Yosemite National Park is quite possibly the most beautiful location in all of California (or even the United States) with great options for photography ranging from unique mountains to rivers to waterfalls to even gorgeous lodging. It’s truly an oasis for landscape photographers, and it’s no surprise that it draws us in herds. If you’ve never been and are planning your first visit, just wait until your first morning shooting the sunrise or sunset at Tunnel View, and all of the tripods lined up there.
This article will list a handful of photography spots that I like in Yosemite National Park. In this post, I’ll focus on locations that are easily accessible from Yosemite Valley, which is where most people will spend their time if they have a day or two in Yosemite. In future posts, I’ll venture beyond the Valley (January 2017 Update: I now live in California and have made many, many return trips to Yosemite since first posting this.)
In no way should it be construed as a comprehensive list–you could spend a month in Yosemite and still not have such a list. Just one stop in your prep as you chart out the locations you want to photograph in Yosemite National Park. As for other resources, the Google Machine is always a good place to start (perhaps you know that, and it already led you here), but my favorite resources are Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park, and his blog on the same. He lives right outside the Park and is definitely the pre-eminent expert on it.
I also recommend drooling over my friend William McIntosh’s Yosemite National Park photos. Oh, and there’s also this Ansel Adams guy who I hear used to be popular in his day. Most of his stuff is obsolete now, but maybe we’ll have the technology to color it in for him someday. 😉 His Yosemite book is less a photographer’s guide and more something to look at if you want to humble yourself.
I can’t compete with the work of these brilliant photographers, but here are some of my photos from my favorite spots. I won’t describe how to get to these locations, as I’m terrible at navigating, and it’s pretty easy to figure out once you’re in Yosemite National Park and have a map in your hands. These are in no particular order.
Valley View/Gates of the Valley
This is arguably the second most popular photo spot in Yosemite National Park, after Tunnel View. You can’t capture quite as many “park icons” in the same photo here as you can at Tunnel View, but I prefer it to Tunnel View as I’m a sucker for reflections. Lots of options here, from sunrise to sunset to even regular daytime shots with a neutral density filter.
So this is a natural phenomenon (due to some sort of science involving the angle of the sun…and probably tectonic plates and sorcery) that only occurs for a couple weeks in February, meaning that if you’re not visiting then, this tip is useless to you. Given the influx of photographers for those two weeks, it seems like there’s about a 50% chance you’re visiting then, though. In past years, this was something photographers camped out for all day since parking was so limited, but Yosemite rangers finally realized that the Firefall had received so much press that they need to close a lane of traffic and convert that into parking. It’s now much easier to grab a parking spot for this, but still expect to be packed in with a hundred or so of your closest friends when photographing the Horsetail Falls Firefall.
Half Dome is probably the most famous granite dome that has been halved in all of Yosemite National Park! So famous, in fact, that it has been immortalized in the logo of The North Face. (Mountains aren’t really ‘mortal’ in the first place, so I guess it has been used, not immortalized.) There are several spots from which to photograph Half Dome, but the easiest to access is probably the Sentinel Bridge, where it’s reflected in the Merced River. Here the full moon is illuminating Half Dome while a wide open aperture shows frozen stars in the bright night-time sky. Also a popular spot for sunrise and sunset, depending upon the time of year.
Yosemite Falls is one big waterfall. Seriously, it’s 2,425′. Standing there, watching the water cascade down…it felt larger than life and unreal at the same time. Perhaps because I’m so used to the Disney theme parks where art and design emulate nature, but in this case it almost felt like nature emulating art. It’s difficult to articulate, but it somehow just didn’t feel real. Stepping outside of our room at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (which, for what it’s worth, is really dated but well worth the exorbitant prices for that insanely beautiful view and location) and seeing that waterfall right behind us. There are many different spots to photograph Yosemite Falls, none of which really do justice to its scope and scale.
Tunnel View is, far and away, the most popular photography location in all of Yosemite National Park. It’s so popular because you can see El Capitan, on the left, Bridalveil Fall, on the right, and Half Dome, in the distance…and all in the same frame. If you visit during a popular season, expect to get the viewing area for sunrise or sunset early, as it actually FILLS UP during peak seasons. Personally, I find this a little off-putting. Nothing like grabbing exactly the same photos at the exact same time as about 20 or so other people! I know, I know, “we each put our unique fingerprint on our photos,” and luckily most photographers are so fearful of IP theft that they never share their work (otherwise there’d be about 345 million Tunnel View photos on Flickr), but I still don’t like capturing the exact same scene as so many other photogs, which is why I recommend…
Artist Point offers a very similar vantage to Tunnel View, except with substantially more elevation and substantially less crowds. When I arrived for my first sunrise at Tunnel View about an hour and a half before sunrise and there were already 20+ photographers, I decided to call an audible and hike up to Artist Point. A hiking guide I found online suggested it was about a 10 minute hike, so I figured it would be worth checking out. Nearly 40 minutes later I arrived at Artist Point to find a view that, I think, is superior to Tunnel View…with exactly 0 other people up there! Well worth the hike in the dark, just make sure you take a head lamp. Here’s a hiking guide to Artist Point that’s actually good (and accurate). If you thought Artist Point was a location in another National Park, not Yosemite, that’s probably because the National Park Service Naming Subcommittee has issued a mandate that every National Park have a location called Artist Point. It’s actually a bit humorous to see paintings from some of the many Artist Points at Artist Point restaurant in Walt Disney World.
The Ahwahnee Hotel
The Ahwahnee is a National Historic Landmark and one of the famed National Park Lodges. I recommend grabbing some photos of it inside and out, as these will provide a nice change of pace in your portfolio of Yosemite shots. The hotel can be bustling until the wee hours of the night, but it’s open 24 hours. If you’re photographing the Milky Way or star trails, stopping into Ahwahnee Hotel around 3 am might provide a literal nice change of pace, and allow you to warm up. That’s what I did when shooting Yosemite National Park.
Consisting of of Eagle Peak, and Middle and Lower Brothers, the Three Brothers is not as well known as El Capitan or Half Dome, but just as unique looking (if not moreso), I think. John Muir was quite a fan, and I think it’s very fair to call him the leading thinker on Yosemite National Park. Point being, don’t overlook this beautiful formation when photographing Yosemite National Park.
Union Point/Glacier Point
Glacier Point is an incredibly popular view of Yosemite National Park and its distant mountains, like Clouds Rest, whereas Union Point is a relative unknown. I mention them both because it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to get to Glacier Point unless you’re going in the summer. Below Glacier Point (along the same trail) is Union Point, and that’s where I captured this photo. Even getting to Union Point is going to be very tricky in the winter. You can read my account of capturing this shot here. In retrospect, it was probably a stupid idea continuing to that vista, but what can I say…I’m a stupid person?
Four Mile Trail
If you start on the trek to Glacier Point or Union Point and realize they’re not accessible unless you’re insane, the good news is that it isn’t for naught. The journey up Four Mile Trail offers incredible views of Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, The Yosemite Falls, North Dome, Washington Column, and Half Dome, among other things. I struck the jackpot on my way down from Union Point and was rewarded with this gorgeous sunset. If you look closely down at the loop below, you can see trails of headlights–undoubtedly other photographers leaving the Horsetail Falls viewing area with their bounty of Firefall shots!
So there you have some of my favorite spots for photography in Yosemite National Park. I want to emphasize once again that this is a very incomplete list. There are literally thousands of great spots for photos in Yosemite National Park, and you can’t turn around without seeing one of the Park’s many distinct icons. Some of the best photos you take will probably be more unique views from random trails. These trails are well-worth exploring, just be mindful of how much gear you carry.
In most cases when we went on trails, I foolishly over-packed. In hindsight, I would only carry my a Nikon D600, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, and the Nikon 28-300mm VR Lens plus a tripod. The 28-300mm is the perfect all-in-one lens for situations like this, but the superior quality of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 makes it very difficult to leave behind. Also, pack some beef jerky. Not only is beef jerky delicious, but it’s great fuel to make sure you don’t run out of gas before you get to that awesome vista. Really, though, the suggestion to pack beef jerky should be self-evident. Shouldn’t you always have some beef jerky on you?
To get some more Yosemite National Park photo ideas, check out my Yosemite National Park photo gallery, which includes additional shots I took in the Park.
What shots do you most want to capture in Yosemite National Park? Yosemite veterans, do you have any additional suggestions for great locations? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!