In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Drawing With Light

El Capitan emerging from clouds, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan emerging from clouds, Yosemite. 78mm, three bracketed frames, each at f/11, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

You can make a photograph without a camera, or lens, but you can’t make a photograph without light. The word “photograph” literally means “drawing with light.” Light is the essence of photography.

If light is our medium, it stands to reason that exceptional light has the potential to lead to exceptional photographs. It’s not a guarantee, of course; you still need to find a composition that works with that light, and execute the photograph technically. But the potential is there.

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Following Your Instincts

Raven, trees, and crags, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Raven, trees, and crags, Yosemite

One of the most difficult tasks in landscape photography is deciding where to go. It seems simple, but it’s anything but, especially when the weather is changing quickly. Would I be better off staying put, or trying someplace else? Where (and when) will the light be most interesting?

It helps to know an area well, so you have a better idea about which spots might give you the best opportunities under different conditions. It also helps to know local weather patterns. And when cell service allows, I’ll use satellite, radar, and webcam images to see beyond my immediate field of view, and make a short-term weather prediction.

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A Beautiful Valley

Sandhill cranes at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Sandhill cranes at sunrise, San Joaquin Valley, California

During this past winter Claudia and I spent a lot of time in California’s Central Valley. This area isn’t known for its scenic beauty, but we found a lot of beauty there.

This was once a vast region of seasonal wetlands and flower-filled prairies, teeming with waterfowl, elk, pronghorn antelope, wolves, grizzly bears, and endless acres of springtime flowers. It’s estimated that 500,000 tule elk once roamed this region, and early visitors described flocks of wintering geese so large and dense they darkened the midday sky. This “American Serengeti” existed less than 200 years ago, in an area now occupied by farmlands, towns, and cities.

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Planning and Serendipity: A Pre-Conference Photo Challenge


 

I’m excited to be teaching at the Out of Chicago Live 2021 online photo conference! The first edition last spring was a lot of fun for both instructors and participants. I had a great time, so I’m looking forward to doing it again.

To kick things off, the Out of Chicago team will be conducting a series of pre-conference photo challenges, and I’ll be leading one of them next Tuesday, March 2nd, at 2:00 p.m. Central Time (noon Pacific Time) called Planning and Serendipity in Photography.

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Size Isn’t Everything

Three Brothers, Sentinel Rock, and the Merced River at sunrise, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Three Brothers, Sentinel Rock, and the Merced River at sunrise, Yosemite. On Saturday morning the sun broke through the clouds just after sunrise to light the Three Brothers. 19mm, 1/20 sec. at f/11, ISO 100.

Aside from one big storm in late January, it’s been another dry winter here in central California. So any forecast for precipitation – even a small amount – piques my interest.

On Monday Yosemite Valley got two-tenths of an inch of rain, then another two-tenths early Saturday morning. That’s pretty meager, and often such small storms don’t add enough moisture to the atmosphere to generate any mist. But surprisingly, both of these small systems created lots of mist in the valley.

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Moonlit Clouds

Moonlit clouds, Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Moonlit clouds, Sierra Nevada, California. 70mm, three bracketed frames, two stops apart, each at f/5.6, ISO 800, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

Every so often I’ll be outside at night and see some interesting clouds passing in front of the moon. This can be quite a beautiful sight, especially with a pattern of small, puffy clouds stretching across the sky. And under these conditions you can often see a rainbow-like corona around the moon.

I’ve tried to photograph moonlit clouds like this a few times, with mixed results. Usually by the time I get out my camera, find a suitable viewpoint, compose, focus, and figure out an exposure, the clouds are gone – or at least less interesting.

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Aftermath

Snow-covered pines, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Snow-covered pines, Mariposa County, California. I found some snow-plastered trees in the fog as the storm was clearing.

Last week’s big storm played out mostly as predicted, dropping large amounts of rain and snow throughout much of California. The Yosemite area was right in the bullseye of the atmospheric river, but all of the Sierra Nevada got a healthy dose of rain and snow. Yosemite Valley’s rain gauge measured 6.67 inches. Other nearby areas received amounts ranging from four to eight inches, with one weather station just south of Yosemite recording slightly over ten inches.

Coastal mountains areas from Santa Cruz down to Santa Barbara reported impressive rainfall totals, with ten inches of rain in many gauges, and one spot along the Big Sur Coast, Chalk Peak, recording over 15 inches of rain in three days. A mudslide near Salinas damaged a number of buildings, and a section of Highway 1 south of Big Sur got washed out, but I think we were lucky to escape this big storm without more widespread damage.

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Riding Out the Storms

Half Dome, North Dome, and Yosemite Valley at sunrise, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome, North Dome, and Yosemite Valley at sunrise. I made this image after a light snowfall – accompanied by some beautiful mist – in 2017.

Last Tuesday the Sierra got hit by a big wind storm. Events like this are called “Mono winds” around here, since the wind comes from the east, in the direction of Mono Lake. But similar winds are called “Santa Ana winds” in Southern California, or by various other names around the world. They’re katabatic winds that flow from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure, accelerating down the leeward slopes of a mountain range. For Mono winds, that means high pressure over Nevada, and low pressure over the Pacific, with the winds flowing from east to west down the long western slope of the Sierra Nevada, accelerating as they descend.

We lost power for about 36 hours, and a large oak fell across our driveway, but we were lucky. Some nearby areas were hit harder, with many homes and vehicles damaged or destroyed by falling trees. Wawona, in the southern part of Yosemite National Park, was devastated. Some neighborhoods are still without power.

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Join Me at the Night Photo Summit!


 

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching at the first ever Night Photo Summit next month!

The folks who created the National Parks at Night workshop series just announced this new online photo conference, focused exclusively on night photography. I’ll be joining 27 other distinguished instructors, including Lance Keimig, Tim Cooper, Adam Woodworth, Jess Santos, Chris Nicholson, Rachel Jones Ross, Troy Paiva, and many more.

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Misty Ridges

Misty ridges, Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Misty ridges, Sierra Nevada foothills, California. 400mm, 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 100.

A few days ago I checked to see if fog might be pushing up into the Sierra foothills again. It’s often hard to get a good picture of what’s happening with the weather in the predawn darkness, but things looked promising enough to make me grab my gear and drive out to one of the local viewpoints.

When I arrived it was light enough to see that there wasn’t a distinct band of fog below. Instead, I found diffused layers of mist. That wasn’t what I was looking for, so for a second I considered turning around and heading home. But I was already up, and out, and then I spotted Venus and the crescent moon poking through some clouds, so I decided to photograph that. And then… I might as well hang around for sunrise.

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