Light and Weather


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.


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.


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.


Waves of Fog

Cascading fog, Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Cascading fog, Sierra Nevada foothills, California. 111mm, 15 seconds at f/11, ISO 200, 4-stop ND filter.

We’re in the midst of another dry spell here. After some modest rain in December and early January, the storm track has shifted north, with no precipitation in sight for at least the next two weeks.

But we got enough rain to add some moisture to the ground and the lower atmosphere, which triggered the typical winter fog pattern in California’s Central Valley. Fog down there has been a daily occurrence, and that pattern is expected to continue for awhile.


Breaking Through

Oak and grasslands at sunset, Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Oak and grasslands at sunset, Sierra Nevada foothills, California. 31mm, five frames blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge, each frame at f/11, ISO 100.

While looking through my photographs from last year, I realized there were many images that I hadn’t had a chance to post before.

One of those was this photograph of a lone oak at sunset in the Sierra foothills. I made this on April 6th, during the first lockdown. Yosemite was closed, and we couldn’t travel outside our county, but Claudia and I felt lucky to live in the Sierra foothills, where we could easily drive to some beautiful spots without encountering any other people. We explored and photographed places we hadn’t been to before, and it was fun discovering these new locations in our backyard.


Clearing Storm

El Capitan and the Merced River at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan and the Merced River at sunset, Yosemite. One of my last photos of the day, as the sun broke through clouds and lit El Capitan. 26mm, three bracketed exposures blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge, each at f/11, ISO 100.

It’s been a strange year, to say the least. Yesterday, Claudia and I went up to Yosemite Valley, and we had to think about the last time we’d been there. It was probably in early June, just after the park reopened. Over the rest of the summer we went to Glacier Point a few times, and up to the Yosemite high country on several occasions to photograph thunderstorms and Comet NEOWISE, but not to Yosemite Valley. In September and early October we traveled to Utah and Colorado. We spent most of November in Oregon and Washington. In between we stayed home while I finished launching my new Lightroom course.

During the spring the whole state was in lockdown, and the park was closed. And even in January and February there wasn’t a lot of weather, and therefore not much enticement to drive up to the valley to photograph a clearing storm. So I had hardly photographed Yosemite Valley the entire year.