Nevada Falls, From John Muir Trail Tuesday, Oct 19 2010 

I mentioned in my previous post that I visited Yosemite National Park during peak water flow. Scott, John, Tyler and I wanted to spend a day climbing up and down one of the signature trails of the park, The Mist Trail, which that day could have been named The Enormous Plumes of Spray Trail. The section just under the Vernal Falls was the worst, and we were more concerned with protecting our expensive cameras from the water than with using them to take photos. On top of the falls, we had to change shirts and expose some soaked clothing to the morning sun.

The final climb to the top of Nevada Falls didn’t quite resemble an unrelenting cold shower like its counterpart downstream, but we still got plenty of gusts of wind that brought the chilling spray upon our weary bodies. By this time, sun hid behind some clouds and the temperature dropped a bit. Wind was strong, and the clouds were moving, which made photography a bit challenging due to the changing light.

We finally made it to the top and enjoyed lunch, before we got on our way back to the valley following the John Muir Trail to the other side of the falls, against a sheer granite cliff. Just after one last refreshment courtesy of some persistent snow melt, we paused to gather our strength for the descent. I fired off a few shots, including the one of the back side of Half Dome I posted earlier.

Nevada Falls, From John Muir Trail

I then changed lenses and tried a wider composition with my next shot, which is what you see here – notice the similar scattered light. At 17mm, pretty much everything is in sharp focus, and I really love the distorted clouds reaching for the corners of the image with Liberty Cap dominating the center. I hesitated to post this, because it was too similar to the earlier shot, but upon further review, I decided this photo has a character of its own and deserves a spot in the blog.

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Vernall Falls, Yosemite National Park Sunday, Oct 17 2010 

Fort Worth’s Amon Carter museum recently displayed an exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs, which I was excited to visit. Like most people, I was exposed to his work through his most popular images, and seeing an actual print of the glorious Clearing Winter Storm was certainly a thrill. I even saw the original Monolith: The Face of Half Dome (although slightly mislabeled by the museum), a 1934 print on Dassonville Charcoal Grey paper; on my June visit to Yosemite National Park, I bought a reproduction of this amazing photograph and it now hangs on a wall in my bedroom. Finally, I came face to face with his photo book Taos Pueblo, wishing I could flip through the gelatin silver photo paper pages on which Adams individually printed the photos.

But, it was the lesser known Adams Work that really got my attention. A photograph titled Pinnacles, Alabama Hills was magical – vertical rock outcroppings covered with lichen platelets against the background of snow-capped mountains. The level of detail was tremendous and you can sense the pre-visualization that Adams was so famous for.

Then there were several images from Big Bend National Park, made in the mid-to-late 1940s, especially the Santa Elena Canyon, which is not merely a composition, but a symphony of rock and light. The photograph seemed to be asking me why haven’t I made the 10-hour drive to this National Park yet; not exactly in my back yard, but in Texas terms certainly not beyond reach.

In all of his work, Adams emphasizes sharp focus and eye for detail, even in grandiose vistas. His Half Dome, Blowing Snow is a testament to this, with its portrayal of the friendship between ice and granite. Another theme that is noticeable is his use of the sky in his photos. It seems as if he used red filters just about every time he expected to show the sky in the photo, so that it would appear darker than the clouds scattered across it.

And finally, here and there, there are traces of Adams the portraitist, whether he’s photographing an unnamed Woman Behind Screen Door or his friend Alfred Stieglitz in his studio. One realizes that such photos were probably not done with his view cameras, which require slower, more deliberate operation, but rather with a more compact 35mm camera, making Adams a well-rounded wielder of photographic equipment.

Vernall Falls, Yosemite National Park

To illustrate this blog post, I chose not to use any of Adams’s images, as they are easily available on the internet, albeit in form nowhere near deserving of a fine work of art. Instead, here’s one of my own offering from the trip to Yosemite; a digital snapshot that’s been on top of the “Maybe” pile for four months. It’s a photo of Vernal falls, inspired by an image by Adams. The master was able to get close up to the water, which indicates it was probably later in the year — we were there in peak flow season, and it was impossible to use any electronic equipment on that particular portion of the aptly named Mist Trail. This was taken from a bridge further downstream, and I rather liked the way sun found a few ways through the clouds to offer some pleasant highlights on the water and foliage around it.

Yosemite Falls and Pine Wednesday, Jul 21 2010 

Yosemite Valley is a long, deep, narrow incision into the granite of the High Sierras, and as a result, most of its main features are visible from just about anywhere. I already provided some examples of that with El Capitan and Half Dome, but right up there with them on the list of the most recognizable images from Yosemite are the Yosemite Falls, the tallest year-round waterfall in North America.

Yosemite Falls and Pine

Yosemite Falls and Pine

There are a number of ways to photograph the falls, and we had some nice shots from various meadows in the valley, one of which appears below. On this day, however, Scott, John, Tyler and I decided to go up the Four Mile Trail, which snakes from the bottom of the valley all the way up to Glacier Point. The trail is one of the signature trails of the park, and it’s actually five miles long. The first part of the trail offers a great “reverse tunnel view”, where a somewhat distorted eastern profile of El Capitan is on your right, and the Cathedral Peaks on the left. But then, slowly, the trail keeps shifting eastward and there are many spectacular views of the Yosemite Falls.

What’s interesting about this is that the perspective is somewhat changed by the elevation gained on the trail. The plumes of water spray at the bottom of the Upper falls come into full view, and the Lower falls, which is somewhat secluded by the narrow gorge it carved, can be clearly seen.

This is the highest I got on the trail; I had my lunch here, looking at the falls on my right and El Capitan on my left. It is the first shot I took with my Pan F film in medium format (120), and it turned out that this film produced nothing but winners.

Yosemite Falls, from the meadow

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.

The Other Side of Half Dome Wednesday, Jun 30 2010 

I am told by mountaineers that the three most distinctive mountain shapes in the world are the Mustagh Tower in the Karakorams, the Matterhorn in the Alps and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. – Ansel Adams

And, yet, this doesn’t look instantly recognizable as Half Dome. For the third love letter to Half Dome created by my 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, I picked this image, shot on Ilford FP4+ film using an orange filter to increase the contrast between the sky and the clouds. It is the back side of Half Dome, the side that makes it seem like there was a Full Dome once.

This was taken slightly above Nevada Fall, on the John Muir trail. Scott, John, Tyler and I have been climbing up Mist Trail all day and got thoroughly soaked three times – at Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, and then again, a few yards from where this was taken, where some random snow melt endlessly dripped over the narrow trail as a never-ending cold shower.

We were tired and wet, but once we got to this side of the Nevada Fall, we realized what we were looking up at. The sheer, smooth cliff above was none other than our friend Half Dome, in a rarely seen angle. And while the fascination with its face and profile has been long documented in countless photos by masters and laymen alike, it was a surprise to see the smoothness of the dome, interrupted only by a few scars, carved by Father Time and Mother Nature.

Canon 7D, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 40mm, CPL

As it were, I don’t have many shots from this vantage point. Day was getting long and legs weary. Some others have more interesting skies or a different composition; one of those, a digital effort, is shown here for purposes of comparison. But in the end, I chose this shot because I thought the sparse splashes of color distract from the beauty of the subject. A subject, that, quite accidentally, captured the heart of my favorite lens.

Cloud on Half Dome Monday, Jun 28 2010 

Half Dome is a great mountain with endless variations of lighting and sky situations and seasonal characteristics; the many images I have made reflect my varied creative responses to this remarkable granite monolith. – Ansel Adams

As I mentioned before, on our trip through Yosemite National Park, Scott, John, Tyler and I unwittingly made Half Dome the main subject of many of our photos. The peak towers over all of the Yosemite Valley, and you can see it from just about anywhere. Ironically, the only higher peak is called Clouds Rest.

This particular afternoon, we were stuck in the horrible traffic of the Valley, trying to get some supplies for the evening and the day ahead. We exerted ourselves on the Mist Trail (photos from which are coming very soon), and we hoped to take in the sunset at the Tunnel View. But, as we crossed the bridge over Merced river on the eastern end of the valley, we saw a big cloud covering the top of Half Dome in a striking scene.

Cloud on Half Dome

We quickly found a parking spot (no small feat!), and dragged our tired legs out of the car. The brightly lit Half Dome was reflecting in the river, but the late afternoon sun was leaving a lot of shadow and it was difficult to find the correct exposure. The only possible shot was with a telephoto lens, and I mounted my 85mm f/1.8 USM lens on the Canon 7D and fired off a few shots.

It wasn’t the golden hour yet, so the colors aren’t spectacular. I even thought about converting to black and white, which I’ve done below. But, I think just the sight of the threatening cloud obscuring the peak looks quite dramatic, and the pine tree silhouettes complete the framing very nicely.

Cloud on Half Dome, black and white version

Half Dome, Sunset No. 4 Saturday, Jun 26 2010 

I have photographed Half Dome innumerable times, but it is never the same Half Dome, never the same light or the same mood. – Ansel Adams

My main image of Yosemite was El Capitan, with Half Dome being only a distant second. Nevertheless, after five days in the park, I didn’t even realize that we shot Half Dome during each of the five sunsets. We snapped dozens of shots more, from the valley, from the Mist Trail, and from anywhere else we could. It quickly became the focal point of the trip, the main star of the show. Some of those shots are coming soon, but I wanted to post this one before all others.

Half Dome, Sunset No. 4

This was Sunset No. 4, when we drove up Glacier Point Road, but only to the trailhead to the Sentinel Dome. After an easy 1-mile hike, we came to the bare granite clearing at the top of Sentinel Dome, which towers over all of the Yosemite Valley and offers unbelievable 360-degree view of the Eastern Sierras.

We got there early enough and snapped around, but then the sky lit up and the golden hour followed. This shot follows The Formula, which says it’s not even that important what you shoot during this kind of light. But, the glory of Half Dome just elevates this to another level.

Another reason I like this shot so much is that it was taken with my 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, which was simply in love with Half Dome. Several great closeups of the peak are waiting to be posted soon. Until then, here’s a bonus shot, taken 15 minutes after the one above. The sun has set, but the clouds were glowing in shades of pink, and some of that light was reflecting on the stony face of Half Dome. If you ever get a chance to witness the sunset from Sentinel Dome, don’t miss it.

Raging Waters, Yosemite Wednesday, Jun 23 2010 

Although it was well into June, Yosemite still had enormous reserves of snow. So much so, in fact, that the Tioga Pass road, connecting the Valley with the east end of the park, was open literally two days before we drove across it to Lee Vining. The drive was incredibly picturesque, and since we were headed east, the afternoon sun was behind us and the Dana Fork went the other way along the road.

Dana Fork is usually a mountain creek feeding the Tenaya Lake, but after copious amounts of snow and the first long string of warm, sunny days, it was a raging river barreling down the mountain, flooding meadows and jumping over boulders and tree trunks.

On two separate occasions that evening, as well as the following morning, Scott, John, Tyler and I made a quick stop to explore the rapids for some photographic opportunities. The other three made good use of their neutral density filters, which block out a lot of light coming into the camera, allowing long exposure times, which in turn yield milky smooth water effect.

Since I wasn’t a card-carrying member of the ND club, I focused on only moderately long exposures, in the range of 1/30th of a second. That’s still long enough to show some water flow, but short enough that camera shake isn’t an issue, especially with a 17-40mm f/4L lens. This scene was the one I particularly liked, with a nice separation of the clouds from the sky and plenty of nice looking pine trees. A narrow aperture brought out the natural sharpness of the FP4 film, so I didn’t bother with any post-production manipulation.

John, Tyler, Suad and Scott

John, Tyler, Suad and Scott


As a blog special, here’s a photo of all four of us on the eastern entrance to Yosemite, which is the highest point on the Tioga Pass Road. It marks the first time I’ve been at more than 3000 meters elevation.

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