There is nothing like a winter’s day in Yosemite Valley – even if there is no conventional winter weather to speak of. The landscape is quiet and serene. The air is crisp. And the photographic potential plentiful if one is willing to look for it. All in all, it is a good day to be out and about.
During my time living in Yosemite, I have witnessed a handful of January storms that leave behind a bountiful blanket of snow which vacationers, skiers and photographers alike look forward to enjoying at it’s freshest. For those photographers, the subsequent chance to capture the fabled clearing winter storm shot from Tunnel View at sunset, or Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge with the powder festooned banks of the Merced River in the foreground, are apropos to their entire reason for traveling to the park this time of year. And perhaps it is Ansel Adams’ iconographic, well-traveled imagery, as well as related work by other photographers before and after him, that has given rise to a spurious notion that “it is just that easy.” That one need simply show up in Yosemite during any “winter” day to capture their white whale – photographically speaking. Sadly, this is not the case. But it is hard not to think that way. After all, how many prominently published photographs of Yosemite in winter don’t incorporate the romantic element of fresh snow? Doubting there is a practical way to answer that question in a quantifiable way, an educated guess would be: not that many. That being said, regardless of the weather – or lack thereof – that you may encounter during a visit to the park, there are plenty of images to be made out there. Remember, when asked which image from her life’s work was her favorite, photographer Imogen Cunningham always replied, “The one I make tomorrow.”
*Please be safe and cautious while hiking in Yosemite National Park. Take plenty of water, food and appropriate clothing and footwear for everyone in your party. Trails can be hazardous. 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. Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Bridalveil Fall and Ice, Yosemite, 2012
By Evan Russel
It may not be Tunnel View, but Bridalveil Fall is no slouch when it comes to inspiration. I frequently find myself stopping by the famous waterfall throughout the winter months, mostly because it is a subject that is in constant flux, and thus frees me from the constraints of the often times repugnant “preconceived notion.” This transient quality allows for reconciliation with the genuine side of landscape photography that piqued my artistic interest many years ago, and I find it relaxing.
The accompanying photograph of “Bridalveil Fall and Ice,” was taken in January 2012. Even with it being a dry start to the year, there was enough water coming over the fall to constantly renew the pattern of ice that formed on the adjacent cliff walls each chilly morning. I used many lenses that day, as well as filters and mostly slower shutter speeds to experiment and play around with the movement of the water. No two images were alike. But once I found an interesting composition within the pattern of ice, I would set up the camera, frame the scene, make the appropriate adjustments to the shutter and aperture, and then interact with the water for what seemed like hours.Evan Russel, Curator and Staff Photographer
There are a number of good locations to set up your camera when attempting to photograph Bridalveil Fall during this time of year, including right from the trailhead parking lot, the South Side Drive pull-out, the North Side Drive pull-out just across the river (you may need a longer lens for this one), or by walking up to the vista point at the end of the (VERY icy in winter) trail. Depending on your intentions to isolate the cliffs and fall, or to include the context of the surrounding forest, creeks and valley rim, will determine where you ultimately decide to set up your camera. This is a great subject in winter, and should you find yourself in Yosemite with unseasonable weather or conditions, I encourage you to make a visit to the fall and play to your heart’s content.
Fallen Limb, Snowstorm, Yosemite, 2011
By Mike Reeves
Many visitors have asked staff members if we ever get tired of photographing in Yosemite. The simple answer is: not in the least. Even if many scenes present themselves similarly throughout the year, we do have the luxury of witnessing the constant change that is Yosemite – and that keeps us on our toes.Fallen Limb, Snowstorm, Yosemite, 2011 by Mike Reeves
Throughout the spring, many of my favorite river spots are underwater. The summer and fall months are the only time I can access the high country for backpacking and photography. But in the winter, the high traffic of summer is gone, and a photographer feels alone in this vast space.
One of my favorite places to photograph throughout the year is El Capitan Meadow. Budding trees in spring, vibrant pine trees in summer, colorful oaks in fall, and snowstorms in winter leave me with plenty of options. The meadow can be broken into three rough sections. To the east, the meadow is open, lined by oaks and pines. The middle of the meadow is mixed with pines and oak trees, many of which have seen the lenses of talented artists. The west end features dense oaks with many fun and abstract shapes to capture in every season.Mike Reeves, Staff Photographer
The accompanying photograph of “Fallen Limb, Snowstorm” was taken in January 2011. The storms that year seemed to never end. On one of many trips to El Capitan Meadow, I was walking among the oaks in snow up to my knees. In conditions like that, I always like to stop and catch my breath every so often so I don’t miss something. (Trying not to trip on hidden branches and rocks is always tough when walking through this meadow, so be sure to take a moment to look around and orient yourself should you find yourself in a similar situation!) As I looked towards the open meadow to the east, I found a snow-covered oak tree limb. The limb itself was not immediately interesting to me. But an elusive quality about it kept my attention. I studied it for some time before deciding to use it as a foreground including the rest of the meadow. After several compositions, I made this photograph at 1/13 of a second. The exposure was just long enough to blur the snow but not too long that the snow would turn into long streaks. The snow was heavy enough that the background retains shape but loses some detail. The tall rock cliffs disappear completely and give this image a sense of intimacy that it may lack in the summer or fall and I enjoy the somewhat abstract nature of the background, which is a nice contrast with the sharp branch.
Moon, North & Half Domes, Merced River, Jan. 2014
By Kirk Keeler
Winter is, for me, a time for slowing down. Not only am I slowing down, but it seems the landscape around me follows suit. The falls are but a trickle, some defiantly ending their cascade until the first storms flush it over the cliffs once more. The Merced River, normally swollen with water from snow-melt Spring through Summer, is quite docile in its winter meandering.Moon, North & Half Domes, Merced River, Jan. 2014 by Kirk Keeler
During these winter months, I can be found at many of the placid locations along the Merced – searching for reflections! And if capturing a reflection of a Yosemite icon, such as Half Dome, is on your list, then Winter in Yosemite Valley is a great time for your visit.
Couple all of this with a rising moon, and it really doesn’t get any better! While the Sun sticks to a more southerly orbit, staying rather low in the winter sky, the moon has the opposite transit, appearing more northerly on the horizon. Depending on where you’re standing in Yosemite Valley, this north-orbiting moon tends to rise somewhere in the neighborhood of Half Dome between November and February. Even Ansel Adams in 1960, driving on a now-defunct road along the east end of the Ahwahnee Meadow, took advantage of a similar alignment when he glanced up and saw “Moon and Half Dome” – capturing the pivotal moment with his Hasselblad Camera.
While guiding a visitor in Yosemite Valley in January 2014, I had a “Moon and Half Dome” moment myself! After a day of walking on the valley floor and up to Vernal Fall, I decided I’d take my client to the banks of the Merced. We headed back towards Yosemite Village hoping to photograph evening light on Half Dome reflected in the calm eddy east of Day Use Parking. Having taken the shuttle from Happy Isles to the parking lot, we never got to see the full sky until we were right on the bank. That is when we saw Half Dome, shrouded in an elegant evening light, reflected in the water, with a waxing moon – three days from full – very near the dome!
The timing was perfect. We were there the night you really want to photograph a moon rising in Yosemite Valley: a night with enough luminance against the sky to see the moon’s features, but not too bright to “blow out” the face of the moon. Thankfully, for my client and myself, the almost jarring sight of the moon near Half Dome left us exuberant, as though we had discovered this phenomena for the first time.Kirk Keeler, Staff Photographer
My picture, “Moon, North & Half Domes, Merced River” brings many winter Yosemite features together in one photograph. Snowy banks, bare and dormant Cottonwoods, calm water, warm light interplay between Half Dome and North Dome, and finally, a moon overseeing all the beauty!
Day Use Parking (Parking Lot A) is easily accessed in Yosemite Village and well-marked on most park maps. I recommend arriving 45 minutes before sunset to allow enough time to watch, and photograph, the remaining light on Half Dome and the surrounding cliffs. Wanting a moon in the shot? If arriving between November and February, plan the shoot for two to three days before the full moon. Using software, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, will help even more with the planning. Good Luck!