I love to hear Yosemite Valley sing.  It can be a subtle aria – a muffled wind through the trees, a cascade chortling down the cliffs or the background thrum of rain as it harmonically raps on the surface of the Merced River.  But March usually introduces a crescendo.  As spring unfolds, the falls begin to boom.  Rivers begin to roar.  The rain becomes thunderous.  And the rivers heave in sync with the cycles of the day.  As a witness, these manifestations of seasonal Energy can compose your experience of the park.  As a photographer, the self imposed task of articulating this power artistically can often times leave one feeling powerless and discomposed, with visually rhetorical and empty results.  And then it dawns on you: perhaps is not so much about the magnitude of the place, but the sense of place.

John Szarkowski qualified the profundity of Ansel Adams’ imagery by branding each composition as a myriad of sensory encounters, and not just one simple visual episode.. In front Ansel’s photographs, it is possible to feel the temperature of the scene; whether it’s the biting cold on your nose in a snow covered meadow, or the last rays of the sun on your shoulders before it sets.  You can taste the viscous air and smell the pine in the wake of a Sierra storm.  And you can hear the peaceful hollowness of a distant gale and the resonating clap of a thunderstorm as they make their way across the high desert.  And all of it is an invitation to the viewers to step in and explore.  Which is undoubtedly our own hope as photographers when we share our creations, and a facet of Ansel’s work that made even the grandest of scenes more “sensible.”

When you come to Yosemite to photograph, look for the light, land and elements to emphasize the best sense of place – to communicate potential visual, aromatic, auditory, savory and tactile traits.  Some may be obvious and others devious, but all can compliment your work.  So as spring progresses and the crescendo builds, don’t be senseless and allow the power of the season overwhelm you and your photographs.

*Please be safe and cautious while hiking in Yosemite National Park.  Take plenty of water, food and appropriate gear, clothing and footwear for everyone in your party – especially with consideration to the duration of your hike.  Trails can be hazardous regardless of length or amount of elevation gain.  Stay away from cliff edges and rushing water.  Always seek advice from authorized National Park Service rangers before venturing out on the trail in Yosemite.  In winter, trails can be icy, even long after a storm has passed through the Sierra.  Never hike at night and/or in cold conditions without the proper gear.  Permits are required for any overnight stay.  Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.

Don’t Look Down
By Phillip Nicholas

Phillip Nicholas,
Staff Photographer

The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is one of my favorite hikes in the entire park. The hike is a worthy adversary – it gains 2,700 feet of elevation on steep switchbacks and winds up for 3.6 miles, topping out just to the left of Upper Falls. Although it can get flooded with people in the summer months, it offers an unmatched view that I never tire of. To make a photograph, all you need is a sliver of light in the right direction and, of course, a camera.


Don’t Look Down, Yosemite Fall 2014 © by Phillip Nicholas – all rights reserved

Once you reach the top of this challenging and beautiful trail, you can walk in any direction and find interesting subjects to photograph along the winding forest paths. Spring brings with it the tiny plant, Stone Crop, which can be found by the trained eye of the macro observer. The mosses on the trees retain some moisture from the winter months and hold an intrinsic green glow that contrasts nicely with the red bark on the high elevation conifers. And, the panorama of Yosemite Valley is quite eye-catching as well.

There are many interesting views of Yosemite Falls from the valley floor, but, when making this photograph, I wanted to get something different. I was searching for a new perspective of the awesome power of this natural wonder – I wanted to not only photograph it, but also to see the first droplets of water begin their harrowing descent into the world below. I ventured up to Yosemite Point and traced the cliff wall back down until I found a place where I could peer over the edge. When I looked over, I realized with a sudden shock that I was directly above the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Like a blast from an Internal Combustion Engine on a rocket ship heading to the moon, Yosemite Falls spews over the jagged granite edge, falling 2,425 feet to the valley floor below. In the peak season spring months, the waterfall can be both seen and heard from the farthest reaches of the valley. At the top, the water is so loud that the sounds of birds chirping and the rustling of wind through the trees is replaced by the sheer power of one of nature’s grandest displays.

The echoes of crashing water ring off of the cliff walls with a thunderous roar that seems to warn all to maintain a safe distance. Nature’s beauty is often seen from afar or with a proper zoom lens. When hiking this trail and other trails in the park, please be careful. Do not attempt to drink out of streams without filtering the water and be cautious where you step, as trails can be slippery.

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