape scenes work without clouds to add interest to the sky, so on sunny days I usually narrow my focus and concentrate on smaller scenes. And there were plenty of those in northern Utah, with the maples, aspens, and cottonwoods creating wonderful patterns, textures, and colors.

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A Slight Detour

Sunbeams, mountains, and autumn maples, UT, USA

Sunbeams, mountains, and autumn maples, Utah. We were treated to some spectacular sunbeams one morning. Despite the high contrast, I was able to get detail in highlights and shadows with just one exposure. 50mm, 1/250th sec. at f/11, ISO 100, polarizer.

Claudia and I were driving to Colorado when we decided to take a little detour to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. We’d never been there, and it looked like the bigtooth maples were nearing their peak color, so why not?

The maples, as it turned out, were spectacular, covering the hillsides with red. I’d never seen anything like it. And one day we got treated to some interesting weather, with clouds, mist, and sunbeams.

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