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One of the most photographed locations in one of the most popular photographic destinations in the world, iconic Half Dome towers nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor of Yosemite National Park. The monolith’s historical relevance for nature photographers begins with Ansel Adams, whose important work centered on Yosemite began in 1916 and whose 1960 master print “Moon and Half Dome” is one of the world’s most enduring images. Situated at the east end of Yosemite Valley, the granite peak is visible from many locations along the park road that loops through the valley, with some areas providing more photo ops than others. The best two spots in the valley are from the Sentinel Bridge over the Merced River and nearby Cook’s Meadow. Tunnel View from the west entrance is the classic valley view, displaying nearly all of the valley’s extraordinary cliff features, including Half Dome. For a bird’s-eye view of the dome, take the Glacier Point Road to viewpoints at Washburn and Glacier Points on the south side of the valley rim; this road is only open from around May to November.
Weather around Half Dome can be unpredictable year-round, but the best times to photograph the giant are during and immediately following storms. Weather shifts in the valley create unique light when low-hanging clouds mix with sun breaks that can light up the cliff face. Clouds and mist within the valley are continuously changing, and with a little bit of luck and patience, you can catch a dramatic scene. One thing to watch for during inclement weather is lightning strikes. While they look great in photos, the storm systems move through the area very fast, so be sure you have a plan for cover.
Half Dome and the surrounding area are massive, so the best way to fully capture the grandeur of the scene is with wide-angle lenses. I also like to shoot tight to capture details you can’t see with the naked eye, so I always carry lenses to cover the entire focal range of 17mm to 200mm. If I know I’m not going to be hiking far, I’ll bring a 500mm lens in the event I run into any wildlife. You’ll need a stable tripod when shooting during dawn and dusk as light levels drop dramatically in the valley. Another problem is having compositions with lots of contrast between a fully lit Half Dome and a foreground that’s in complete shadow, so a good graduated ND filter is a must, as well as a headlamp to help you find your way back to your car at night. The iPhone app The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite by Michael Frye is loaded with helpful information on Half Dome and the area.
There really isn’t a bad time to shoot Half Dome, but late afternoon when the face is reflecting the golden light of sunset is the most colorful. As for the best time of year, it’s a matter of personal preference. Depending on the month, the angle of the setting sun changes. During winter, the face receives more sidelight; in summer, it’s primarily lit from the front. My favorite time is during winter after the valley has received a fresh snowfall. Plus, there are far fewer people around!
Contact: Yosemite National Park, www.nps.gov/yose. See more of Erik Dresser’s photography at erikdresser.com.
Taking a fresh look at a popular subject like Half Dome can be difficult, but modern cameras allow for exciting experimentation. The Hähnel Giga T Pro II wireless timer and remote control offers extended control over camera features like the self-timer, interval shutter scheduling, long exposure settings and exposure counts. You also can program a variety of repeatable time lapses and extremely extended exposures for working with astral and motion-blur photography. The Giga T Pro II is useful as a cable shutter release at up to 328 feet, essential for ultimate sharpness. Estimated Street Price: $99. Contact: R.T.S. Inc., (631) 242-6801, www.RTSphoto.com.