First Snow in Yosemite Part 2 – The Sunrise Chase

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Picking up where we left off in the first part of “First Snow in Yosemite,” we were set-up just off the edge of the road in Yosemite National Park shooting over the Merced River and Cathedral Rocks when the clouds began to clear. Bill and I quickly headed back to Tunnel View for what was probably like our 10th stop there in the course of the last 12 hours. This time, there were hordes of other photographers set-up there.

Tunnel View is probably one of the best views in America, and it’s deserving of all the photographers it attracts. However, this is always a little deflating for me. I am fairly confident in my abilities, but it always seems like there are plenty of pro photographers there with nicer toys and more experience. Plus, it requires minimal effort to get to the shot, and is fairly straightforward in terms of what you can do creatively. You just roll up in a car, get out, choose whatever focal length you want to use, and shoot. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I think don’t like the idea of having shots of more or less the same scene in the same weather that are similar to 20 other photographers. I feel much more comfortable when not as many people are around, and I can run around and grab a creative angle on the fly.

I didn’t have to worry about that this particular morning, because the clearing that we had witnessed lower in the valley was still a blanket of rolling mist from Tunnel View. I set-up and started shooting anyway, hoping to catch some interesting shots if I could time the rolling clouds just right. It turned out that cloud cover was only getting thicker, and only my early shots were remotely interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite nail the manual focus on those in the dark.

I think there was a point when we both realized things were only going to get worse at Tunnel View, and both decided we should bail. The other photographers there probably thought we were crazy, as this was just before sunrise and there was still the chance that there would be a stunning sunrise with broken clouds of the clearing storm. That was seeming increasing improbable, and I’m not a methodical, “take all day to get the shot” type guy. I’d rather run around chasing the light while trying to capture as much as possible, even if ultimately, I end up chasing my tail. I can’t speak for him, but I think Bill is the same way.

The next stop was Cathedral Beach, where we hoped to find Three Brothers with a stunning reflection, but after a few minutes there we decided there was still too much cloud-cover and opted to move on, just as one of the other photographers we left behind at Tunnel View, who also bailed, was showing up. As we were leaving another spot right before sunrise, she too probably thought we were mad.

We continued around the loop, noticing the clouds had a nice, foreboding look against some of the trees in the valley. We got out and started shooting again, and then began noticing further breaks in the clouds. We again decided to race back up to Tunnel View to see the current status.

It was one of those serendipitous moments when we arrived, as we rolled up basically as the best light was beginning to kiss the face of El Capitan, Half Dome, and the snow covered trees along the mountain. With a thin layer of clouds still low in the valley but the rest of the sky a clear, crisp blue, I don’t think it was the shot many photographers were after that morning, but it was an undeniably gorgeous scene. This was like shooting fish in a barrel, although I’m admittedly having trouble editing the photos from this scene as the color/light balance differs at different depths of the frame.

This was another circumstance where we could have stayed to watch the light change and potentially improve as more of it appeared on the face of El Cap, giving it some greater depth, but this was a quantity over quality game, and we wanted to go for other scenes. We again packed it up after about 5-10 minutes of shooting, racing off for another stop at Cathedral Beach.

This time, the scene of Three Brothers and El Capitan from the Beach was stunning: eerily foreboding (excuse my poor vocabulary, but those are the words that almost immediately come to mind when I see a landscape with some mist in it), with clarity higher up as the sun cut through to the mountains.

I’ll share some of the photos from Cathedral Beach, Swinging Bridge, and other stops we made along the way in later posts. For now, I just want to share a bit of the story, trip report style, with a few photos that I’ve had a chance to edit, while the experience is fresh in my mind.

The great thing about a place with dramatic changes in elevation and lots of mountains is that the sunrise for one point might be far later than it is for another nearby point. Well, technically I don’t think that’s the case, and the meteorology enthusiasts out there might be shaking their heads at my explanation, but technically, the sun isn’t rising at all since we orbit it, so whatever…

In any case, after a couple more stops, we headed to one of my favorite places in Yosemite National Park that is basically behind a parking lot in Yosemite Village. I don’t know the exact name of this beach, but it’s a great view and when we arrived, one lone photographer was there waiting for the sunrise.

This was another case of serendipity, as the sun peaked up over the trees about 30 seconds after we arrived. Or maybe we had made so many sacrifices to the “Photography Gods” over the course of the previous day that they were finally going to let everything go our way. Because really, at this point, we basically couldn’t turn around without stumbling into a beautiful scene.

Of the many beautiful scenes that morning, this was my favorite. I love the distinct look of Half Dome, and there was a serene feeling on that beach with only a couple other photographers as the light changed, and the mist kept rolling across Half Dome as the sun lit up different parts of the water. I’m sure the lone photographer who was there when we arrived was cursing his luck that we stumbled upon his quiet spot, and probably wondering what we were doing as we danced around him firing off dozens of shots, foolishly leaning over the water, and setting our camera gear in random spots on the snow.

The photo above ended up being my favorite of the short trip. I know there’s a lot going on with the huge sunburst (maybe a bit too much with it reflected in the water), but I love it. I love the fans of the sunburst, the slight flare, the light hitting the snow on the log, and the mist on the water on the right side of the frame.

It was really an amazing scene and like so many amazing scenes in the National Parks, photos can’t do it justice, but this is about as close as I can do to capturing the essence of the experience in a single frame. While I love photography, an even greater passion for me is having great experiences (this is pointing out the obvious…is there really anyone out there who has a passion for having crappy experiences?) and photography is just a means for me of capturing those fleeting moments to help better preserve, share, and remember them. The great experience on that beach made the less-than-stellar experience of spending 15 or so hours in the car before and after it (no offense to the company) more than worthwhile.

There really was no topping that for me, but on the way out we decided to stop at Valley View (my “white whale” of photographs is at this spot and I’m still hoping to capture it in the coming months) to take it in for a moment. Despite the thick mist, I took a few shots here that, at the time, I assumed would be throw-aways. Once again, I got lucky, as I think the mist plus the sun give this photo a natural soft glow, and almost an ethereal (another of my limited vocabulary’s overused words) scene.

Before any of you think that we are pretty smart for doing a couple of laps around the photographers camped out at Tunnel View, I assure you that we are not. Well, at least I am not. It certainly panned out favorably in this case, but we just as easily could have been pounding the dashboard of the car, finding ourselves in the middle of nowhere as the sky lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors and a magical dragon appeared and breathed a rainbow into the scene as leprechauns danced atop clouds on the other side for 5 seconds. That would have really stunk for us.

I think the thrill of the chase and the sense of accomplishment in that chase is a huge part of the fun, but I know I’ll be pretty peeved the first time those mythical creatures appear in a beautiful landscape, while I’m chasing my tail the wrong way because I wasn’t patient-enough to wait for them.

Just my little disclaimer in case you miss your own mythical-creature-rainbow-landscape shot and think about blaming me. I accept no liability!

For this visit to Yosemite, I carried my a Nikon D750Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRNikon 28-300mm VR Lens plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine. I would not have carried all of this on a normal visit to Yosemite, but hiking wasn’t on the agenda, so the car was the one carrying all of the gear, instead of me.

To get some more Yosemite National Park photo ideas, check out my Yosemite National Park photo gallery, which includes additional shots I have taken during my visits.

Your Thoughts…

What would you have done at Tunnel View…waited it out, or ran around chasing your tail? What do you think of these photos? Do you like the thrill of the chase, or waiting to capture that single, powerful moment? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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2 replies
  1. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    It was fun shooting with someone as like minded on that trip. At the tunnel, there was a 100% chance that you were going to get something amazing if you stayed put and waited for the fog to burn off. But I love the idea of going against the grain and still coming away with some amazing shots, which is what you did here. I do have to admit that the opposite could have happened as it was 15-30 minutes every time we drove around that loop and the skies could have parted and angels could have been singing back at the tunnel. But I definitely think we made the right choice in this instance. Love your shots and the write up. I hope mine come out this well!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Eh, I’d rather swing for the fences with the potential for either striking out or hitting a monster home run than being hit by a pitch and guaranteed first place. 😉

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