How to avoid choking crowds, tiptoe around rattlesnakes, and keep bears out of your food, and still capture fresh photos in the park that Ansel made famous.
Yosemite is one of the most iconic photographic destinations in the world. Many photographers have done incredible work there, and the same possibilities are open to serious amateurs in its varied landscape. However, Yosemite's fame is one of the problems you will encounter shooting there: There are often crowds at the iconic viewpoints and you may be hard-pressed to get a shot that hasn’t been seen many times before. But that can be true of any well-known destination, and it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the hunt.
Yosemite is about a four-hour drive from the San Francisco, Oakland, or Sacramento airports, with the last stretch coming into Yosemite valley via Oakdale and Highway 120, and six hours from Los Angeles with the last stretch turning off from Merced via Highway 140. Driving from San Francisco-Oakland-Sacramento, you can skip 120 and proceed south to Merced and take 140 for a somewhat more scenic route along the Merced River. This adds about 45 minutes to the drive, not counting stops to take pictures.
The park consists of Yosemite Valley and almost 1,200 square miles of surrounding high country wilderness. The high country on the south rim of the valley is accessible by Glacier Point Road, which exits the valley via the famous Tunnel View. The north rim is accessible from the valley by Big Oak Flat Road and then Tioga Pass Road, which runs east through Tuolumne Meadows and on to Highway 395, which runs along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada range.
Lodging is scarce in the entire area and reservations are a must. Spring and fall may be the least crowded. Winter attracts skiers (and some accommodations are closed) and summer is always crowded. The choices in the valley are limited to several campgrounds, primitive cabins at Curry Village, a modern motel at Yosemite Lodge, and the elegant but pricey Ahwahnee Hotel. About 45 minutes west of the valley on Highway 140 is the hamlet of El Portal, which has two motels.
There are a few more very small towns on 140 that may have some accommodations but the nearest town of any size is Mariposa, an hour and a half from the valley. On the north road, Highway 120, Oakdale is a decent-sized town 2 hours from the park. There are a few small and old-fashioned cabin-type accommodations between Oakdale and the park but most are not open year-round. South of the park on Highway 41 (toward Fresno) is the historic Wawona Hotel.
Once in the valley you can park your car and get to most locations by the free shuttle buses, and there are many short hiking trails well worth exploring. For inspiration and information, be sure to visit the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village, at the eastern end of the valley.
Winter is my favorite time to visit Yosemite, on the chance of finding snow. Highway 120 goes over high enough elevations that snow is possible. If you plan that route, bring chains or a 4-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle unless you can wait out the occasional road closure awaiting snowplows. Highway 140 is at a lower elevation and snow will be very rare. Roads to the high country will be closed in winter, with Tioga Pass Road sometimes not opening until into July. The valley floor, at 4,000 feet on the west end and 5,000 feet on the east end, is below the elevation for most snowfall except for a few very cold storms a year.
Luck or careful weather watching will be necessary to find snow, but the valley is glorious when it happens. Due to the marginal elevation it will be wet snow, known to skiers as Sierra cement. Photographers love it as much as skiers hate it because it clings to the trees and rocks in popcorn globs, but it may melt quickly. Even if you don’t find snow, winter is California’s wet season and provides a good chance of finding the spectacular light of fog and low clouds. But heavy rain clouds can turn everything a disappointing gray. That’s the time to remember to increase your exposure as much as you can without blowing out highlights. And bring a rain cover for your camera and lens; snow can turn into rain quickly in the valley. Don’t neglect yourself, either. Gore-Tex skiwear and Neos overshoes comprise my standard winter outfit there. It was both wet and cold when I made these pictures.
Perhaps the most the iconic winter image is from Tunnel View, where Ansel Adams shot Clearing Winter Storm. The best light here is just before sunset. But on a cloudy day any time can be good; I made the picture below in mid-afternoon.
In spring the waterfalls in the valley will be running full from snowmelt. Dogwood is prevalent in the valley, often peaking in late April or early May, but its bloom can vary by a few weeks with the weather. A composition of a few blossoms can be just out of reach and a somewhat long lens (300-400mm full frame equivalent) is nice to have handy. The best dogwood is near the turnoff to Bridalveil Fall.
You will find Redbud in bloom along the Merced River (along Highway 140) in early April, and a few weeks later wildflowers such as California Poppies, Lupine, Mariposa Lily and Indian Paintbrush can be found there. As the weather warms in late March, and until it cools in November, rattlesnakes can be found in the Sierra foothills so watch where you step.
Summer will find crowds at their peak but allows access to the high country. On the south side of the valley you won’t want to miss sunset at Glacier Point, with its iconic view of Half Dome at sunset, and Sentinel Dome, where the sad remains of a much-photographed Jeffrey Pine can be found. It died in a drought in 1979 and was subsequently vandalized.
Autumn comes first to the high country and a little later it yields beautiful color in the valley floor as several varieties of trees turn yellow, orange and red. October is usually the peak time. One thing I like about autumn is that the waterfalls are running low, due to the lack of rain in the summer in California. I much prefer the delicate patterns I find then to the firehose flows of spring. Flows will also be low in winter when the precipitation is mostly snow. Normally I like to shoot moving water at low shutter speeds but this is a case where I prefer a high speed to catch the lacelike textures. Water flow in autumn and winter will also be at its lowest on the Merced River, enabling more reflection shots.
The iconic locations
I’ll leave the description of the many iconic locations to the guidebooks, but I should mention a lesser-known view of Half Dome from almost the same angle as Tunnel View, on Big Oak Flat Road. Going out of the park there will be two short tunnels then shortly after a longer one there is a small pullout on the left. From here Half Dome is more prominent relative to El Capitan, and closer to it. This is a good sunset shot.
When the waterfalls are running enough to make mist at the base you can find rainbows. The sun will need to be directly behind you for this to happen. For Yosemite Falls (shown on the right below) that means shortly after sunrise, from the bridge just below the falls. At Bridalveil Fall you will find a rainbow in late afternoon. And for Vernal Fall (shown on the left below), the sun should be in the right position near mid-afternoon. The rainbow’s apparent position will vary as both you and the sun move, so experiment with your position. When you see a rainbow, reach for your polarizer; you can make the colors much more dramatic.
The night sky
The clean air at Yosemite’s relatively high elevation can make for some good night photography. From the valley, the rising moon will need to clear the high terrain to the east and won’t appear until an hour or more after official moonrise. From the high country you will have a flatter horizon. If you want to shoot a moonrise with some light on the foreground landscape, you will need to do so one to three days before the full moon.
With a full moon you can get a moonbow at the base of Yosemite Falls. Your eye won’t see color but your camera will! Plan on a somewhat long exposure. You can also shoot a long exposure of the Upper Fall from Cook’s Meadow and get stars or star trails. There will be some light pollution from nearby buildings and cars, but it’s worth trying.
On a full moon night I shot this image of the falls with a two-minute exposure, ISO 800, f/4.5. You can’t see the stars well in this small image but they are clearly visible in a larger image. It was well after dark and the sky was pitch black to the eye but the camera captures lovely blues long after dark. Then it began to get foggy so I turned around and shot the moon through a tree. Pointing toward Half Dome from the meadow you can shoot star trails, or better yet from Sentinel Dome or Glacier Point.
And a full or crescent moon rising over Half Dome makes a wonderful shot. The best angles are from the higher elevations at Tunnel View or the pullout on Big Oak Flat Road mentioned above. But calculating the right night for the right angle is critical as the moon rises at different azimuths on the horizon on different nights. Software such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris makes planning these shots accurate and simple and it will run on a smart phone for last-minute tweaking in the field.
The spectacular granite walls of Yosemite offer some of the most sought-after climbs in the world. The climbers will look like ants from most viewpoints but if you have a long lens you might get some shots.
Birds, snakes and bears—oh my!
There are bears in both the valley and the high country park and they are used to people, and therefore more dangerous than wild bears. There are very strict rules about what you can leave in your car and what you must put in bear-proof lockers. Bears know what a grocery bag is, and even if it contains dirty laundry they will open your car like someone used a can opener and check it out. And they will eat anything. I was hiking in the high country a few years ago and came across a bear pie that contained large pieces of a paper bag, plastic wrap and a candy bar wrapper. It had eaten somebody’s bag lunch, whole.
On a more photogenic note, in addition to birds and squirrels you can find relatively tame deer and the occasional coyote, especially in winter when food supplies are scarce. Never feed a wild animal or approach it too closely. Pictures aren’t worth endangering wildlife, and if you get caught, either by the animal or by a ranger, you will pay for it.
Beyond the park
The Mariposa Grove south of the valley on Highway 41 and the Merced and Tuolumne Groves to the northwest on Crane Flat Road are nature’s cathedrals, with spectacular primordial giant Sequoias. Eastbound on Tioga Pass Road you will find major photographic attractions at Tuolumne Meadows, Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake. If you continue on east you will intersect Highway 395 with Mono Lake just ahead. There is a great view of it from the upper parking lot at the service station and restaurant on your right just before 395.
The best photography is from the South Tufa area, before sunrise. It is a bit of a hike from the parking area, maybe half a mile, but it is on a good and gently sloping trail. It can be very cold there before dawn, even in summer. The small town of Lee Vining to the north has several motels and restaurants, and the beautifully preserved ghost town of Bodie is an hour or so north. Going south on 395 leads to the wonderland of the Eastern Sierra and finally to Death Valley.
Most shots I have made in and around Yosemite are with “normal” focal lengths, most often using my Canon 24-70 f/2.8 and sometimes the 70-200 f/2.8. Occasionally something longer is good to isolate details, and a macro lens will always find use. With the exception of star trails at night, I have found less opportunity in Yosemite Valley for wide-angle shots, although with my full-frame Canons, 24mm is 24mm. The more open vistas of the high country will be more conductive to wide-angle compositions.
Fill flash is a useful outdoor accessory for intimate landscapes, especially in full sun. From April to November there is usually no rain in California and clouds, with their accompanying soft light, can be scarce. Late summer and early fall can bring some occasional thunderstorm activity in the mountains, though.
A tripod is a must for me. I use it routinely to allow low ISOs, and especially to capture night shots and HDR exposures in harsh light.
If you are not shooting RAW, I highly recommend looking into it. The flexibility to modify harsh light to bring out tonal detail in highlights and shadows is something I would never give up.
There is a wealth of information on Yosemite and environs online. For detailed information on where (and when) to be for the iconic photographs, “The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite” by Michael Fry is a wonderful guidebook, as is “Photo Secrets of Yosemite” by Andrew Hudson. Robert Hitchman’s Photograph America newsletter #023 is also very good. An $8 payment online lets you download it as soon as the payment is processed.
If you belong to AAA, the CSAA “Yosemite and Central Sierra Map and Guide” is an excellent map, and they will have a tour book for the area listing many accommodations.