Behind the Image: Valley of Light

The landmarks of Yosemite Valley have been the subject of so many images it can be difficult to find something new and different. For that reason, I often intentionally avoid popular viewpoints and look for the unexpected. But Tunnel View—near the site of Ansel Adams’ famous photograph “Clearing Winter Storm”—is one viewpoint that is hard to resist the temptation to visit. It offers a stunning, sweeping perspective on Yosemite Valley and is just a few short minutes (driving) from the Bridalveil Fall parking area on the Valley floor.

And so this past April, after spending the first part of the morning shooting dogwood blossoms along the Merced River, I headed up to Tunnel View. I had intended only to stop for a moment to absorb the scene before heading back down into the Valley to look for interesting opportunities. But the display of light that greeted my arrival at Tunnel View was a remarkable surprise.

Valley of Light,   an incredible display of light rays from Tunnel View (April 2019).

Valley of Light, an incredible display of light rays from Tunnel View (April 2019).

The image shown here, Valley of Light, is representative of the light rays that graced the cliffs and danced across the Valley floor for about 20 minutes after I arrived at Tunnel View. Through sheer luck, my arrival was perfectly timed. The best displays started about 10 minutes after I arrived, with the sun rising high enough to send beams over the cliffs near Bridalveil Fall and across the floor of Yosemite Valley. There were about 30 others at Tunnel View (not that crowded, really) and those present were nearly silent the entire time. Eventually, the sun rose high enough that the magical atmosphere faded and I realized I had captured the best of what it had to offer.

In shooting this image and Skyfall, which appears in both color and black and white versions in galleries on this site, I shot handheld and mostly between 70-105mm focal lengths (moderate zoom). Using a tripod is often ideal but this scene was bright enough that it was unnecessary and would have hindered my effort to rapidly gather a number of different perspectives on the display of light. I moved up and down the walkway as I captured different images, ducking in and out of groups, and I feel staying put and shooting from a tripod would have been very limiting (and thus a big mistake).

To me, the light captured in Valley of Light and Skyfall was the result of a stunning opportunity that I recognized as soon as I arrived Tunnel View. Yet as I concluded shooting, a nearby photographer asked whether there had been good light at Tunnel View earlier in the morning. The light just now, I told him, is the best I’ve ever seen from here in many, many visits. He looked at me in surprise. We chatted a bit more and I wished him luck during the remainder of his visit.

I can only conclude that the emphasis on dramatic, colorful skies in contemporary landscape photography has conditioned photographers to look for that, and only that, while in the field. But I wouldn’t trade Valley of Light or Skyfall for a colorful sunrise…both images stand on their own quite nicely. I hope others agree, and I believe they will.

Location Sharing in the Instagram Era

This post serves two purposes.  First, to share one of my favorite images from the past few months, shown below.  Second, to explain why I’ve decided not to publicize the location of the image.

Classic California,   April 2019

Classic California, April 2019

“Classic California” is no doubt my favorite image from a day in the field this past April.  It was taken shortly after sunset as the sky was beginning its transition from the yellow-gold of sunset to the pastel hues of dusk and the “blue hour.”  The sky lupines, owl’s clover, and an array of other wildflowers are enticing enough, but for me the image would be incomplete without the graceful Valley Oak near the crest of the far hill.  No location I’ve seen, and surely no image I’ve taken, better captures the essence of the sentiment expressed by John Muir a century ago when he said:  “Sauntering in any direction, hundreds of these happy sun-plants brushed against my feet at every step, and closed over them as if I were wading in liquid gold.” 

But indeed, scenes like this are challenging to find even during a so-called “superbloom.”  California’s population continues to expand ceaselessly, and so does the urban development necessary to keep it housed and happy.  Fly from Sacramento or any Bay Area airport to Los Angeles and marvel at the long unbroken expanses of our cities and highways.  It’s particularly apparent at night, when the land below resembles one of those composite pictures of the Earth at night and the urban centers of California—that is, much of the western half of the state—are defined by vast orange patterns of sodium street lamps.

Which brings me to the second point, about sharing image locations.  As I write this post, Instagram measures the “reach” of this image at 6,289 unique views.  And consider that only a few short miles from the location of this image, I watched crowds of hikers strolling casually off trails and into sweeping fields of lupines and other wildflowers without a care for what was underfoot.  In fact, being in amongst the wildflowers was their very purpose as evidenced by the deliberate poses struck for awaiting iPhones.  The same scene repeated itself across California and elsewhere this past spring.  It seems, unfortunately, to be “a thing.”

In this circumstance, the decision not to publicize this location is not hard at all.  I’m generally comfortable sharing locations, but I agree with the emerging ethic of not disclosing a specific location if it is environmentally sensitive and there is a chance that location sharing could cause increased visitation and the inevitable damage to resources that follows.  The concept is addressed very well in discussion that appears on www.naturefirstphotography.org, which is devoted to espousing environmentally responsible practices for nature photographers.  Even if a tiny fraction of the Instagram viewers actually visited this spot—let’s say half of one percent—that’s 31 more people than would have visited otherwise, at least some of whom would likely bring others with them and later share the location with friends.

This particular spot can, with some care, be visited without causing much harm to wildflowers or other resources along the way.  I’d be happy to share this location with environmentally responsible individuals to allow them to appreciate it while respecting its fragility.  I have no selfish desire to keep this location to myself.  But for now, and for so long as wildflowers and other sensitive resources seem an afterthought for so many, it seems the most responsible choice.

Fog in Yosemite Valley

The Monday following Thanksgiving weekend I took a hastily planned trip to Yosemite Valley. The trip was motivated by an encouraging weather forecast that called for partial cloud cover throughout the day ahead of an incoming storm. And while the forecast (mostly) delivered with a nice sunrise at Tunnel View, it was again an unexpected element that made the trip worthwhile.

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I’ve released a number of new images from that morning in a new galley that, for now, is simply entitled “Recent Work.” I’m sharing three of them here with a bit of the backstory.

As the colorful sunrise at Tunnel View came to an end, I hopped in my car to head down into the Valley. My plan was to stop at Cathedral Beach to see if the cloud cover made for an appealing image. And I did, but the water level was very low, the light was flat, and I spent no more than a minute there before deciding to continue looking for a more appealing scene. And it wasn’t long before I saw rising fog in the meadows further west in the Valley and jumped out of the car, tripod in hand.

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The process of capturing these images was quite straightforward. I simply stood in the middle of a meadow with the camera on a tripod and a long zoom lens (a 100-400mm) and explored the scenery through the lens, taking occasional shots when the composition or shifting fog made for an appealing scene. A bit of lingering fall color caught my eye here and there, and I tried to incorporate it in many of the images I captured. The combination of elements—low fog, soft light, and touches of orange and yellow—did most of the work for me.

Back at home later on, the process of reviewing these images was quite enjoyable. They required very little post-processing work in the computer aside from minor adjustments to brightness and color, as well as some cropping decisions to improve on my initial compositions in the field. The bright meadow was a bit troublesome in some images—the low fog almost looked like snow (which is not a bad thing) and was sometimes distracting—but it was easily adjusted to a more pleasing level. And the fog itself made for an ethereal feel in many of the images, particularly the second image shared in this post.

Altogether, the images shared in the “Recent Work” gallery were captured over the course of about 90 minutes. All but one was shot in a single meadow and required nothing more from me that walking a bit from place to place. Only one other photographer was in the meadow during my time there, and a few casual tourists stopped at the fringes for quick pictures before moving on. It was almost easy to forget that I was in Yosemite Valley and that the same meadow is thronged with tourists most of the year.

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None of these images are titled yet. Sometimes the process of titling images is easy, sometimes not. It would be easy to title one or two of the images by reference to the time of year and the conditions (e.g., “November Fog, Yosemite Valley”). But I’m going to let them sit for a while before deciding on titles and whether to include all of them in a separate gallery on this site. I hope viewers find them enjoyable.

Expected, Unexpected: A Morning in Yosemite Valley

Flooded Meadow and El Capitan,   Yosemite Valley

Flooded Meadow and El Capitan, Yosemite Valley

In early June 2017, I took a day trip to Yosemite Valley hoping to capture some images of Half Dome and other Valley landmarks reflected in pools of remnant floodwater on the Valley floor.  The experience was a good reminder of the need to remain open to other image opportunities rather than staying wedded to preconceived ideas of how to spend time in the field.

But before getting to that, here's an image (Flooded Meadow and El Capitan) of El Capitan reflected in the flooded fringes of a meadow along the Merced River.  I was quite happy with this capture and it is essentially what I had in mind traveling out to Yosemite that morning.  Finding this perspective on El Capitan took a bit of hiking and willingness to get wet.  But it's a nice feeling to explore the Valley floor without anyone else around, as was the case on this morning.  Minor flooding on some of the trails helped keep traffic to a minimum, and over the course of four hours (including time spent capturing the low clouds along the Cathedral Spires, below) I only saw 2-3 other people.

Hiking away from the flooded meadow, I walked for only a few minutes before noticing a low mass of clouds moving rapidly along the edges of the Cathedral Spires across the Valley floor from El Capitan.  I tried some long lens (Canon 100-400mm) shots of the clouds mingling with the Spires, eventually moving the camera over to the tripod for stability.  Over the course of a couple of hours, this produced some of my favorite shots of the morning.

Crowned by Clouds, shown first here, is one of the initial shots I took of the clouds flowing down and across the distant cliffs.  I tried many other variations of the same scene, zooming in and out and capturing different cloud patterns, but I eventually settled on this one with a black and white conversion to really enhance the impact of the clouds. 

Crowned by Clouds

Crowned by Clouds

The cloud patterns constantly changed and I tried a lot of different compositions to accentuate their movement against the cliffs.  The following image, Touch the Sky, is one of the rare times I've felt the anticipation of a scene developing in front of me.  In the space of just seconds the clouds unfolded in a dramatic, wave-like pattern that crested over the top of one of the Spires.  I have only one shot of the small tree shown in this image not blocked by clouds.  I think it adds greatly to the overall scene.

Touch the Sky

Touch the Sky

This image was taken near 12:00 and, along with Crowned by Clouds, is far from what I expected to capture that June morning in Yosemite.  The flooded meadows I had hoped to find were few and far between, and as the day went on the Valley filled with visitors and the clouds drifted away.  I ended up not even sticking around for the sunset--a rare thing for me to miss when I get to spend a day in the field--but I felt certain I'd had a productive morning and more than justified the trip out to Yosemite.

Canadian Rockies Photo Tour II

After a windy afternoon and evening at Abraham Lake, our tour resumed early the next morning with a trip down to Kananaskis Country to shoot ice bubbles at sunrise on Sparks Lake.  For many photographers, this type of experience makes the Canadian Rockies in winter a major attraction.  But it's not as easy a task as it may seem.

For starters, ice bubbles are small and are often best photographed with the camera very close to the ice.  Marc did a great job walking us through the technique of getting close--even placing the lens hood directly on the ice if possible--and then taking a number of shots while adjusting the focus ring of the lens.  This allows you to get sharp bubbles (mostly) while also allowing, through successive shots with different focal points, an in-focus midground and background.  (Of course, the images then have to be combined in Photoshop to create a single image that is sharp from front to back.)

But using a tripod that close to the foreground ice is very difficult.  I tried it but found it wasn't letting me get close enough.  So as Marc urged, most of us abandoned the tripods and hand-held our cameras as we took successive shots.  This is tough because you have to minimize movement between images or the eventual image blending in Photoshop won't work well. 

Morning Glory,   Sparks Lake

Morning Glory, Sparks Lake

I'll be honest and say many of my images from this morning simply failed because I didn't get the full range of the scene in focus from front to back.  But after a lot of "screen time" going through different images I found a series that worked well and, fortunately, included the sunrise near its peak color.  That image, Morning Glory, is shown here.

I really liked the different blue tones on each side of the ice crack, and this was easily the best sunrise of the trip.  All in all, a rewarding morning with a bit of frustration at moments, but still a great experience.

After some misadventures chasing a lenticular cloud for a few hours, we headed back down to Kananaskis Country in the late afternoon.  This ultimately led to one of my favorite captures of the trip, and it was one of those wonderful, spontaneous moments when we rounded a bend in the road and dramatic scene was simply right there waiting. 

The image shown here is one of many that I shot of this ridgeline alive with blowing snow in the late afternoon light.  I have a much wider panorama of the same scene that is composed of four shots stitched together in Photoshop to make one very large image.  I ended up cutting it down some in the final edit to include only the most interesting parts of the overall scene.  It really was a wonderful sight to see...the sidelit mountain and the powerful wind churning fresh snow into clouds hundreds of feet high (look at the trees to get a sense of scale).  My current title, "Windswept," is hardly adequate to describe the scene.

Windswept,   Kananaskis Country

Windswept, Kananaskis Country

Our next day was, somewhat remarkably, unproductive for me at least.  We had a forgettable sunrise and then struck out again in the afternoon, but as always the winter scenery of Banff and Jasper National Parks was enjoyable. 

The final full day of the trip began with an early morning adventure at Abraham Lake with a couple of other participants, David and Jack.  The rest of the group stayed behind with Marc to work on Photoshop post-processing techniques, which Marc had reviewed with us the day before.  We had a clear dawn and some good explorations along the frozen banks, with large blocks of ice forming small caverns here and there that were fun (if somewhat unproductive) to check out.  We later reunited with the group to check out Tangle Creek, a well-known location just beneath dramatic Tangle Peak in Jasper National Park.  A short time later, we stopped at the Athabasca Glacier viewpoint where sweeping winds carried snow particles down from the icefield.  It's quite a sight, and we had it entirely to ourselves in the late afternoon. 

Athabasca Glacier,   Jasper National Park

Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park

This image, Athabasca Glacier, is a blend of three images in Photoshop to create a panoramic view of the scene.  The late afternoon light didn't offer a lot of color to work with in post-processing, and for my tastes a black and white conversion of the final image best conveyed the drama of the setting.

Afterglow,   Abraham Lake

Afterglow, Abraham Lake

We traveled back out to Abraham Lake for what proved to be the best sunset of the trip.  It might seem like we spent a lot of time at Abraham Lake during the tour, but there are a number of nearby locations that we also visited and explored.  Abraham Lake is also quite large, and you can spend days exploring different parts of its shoreline.  In short, it deserves a few visits during a winter trip to the Banff/Jasper area, and at no time did I feel like we were continually treading the same ground in returning to the lake.  Each visit was quite different and enjoyable.

Abraham Lake is famous for its ice bubbles and other dramatic foregrounds, along with ceaseless winds.  Nonetheless t is hardly easy to find "the right" foreground when the clock is ticking and you're competing with a handful of others.  The image shown here is my best effort to pair a workable foreground with the peaking sunset light.  The ice in the foreground is only 8-10 inches from the front of the lens.  While I also captured a few other images this evening with ice cracks and textures that were maybe a bit more dramatic, only this series of a few images also included the nice reflective glow of the sunset light on the ice. 

We stayed out late, well after sunset, to capture some images of the stars above the mountains.  Although we had a relatively warm trip in the Canadian Rockies (temperatures on this mid-February evening were probably in the low 30's or perhaps high 20's with little of the typical Abraham Lake wind), sitting on the ice for a couple hours eventually catches up with you. 

With that, the photo tour had essentially concluded.  We technically had the following morning for shooting as well, but heavy clouds thwarted plans for a couple of locations and we ended up at the Vermillion Lakes near Banff.  Marc was quite apologetic about this--as indicated in my first post on the photo tour, the Vermillion Lakes are easily visited from Banff and thus not "tour worthy" from his perspective.  While we were there a busload of tourists and photographers also showed up, right next to us, to enjoy the sunrise.  There's nothing like the drawing power of a few photographers with tripods...

Without a doubt, the photo tour was a fantastic experience.  We had some good luck with wind, blowing snow, and light at the ends of the day, and that more than made up for some of the "fails" that are part of any time spent photographing in a dynamic environment.  I'm considering a further post with some reflections on the tour--what I really liked, what I would do differently in the field next time, and so on--in the future.  But my hope is these two posts capture the experience well and tell at least a brief story about some of the images in my Galleries

Canadian Rockies: Photo Tour With Marc Adamus

Earlier this year, I spent five days in the Canadian Rockies on a photo tour led by professional landscape photographer Marc Adamus.  It was truly a remarkable experience and produced a number of images that I'm very happy with.  Here are a few of the highlights and a small sampling of my favorite images.

Snow Streamers, Mount Rundle,   A windy dawn on Mount Rundle, near Banff (February 10, 2017)

Snow Streamers, Mount Rundle, A windy dawn on Mount Rundle, near Banff (February 10, 2017)

Before meeting up with the group on February 10, I had the morning to myself in Banff.  I considered a number of potential locations before settling on the most convenient--the Vermillion Lakes, which are practically in town but afford a great view of Mount Rundle.  The image shown here is a familiar scene for most landscape photographers and anyone familiar with the area.

While Mount Rundle is arguably the most photographed natural feature in the Canadian Rockies, I was still quite happy with Snow Streamers, Mount Rundle, as a start to the trip.  The blowing snow and wonderful pastel light of dawn help compensate for the familiarity of the scene.

Late in the morning, I met up with Marc Adamus and the group for lunch in Banff.  Marc provided an orientation and outlined some objectives for the day and for the tour generally, including ideas for taking advantage of the warmer weather and high winds predicted for the Banff/Jasper area over the next few days.  And sure enough, the high winds he mentioned would last through the week and produce blowing snow featured in a number of my favorite images from the trip.

Feel the Wind,   Mount Baldy above Barrier Lake with blowing snow (February 10, 2017)

Feel the Wind, Mount Baldy above Barrier Lake with blowing snow (February 10, 2017)

That afternoon we drove down into Kananaskis Country, a mountainous area in between Calgary and Banff.  Our destination was Barrier Lake and vistas of Mount Baldy.  It was a fantastic way to kick off the tour, with blowing snow churning across the ice at regular intervals through the late afternoon. (see Feel the Wind).

And that was it for the day.  With long driving distances between many destinations, it was usually impossible to shoot an afternoon in one location and then spend the evening in another.  We generally stuck with 2-3 locations over the course of a day, from dawn to dusk (and sometimes later), and spent a not insignificant amount of time driving from place to place through the spectacular winter scenery of the Canadian Rockies. 

The following morning we drove out toward Abraham Lake and stopped at two destinations.  One was simply a roadside area that featured a vista of a windstorm in a distant mountain range...definitely an occasion for a powerful zoom lens.  The next was a flowing stream with expanses of frozen ice along its banks, including abundant icicles and deep powdery snow.  Both locations produced some good images but none that quite make it into my "favorites" from the trip.

Later on February 11, however, we explored the cliffs above Abraham Lake and a small section of the frozen lake itself.  The high winds--and I mean knock you off your feet high--produced exceptional atmospherics that made for great images.  One such image is Defying the Elements.  Gusts of wind would kick up snow from storms a couple days earlier and create huge clouds of blowing snow.  The small tree on the right-hand side of the image really caught my attention in exploring the area, and I like the balance it creates with the distant mountains in the late afternoon light.

Defying the Elements,   a small tree in the late afternoon light and blowing snow on a ridge above Lake Abraham (February 11, 2017)

Defying the Elements, a small tree in the late afternoon light and blowing snow on a ridge above Lake Abraham (February 11, 2017)

I'll save a description of the next few days for a separate post in the near future. 

Behind the Image: Mountain Time

The image below, Mountain Time, captures Banner Peak reflected in Thousand Island Lake within the Ansel Adams Wilderness (California).  I made this image on the second morning of a five-day backpacking trip in 2013.  It is a 90-second exposure made possible by the use of a neutral-density filter, which (for non-photographers) is basically a dark piece of glass used to lengthen exposure times to capture smooth water, cloud movement, and similar effects.

The image, taken shortly after sunrise, features clouds left behind by a clearing storm.  The night before was warm (for the Sierra) and included brief rain showers from time to time.  In truth, I did not intend to take any pictures this morning after a long hike into Thousand Island Lake the prior afternoon.  Waking before sunrise, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see Banner Peak reflected in a perfectly calm lake with just the right array of clouds for a long exposure (smaller clouds often work better).

Mountain Time,     Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California (August 2013)

Mountain Time, Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California (August 2013)

Without much time before sunrise, I hurried down to the lakeshore and looked for a composition.  A simple 50/50 reflection is rarely my preference because there's nothing special about it...you can do it with any lake, any time.  But in late summer, the wildflowers along the shore were gone and with the limited time available I couldn't find anything more compelling to serve as a foreground.  At least there was a small pine tree to help create some interest on the right hand side of the image.

In hindsight, I think the 50/50 reflection worked very well for this type of shot.  The calm lake made for a near-mirror image, and the cloud movement highlights Banner Peak and creates a lot of depth and visual interest.  The image works nicely in color, but I eventually opted to convert it to black and white for a more artistic feel.

For the sake of comparison, a color version of substantially the same scene is posted below (without the neutral density filter).  It's certainly a pleasing image and I've had some people say they prefer it to Mountain Time.  Both images help justify the extra effort it requires to haul about 10-12 pounds of camera gear on a backpacking trip, not to mention the mental effort of getting up early when staying in my tent would have been the easier choice.

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Mountain Time was selected as the Grand Prize winner from nearly 350 submissions in the "Twelve:  Natural Magic" contest sponsored in December 2013 by the Viewpoint Gallery in Sacramento, California.  It was displayed and sold in the gallery during the holiday season.