Light and Weather

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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Autumn Blizzard

Photographing an Autumn Blizzard with a fast shutter speed: Aspens and conifers in a snowstorm, Uncompahgre NF, CO, USA

Aspens and conifers in a snowstorm, Colorado. 120mm, 1/125th of a second at f/11, ISO 400.

In early October a series of storms brought rain and higher-elevation snow to the mountains of Colorado. Claudia and I spent several long days chasing the weather, and I found many intriguing combinations of weather and color, including aspens with snow, fog, clouds, and sunbeams. But I never found aspens with snow and fog. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

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Eyeing the Weather

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

El Capitan and the Merced River at sunset yesterday evening



Several storms rolled through here last week. The largest of those dropped over two inches of rain in Yosemite Valley, and left a dusting of snow on the Valley floor Friday morning, but I couldn’t get up there early that day because Highway 140 was closed by mud and rock slides in the burn scar from the Ferguson Fire.

A smaller but colder storm was due to arrive Saturday, this time promising a chance for more significant snow. By noon Friday all the roads into the Valley had reopened, so I took a detailed look at the weather forecasts to see when this next storm might clear. Most of the information seemed to point to a clearing sometime after sunset on Saturday. But there was one item in the Hourly Weather Forecast on the National Weather Service website that hinted that the storm might clear before sunset. This graph showed sky cover (cloud cover) staying at 77% until 9:00 p.m., then dropping to 40% by 10:00 p.m. – well after dark. But the line showing precipitation potential dropped abruptly from 90% at 2:00 p.m. to 40% at 3:00 p.m. Hmm. Here’s what that looked like:

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