Apr 3, 2017
Today we’re going to talk about photographing Yosemite, the national park that Ansel Adams made famous and one of my all-time favorite parks. I still remember getting goosebumps the first time I came down the hill on Big Oak Flat Road and the valley opened up before me. I’ve been back many times since, but still remember that first time.
Most people only visit the valley floor which is only a very small part of the entire park, but it’s where the icons are and not to be missed. My favorite spots are Tunnel View, Valley View and Glacier Point. Pretty obvious ones I guess, but we’ll also talk about some of the lesser known spots too.
The park itself is about a 4-hour drive east of San Francisco and southeast of Sacramento. I always recommend people fly into Sacramento because of all the traffic in and around San Francisco not to mention the hassle of flying into San Francisco International.
If you’re driving, you have more options depending on where you’re coming from. I live in NW Nevada, so I prefer coming down Hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierra’s and going over Tioga Pass when it’s open which is usually sometime in May. But if you’re in California or the Pacific Northwest, you will want to use either the Big Oak Flat entrance in the NW part of the park on Highway 120 or the South Entrance on Highway 41.
The best times of year to be there are spring and winter in my opinion. Spring for the waterfalls and wildflowers; winter for snow and clearing storms. Summer is less than ideal with lots of tourists and in most years the waterfalls are a trickle or not running at all. There is some fall color in Yosemite usually in late October and early November, but the trees do not always change color at the same time. It’s a time for intimate landscapes along the Merced River mostly.
So, a typical day in the park usually starts before sunrise and ends after sunset. The best color is frequently a half hour before sunrise and up to a half hour after sunset. For sunrise, you have to be there early not only for the pre-sunrise color, but also to get the best spot or any spot at all. You definitely want to be there before the tour buses arrive.
Likewise, at sunset you need to be there 45-60 minutes before official sunset to stake out your spot at Valley View, Tunnel View and Glacier Point. Sunset light hits Valley View first and then Tunnel View with Glacier Point last because of the differing altitudes. You can do Valley View and Tunnel View in one day if you don’t dilly dally too long at Valley View, but Glacier Point is at least an hour from the Valley Floor and a separate trip.
The best time of day to photograph the various waterfalls like Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Fall and Vernal Fall is mid-morning for Yosemite Falls, mid- late afternoon for Bridal Veil Fall and mid-day for Vernal and Nevada Falls. This is because Yosemite Valley sits in a deep canyon several thousand feet below the rim, so light does not strike the north rim until mid-morning and the south rim until mid-late afternoon otherwise these falls are in deep shadow. The same is true of Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall because they’re in the Merced River canyon.
I usually recommend people plan to spend at least five days photographing the park to allow for a couple of sunrises and sunsets at Tunnel View and Valley View and 1-2 sunsets at Glacier Point. Plus time to drive to the Mariposa Giant Sequoia’s, Tenaya Lake and Olmsted Point.
Off the beaten path spots for sunset are Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake. There are great views all around at Olmsted Point, but my favorite is the one of Half Dome at sunset especially if there are some nice clouds to reflect the sunset light. You can shoot from the parking lot here or climb the rock on the west side or north side for a different perspective. Don’t forget to look behind you or to the east for sunset lit clouds or mountains.
At the Tenaya Lake parking lot, you have to hike a hundred yards or less to the east to reach the lake front. There is a flat rock extending out into the lake which makes a good leading line for the lake and the distant mountains as well as spot to put your tripod.
Night photography at Olmsted Point can be productive. You have good views to the south and west and there are Jeffrey pines for foreground material. The best time for this depends on the phase of the moon and the time of moonrise. Ideally, you want either a new moon or a quarter moon at most and shortly after moonrise time wise. If the moon is too full or in the wrong part of the sky the stars are nearly invisible.
One other popular option is a moonbow over Yosemite falls which works best under a full moon in April and May. Fortunately, the best times are pre-determined every year by Donald Olson at Texas State University at www.donolson.wp.txstate.edu A new moon or quarter moon also allow for night shots of the icons from locations like Valley View or Tunnel View.
My favorite lenses in Yosemite are the 24-70 and 70-200. The 24-70 for the grand landscape view. But sometimes it’s more interesting to isolate parts of the scene for a different perspective. My go to camera body for landscapes is the D4. Not a traditional landscape body, but if I want more megapixels I can shoot panoramas.
I always like to recommend Michael Frye’s book “The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite” available through my Amazon A-store and his Yosemite app available at https://www.michaelfrye.com Another useful app is The Photographer’s Ephemeris for figuring out sunrise, sunset and moonrise. Available for iOS, Android and pc’s.
Another useful app for national parks are the National Parks by Chimani available for Android and iOS both. Apps are free and available for all 59 National Parks.
Also helpful is www.npmaps.com where you can download free NPS maps for each park.
If you like to hike, http://yellowstonehikes.com is a great resource.
Here are a few photos from Yosemite from myself and Bill Naiman: