El Capitan, From Taft Point Wednesday, Jul 14 2010 

It’s difficult to reduce El Capitan to a description. Photos may be worth a thousand words, but not even a thousand photos can prepare you for when you first see this behemoth. It’s not just a rock. It’s a vast vertical wall of granite, rising from the earth to the height equal to about two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other.

But it’s even more than just stats and numbers. The prominent protrusion, dubbed “The Nose” by the climbers, gives it a very distinct look, and a profile of a stern authority figure, with a furrowed brow and a menacing demeanor. You could almost see Ahab or Sitting Bull looking like that.

El Capitan, From Taft Point

El Capitan, From Taft Point

For the most part, you don’t even have to get out of your car to get a great shot of the giant. On our last full day in Yosemite, Scott, John, Tyler and I scrapped the sunrise shoot and slept in. John made killer omelets and we took off on the Glacier Point Road to a trailhead that leads to Taft Point in one direction and Sentinel Dome in the other. After some adventures on the poorly marked trail, we reached the scary outcrop of Taft Point, one of only a few spots in the Valley where you can look down on El Capitan.

Late morning clouds were moving fast, and the scattered sunshine actually created some interesting patterns on the massive mountain features. I clicked the shutter on my Mamiya 1000s just as a large cloud obscured the background of El Cap’s nose, but thankfully left the stone giant brilliantly lit. The Ilford Pan F film was stretched to both limits of its dynamic range, and I wish i can remember how I metered the scene, because I don’t think I could have done it better. This is easily one of my favorite shots from Yosemite.

Quick technical note: this shot may seem as a typical landscape panorama, but it was actually taken with a normal lens – 80mm on the 645 medium format. It may seem counter-intuitive, but my best shots around Yosemite were taken with normal or telephoto lenses.

First Light on El Capitan Tuesday, Jul 13 2010 

Among the must-have shots in anticipation of the Yosemite trip with Scott, John, and Tyler, very high on my list was “sunrise at El Capitan”. The prominent brow of this massive granite cliff catches the morning light on its southeastern side, and we wanted to find a good spot from which to take in the great rock.

We did some beating around the bushes and wandering way off path (in some cases, all of 100 yards from the main valley road!), but the swollen Merced River wiped away a lot of the meadows and banks where a hopeful photographer would set down his tripod. In the end, we decided on a little outcrop in the river bend, just barely enough for four tripods. Then, we waited.

First Light on El Capitan

Unfortunately, it was close to the summer solstice, and the sun rose well to the north, so the only part that got that beautiful morning light was this very tip of the cliff. The triangle would extend down as the dawn went on, but the sun would just not shine fully on the face of El Cap until well into the morning. Morning at El Capitan Maybe some of the other guys managed to harness the extreme shadows and the bright highlights better than I did, but my best shot is this closeup of the top, taken with my 7D and the magnificent EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, looking almost straight up 3000 feet. As a bonus shot, here’s a wider angle image of the same scene, taken about an hour after the one above. Notice the much cooler, whiter light.

And while we ruminated that sun coverage along the cliff might be fuller later in the year (winter solstice? I shudder to think), simply standing by a fast-moving river and watching first light on the largest exposed piece of granite in the world was amazingly serene and thoroughly satisfying.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley Wednesday, Jul 7 2010 

I’ll skip the Ansel Adams quote for this post, as this is basically a paraphrase of one of his most famous images. There was no clearing winter storm this June afternoon when Scott, John, Tyler and I elbowed with the crowd at the most popular vista in Yosemite National Park, the “tunnel view”, so called because this is quite literally the view once you come out of the Wawona Tunnel from the south.

Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley

There is no secret for getting a good shot at the tunnel view – just press the shutter. Getting a great shot is a little tougher, especially one that comes close to Ansel’s magic. I had three cameras with me, and although the digital color shots are nice, it’s the black-and-white film shots that caught my eye. There was a great one on Ilford FP4 film in 35mm size, but I wanted to check out the medium format shot.

I had lost track of which film I used that day, and it turned out it wasn’t my favorite Velvia in my Mamiya 1000S, but Ilford Pan F instead. It’s the first time I used this film, and I heard rumors about its sharpness, but I quickly became a believer when I saw the scan. It almost didn’t need extra sharpening (which emphasized the superfine, almost non-existent grain), and the image just popped.

El Capitan from Tunnel View

The western face of El Capitan is there in all its glory, except for a tiny overexposed bit at the base. In fact, this was gonna be an El Cap portrait, and I’m also including a closeup of this great rock, also taken from tunnel view. I love this shot just as much, especially since it was taken with my 85mm lens, but I have a different pairing of those two elements prepared for the next post.

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