My last visit to Yosemite was 2016 when I attended Cocoaconf there. I’ve been trying to get back since, but schedules and timing have kept me away. As I started to schedule in other commitments this year, it was becoming obvious it might not happen, especially around possible Dogwood blooming season. I had pretty much given up on going until fall, but about a week ago, as I was going over the schedule I realized if I didn’t go to Yosemite soon, it wasn’t going to happen.

That made me check the park lodging site, and I realized the Lodge had some rooms this week (so did the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee). Not too uncommon close to a date to see some cancellations, so it’s never a bad idea to look once in a while. So I asked Laurie if I could go, and she said yes, and I locked in the room, and then asked my boss if I could go, and he was nice enough to say yes, and so I was going to Yosemite.

Before I take trips like this I like to write a brief to help me understand what I want to accomplish with the camera on the trip, which I use to help decide what gear to pack. It also lets me look back at my thinking when I return to see where I succeeded, where I fell short, and where the situation on the ground caused me to change my mind, because any good battle plan is useful only until the battle actually starts; after that, it’s all adapting on the fly to the situation.

I will talk about the trip in general later, but I’m now doing some initial work on the images I took and I wanted to write about them while my thinking is fresh.

Yosemite in the winter

Yosemite, to me, is a beautiful location that makes it easy to take really mundane photos and really hard to take really great ones. That’s one of its joys and challenges — and you can combine that with the fact that you are also trying to take images that aren’t duplicates of literally thousands or millions of photos taken by others, too. To stand out as a Yosemite photographer takes thought, work and time — and the cooperation of the weather and the light. Without epic light, much of Yosemite amazing to sit and watch, and incredibly painful to photograph and be happy with the results.

I’ve been lucky over the years to get some images I really like at Yosemite, when the combination of light and weather and me being there have all coincided.

El Capitan in a Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park

Upper Yosemite Falls in a winter storm, Yosemite National Park, California

Half Dome after a Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park

Bridalveil Falls and Cathedral Rocks after a winter storm. Viewed from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

One of the things I’ve been annoyed about in my own photography, though, has been the reliance on that epic light to create the image for me. Because of that, one of the goals of this trip, then, was avoid attempting to shoot epic locations and epic light, at least until I spent time working at a couple of locations at the park that I knew where epic light wasn’t necessary, or perhaps even possible. As it turned out, on this trip the light was the most epically non-epic light I’ve ever seen visiting Yosemite, with the sky wavering between boring grey and mottled, filtered light. It was, for me, an attempt to look more at the intimate landscape, and to explore slower speed photography and focus more on composition to make the image work — or not.

Since when I’m doing my big lens bird photography I’m almost always in Aperture priority and leveraging both the exposure and autofocus systems, this was a great excuse to get down and dirty with the camera, so all of these images were shot in manual focus and full manual settings. Which was somewhat amusing for the first five minutes or so while I re-taught myself how to use the Fuji X-T3 in full manual on the fly…

Cascade Creek

Cascade Creek is a small waterfall that flows down the side of the road on the way out towards Crane Flat. There are small parking areas on both sides of the bridge that crosses it, maybe 8 or nine cars if everyone is friendly. The bridge has walkways on both sides, and enough traffic that nobody in their right mind would try to plop a tripod down on the roadway itself (but you do see people out there with their phones and cameras at times, of course). It’s not a location

I shot at this location way back in 2007, and one of the images from that trip is still a favorite of my Yosemite images. It is a tumbled-rock hillside with some vegetation and a moderately sized stream tumbling down it. It’s location doesn’t lend itself to great light, with both early and late light being behind the hills most of the year. But I find it a visually appealing location with a complex set of possible compositions, and a worthy place to experiment at.

So, in 2007 I shot this.

Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park

And this year, I went back to see what I could make of the location.

First Composition

My first composition caught my eye as I was walking up towards the falls. I think the initial inclination is to take on the falls front and center, but I really liked how the bush a bit of cover and depth to the image, maybe even a bit of mystery since some of the falls are now clearly shrouded from sight. This first try was at 1/50 at F22 at ISO 80, and I ended up liking the composition and the flow of the water.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

But then I hauled out the ND filters….

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

which moved the shutter to 4/10 of a second and smoothed the water out nicely.

It was a natural for a black and white conversion:

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

This is one case where I feel the monochrome is clearly superior to the color version, although I like both.

Second Composition

This was my second composition, looking at a smaller part of the falls near the bottom. If you look closely you’ll see the center focus of my 2007 composition is sitting on the right edge of this. This was shot at 1/8 of a second at F22, ISO 80.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

And a black and white conversion as well.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

In this case I prefer the color for a few reasons. I really like how the color stands out in this one, almost making the flowing water secondary. But in the monochrome, that little mini-flow lower left gets lost to the eye, because it now looks too much like the surrounding stone to my eye, and the small run of plants across the rocks gets lost completely. That small whitish plant lower right becomes a lot more prominent in the monochrome and I really like that, and I think the main waterfall is more prominent in black and white as well, but overall, I prefer the look and balance of the color image. They’re both nice, though.

Third Composition

For the third composition I tried to bring out the upper part of the falls. I like the composition, but I’m not as happy with the look of the water. This one I’m going to have to let marinate and then process again, because it feels a bit off. I got the composition the way I wanted, but it doesn’t sing to me. Shot at 1/8 sec at F/22 at ISO 80.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

I tried the black and white conversion as well.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

I like the image better this way EXCEPT for the water, which I think is a lot worse. So neither composition is a favorite of mine, but I think there’s a better image in there somewhere.

Fourth Composition

One more composition where I tried to bring together

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

Again 1/8 at F22, ISO 80. This was an attempt to bring both the upper part of the falls and the lower part together. One thing that had caught my attention was a mini falls, which is about midway between the large upper fall and the two smaller lower falls that peeks out under the tree. It’s quite tiny, and in person it shows up quite nicely, but in the images I shot it disappeared out of the shots; there’s simply too much going on for it to be noticed. I think this is a nice composition of the entire falls.

Final thoughts

I was at the falls — mid-day — for about 45 minutes, and these were all shot in about 30 minutes elapsed time. I did some other compositions and experiments I didn’t think were as strong, and in general, just played with options, including reproducing my 2007 shot (that plant is still there!) and trying to bring out the middle mini-falls in some usable way (a complete failure).

Could this location be improved with better light? Sure. Does it need it to be a good location? I don’t think so. I think there’s such a mindset around hyper-saturated colors online on sites like Instagram I think in many ways we’ve forgotten that there are good opportunities, but we don’t even try for them unless because we’re brainwashed that we have to chase the light, forgetting that it should be enhancing the image, not creating it.

I’m perfectly happy with these images, and I think the monochrome of #1 and the color of #2 were exactly what I was hoping to accomplish here, and I came away with what I was trying to do.

And with that, off to my second location…