3 Days In Yosemite

Our guide to a long weekend in America’s most iconic national park

Star trails and Half Dome.

Today is the day you’ve decided that you’re going to photograph Yosemite, arguably the crown jewel of the U.S. National Park system. Whether it’s your first time or you’re revisiting with fresh eyes to see the park anew, you’re intent on walking away with creative and memorable professional-level images. One problem–Yosemite is so rich with photo subjects, where do you begin? Consider these tips and recommendations your cure for analysis paralysis when photographing Yosemite.

Every time I visit Yosemite, even after 20+ years of doing so, I am faced with a dilemma similar to one I once created for my dog. Moe, a Jack Russell Terrier, loved to play ball and in fact he was neurotic about it (like I am about photography). One day I decided to play a joke on Moe, dumping a box of 25 tennis balls in front of him. My hyper dog, who normally would run across my house 5 times before I could throw a single ball, became a statue unable to move and decide which ball to go after. He repeatedly missed opportunities to catch balls falling right before him. Drop a photographer in Yosemite without preparation and you’re bound to suffer a similar fate missing great opportunities. To avoid this, as I do on all my trips, I formulate a plan based on the following parameters: time of year, weather conditions, time of day, photo goals and type, location and backup photo subjects.

Time of Year
Time of year or season will open the door to specific opportunities such as Horsetail Fall in February (made famous by Galen Rowell), Dogwood flowers in April, waterfalls flowing at peak in May and June, fall color in October, and snow during winter months to name a few. How the seasons impact the landscape, wildlife and foliage should be top-of-mind as it will set the tone for the photos you’ll capture.

Storm clouds shroud El Capitan as the last sunlight of the day hits Horsetail Fall.

Weather Conditions
Weather conditions are always important and can change hour to hour. When visiting the park, regularly monitor weather conditions both for your safety and to identify good photo opportunities. Embrace changing weather conditions as it can create wind, clouds and dramatic pipes of light. The two biggest pitfalls a photographer can face in Yosemite is staying in due to weather and not seeing the changing weather through to its entirety.

El Capitan cliff-face detail.

Time of Day
Once in the park be sure to get your directional bearing to identify which way light will hit for sunrise and sunset photos. Keep in mind if you’re in Yosemite Valley proper the massive granite walls shorten the amount of time light falls on the landscape. Conversely, shadows produced by the steep valley walls can create different types of photo opportunities. Due to the shorter hours that light streams into the valley, you’ll want to schedule your time properly to get to your destination within the park. When possible, if you’re out to photograph sunset stay until dark, and if you’re out to photograph sunrise arrive in the dark. It is at these transition periods the landscape looks most dramatic and you’re likely to see wildlife. An additional consideration to keep in mind is that daytime photos of Yosemite only tell half the story of its beauty. The lack of light pollution allows for the viewing and capture of the stars, while the light of the full moon falling on peak waterfall flows can create moonbows (rainbows by moonlight).

Photo Goals & Types
I’ve found having tunnel vision to preconceived ideas and goals to be the number-one pitfall that photographers face when they make their special photo trips. We become our own worst enemy by focusing on one goal or outcome and missing a variety of other creative opportunities. Before you step out the door have a few goals in mind based on the previous parameters, but also be open minded to two to three styles of photography (ex. long exposures, zooming/panning, macro, wide-angle landscapes, etc.) I always recommend this to my workshop attendees to foster exploration and creativity. The resulting epiphanies and discoveries always make their photos so much more satisfying and rewarding.

If you happen to be visiting Yosemite for the first time you’ll be happy to know that many of the most iconic views are a short walk from roadside turnouts. By all means take in these views and get these photos to get them out of your system (ex. Tunnel View, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Glacier Point, etc.) That said, allocate ample time to explore the park and discover something new. A walk down to the Merced River or through an open meadow can yield unique views and provide a variety of subjects to photograph. Weather permitting, think outside of the valley and visit equally scenic locations including Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy or many spots along Tioga Pass. There is far more to Yosemite than Yosemite Valley.

Backup Photo Subjects
Yosemite is so densely packed with beautiful scenery, wildlife and foliage that even if your primary subject is not worthy of shooting there is likely something within a stone’s throw that is worth exploring and discovering. The key to identifying a backup subject is to break away from your initial preconceived photo ideas. Bring different focal length lenses, think in terms of black and white versus color, change your perspective, look for small subjects versus big, etc. Adopting this mindset will ensure you’ll always walk away with something memorable to share or grow from as an artist.

Ice formations on the Merced River.

My Personal Favorites
Yosemite routinely takes the breath away from even the most seasoned local photographer, so enjoy the wow factor of the grand vistas. My favorite grand views can be seen from Tunnel View off Highway 41 and Glacier Point, Taft Point and Sentinel Dome off Glacier Point Road or via the Four Mile Trail. If you’re up for a physical challenge, the hike to Upper Yosemite Falls provides stunning views of Half Dome and the valley below, but it is not for the faint of heart as its quite physically grueling. Equally amazing is Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lakes near Tuolumne Meadows.

Most importantly, don’t miss out on the subtle beauty at your feet. Intimate subjects ranging from flowers, ice formations, rock patterns, fallen leaves, lichen on tree bark and even insects can be found with leisurely walks along the Merced River and various meadows including El Capitan and Cook’s Meadow in Yosemite Valley. While the grand views are what people expect to see when returning from Yosemite it is the intimate portraits of the environment that often tell the most interesting stories. While the crowds flock to the most popular hiking trails, more accessible walks along Tuolumne Meadow, the Mariposa Grove, Olmsted Point and Yosemite Valley floor can be meditative and foster a more conducive state of mind to visually explore.

Black and White
Ansel Adams set the bar for black and white photography in Yosemite, and with every visit to the valley I make a pilgrimage to the Ansel Adams Gallery for inspiration. Taking in the featured photographs there I am reminded how much lines, shapes, patterns, contrast, key, texture and tone contribute to a great black and white image. The absence of color heightens awareness to these properties of our subject and composition. It is for this reason that black and white photography requires a mind shift in how we see and present our images to photo viewers. Yosemite lends itself exceptionally well to black and white photographs thanks to dramatic light and shadows, its texture-rich environment and plentiful organic shapes created by the erosion of the landscape by water, wind and plants. Challenge yourself by exploring and capturing black and white subjects amidst Yosemite’s grand, subtle views. You’ll create both memorable photos and a memorable experience.

Jim M. Goldstein is a professional outdoor & travel photographer. You can follow him on his blog at www.jmg-galleries.com/blog, on Twitter @jimgoldstein, on Facebook at /jmggalleries, on Instagram @jimgoldstein and on Google+ at +jimgoldstein.