Trees in Snowstorm, Cooks Meadow
by Kirk Keeler

Kirk Keeler, Staff Photographer

Snow in Yosemite Valley has been infrequent the last two winters.  I moved to Yosemite in March of 2010, during a snowstorm.  The following March (2011), the inhabitants of the park experienced what has affectionately become known as ‘Snowmageddon’; a series of snowstorms that dropped several feet onto the valley floor and well over ten feet in the higher elevations.  The park had to close for a few days while crews cleared roads and restored power.

If you happen to be here during a significant snowfall, you can experience quite a transformation!  Trees that were snow-free and green when you arrived can alter to white snow-sculptures, many of their tops curling back toward the ground from the weight of snow.  Trails get erased from the landscape.  Meadows become vast open spaces, devoid of most things that signal signs of life.  Perhaps this is why snow is so often referred to as a blanket, as it is the insulator between the air and fertile ground.


Trees in Snowstorm, Cooks Meadow © by Kirk Keeler –  All rights reserved

In March 2012, after a fairly dry January and February, March signaled a shift in precipitation, bringing with it several beautiful winter storms to Yosemite.  It was during one of these storms that I had a digital camera class scheduled.  When the students arrived to the gallery, the storm hadn’t really began yet, so I told them we could begin outside and if conditions got too snowy, cold, or otherwise miserable, we could spend the remaining class time in the warm workshop room.  They were game!

I brought them out to the edge of Cooks Meadow to begin the class, which was about the same time a few flakes began to drop.  After an introduction to histograms and exposure underneath the shelter of the Black Oaks, I brought them out to the middle of the meadow to experience a different perspective and present new compositions.  This was the same moment that the storm really kicked into gear.  Large flakes began to fall and storm clouds crept their way down to the valley floor, erasing any evidence that 3000’ cliffs ever existed in Yosemite Valley.  As I turned back to look where our first stop was, this scene stared right back at me!

Many times, I teach about simplifying compositions by picking out certain aspects of the larger scene.  In this scene, the weather did that for me by eliminating everything except the trees and the snowflakes falling.  My students and I worked several compositions from this spot and this one felt the strongest.  I chose a shutter speed of 1/180 to suggest some movement, yet still give an impression to the size of the flakes.  There is a feeling of perspective – as one looks at a city-scape where the tallest building is located near center while the buildings retreat behind it, getting smaller toward the edges of the scene.  Only…these ‘buildings’ are trees in nature.  The feeling of perspective is heightened by the closest trees being sharp, while the trees behind them have a mistiness to them; an effect painters have used for many centuries to induce the effect of distance.      After spending some time here, the students and myself began to get cold and our equipment was getting wet.  We retreated back to the gallery and to the warm refuge of the workshop room, where I finished teaching the remaining Digital Camera class.  Despite the cold, the students enjoyed the adventure of capturing images during the snowstorm.

If photographing snowstorms sounds exciting, then March is a wonderful time to visit Yosemite Valley.  Crowds are still non-existent and snowstorms like the one I captured can happen regularly.  If you’d like to photograph a snowstorm in Cooks Meadow, I suggest parking on Northside Drive near the Yosemite Falls loop trail; stop 6 on the free shuttle.  The meadow is opposite the shuttle stop.  A paved path circumnavigates the majority of the meadow.  In addition to the oaks and cedar in my photo, a beautiful elm tree stands alone near the northern edge of the meadow and makes a great subject to photograph during a snowstorm.  If the shroud of clouds retreats, views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome can be experienced from many spots around the meadow.  While the path can be hard to locate with snow on it, please do your best to stay on it.  Even when dormant, disruption of soil from footsteps can disrupt the growth of native grasses and wildflowers.

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