Yosemite in Winter


There’s something magical about Yosemite in the winter. It’s always awe inspiring, but a fresh dusting of snow adds another level of amazing to the valley. We spent a few days up there between Christmas and New Year’s just to relax and enjoy some time away. As usual, I left longing for more.

Yosemite is a photographers paradise. Everywhere you turn there is something to shoot, and usually a crowd of people taking the same picture. The challenge is avoiding crowds and finding an original shot (if that is even possible). I go into Yosemite knowing the best shots have already been taken and I won’t create a new masterpiece, but I might create my own masterpiece. I go there to take pictures that are mine. Even though a millions of people take the same picture of Half Dome, I still want to take my own. If I’m happy with the shots I take, then it was a good trip. I’ve put all the shots I thought were good enough to share in a set on Flickr.

My favorite places to shoot on this trip were:

  • The meadow along Northside Drive, between Yosemite Village and the Ahwahnee Hotel. It has one of the best views of Half Dome.
  • Tunnel View on Hwy 41, right before the Wawona Tunnel
  • El Capitan meadow
  • Along the Merced River between Swinging Bridge and Sentinel Bridge. (I don’t think you can walk in this area off trail except when there is snow on the ground. Stay on trails and help protect the grasses.)

My favorite places change with the seasons. My next trip later this year will include a hike to the top of Half Dome, so I expect that will be my favorite spot. If you’re planning a trip I highly recommend the Lonely Planet Yosemite National Park guide. It is a invaluable resource.

One bummer about the trip, I realized my Sigma 17-70mm lens is not auto focusing properly, especially for wide shots. It’s not off on every shoot, but enough that I don’t trust it. I’ll probably have it repaired at some point, but for now I’ll switch back to the Canon 17-55mm kit lens or go manual. It sucks to have a lens that’s only 18 months old break. I noticed the shots I took with my Canon 70-300mm were much sharper.

Big Leaf Maple

Another Leaf
We just don’t colors like this where I live, so to me the color of this leaf is impressive. Our maple trees turn sort of yellow-brown, then the leaves fall off. At higher elevations, like Yosemite where this was taken, it gets much colder much faster so the colors get more vibrant. I can’t image what the Fall colors must look like in New England.

When it’s 82 degrees F, it’s hard to imagine it’s really Fall.

Don’t Waste This Chance

Don't waste this chance
Big Leaf Maple turning colors. Taken in Yosemite, October 2007

Yosemite isn’t really known for its Fall colors, but I thought they added some contrast to the landscapes. Yosemite has a lot of conifers that don’t change colors, but there are enough Black Oaks, Maples and Pacific Dogwood’s to mix in a splash of yellow and red. The colors make up for the lack of water at this time of year. The meadows with Black Oaks are really beautiful.

Another thing that makes up for the lack of water is the bears. We saw bears in broad daylight foraging for food to fatten up for the winter. Fortunately they are pretty tame and if you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you. But it’s good to keep your distance. I tried to get a picture, but wasn’t fast enough.

Half Dome

Half Dome

Last weekend we went to Yosemite for a quick weekend trip. It had been six years since our family had been there, and our youngest had never been, so it was time. As expected, we had a great time and I got to take a lot of pictures. It’s hard not to take pictures because there are so many striking rock formations and Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Half Dome is probably the most photographed formation in the park, and for good reason. It dominates the landscape in much of Yosemite valley. It’s hard not to
take pictures of it because it is so incredible. This shot was taken near Curry Village, along the road. I’m sure millions of people have taken pictures from this location. I geotagged in on Zooomr so you can see about where I was when I took the picture.

I found the lighting to be a little tricky, probably because of the time of year and angle of the Sun. Because the mountains around the valley are so high and the Sun is so low in the southern sky, the south side of the valley is in shade most of the day. With a clear sky you can get a wide range of contrast between bright sunlight and dark shadows. You really have to make decisions about what you want to highlight – the trees and meadows or the rocks towering above. Of course, if you time things really well you can get both. As you can see, for this shot I opted to expose for the rocks, not the trees.

For anyone planning a Fall or early Winter trip, here are a few pointers:

  • El Capitan is best shot in the morning. The light from sunrise hits it perfectly. Ask a park ranger when sunrise actually happens and get there early. The sun doesn’t hit the valley floor until long after it hits the rocks.
  • The meadows near El Capitan have really cool ground fog in the morning.
  • Half Dome is best shot late in the day, when the sun hits its face. There’s a great spot along the river near the Ahwahnee Hotel.
  • There’s not a lot of water in the falls. None in Yosemite Falls, very little in Vernal, Nevada, and Bridal Veil.
  • Take some time to stake out locations the first day, then come back to shoot. There are dozens of photographers with tripods set up early for sunrise and sunset shots, so plan ahead for a good locations.
  • Bring lots of memory cards or a laptop to download photos. I shot with a 4 gig card and downloaded every night.
  • The sun hits the North side of the valley near Yosemite Village early, so you can get some good shots of trees, meadows, the river, and possibly bears before you start your day.
  • You can get great shots from the road, but if you walk a little you can get better shots. Please stay on the paths and respect the plants.
  • Don’t forget to look for the details. Sure, the rocks are spectacular, but so are the leaves and grasses and rivers and countless other little things.

If you look at the satellite or hybrid view of Yosemite on Google maps, you can see the shadows on the south side of the valley to get an idea of how the lighting will be. Take into account the time of year, shorter days, and angle of the sun as Winter Solstice approaches.

I have roughly 500 pictures to go through, so this will likely be the first of many from the trip. I uploaded 13 to Zooomr last night and created a set so you can view them all in one place. As I upload more, I’ll add them to the set.