The elation at making it through the storms and into Yosemite National Park in the deep winter snow soon fades as you start focusing on the next challenge in a few day’s time: Getting back out again.
Awesome though it was to be surrounded by deep walls of ploughed snow on the one remaining open road in and out of the park, you know you’re only one storm away from being trapped in the valley for longer than you’d planned.
With the shots from the annual (ish!) “Firefall” at Horsetail Falls safely stored in both my camera’s memory and my own, I wanted to take advantage of the fairytale winter wonderland that had surrounded us in every direction.
The first night of the firefall, I’d noticed an incredible glow in the sky above, out to the east (in the opposite direction to that which everyone else was looking). The mix of freezing clouds filling the air with the setting sun had created quite the ethereal effect overhead as more and more snow was delivered over the mountaintops in every direction you could see.
Yes, chains were required. Yes, the snow just never seemed to stop building every night. But yes, each day we were surrounded by fresh, crisp white powder and blue skies overhead – it was definitely time to explore the park.
The Ahwahnee Hotel
Staying inside the park during winter is often the best idea, if you can get a reservation. We were lucky enough to be staying at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, right in the heart of Yosemite Village (and no, it will never be the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel” to me, no matter how many ridiculous lawsuits they want to continue between them!).
Having a cosy warm base to come back to from the freezing cold outside at night is something that’s worth its weight in gold when added to the fact you don’t have to worry about whether the roads are open to get home either!
Balcony suites are a great idea, until you remember how much it had been snowing recently – and finding your car quickly became the most popular game in the valley after a few nights – but who can really complain about any of that when a short drive up the hill from the hotel is this view in the heart of winter:
Bridalveil Falls was in full flow, as were both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls just behind El Capitan, and the light dusting of almost icing-sugar-like snow on each of the mountain tops just made this iconic view even more special when you stood there at the overlook.
But I wanted to get into the valley floor – to the untouched tracks, to get up close to the wintery scenes within the park itself.
It turned out, my mocking of two friends who’d brought snow shoes was premature. When you’re a lump the size of me, even with size 12 feet as platforms to stand on, a 4ft soft pack of snow easily wins the game of “stop Reiffer in his tracks”.
Still, I’m not one to give in.
Despite the cold air up above, and snow all around, the heat from the sun beating down on us meant I managed to escape the heavy clothes and snow-gear, and got to shoot this incredible place in a t-shirt for most of the day!
Running from point to point, catching amazing vistas along the way – seldom seeing any other visitors, it really did feel like we had the park to ourselves as we explored the valley floor.
While soft fluffy powder surrounded us for most of the time, those moments when I had to put my tripod down on packed ice made me rather thankful for the built-in titanium spikes that come with the Lion Rock I was shooting with. My feet may have slipped a bit every now and then, but my camera stayed rock solid on top of that thing the entire day (it also made for a stable platform to grab on to every now and then too…!)
What a magical wintery sight.
The rivers still flowed, weaving in between the snow-capped rocks at the bottom of the valley. Alpine mountains surrounded the old trees, dusted in winter ice. Every now and then you’d hear the crack of either a snowfall from one of the rock faces, or one of the tree branches finally giving up and releasing the snow it had been holding, onto whatever (or whoever) was below.
But that was all you could hear. Stood in the warmth of the sun, surrounded by fresh snow, all alone. Amazing.
With a little more exploring, it was time to get some shots from the less often visited areas of the park. The amusement I’d found previously in falling tree-snow soon turned to frustration as I was stood in the only area of the entire valley that seemed to be snowing while the tree above emptied its branches.
Forgetting how cold the ice on the floor would be, I figured it was time to get down and play with a lens ball. Remember, as I’ve mentioned before, these things can burn – so do not, ever, leave them unattended in the sun for any reason. That said, Yosemite’s Cathedral Rocks sure do look cool in there…
As did Half Dome in the snow…
We weren’t far from that classic “valley view” by the river and meadows in the park either. Despite the snowfall from the branches of the trees above (which seemed to be following me to whichever tree I was shooting under) this classic view just looked even more spectacular in its wintery spell.
Water was flowing, but not at the spring levels where it can race down the river at an incredible speed – this was just enough to capture a 20 second exposure of this iconic scene through the valley between El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls.
We need gas
With all that driving around, one thing was becoming more of a concern than the weather (if, at least, related) – our lack of gas. There’s no fuel inside of Yosemite National Park, with the closest being either El Portal (which we knew had been through another storm over the rocky pass) or Crane Flat, on the more northern route in and out of the valley.
I have no idea whether it’s Chevron or the National Park Service who keep this place open, but 10/10 for the effort guys! Buried deep inside these huge walls of snow, what seems like a deserted gas station turned out to be fully functional – with a view on the way back that can take your breath away too.
The sky at night
Somebody once told me that medium format digital cameras were incapable of shooting the sky at night.
While, I’ll concede, the previous generation of CCD sensors really weren’t that capable (especially at higher ISO values) I wanted to give the new Phase One IQ4 150MP a go at capturing the stars and mountains under moonlight.
If I thought it was quiet during the day in the park, it was eerily more so at night – especially when there’s a distant call from an animal which sounds like it’s getting closer! But I wasn’t going to move – I’d framed the shot I wanted and it was time to see how those 151 million pixels turned out.
Up-close, there is almost no noise in this image. Yes, the f/3.5 lens could do with another stop of light, but the detail in the stars above that it managed to capture just proves to me how much true medium format digital cameras have come along over the years.
Pushing my luck, on a revisit this month, I wanted to see whether it was capable of capturing the Milky Way too. With absolutely no moonlight, I knew the foreground/valley floor was going to be an issue, but hey – it’s always worth a try.
Add into that, a 10 minute exposure just to see what trails we could get, and I’d say it held up pretty well. Unfortunately, we already had the glowing signs of the sun rising in the distance – so not enough time to really experiment – but it’s possible, it’s definitely possible…
Spring has sprung
Take a 6 week break, and a return visit to Yosemite National Park is completely different.
I guess you could say that with any season, but this was quite the dramatic change. No snow chains, now snow storms, my return in April felt like visiting an entirely different park.
And yet, still as amazing.
The snow had turned to huge flows of water heading down towards the river with dramatic pace. The waterfalls were roaring throughout the park. Early morning mist filled the valley floor, fuelled by the moisture flowing from the base of Bridalveil Falls.
…and the detail I could capture in the forests down below was just mind-blowing (this being a 50% crop):
As for the rest of the park – well, my blue skies were still there, but so were the early signs of green leaves on the trees, meadows recovering from their blanket of snow, and of course – Yosemite Falls in full flow.
The Ansel Adams effect
It’s funny – Ansel Adams once described colour photography as a “beguiling medium”, but likened it to “playing an out-of-tune piano” – a viewpoint which, I guess, enforced his production of mainly black and white images throughout his career. A decision that, sadly, has meant any photographer producing monochrome images of Yosemite (one of Ansel’s most photographed parks) is often considered a poor copy of the late master’s work.
I think black and white adds something to certain images. Not all, but some.
In many of my images, I use the colour that the sky has given me to bring life to the photograph. But where there’s a flat sky, or a huge amount of natural contrast and texture in the shot – the removal of colour as a distraction to those shapes can have quite the profound effect.
This shot of Valley View, for example, looks so much more “bold” in black and white – it has more depth, less pastel shades in the foreground, more focus on the mountain peaks.
Even the classic shot from Tunnel view, with those heavy contrasting mountains in the shade and the iconic silhouette of Half Dome in the distance, seems to gain something from a conversion to black and white.
But if we convert one of my spring images with the same treatment, to me, it loses something:
It’s the depth and layers that disappear when you remove the colour from shots like these. The pastel shades in the clouds were adding complexity to the image. The light falling onto El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls has been lost to an average contrast with those mountains which surround them.
It just no longer “pops”.
So, does Yosemite look better shot in black and white? Sometimes, but it depends on the image in question.
Does Yosemite look great no matter how, or when, you shoot this iconic National Park?
Of course it does!