Light and Weather

Misty Yosemite Valley

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite. On this morning the satellite images showed lots of high clouds, but I hoped there might be a gap to the east, allowing the sun to shine through and light the underside of the clouds. And I hoped for mist on the valley floor. That was asking for a lot, but sometimes things work out. The color lasted about three minutes. 50mm, three bracketed exposures, two stops apart, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

While early February brought lots of snow to Yosemite Valley, over the last three weeks we’ve seen a series of warmer storms, with rain rather than snow. I’d rather have snow, of course, but any weather is more interesting than blue skies. And rain on top of snow is a great mist producer.

Fog or clouds form when the temperature and dew point converge. That means either cooling the air to meet the dew point (like when air rises, and cools, and the water vapor in the air condenses into clouds), or raising the dew point to meet the air temperature (by increasing the amount of moisture in the air).

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Snow in Yosemite Valley: Part 2

Snow-covered oaks reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Snow-covered oaks reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA



On that snowy day I wrote about in my previous post the sun came out quickly, so our first stop was a spot near El Capitan that was still in the shade. I was looking for reflections, but then the sun hit the oaks across the river, while a cloud threw shade over El Cap, creating a beautiful contrast between the bright white trees and the dark cliff behind them.

The snowbank below the oaks, however, was really bright and distracting. All I need, I thought, is for a cloud to shade that snowbank while the sun was still hitting the trees. And a minute later it happened, setting up a dark-light-dark-light pattern. (That’s the image at the top of this post.)

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Snow in Yosemite Valley

Weather Yosemite Valley: Stormy skies over the valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Stormy skies over the valley, Yosemite, Sunday evening

We’ve had one storm after another here in the Sierra Nevada. Two more storms came through this past weekend, back to back. They were cold systems, so it snowed in Yosemite Valley, with about five inches on Friday night, and another eight or nine inches on Saturday night and Sunday morning – all on top of at least 18 inches left over from the previous series of storms. The valley was quite a snowy place.

I kept checking the weather last weekend to see whether there might be a break between the first and second storms. All signs pointed to a partial break late on Saturday morning, but there seemed to be a slight chance that the storm might clear closer to sunrise on Saturday, so I drove up early – only to wait as a shower rolled in and dumped heavy snow for an hour.

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A Monster Storm

Ice-coated oaks at sunset, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Ice-coated oaks at sunset, Mariposa County, CA, USA

California got hit by a big storm. It was actually a series of storms that started last Friday and ended late Tuesday, but it felt like one long storm because there was little break between the systems. We didn’t see the sun in Mariposa from Friday until Tuesday.

Yosemite Valley received 8 1/2 inches of precipitation (rain and snow equivalent) since Friday. That’s the largest amount I remember seeing over such a short period. (There was probably more rain during the ’97 flood, but I didn’t pay attention to the rain totals then).

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Above the Fog

Oak tree above a fog layer, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Oak tree above a fog layer, Mariposa County, California. 150mm, 20 seconds at f/16, ISO 50.

Fog in California’s Central Valley will occasionally lift into what meteorologists call a stratus deck, where fog rises above the valley floor and settles into a low layer of clouds. From the floor of the Central Valley it looks like a low overcast, but if you drive into the Sierra foothills you’ll climb into the fog, and then above it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you know that I love fog. It’s highly photogenic stuff. Fog here in the foothills is much less common than in the Central Valley, so it always piques my interest, giving me a rare opportunity to photograph some of the numerous, beautiful, foothill oaks in the fog, and even better, a chance to get above the fog. If conditions are right, I can sometimes climb a peak or ridge where I can look out over a sea of fog, with the peaks of the Sierra to the east, and nothing visible in any other direction except the cloud tops.

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The Beauty of Backlight

Backlight Photography, Pines, oak, and mist, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Pines, oak, and mist, Yosemite, Thanksgiving weekend. 70mm, 1/45th of a second at f/16, ISO 100.

Over Thanksgiving weekend I photographed a beautiful, misty morning in Yosemite Valley (see this previous post). Looking through my photographs later I realized that almost every one was backlit. And that made sense, as mist looks wonderful with backlight. So do other translucent objects like clouds, leaves, grasses, flowers, raindrops, and so forth.

Translucent, backlit objects stand out best against a dark background. And that’s one of the great, overlooked features about photographing in Yosemite Valley: you can often use the cliffs as a dark backdrop. It’s like draping a giant black cloth behind your subject.

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