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Yosemite Photography

Information on Photography in Yosemite--tips, techniques, best camera gear, etc.

Moderators: Wickett, dan

Yosemite Photography

Postby dan » Thu Apr 14, 2011 8:32 pm

Darren Reed has some good notes on Yosemite Photography here:

Here's a chapter on Photography by Arthur C. Pillsbury, written in 1921.
The gear has changed since then, but there's a lot of good tips on where and when to photograph in Yosemite:
http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/handb ... raphy.html
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Re: Yosemite Photography

Postby dan » Tue Mar 26, 2013 3:31 pm

With the permission of the author, Darren Reed, I'm posting these tips "Photographing in Yosemite". The original is here:


Photographing in Yosemite

The below are my own notes on photographing in Yosemite from late February 2010 through to July 2010. The goal is that if I'm ever again in California and looking for something to do on a weekend, I can both look at photos and my notes to see what will/won't be possible and work at Yosemite. Of course the weather plays a large part in everything here and a cold and cloudy day might imply different shot selection than blue sky and sunshine or snow. At the point in time when I wrote this up, what worked for me was nice clean blue skies. Some people prefer clouds or fog. Maybe they make a picture more interesting but that's not what I seek at present. Most of the observations below come from time spent in Yosemite National Park during 2010, from March through to October, excluding September. Unfortunately I did not have the time during November to visit, nor the opportunity during December or January. February I spent too long contemplating a visit rather than making a visit. The notes are from taking photos that worked as well as taking photos that did not work as well as making observations on what might work.

The NPS website offers a lot of information about the current conditions at Yosemite National Park. Learn what's there and try to find pictures that correlate to specific days and times so that you can build an understanding of what all the data means in terms of pictures.

Darren Reed


February is a great time to catch a colourful sunset from Tunnel View or the ribon of fire that is the Horsetail Falls (mid to late February.)
Look for a clear blue-sky day that follows snow fall the previous night. The rocky peaks along the south side of the valley take on quite a different look during this time of year with snow across them.
If you like the look of bare trees for the semi-desolate look, April is your month. Many of the trees and plants are yet to sprout new growth so there is not much green around. It is possible for a light overnight shower of snow to leave a thin carpet of white out for the early morning folks. Yosemite Falls should be flowly nicely by mid to late April. This is a good time of year to do the Upper Yosemite Falls walk - before it gets too hot - although it may not be accessible beyond the base of the Upper Yosemite Falls if the snow has not cleared sufficiently to make passage safe.
Bears are just waking up and on the prowl: they're hungry. This is a great time to see them in Yosemite Valley. In mid to late May, expect Yosemite Falls to reach its peak flow for the year and for the Merced River to crest. May can be a good time to catch a "moonbow". The other falls (Vernal and Nevada) should also be accessible and flowing well. The flow of water over Vernal/Nevada falls fills the valley below them with mist, leaving many hikers looking like they've been swimming. Having a water proof cover of some sort for a camera can be beneficial if you always have your camera over a shoulder rather than in a bag.
If the Merced did not crest in May, then early June. The same for the peak flow over the Yosemite Falls. The "moonbow" is good to catch in June.
After July 4, before autumn colours
Unless there has been exceptionally heavy and late snow, from around the middle of July onwards, there will be very little snow present that is visible on the park's peaks. Along with this is significalty reduced or no water flowing over the waterfalls. By the middle of July, expect the Yosemite Falls to either be dry or have very little water flowing over them. By August/September, it will be dry.
October is 4 seasons of weather in one month. It can start with hot summer days but end with the Tioga Pass closed due to snow. During October the leaves on various trees in Yosemite Valley will turn. Yosemite Falls usually starts flowing again by the end of October when there has been either rain or snow or both to kickstart it. On the topic of rain, it is now possible for storms to blow in from the Pacific Ocean and dump significant amounts of water. For example, the massive flood in January 200x is an example of this relatively warm water being dumped on Yosemite in a very short period of time. For an idea of how significant the rainfall can be when one of these Pacific storms blows in, here are two graphs from the USGS - discharge rate at , Merced River height at Pohono Bridge.


Mirror Lake - from early spring through to late autumn, Mirror Lake is not a compelling destination for photography unless there are flood conditions in the Merced river as a result of increased snow pack melt. This is because the normal lake level is quite low and small when compared to the amount of sand bars and silt present. Morning through to lunch time has little to offer here, try mid afternoon and onwards. It may be that the rock fall from March 2009 has put enough debris in the valley floor to prevent it from being "Mirror" lake until such time as enough water flows through to clean out the area by washing all of the small sediment away. This may take a flood of the January 2001 scale?
Tunnel View - from the beginning of March through to early October, forget about trying to do sunset from this angle: the setting sun leaves the face of El Capitan too early. It does work as a mid afternoon location where you've got most of everything you see lit by sunlight. If you're into clouds and not worried about the sun, this may not be an issue. If you're pressed for time and looking for a way to vary the composition of the scene, there are some vantage points from the rocks above the carpark at the west end of the nothern car prk.
Half Dome - Half Dome collects good sunset light year round, but where you go to capture it changes. Whilst Glacier Point is closed, the meadows in the valley can be worthwhile locations (check the Ahwanhee webcam for hints.) During winter months, sunset from the Tunnel View can be rewarding. With a good zoom, before you pass through the three tunnels there is a vantage point from highway 120 that will result in half dome's size being closer to the same as El Capitan. This is in opposition to the perspective from Tunnel View where Half Dome is quite diminutive next to El Capitan - but you're now outside the valley. Additionally, there is a very small area for cars at the west end of the Wawona Tunnel for a perspective similar to the Turtleback web camera. I haven't yet found a good location for sunrise.
Glacier Point - When open it is usually going to be a good destination for sunset. If there are good high clouds, staying until after sunset can be quite worthwhile as the sunlight comes onto the clouds after it has left Half Dome. If you want to get both Vernal and Nevada falls with sunlight, you may find that you need to be here before the golden hour of photography as they're both quite low down in valleys and are in shadow well before sunset. During high summer, the sun rises up almost directly behind Half Dome when viewed from Glacier Point. It is quite difficult to get between the Sun and Half Dome at sunrise or even to find easy access to a location that affords you more than just a side on glance at Half Dome - even in autumn.
Yosemite Falls - From mid to late morning until early afternoon, Yosemite Falls should be in sunlight. If the falls are too bright for you because of this, in the morning will be better as the falls are in shadow but the rock face that faces east is not. In the winter months, you can find the "snow cone" at the bottom of the falls and during the night or early morning, ice builds up on the rock surface next to the falls. How long water flows depends on the weather. In 2010 (wetter than average), only August and September were without water. At the start of October 2010, a storm front from the Pacific blew in and dropped enough water to kick start the show and keep it running until the snow falls started later that month. Do not visit Yosemite in August or September and expect to see any water flowing. July and October can also be lean months, depending on the weather. One of the better views of the falls can be seen walking to the lower falls from the direction of the Yosemite Lodge. The 4-mile hike and Yosemite Falls trails also offer good views. At around summer solstice it is possible to find a "moonbow" forming - depending on the weather conditions - at night.
Bridalveil Falls - These flow year round. The base can be quite damp during spring and early summer, so you may wish to take a protective wrapping of some sort for your camera.
Nevada Falls - flows year round. For good flows of water, this is best shot in late spring when it is carrying all of the winters snow melt down. Although you cannot get to the base of Nevada Falls (and nor are you likely to want to), this should not be a concern. It makes a great subject from the upper trail that leads to the falls (there's a section of the trail where a wall has been constructed along a somewhat sheer drop), with Half Dome and others fitting nicely in and also from Cook Point. Mid afternoon is best here to get Half Dome partially in its own shadow.
Vernal Falls - a good time to shoot Vernal Falls and not have your clothing get drenched is when Yosemite Falls is dry during the summer and autumn months. In spring, there can be enough mist from the water flowing before the water level crests to drench you on first approach. Unless your camera is water proof, consider wrapping it up in plastic before setting out on the hike if you want to shoot Vernal Falls. If the undulations of the paved trail to Vernal Falls are not to your liking, there's a dirt track that leads up the south side of the river (ostensibly for horses only.) It is a longer walk but I find it easier. A short walk "down" is required to get to the Vernal Falls from this path as it leads on to Nevada Falls. During most parts of the afternoon there should be a vantage point to photograph Vernal falls together with a rainbow across part of it. From the bridge that crosses the Merced River below Vernal Falls, the challenge of photographing Vernal Falls up the valley is presented. In late October afer 4pm, the sun can fall on just the falls, leaving the foreground dark. A good zoom will take care of that. For those that are willing to take osme risk and walk over naked rocks, there's a flat rock below Vernal Falls that allows for a lesser zoom. The location of this rock is marked by pole that's been cut down along the trail and further towards the river, some old signs warning about slippery rocks.
Sentinel Dome From Sentinel Dome there is the view of Half Dome (of course) with the mountains behind it and across to the west, further high peaks of Yosemite National Park. From here you can also see down the throat of Yosemite Falls, making it an ideal spot to drop by during the middle of the day and again in the evening as the sun sets. On some days during the summer there is a rangers program held in the evening for those that may wish to listen as well as photograph. If you're in the park on a full moon, this is perhaps the spot to be to watch the moon rise over the mountains to the east. Then as it gets dark, if you're in the park during May or June, you might want to venture back down to the valley, grab a bite to eat if there's something still open and then hang out for the Moonbow.
Moonbow on Yosemite Falls - see http://uweb.txstate.edu/~do01/

The moonbow is best from two locations: Sentinel Bridge and the Lower Falls. In June, the moon is quite low, making the lower falls the choice location. The presence of the moonbow on the upper falls depends heavily on the water spray and is thus best when there is a high water flow (late may, early June.) A moonbow after the peak in water flow over Yosemite Falls is not likely to be very visible on the upper falls. Shooting at the Lower Falls will require a plastic bag/cover to protect the camera and lens from the spray.
Three Brothers The Three Brothers face almost due east on the north side of the valley. In the morning, if photographed from behind (to their west), it is possible to have the slopes facing west dark but the east facing side bathed in sunlight. For this perspective, park at the Cathedral Beach camp site and walk east along the Merced River. There's a bend in the river where it turns to run north east for a short distance that opens up the foreground.
Sentinel Bridge The Merced River flows under the Sentinel Bridge and looking east, you have half dome in the background, behind the trees. I'm not clear on what time of day is best here (I've tried a few different ones and it's never really worked out. Maybe sunset?) but I will add that in terms of time of year, once July hits and the water has dropped enough to be peaceful, you'll find plenty of people taking a break from the heat on rafts, etc. So expect from July through to September for there to be holidayers in your foreground on the river during the day (assuming hot weather.)

If you follow the walking trail west along the south road in the park, it leaves the road and goes down to the river bank. From here you have an excellent shot of Yosemite Falls reflected in the Merced River - as long as the river water isn't too turbulent.
Olmstead Point - this is a candidate for somewhere that's easy to reach and be for sunrise. During summer the sun does not shine on the north face of Half Dome so expect it to always be partly shady from this perspective during the day. As a sunset destination, it offers a different perspective on Half Dome than what is normally presented. As it happens, during September/October the sun set is close to right angles to Olmstead Point. It may also be possible to shoot from here in March if there has been little snow during the winter and the Tioga Pass road opens early (a rare event.)
Tuolumne Meadows - is best early in the season, not long the road after Tioga Pass is opened. At this time of year, it is possible to find the meadows full of water, two to three weeks later, depending on the snow fall. Too early and they're muddly and snow clogged. In 2010, on the first weekend the general store there opened (26th June), the pools of water in the meadows provided great reflections of the peaks further east at sunset. In the morning, deer can often be found wandering the meadows with the snow capped peaks to the west. In the evening, the deer are again out grazing. Depending on time of day and relative location, it may be possible to get a setting sun shining on the deer with the dark trees behind them. Also, from the western end of the meadows you can see Cathedral Peak over the trees and it collects the dieing sunlight as the sun sets.
Dana Meadows - too early after the Tioga Road opens and Dana Meadows will be brown, as it will be later in the season (September onward.) It is a great location to get a shot of Mammoth Peak although for best rewards, consider walking to the south (follow the road into the park) where the last of the sparse standing trees gives way to a green meadow and creek with horizontal trees lays before you at the feet of Mammoth Peak. If the water level is still up, the pond/lake to the east of the car park can also be of interest.

Between Dana Meadows and Tuolumne Meadows there is a small pond/lake on the south side fo the road (small car park) where a nice reflection can be had of the other two peaks to the west (a good late afternoon stopping point for many folks.) As is the case with many parts of Yosemite, the water level will not remain up for the entire summer so be there before the end of July for best results.
Cathedral Lakes - for me this was a 1.5 hour trek up to the lower lake and the total time for the trip was 3 hours, 22 minutes. That includes time spent at the lake swatting mosquitos and getting to the far edge where the water flows over the spillway, down to Tanaya Lake. If you want to get sunset colours on Cathedral Peak with the reflection on the lake, the safest option is to camp somewhere at either lake as the length of the journey back will have you walking back in the dark and the trail up is not of sufficient quality to support that. Doing it so that you return to Tuolumne Meadows at dusk can work quite nicely, albeit without the sunset colour on Cathedral Peak, if you know how long it will take you to do the return trip (plus time allocation for photographs) and start at the right time in the afternoon. Once the trail opens in the summer, walk out to the shore of the lower lake and look back at Cathedral Peak. There are nice reflections from all along the northern side of the lake of the peaks on the other side.
Valley View - at the last corner where you turn right when driving out of Yosemite Valley along Northside Drive, there is a small parking lot where the Merced River comes close to the road and there's a view of Bridalviel Falls over the trees. Close to the shore, there are a small number of grassy nodules. Prior to the start of summer, they will either be brown or as the water rises, under the water. The correct timing for this is in the summer when the water level has dropped back down below them, revealing them and they've picked up enough sunshine to turn green. Having the water level at around 4.5' seems to be ideal. In addition, this location only works well in the early afternoon as the overhanging trees will quickly cast a shadow on the grass in the water.


The wild animals in Yosemite National Park are wild. Respect this. Keep your distance - 50 yards (or 50 meters) is a good starting pointing. How far is that? Half a football field. If you want close in photographs, beg, borrow, rent or buy a good zoom (300mm+) and consider using a teleconverter to "get closer" (700mm+).

Bears - can cover ground very quickly and surprise you. Various meadows can be a great place to find bears as they munch away on the lush green grass and plants. Yosemite Valley itself seems to be a popular destination for the bears during the spring so don't assume that you need to go on a hike to Half Dome to see one. If you're watching a bear whilst it is eating, be mindful if its eating brings it closer to you and that you may need to move back in order to stay at a safe distance.
Coyotes - I've seen coyotes three times durnig the morning but I have never been prepared to shoot them. They don't hang around. Do not be surprised if you see one walking alongside the road or even through Curry Village. It won't stop to eat so you've got to be quick.
Deer - are plentiful in Yosemite Valley. During the warmer parts of the day during summer, they will often sit down. Sensible when you think about it. During the summer months, it seems that they are most actively feeding in the early to mid morning and evening. In the autumn it is common for bucks to have a fresh set of very sharp antlers. This can make for great photos but also life threatening wounds if you get too close. Whilst seemingly docile animals, remember to keep your distance - at least 50' - as they are wild and unpredictable if spooked.

Other Notes

Flooding - if the Merced river is going to exceed the 8' level, it is worthwhile being in Yosemite Valley to shoot as at this level many of the meadows turn into one great big lake. However, if the flood water level is too high (above 10'), you may find some vantage points inaccessible, not to mention that the valley may well be closed. If the Merced is flooded during spring (2010 was a great year for this), it will not last long so try and spend as much time there as possible whilst the water level is up.
Dana Meadows - if 2010 is any indication, the fields here are not green until 4 weeks after the Tioga Road opened. The last weekend of June they were still brown, two weekends later they were green.
Tuolumne Meadows - in 2010 after the heavier than normal snowfall, there were quite a number of pools in the meadows by the last weekend in June (3 weeks after the Tioga Pass opened and at the start, it was very muddy.) 2 weeks later, those pools were gone. Evidence suggests they may have perisisted for as much as week longer but no more.
4-Mile Trail - this trail is closed during the winter and for quite some time during the spring (it may not open until Glacier Point opens, I'm not sure.) From map analysis, doing this hike as early in the season as is possible would be recommended. One of the prime offerings of this trail would be the views back into the valley at Yosemite Falls.

Other Equipment

Gumboots/waders - in still water, it may be safe to walk out into it in order to construct the correct view. Do NOT wade into flowing water. Walk slowly and test each new footing with care when doing so, lest you slip, fall and both you and camera go swimming. In addition, a slow walk will limit the size of waves created as you move out into the water. If at all possible, be aware of the terrain under the water from prior trips so that you have some idea of what's down there. If you're taking a tripod out into the water, use it to test the ground in front of you as you walk. Getting the legs of your monopod/tripod wet won't hurt it.


Things that I haven't done that I would like to...

* 4 Mile Trail (as soon as Glacier Point Road opens) - leave the valley floor 9am-10am and return on the Panorama Trail late into the afternoon. Good day hike in late May (or early June.)
* Taft Point


For the spring-summer season in 2010, I've saved the USGS water flow data that they collect each year. My comments above are largely drawn from what I've seen as a result of that water flow. Note that in 2010, the snow pack measurement at the start of May was 141% of normal. Current data is continuously made available at the USGS Water Data page for Yosemite:
http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ca/nwis/uv?cb ... o=11266500
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Re: Yosemite Photography

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