Book review: ‘Ansel Adams in Yosemite Valley: Celebrating the Park at 150’

From age 14, photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams (1902–1984) visited Yosemite Valley annually.

Adams once said: “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”

Market Snapshot: Ansel Adams

Landscape photographer and environmental activist Ansel Adams’s lucid black and white photographs of the American wilderness helped establish photography as a legitimate art form. A half-century later, there is still an unimpeachable interest in his work at virtually any price point.

“Ansel’s work seems to be sort of a ‘gold standard’ in the photography market,” the artist’s grandson Matthew Adams, president of the Ansel Adams Gallery, told artnet via email. “His work has appreciated, and does fluctuate with the market in general, but doesn’t see the extreme highs and lows that we sometimes see with other photographers’ work.”

Ansel Adams Vintage Photographs

Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake

Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake. A vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1923, Print date – 1927

“Vintage” is a term in photography that has both a very specific meaning, and unfortunately a slightly ambiguous definition when putting it into practice.  A “vintage” print is a print that is made around the time the negative was made, which is pretty clear. The question becomes, if a negative was made in 1927, would you still consider a print to be made in 1929 a “vintage” print? What about 1930? 1932? If you say one year date, why that year and not the next, or the previous? Why does it matter? With Ansel’s work, not only is the basic question confounding, but Ansel himself was notorious for not remembering the dates of negatives, and generally didn’t date the print until the late 1970s. As always, there are nuances.

Roaring River Falls , King’s River Canyon. A vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1925, Print date – 1927

Ansel’s first foray into fine art photography, the Parmelian Print portfolio, was made in 1927 and included images from as early as 1921 (Grove of Tamarack Pines [sic]) and 1923 (Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake). These would be considered “vintage” by most collectors and critics, but is it representative of the term? The negative of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, was made in 1927; would a print made in 1932 still be considered “vintage”? For these early images, Ansel made a transition to smooth gelatin silver photographic paper around 1931-32, which to us is the cutoff material for considering early negatives as “vintage”. It isn’t scientific, but we think reasonable given how information on those prints is either very definitive (1927 Parmelian Print portfolio, 1930 Sierra Club Outing) or not at all (Monolith on parchment paper, no letterpress title). After 1930, things get a lot trickier. Photographs printed in the 1930s tend to be dated more often based on the mount board material and the label or stamp on the reverse. With these, if the negative date is 1935 or later, and the mount reflects a 30s era, it is safe to assume it can be designated “vintage”. With negatives dated between 1930 and 1935, fiber based silver gelatin prints on the 1930s mount boards, there is less certainty. Early for sure, but it brings us back to the question of how close to the negative date qualifies as “vintage”.

Icicles, Ahwahnee Hotel a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1935, Print date – late 1930s

The late 30s and 40s were a very productive period for Ansel: Clearing Winter Storm (1938); Moonrise, Hernandez (1941); and the Manzanar “Born Free and Equal” project (1944) among others. Ansel was very engaged in big projects during the 1940s, the Mural Project before America entered the war, the Manzanar Project in 1943-4, helping to found the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, teaching in Yosemite, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and two Guggenheim Fellowships at the end of the decade. Prints from this period are rare, and hard to identify with absolute certainty. In the absence of purchase documentation, we have to go by labels for date periods; the best research on this matter is by Haas & Senf, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Juniper, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930.

While Ansel was still quite active after 1950, he did not go into the field nearly as much as he had previously, and there are simply fewer photographs made later, and thus fewer potential “vintage” prints. The well-known images from late in Ansel’s career, Aspens, Northern New Mexico and Moon and Half Dome have a few image idiosyncrasies that help identify the prints as vintage. Without those factors, we have to rely more on the mount boards and stamps to estimate the print dates. With no industry standard, we say a “vintage” photograph is within approximately five years of the negative. So why does it matter? In general, “the market” places a higher value on vintage photographs. There are fewer in number, due to both less demand at that time and the mishaps of the years.

At Timberline, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930s

Collectors and art historians believe that vintage prints are more true to the original visualization, perhaps “more” original? Ansel personally didn’t buy into the argument that earlier was better, he thought that as he got to know a negative, he could get more out of it. In some cases, the tones are more appealing for a particular image, either from the original paper or the patina of age. As in all cases, each collector needs to reflect on his or her preferences, and make individual relative value judgments.

Bishop Pass, the Inconsolable Range, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930.

New Release – Monolith, the Face of Half Dome as a Modern Replica

Monolith-Face-of-Half-Dome-596x800Just released as a Modern Replica in Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Yosemite Grant. Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927 by Ansel Adams


About Monolith, the Face of Half Dome (from Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs)

At the age of 14, Adams first recorded the Yosemite monolith known as Half Dome, with his Kodak Box Brownie. Eleven years later he made this image with a view camera and a glass plate negative.

On an April morning in 1927, Adams undertook a difficult four-thousand-foot climb through heavy snow to the granite outcropping known as the Diving Board, where he set up his 6 1/2 x 8 1/2-inch view camera, inserted a glass plate, and waited for the light to fall directly on the sheer granite cliff. He made one exposure with a yellow filter. Then it occurred to him that if he used a dark red filter, both sky and cliff would register darker in the finished print than in the actual scene. He changed to the red filter, with this dramatic result. He described this episode as his first “visualization” — his attempt to express the emotional and aesthetic feelings he felt at the time he made the photograph. Adams considered it a seminal moment in his development as a photographer.

A Yosemite Year – A Photographer’s Almanac April 2014 (Continued)

A Quiet Day in The Mariposa Grove by Mike Reeves
Mike Reeves, Staff Photographer

For April’s post I wanted to show an image I took under what could be called making the best of a bad situation. In April 2012 I had been enjoying lunch along the river when I unfortunately cracked a tooth on what I was eating. Yosemite has a great dentist but he was out of town. I called around and the only place I could find to take me was in Oakhurst, nearly an hour and a half away. After getting down there and having my tooth looked at, I found myself with just a couple of hours until not only the sun went down, but also a couple hours until the Novocain would wear off as well.

A Quiet Day in The Mariposa Grove by Mike Reeves – All Rights Reserved

Whenever I am in the area, I like to stop by the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The area had seen some rain in the preceding days, and although the trails were muddy, the trees soaked up the rain and were quite colorful. The area near The Bachelor and The Three Graces was particularly interesting to me as the forest seemed to glow as the sun went down. The entire area was overcast, but light was bouncing around in the sky which illuminated the scene. I used a polarizer to eliminate the sheen of the bark, and carefully checked my composition to create a pleasing scene.

The image is simple but has many elements of contrast that I like. Normally in photography we refer to contrast as the difference between light and dark, but in this sense we can take the elements of the image one step further. A sense of tall and short is seen, with a small tree being dwarfed by the many giants around it. This also leads to a feeling of old and young which in this case is nearly 2,500 years. I like to show this image on many of my walks and classes to help participants go a little deeper into not only what the photograph, but why they photograph.

A Yosemite Year – A Photographer’s Almanac April 2014 (Continued)

 Misty Sunrise from Tunnel View by Kirk Keeler

Kirk Keeler, Staff Photographer

From time to time, I will do some pre-planning to be in the right place at the right time to capture a natural phenomenon, such as a full moon rising behind a certain peak like Half Dome or Cathedral Peak.  Using software, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or Apps like Michael Frye’s Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, help me make educated decisions about what time to be in a location and where I should be standing in order to have that sun or moon in near perfect positioning with the Yosemite icon of my choice.  Sometimes, I’ll even double check my positioning with an old-school 7.5 minute topo map.  It’s all part of the joy of trying to make real what I see in my mind as a nice composition.

Other times – Let’s say more times than most – a composition presents itself in the moment.  Ansel used to say, “Luck favors the prepared mind”, meaning that all the day-to-day practice behind the camera, getting quicker and quicker at maneuvering the dials, buttons and focus, will pay off when a glorious moment presents itself.  One of those moments came for me on April 8th, 2013, on my way to work early in the morning.

Misty Sunrise from Tunnel View by Kirk Keeler – All Rights Reserved

I was driving into Yosemite Valley via the southern entrance, Hwy. 41.  I began my drive just as the eastern horizon was lighting up – a little before 6:30am.  About an hour later I got to the long tunnel, a long gauntlet for many a visitor, which is rewarded on the other side with one of the world’s most wondrous views – Yosemite Valley unfolds instantly before the eyes!  It had snowed the night before and the storm and its clouds were lifting.

I instantly made the left turn into the Tunnel View parking lot, seeing that the conditions were exciting for photography.  I quickly got out of my car with my gear and ran over to the lookout, setting up the tripod in my favorite spot.  After about ten minutes of picture taking, I noticed that an area above Bridalveil Fall was getting very bright – a signal to me that the sun would be rising there any second.  I quickly repositioned the camera and almost instantly the sun began to rise.  I visualized having a sunburst effect emanating from the sun, requiring the aperture to be set at its biggest number, which for my lens was f22.  I bracketed my exposures, in the event that I would need to use HDR to improve the detail in post processing the final photograph.  The hardest part was constantly adjusting my shutter speed as the sun rose to maintain the correct exposure. It happened very vast and within a few minutes, the sun had fully risen and the clouds had dramatically changed, completely altering the feel of the scene.

April can be a very diverse month, weather-wise, in Yosemite Valley.  Within one week, the Valley can experience a snow storm, then 75 degree temperatures within days.  Visitation is just starting to ramp up, depending on when spring breaks and Easter happen.  If you want the chance of a snowstorm like I have photographed, perhaps plan your visit for early April.  If you do, show up to Tunnel View on April 8th and the sun should rise right where I photographed it.  Make sure you have your tripod just to the right of the NPS interpretive sign.  If you’re a few days late – no problem!  Just move more to the right and you should line up just as I have.  Pay attention to the tall, flat-topped tree on the right edge of my photo.  Moving too far to the right might put it directly in front of Bridalveil fall!  If you come around April 1st, try setting up to the left of the interpretive sign.  Above all, look for the bright glow in the neighborhood of the middle peak of the Three Graces and adjust your position the moment the sun rises.

Tunnel View is about a 15 – 20 minute drive from Yosemite Village.  Get onto Northside drive and follow the exit signs towards Hwy 41/Wawona/Glacier Point.  Tunnel View is about 2 miles from the entrance to Bridalveil Fall.  In early April, you most likely will have the view to yourself, plus a few staff photographers from The Ansel Adams Gallery!

A Yosemite Year – A Photographer’s Almanac April 2014

Michael Wise, Staff Photographer

I’ve heard some say this winter season has been a disappointment. Photography-wise. Where are the dramatic snowy valley scenes, the snow “cones” and frazil ice, the water in horsetail falls?

It may be a good thing that Yosemite still feels new to me even after three years. I still don’t know what to expect. The year I arrived the water levels were record high. The following two have been some of the driest. I have no idea of what to think of as ‘normal.’

It’s true that snowy vistas are awe inspiring and create a wonderful sense of purity and silence. An experience I will welcome again. But without the obvious targets, the more subtle subjects are revealed.

Reveal - Yosemite National Park

Reveal, Yosemite National Park, 2014 © by Michael Wise – All Rights Reserved


My image “Reveal – Yosemite National Park” documents one such surprise. It shows Vernal Falls at low flow. I was intrigued by the interaction of the water and the eerie rock formations behind. The powerful roar of water and the heavy mist on my face were not present. Instead, these other fundamental elements were.

A Yosemite Year – A Photographer’s Almanac March 2014 (Continued)

Trees in Snowstorm, Cooks Meadow
by Kirk Keeler

Kirk Keeler, Staff Photographer

Snow in Yosemite Valley has been infrequent the last two winters.  I moved to Yosemite in March of 2010, during a snowstorm.  The following March (2011), the inhabitants of the park experienced what has affectionately become known as ‘Snowmageddon’; a series of snowstorms that dropped several feet onto the valley floor and well over ten feet in the higher elevations.  The park had to close for a few days while crews cleared roads and restored power.

If you happen to be here during a significant snowfall, you can experience quite a transformation!  Trees that were snow-free and green when you arrived can alter to white snow-sculptures, many of their tops curling back toward the ground from the weight of snow.  Trails get erased from the landscape.  Meadows become vast open spaces, devoid of most things that signal signs of life.  Perhaps this is why snow is so often referred to as a blanket, as it is the insulator between the air and fertile ground.


Trees in Snowstorm, Cooks Meadow © by Kirk Keeler –  All rights reserved

In March 2012, after a fairly dry January and February, March signaled a shift in precipitation, bringing with it several beautiful winter storms to Yosemite.  It was during one of these storms that I had a digital camera class scheduled.  When the students arrived to the gallery, the storm hadn’t really began yet, so I told them we could begin outside and if conditions got too snowy, cold, or otherwise miserable, we could spend the remaining class time in the warm workshop room.  They were game!

I brought them out to the edge of Cooks Meadow to begin the class, which was about the same time a few flakes began to drop.  After an introduction to histograms and exposure underneath the shelter of the Black Oaks, I brought them out to the middle of the meadow to experience a different perspective and present new compositions.  This was the same moment that the storm really kicked into gear.  Large flakes began to fall and storm clouds crept their way down to the valley floor, erasing any evidence that 3000’ cliffs ever existed in Yosemite Valley.  As I turned back to look where our first stop was, this scene stared right back at me!

Many times, I teach about simplifying compositions by picking out certain aspects of the larger scene.  In this scene, the weather did that for me by eliminating everything except the trees and the snowflakes falling.  My students and I worked several compositions from this spot and this one felt the strongest.  I chose a shutter speed of 1/180 to suggest some movement, yet still give an impression to the size of the flakes.  There is a feeling of perspective – as one looks at a city-scape where the tallest building is located near center while the buildings retreat behind it, getting smaller toward the edges of the scene.  Only…these ‘buildings’ are trees in nature.  The feeling of perspective is heightened by the closest trees being sharp, while the trees behind them have a mistiness to them; an effect painters have used for many centuries to induce the effect of distance.      After spending some time here, the students and myself began to get cold and our equipment was getting wet.  We retreated back to the gallery and to the warm refuge of the workshop room, where I finished teaching the remaining Digital Camera class.  Despite the cold, the students enjoyed the adventure of capturing images during the snowstorm.

If photographing snowstorms sounds exciting, then March is a wonderful time to visit Yosemite Valley.  Crowds are still non-existent and snowstorms like the one I captured can happen regularly.  If you’d like to photograph a snowstorm in Cooks Meadow, I suggest parking on Northside Drive near the Yosemite Falls loop trail; stop 6 on the free shuttle.  The meadow is opposite the shuttle stop.  A paved path circumnavigates the majority of the meadow.  In addition to the oaks and cedar in my photo, a beautiful elm tree stands alone near the northern edge of the meadow and makes a great subject to photograph during a snowstorm.  If the shroud of clouds retreats, views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome can be experienced from many spots around the meadow.  While the path can be hard to locate with snow on it, please do your best to stay on it.  Even when dormant, disruption of soil from footsteps can disrupt the growth of native grasses and wildflowers.

A Yosemite Year – A Photographer’s Almanac March 2014

I love to hear Yosemite Valley sing.  It can be a subtle aria – a muffled wind through the trees, a cascade chortling down the cliffs or the background thrum of rain as it harmonically raps on the surface of the Merced River.  But March usually introduces a crescendo.  As spring unfolds, the falls begin to boom.  Rivers begin to roar.  The rain becomes thunderous.  And the rivers heave in sync with the cycles of the day.  As a witness, these manifestations of seasonal Energy can compose your experience of the park.  As a photographer, the self imposed task of articulating this power artistically can often times leave one feeling powerless and discomposed, with visually rhetorical and empty results.  And then it dawns on you: perhaps is not so much about the magnitude of the place, but the sense of place.

John Szarkowski qualified the profundity of Ansel Adams’ imagery by branding each composition as a myriad of sensory encounters, and not just one simple visual episode.. In front Ansel’s photographs, it is possible to feel the temperature of the scene; whether it’s the biting cold on your nose in a snow covered meadow, or the last rays of the sun on your shoulders before it sets.  You can taste the viscous air and smell the pine in the wake of a Sierra storm.  And you can hear the peaceful hollowness of a distant gale and the resonating clap of a thunderstorm as they make their way across the high desert.  And all of it is an invitation to the viewers to step in and explore.  Which is undoubtedly our own hope as photographers when we share our creations, and a facet of Ansel’s work that made even the grandest of scenes more “sensible.”

When you come to Yosemite to photograph, look for the light, land and elements to emphasize the best sense of place – to communicate potential visual, aromatic, auditory, savory and tactile traits.  Some may be obvious and others devious, but all can compliment your work.  So as spring progresses and the crescendo builds, don’t be senseless and allow the power of the season overwhelm you and your photographs.

*Please be safe and cautious while hiking in Yosemite National Park.  Take plenty of water, food and appropriate gear, clothing and footwear for everyone in your party – especially with consideration to the duration of your hike.  Trails can be hazardous regardless of length or amount of elevation gain.  Stay away from cliff edges and rushing water.  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.  Never hike at night and/or in cold conditions without the proper gear.  Permits are required for any overnight stay.  Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.

Don’t Look Down
By Phillip Nicholas

Phillip Nicholas,
Staff Photographer

The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is one of my favorite hikes in the entire park. The hike is a worthy adversary – it gains 2,700 feet of elevation on steep switchbacks and winds up for 3.6 miles, topping out just to the left of Upper Falls. Although it can get flooded with people in the summer months, it offers an unmatched view that I never tire of. To make a photograph, all you need is a sliver of light in the right direction and, of course, a camera.


Don’t Look Down, Yosemite Fall 2014 © by Phillip Nicholas – all rights reserved

Once you reach the top of this challenging and beautiful trail, you can walk in any direction and find interesting subjects to photograph along the winding forest paths. Spring brings with it the tiny plant, Stone Crop, which can be found by the trained eye of the macro observer. The mosses on the trees retain some moisture from the winter months and hold an intrinsic green glow that contrasts nicely with the red bark on the high elevation conifers. And, the panorama of Yosemite Valley is quite eye-catching as well.

There are many interesting views of Yosemite Falls from the valley floor, but, when making this photograph, I wanted to get something different. I was searching for a new perspective of the awesome power of this natural wonder – I wanted to not only photograph it, but also to see the first droplets of water begin their harrowing descent into the world below. I ventured up to Yosemite Point and traced the cliff wall back down until I found a place where I could peer over the edge. When I looked over, I realized with a sudden shock that I was directly above the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Like a blast from an Internal Combustion Engine on a rocket ship heading to the moon, Yosemite Falls spews over the jagged granite edge, falling 2,425 feet to the valley floor below. In the peak season spring months, the waterfall can be both seen and heard from the farthest reaches of the valley. At the top, the water is so loud that the sounds of birds chirping and the rustling of wind through the trees is replaced by the sheer power of one of nature’s grandest displays.

The echoes of crashing water ring off of the cliff walls with a thunderous roar that seems to warn all to maintain a safe distance. Nature’s beauty is often seen from afar or with a proper zoom lens. When hiking this trail and other trails in the park, please be careful. Do not attempt to drink out of streams without filtering the water and be cautious where you step, as trails can be slippery.

A Yosemite Year – Photographer’s Almanac: February 2014

High up on the trail – above where the conifers start to cling to their purchase, and the cliffs begin to bend toward the sky – the low winter sun avoids any and all obstructions, a warming respite from the fervent chill lingering around Yosemite’s floor.   Down below, the recent flurries have colluded in the shadows to form a frozen tundra.  But up here, in council with the sun, the snow has already begun to melt – here yesterday, gone today – the promise of cascading ephemerals forming a garland of waterfalls around the valley rim.

Looking to the West from this vantage, the shoulder of El Capitan protrudes into view, and just off its lower eastern flank, the renowned ephemeral known as Horsetail Fall shows promise.  Beginning around Valentine’s Day, through President’s day and on into late February, this waterfall of contemporary legend begins its metamorphosis into “The Fire Fall.”  Between 5:00 PM and 5:45 PM (depending on the timing of your visit) the sun emblazons a narrow sliver of El Capitan with vibrant oranges, reds and pinks – the same sliver of cliff that Horsetail Fall happens to call home.  As a result, at sunset the waterfall (and only the waterfall) radiates the semblance of molten lava, as the neighboring granite walls withdraw into the dormant world of cool hued shadows.

However, for the waterfall to glow, conditions must be superb and not just “good.”  Typically, January and/or early February must be cold and wet (and if the current forecast plays out, and early February is indeed a wet one in Yosemite, circumstances may be ripe).  Added to this, during the window of time that the sun sets in the correct astronomical position, there must be clear skies in the far West over the Coastal Range of California (and not just clear skies over Yosemite).  Therefore, you cannot count on the event happening each and every day – if any day for that matter; an elusiveness that makes even those most veteran Yosemite photographer replete with anticipation.

This event has piqued the interest of many artists.  Photographers of record from Ansel Adams to (most famously) Galen Rowell, Keith S. Walklet and Michael Frye have made it a subject of their work – with arguably one of the most successful compositions being made in 1997 by Jeff Grandy.  Today, some come to photograph the fall, while others just come for the physical thrill of being a witness.  As time has progressed, it has even become a pilgrimage and social event where photographers congregate much earlier in the day to regale each other with stories of their travels and imagery, successes and failures, and future plans.  Then hopefully, at the end of the day, Horsetail Fall progresses through its motions, culminating in a flourish of colorful, liquid pageantry.  But if not, at least the now cold, soggy and perhaps nonplussed shutterbugs have experienced a veritable Photo-Con of Yosemite tradition; even eager and well-deserving of a warm meal back at The Mountain Room in Yosemite Lodge.

Now, back on the trail, today is wrapping up and the sun is commencing its final approach on the horizon.  It reclines on the back of The Cathedral Rocks, one last requiem for the day.  My camera made it out of the bag only a few times during the hike, recording very little of consequence.  But perhaps that is just as well, for February is here and the shutter will be frantic soon enough . . . and besides, all I can think about now are my fatigued legs and dinner at The Lodge.

*Please be safe and cautious while hiking in Yosemite National Park.  Take plenty of water, food and appropriate gear, clothing and footwear for everyone in your party – especially with consideration to the duration of your hike.  Trails can be hazardous regardless of length or amount of elevation gain.  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.  Never hike at night and/or in cold conditions without the proper gear.  Permits are required for any overnight stay.  Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.


Half Dome, Sunset Haze, Yosemite 2014
By Phillip Nicholas

Phillip Nicholas, Staff Photographer

The High Sierra Winter. These words evoke a feeling of deep contentment that resonates within my soul. I think about the bone-chilling nights that I have spent gazing out into the vast sky for a single glimpse of the crimson peaks as the sun sets on these magnificent monoliths. I think about the many nights I have spent huddled in my tent during a snowstorm waiting for the warm breathe of the early morning light. There is nothing in this universe that is quite like it – the peerless, white, snowcapped peaks extending as far as one can see, the wind-swept trees bending as if bowing to the greater power of the harsh winter, the gentle whispers of the chilling mountain air, and a silence that is both comforting and foreboding, a silence that beckons the artist.

Half Dome, Sunset Haze, Yosemite 2014 © by Phillip Nicholas – all rights reserved

During the winter months, the park goes mostly silent. The traffic dies down to a low rumble and faces become scarce in the expansive stretch of the valley. It is a wonderful time to be a photographer in Yosemite. The tripod holes of summer enthusiasts start to disappear and places that are as packed as any other summer beach become vacant. These are the times that I most enjoy photographing. Like my fellow artists, I also enjoy the views from Cook’s Meadow and Sentinel Bridge.  However, my favorite places are far away from any roads. As the weather gets colder and the park empties, I head out into the backcountry. It may take me a day or two to get to many of these spots, but I am rarely disappointed. I find that, the higher I go into the vastness of the Sierra, the more beautiful the light gets.

Recently, I stumbled across just such an example of beautiful light.  The accompanying photograph is taken from atop Mount Watkins during the first storm in February. Standing at 8,500 feet above sea level, the massive Mount Watkins offers outstanding views of Clouds’ Rest, the Clark Range, Half Dome, North Dome, Mount Starr King, and many more. As I stood on top of this enormous mountain, I watched the storm clouds build around me in every direction. I set up my tripod on the east side of the mountain to exemplify the sloping east face and add an interesting angle to the photograph. Just as the sun was setting, a few light and wispy clouds came into view and caught some of the vibrant orange light, creating a hazy effect. The hues changed from yellow to orange, and then from red to pink. I made this exposure just as the sun burst through a cloud system to the west, forming a hard line on the face of Half Dome and illuminating the sky a final time for the evening.

Getting to many of these locations requires a good sense of mountaineering and the ability to analyze a map. I would suggest packing a tent and camping at one of the designated use areas to spread the long hike out into a multi-day adventure. For a small fee, a backcountry permit can be acquired from the Visitor Center in Yosemite Valley.  The rangers will also be happy to provide some free maps and other useful tips. It is always a good idea to take an experienced guide with you if you are not familiar with the area, as the terrain can be extremely dangerous.


Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley
By Evan Russel


Evan Russel, Curator and Staff Photographer

I’m willing to admit it: I’m not much of a morning person. . . especially in winter.  As a photographer, this puts me in a bit of a quagmire.  And it makes any photographic success during the early parts of the day even more difficult to endorse.  This is due mostly to the fact that I know I should be out during those “artistic” hours, and that the light is magnanimous.  It is just that the outside, frozen world looks so uncompromising, and my heated Yosemite bungalow so cozy.

Last winter, the photographer in me woke up early one day, determined and well layered, to trace the banks of The Merced River.  A few weeks prior, I had been teaching a couple of eager visitors during one of The Ansel Adams Gallery’s guided photo sessions, and from our vantage point on the boardwalk, we noted the elegant light on the cottonwood trees right along the river’s edge.  We stayed and played a little while as the sun rose and shifted in the sky, but eventually had to leave in pursuit of a more comprehensive Yosemite experience.  Returning on my own time, and at a casual pace, I found several compositions worthy of consideration, compositions that compounded as the day progressed.

Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley © by Evan Russel – all rights reserved


About mid-way through my morning, while I stood on the north bank of the river near Swinging Bridge, I noticed “Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley.”  The sapling stood very resolute in the distance, backlit and regal on its plinth of brush.  Due to the distance between the subject and myself, a 300mm lens was required to crop accordingly.  Furthermore, this long focal length gave the added illusion of compressed space, exaggerated proportions and created a planar tapestry from the framework of cottonwood branches lingering in the shadows.  Symmetry was key to the organization of the space and to give weight to the main subject.  Therefore, much time was spent lining up the brush, young cottonwood and background branches to ensure a left/right balance without introducing extemporaneous pieces like a wayward foreground limb or a bright mottled sky behind the canopy.  Almost too much time in fact, as one minute after this exposure, light began to filter over the cliff and illuminate the entire scene, making the isolation of the young tree unfeasible.  Which just goes to show you, the early photographer gets the light – or perhaps, the right amount of light as the case may be.

Of all the exposures made that morning, “Young Cottonwood, Yosemite Valley” quickly became my favorite – although I have found myself in the darkroom revisiting other images made that day.  I find the bare trees, unable to hide their structural patterns behind a façade of leaves, full of photographic potential, and highly recommend their study for your next winter visit.

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014
By Michael Wise

Michael Wise, Staff Photographer

Recently, while guiding another photographer in Yosemite Valley, I was engaged in some interesting comments and conversation.

Chasing the winter light can be a fun adventure in Yosemite Valley. The sun is at a low access to the horizon and resides part of the day hidden behind the cliff walls. The south side of the valley remains in shade the majority of the day. And even though we have visions of being presented with amazing cloud formations and spiritual light beams, this surprisingly does not always occur, and brilliant blue skies prevail.

I accompanied an experienced photographer who traveled from his home in a warm temperate climate to Yosemite National Park. Unaccustomed to the snow, this gentleman anticipated the thrill of photographing landscapes in wintry conditions. Unfortunately, he was not afforded so much of the snowy scenery during his visit, as weather has been quite absent from the Sierra this year.  However, winter still presented its special charm.

Consequently, on this particular private photography guide, one involving relatively cloudless days, we found ourselves exploring the southern banks of the Merced River. Or, more appropriately stated, the thick ice leading into the water from the banks edge. We discovered many opportunities to photograph intimate landscapes: cracked ice patterns, water reflections, and frosted leaves for example.  And this is the setting that inspired some interesting thought.

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014

The Intimacy Of Changing Seasons, Yosemite National Park, 2014 © by Michael Wise – all rights reserved

Despite his participation and relative joy in this approach, my new friend stated that intimate landscape photography is somewhat “timid.”  Consider Ansel Adams, who encountered similar situations. Ansel writes about a time when he was photographing a very intimate subject and an honored friend questioned his purpose. This friend stated that the “abstract” landscape photograph had “no meaning,” and thus, no thrill of purpose.

I could elaborate, but perhaps that it best served in a future post. Instead, I will ask our readers for your thoughts concerning these statements and intimate landscapes. I wonder if there is “meaning” in the presented image.

Clearing Storm, Bridal Veil, Yosemite National Park
By Mike Reeves

Mike Reeves, Staff Photographer

It is said that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. In the case of photography, I would say that is usually the case during heavy storms here in Yosemite. A photographer can wait for hours for clouds to part or for the sun to come out.  But other times, as if on cue, you can simply pull up to a viewpoint and have the clouds magically part as soon as you arrive.

Clearing Storm, Bridal Veil, Yosemite National Park © by Mike Reeves – all rights reserved

This image was taken in February 2012 as several small storms made their way through the valley. A couple of days before, the mountains were free of snow but all of a sudden the forecasts changed and storm systems brought colder temperatures and snowy conditions. Because of Yosemite’s tall cliffs, we often see drastic change in temperatures during storms, which can quickly cause fog to linger. As I was waiting for the right moment at Tunnel View, El Capitan was relatively clear but Bridalveil Fall started to become enshrouded by a persistent cloudbank. Over about 2 hours, two storm cells passed through the area. After each, the view was completely clogged by a soupy fog. The few people that remained waiting at Tunnel View were determinedly pointing their cameras directly into what amounted to a white abyss!

Trying to be patient during a storm is often easier said than done. The snow is wet, the wind is cold, and hoping the storm clears can often be little more than a pipe dream. However, on this occasion, the clouds parted to reveal Bridalveil Fall highlighted within successive layers of clouds and mist, as The Three Graces loomed above, dusted with fresh snow. Most of the crowd had left, and those that had waited were rewarded with this classic scene revealing itself one more time.  So I encourage one and all to be resilient (shy of being foolish), as they hope for The shot.