What do you get when you combine mile-high granite crags, 2,400-foot roaring waterfalls, exploding dogwood blossoms, and eight enthusiastic photographers? An awesome photography workshop in Yosemite Valley, that’s what. To tell you the truth, I was a little worried at first: the forecast called for bright and blue skies during the entire ‘shop. “What are we going to do with the workshop for three days in Yosemite with clear skies???” Jim and I asked each other. But with a little creativity, some good timing, and a little luck, our group managed to find amazing photos wherever we went.
We always start off our longer workshops with a meal, introductions, and expectations. We talked about how the last thing we want to hear as workshop instructors is “What’s the shot here?” and how our goal is to teach each photographer to transform his or her own vision into unique photos. Of course, “What’s the shot?” became the running joke of the workshop.
After our initial feed we decided to get a little crazy. We had clear skies, lots of spring runoff, and a full moon. And whenever you have that in Yosemite it means one thing: MOONBOWS!!! So with our Canyon Fish Baskets just beginning to digest in our stomachs, we all grabbed our photo gear and headed to a wet, wild, and woolly place: Lower Yosemite Falls. We arrived in dusky conditions with plenty of room to snag the primo photography spots. As it got darker more and more photographers and on-lookers showed up at the falls to try to catch a glimpse of the fabled lunar rainbow. The southeastern sky began to glow as the moon approached the valley rim. Slowly, slowly, the sky got brighter, and we could see moonlight creeping down the cliffs above the falls. Suddenly, the beautiful bright moon popped into view and the moonbow appeared! Although it appears as a faint silver glimmer to our eyes, a long exposure brings all the colors of the moonbow to life. I’d swear you could barely hear the roar of the falls over the sound of cameras clicking. But even though the lower falls area was fairly crowded, because of our early arrival our group had some great spots for the show and I saw some amazing moonbow images showing up on the backs of the group’s cameras.
Aside from the crowds, the downside to shooting the lunar rainbow at Lower Yosemite Falls is the spray. In the springtime it’s like mother nature has a fire hose pointed at you. So after awhile with our cameras, lens cloths, rainsleeves, and jackets dripping wet, we retired to Cook’s Meadow for a drier, more peaceful view of the falls. As the moon rose higher in the sky the moonbow sank lower and lower into the rocks and just as quickly as it had appeared the moonbow had gone. But for this workshop that was just the beginning; we still had 2.5 amazing days left to shoot!
Our timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks to the dry winter the dogwoods were blooming earlier than usual. Oddly, they were also blooming more extravagantly than usual. It seemed like everywhere you pointed a camera there were delicate white and yellow blossoms staring back at you. The trick was knowing when the best groups would be in the best light. We started the second day at Pohono Bridge where a series of dogwoods were in bloom directly over the Merced River. As the sun traversed the sky the dogwoods would alternately fall into light and shadow, giving us a never-ending play of light to work with.
Next we visited a bend in the Merced which gives captivating views of El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and Cathedral Rocks all from the same spot. It’s like an effortless smorgasbord of 360° beauty. The light was becoming “postcard” quality (which is my favorite new way to describe clear, blue skies) and our group was capturing some lovely shots of the panorama. They were also capturing some lovely naps in the dappled light amongst the trees on the riverbank. Tom even hustled back to the car to grab his waders and sploshed out into the river for some fantastic perspectives.
The weather was so incredibly pleasant at the river that we lounged a little longer than we originally intended and instead of driving back to our hotel for a break we visited Yosemite Village for lunch where we got gourmet hamwiches and jello all the way around. The afternoon saw mighty thunderheads building up above Yosemite Falls so we revisited the scene of our moonbow and captured the beautiful drama. At least half the group wanted to play with long exposures so we busted out 10-stop filters to turn the billowing clouds into whooshy streaks. At this point a padded divider from Steve’s bag got so excited that it too decided to whoosh, straight into the reflecting pond in the meadow. The wind caught it and we all cheered it on as it sailed through the miniature seas. But on Sea to Summit workshops we always practice leave no trace so I waded out and picked it up.
At this point the saddest part of the workshop occurred. Jeb, who was one of the first photographers to sign up for the workshop, had to leave due to some pressing work concerns back home. Jeb, we hardly knew ye! But it was great having you on the ‘shop for the brief time that we did, and hope to see you again soon. After this unfortunate goodbye the rest of us headed to a date with another of Yosemite’s grandiose icons: Half Dome. From a vantage point on Sentinel Bridge we had commanded views of this amazing piece of rock.
Soon enough the sun began to descend so the group moved to the granddaddy of all views: Tunnel View. This has got to be one of the most breathtaking vistas in all of the world and even though we didn’t have any dramatic light we still soaked in the grandeur and beauty of this amazing place.
Next morning brought us and shady light to the dramatic Cascade Creek on highway 120. There is so much water pouring down this chute that it boggles the mind, and our group wasted no time in cranking off some amazing waterfall shots. We also made sure everyone was taking enough iPhone shots in order to share with their friends on Facebook. :p
Morning often brings calm to Yosemite and we took advantage of that by going to Mirror Lake. This placid pool gives fantastic reflections of Half Dome and Mt. Watkins, making for great photography and equally great relaxing. It was clear our group was taking pleasure in both.
The afternoon brought us more clear light so we headed for the trees near Curry Village to shoot abstract and intimate forest scenes. There is something about those backlit fresh maple leaves that is just so magical. One of the hardest things about shooting in a forest is simplifying the scene so we spent time with everyone working on tight compositions, shallow DOF’s, and other ways to isolate our subjects. I also blinded myself staring into the sun while trying to demonstrate some neat backlit leaf shots. Good thing I wasn’t driving! Oh wait, I was…….
Evening came quickly yet again and we had two more stops to make. We hit up an awesome view of Bridalveil, where as an added bonus there was a dogwood in bloom over the river. Surprisingly, instead of focusing on the gargantuan waterfall just across from us, most of our group trained their long lenses on this lone dogwood. I think that tree was feeling like the prom queen that afternoon! Then it was time to move on. This time our sunset spot was a little-visited pullout on highway 120 that gives marvelous views of the Merced River leading up to Bridalveil Falls. Jim also forgot to drink anything all day so he quenched his thirst with a little spring runoff. That was the end of day 3, an amazing 14-hour shootathon that left us all a little tired, but extremely happy. But were we done? Heck no! We still had one more morning to go.
Which we started out in one of my favorite places in the Valley: El Capitan Meadow (though unfortunately Kee wasn’t feeling well and stayed behind at the hotel). Not only are there incredible views of El Cap and Cathedral Rocks from this meadow, but it’s a great breeding ground for mosquitoes, my favorite! Just kidding. The bugs were at a minimum and with the soft morning light, sweetly gurgling river, and arching trees, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more peaceful, pastoral scene during a workshop. Ahh, photography heaven.
From there it was a quick jaunt to secretive Wildcat Falls. Yet again we had a constant play of light and shadow on the falls and the group shot and shot and shot and shot. I think some of them still might be there shooting. But we had to end at some point so after a few more megapixels were recorded we officially called it a workshop and said goodbye to our fantastic group. (Of course, that wasn’t really the end of it. Later that afternoon I ran into Joyce, Tom, and Steve in the Mariposa Grove and after sunset I got back to my car only to find it vandalized with the words “What’s the Shot?” Hooligans!!!! *Shakes fist*)
This workshop was an absolute hoot, and certainly one of my favorites to date. From Jim and myself, our sincere thanks to Jeb, Lori, Gwynne, Tom, Steve, Nirav, Joyce, and Kee. What an awesome group!
You can see some more photos from this wonderful workshop down below, or you can check out dates for next year’s ‘shop on our Yosemite Photography Workshop page.