Yosemite National Park: Conquering Union Point

Over the weekend I visited Yosemite National Park with several other photographers I’ve met through the Disney fan community. It was an incredible weekend filled with wonderful photo ops, good times, and great friends. It was the most fun I’ve had taking photos in a long time, and the best group photography outing I’ve had since visiting Walt Disney World in October 2009. I’m already itching to do it again.

This photo was taken from Union Point, the final stop on Four Mile Trail before Glacier Point, which offers arguably the best view in Yosemite. Unfortunately, the path to Glacier Point closes during the winter to (as the sign puts it) “extreme danger.” William McIntosh, a Yosemite vet, suggested to the group that we head up to Union Point, as he thought it would be a good vantage for photography. Given that it was a fairly difficult three mile hike in what promised to be treacherous conditions and would be feast/famine for photos, only two of us took him up on the idea, Todd Hurley and me.

Treacherous it most definitely was. About halfway into our hike, we began encountering locations where avalanches had swallowed the trail, leaving steep banks of hardened snow for us to carefully cross at a snail’s pace. After about the fourth of these, we were just about ready to concede defeat. Thinking our view was just around the corner, I continued on…and on…and on. It most definitely was not right around the corner! Three miles in snow is more like 23 miles in normal conditions, I think. Nearer the top, the hardened snow gave way to waist deep powder, which was actually quite preferable, as one wrong step in powder won’t cause you to plunge to your death, whereas slipping on the hardened snow easily could have led to that result.

When I finally arrived at Union Point, this was the view. The notable mountains in the photo are Half Dome (right) and Clouds Rest (left and behind Half Dome). Clouds Rest is actually the taller of the two, despite appearances in this photo. While there are a lot of photos of Yosemite National Park online, I doubt you’ll find many others from this vantage in the winter. Not many people make it up to the top of this trail, and fewer still lug around zoom lenses with them!

This is my favorite photo from the trip, despite it being far from my best photo. I like this photo–don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful view and the clouds coupled with the soft late afternoon light make it a winner in my book–but it’s the effort that went into capturing it that makes it really special to me. As Bill put it on the way down, photos like this have a different kind of creativity to them: the determination to create the photo.

Much like the idea that a good camera produces good photos, I think this is something non-photographers have a difficult time understanding. Good photography isn’t just a matter of showing up whenever with an expensive camera and pressing a button. Good equipment and great subjects certainly help, but knowledge and the resolve to get the photo are much more important. Getting to those tough-to-reach vantage points is part of the process, as is getting up at 4 am (or staying up all night!) to ensure that you’re where you need to be when those soft, photogenic rays of the sunrise hit.

During the course of three nights on this trip, I got a grand total of about 8 hours of sleep and kept going far beyond the point of ordinary fatigue. As a result, I put myself in a position to capture some cool things that a lot of people never see in Yosemite: dawn, sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, star trails, and the Milky Way. Conspicuously absent from that list is “the middle of the day.”

My point with all of this is that people often want to “be good” at photography and act as if buying a nice camera or drinking some magic elixir is what’s necessary to accomplish that. I know this is not unique to photography, the desire for success without effort is pretty common across all aspects of life. As with just about everything else in life, there’s far more to “success” in photography than nice equipment and showing up.

Just something to consider if you want to take great photos but don’t have a lot of money to put towards the hobby. Determination, knowledge, and an inexpensive camera will get you far further than a nice camera alone ever will. Oh, and the hike turned out to be a big time feast for photos as we began to descend the mountain and sunset hit. More on that later…

Please click the photo for best viewing (larger and in lightbox mode). From there, you can purchase prints by clicking the shopping cart at the top of the screen. You can also navigate to the 1,000+ other images in my photo galleries from there! 

Technical

Photographed with a Nikon D600 and the Nikon 28-300mm VR Lens. For a relatively simple image, the processing here was pretty complex. First, three exposures in Photomatix for HDR processing. Since the three exposures were handheld, I had to have it align the images. This produced a slightly soft image, which I think was because of the alignment. So I abandoned this image. Instead, I edited a single exposure in Adobe Camera Raw, which had ample dynamic range for shadow and highlight coverage, but the sky looked a bit flat as compared to what I remembered seeing, even after I did finishing in Photoshop CS6. So, I processed that same single exposure in Photomatix to give the sky a bit more pop. Unfortunately, the resulting tonemapped image looked too unrealistic for my taste, so I brought it back into Photoshop, layered it on top of the normal photo I processed in Adobe Camera Raw, and reduced the opacity on the tonemapped photo to 25%. In retrospect, I probably could have gone to about 50%, as I think the photo could look a tad more “ethereal,” which would be accomplished with more of the tonemapped image present.

I concluded the processing with a brightness/contrast curves adjustment, a warming filter adjustment for the mountains, and a curves adjustment. Had I just processed the photo in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, start to finish processing would have taken about 2 minutes. Instead, I spent over 30 going back and forth tinkering with little things. Ultimately, the end result isn’t even that much different, but it was an important photo to me, so it was worth taking the extra time to get right.

Your Thoughts…

Whether or not you’re interested in photography (and if you’re not, there’s obviously no need to go to great lengths described above to capture photos to preserve memories), I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences with people assuming “success” in your hobbies, passions, or career is simple. Let’s hear some of your thoughts on this (or anything else) in the comments!

15 replies
  1. Ryan Pastorino
    Ryan Pastorino says:

    Where’s the favorite button on your blog here?

    Part of me is jealous and feeling dumb for not going with you guys, but I don’t think I would have continued on in the face of such danger. Haha. Perhaps if I hadn’t already slipped and fallen on my ass earlier in the day I wouldn’t have been as deterred by the thought of slick conditions thousands of feet above the valley floor. It’s good that at times the group split anyway to give variety among everyone’s shots.

    Reply
  2. Katie
    Katie says:

    Hiking through the snow is definitely a challenge. I have also used photography on the other side of this equation–I am often the one interested in photography during our hikes, so the photos become an excuse for how slow I am hiking! I remember one hike on part of the AT in central VA in February–we were going through snow that wasn’t terribly deep, but I sincerely thought I’d never make it back out!

    Reply
  3. Ian
    Ian says:

    This is a great shot; I hiked up the four mile trail on my own a couple of weeks back looking for this shot, and I had to bail when I hit one of the avalanche falls across the trail about 2 miles into it. To cross I would have had to scale a 45 degree slope of ice and without crampons or similar I just didn’t feel safe wielding the tripod + 30lbs of cam gear/backpack. Kudos to you for sticking it out and making it back safely. Seeing this shot I half wish I’d kept going even just to see that view, but this was just beyond my comfort zone hiking on my own. Thanks for sharing the photograph and the description of what went into it,

    Reply
  4. Dirk Thayer
    Dirk Thayer says:

    Tom, that is a great shot and fantastic story! We were at Yosemite last Easter break and I managed to make it up to the top of the Yosemite Falls trail but that was about all this old body could do! Got some nice shots, though, which made it worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing your sunset shots from your return hike!

    I appreciate your point about determination and persistence being a couple of the more important items to have in your camera bag. Last month I was out in the Borrego desert with some Boy Scouts and had fun staying up WAY past lights out for all the other campers taking photos of the stars. They were magnificent out there.

    I have loved following your Disney blog (be at Disneyland in less than two weeks!) and am really enjoying this new venture of yours. Thank you and keep up the great work!!

    Reply
  5. Todd Hurley
    Todd Hurley says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Is it OK if I just link this blog entry when I start posting my shots so I won’t have to write anything? Just kidding, of course. I’m not ashamed to admit that more than once I thought to myself “what are we doing up here?” That first patch of snow/ice really got in my head (I felt like I lost my footing a couple of times while crossing it and that dropoff… wow); I knew that I shouldn’t try another one. But, like Bill said, you deserved this one. I’m so glad you came back with this trophy documenting that moment… you earned it. My favorite photos not only tell a story, but have a story behind their creation, even if it is a sentimental one. I had such a great time that day and will remember that hike for the rest of my life.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Ditto that. So much of that weekend is a blur, but I’ll always remember getting this shots and the sunset ones that followed. Crazy that they absolutely overshadowed the Firefall, which was the reason we flew cross-country in the first place!

      Reply
  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Fantastic image Tom. We’ve got 2 days in Yosemite next January. I’d like to think I’d attempt to get to Union Point but I don’t think I’d be brave enough for that.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      This photo and story might have been a poor way to illustrate my point that you need to have determination when taking photos. This example is taking that to an extreme, and is definitely NOT recommended for everyone.

      However, there’s no reason everyone can’t get up at sunrise, stay up late to shoot the stars, etc. I’d highly recommend photographing the sunrise and star trails in Yosemite…that’s a lot of fun!

      Reply
      • Mark
        Mark says:

        Agree 100% about determination to get good photos. Especially what you say about determination and knowledge being better than fancy gear. I’ll be looking to take full advantage of 2 sunrises and a sunset in Yosemite. Can’t wait.

        Look forward to seeing the rest of the shots you’ve got.

        Reply
  7. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    So glad that you had the tenacity….and just the right amount of insanity, to keep going after Todd and I bailed out on you. I had a feeling that Todd was not at all comfortable with crossing that first avalanche, but when we got to that last one, I just couldn’t do it. And coming from someone who has gone across “Do not pass, danger, you will die” signs before in Yosemite, this was too much even for someone like me. I could easily see myself going over the edge and landing on those rocks…or better yet, the whole slide could have given way and I would have had a quick trip to the valley floor. But you stuck with it, and you were rewarded with a great shot of the valley that not many hikers are able to get…in the middle of the WINTER. It would be interesting to see how many other WINTER shots are posted from this trail with this particular view. Most Glacier Point shots are taken after people ski or snow shoe in on the road. Not too many people are crazy enough to take heavy camera gear across all that snow. This just might be the first shot taken with a DSLR in February from here. Well worth your effort as Half Dome is much more centered that from where we were, and the light is incredible. Congratulations on the shot, and I look forward to seeing the rest of them soon!

    Glad you survived to tell the tale!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      If it were just me, I probably wouldn’t have crossed the first one, either. At least with other people with you, you have a better chance of being rescued should something (short of death) happen.

      I looked quite a bit, and I was able to find ONE other shot from Union Point in the winter. Not bad, considering that there are oodles of Tunnel View and Firefall shots all from the same days!

      In the end, I think we were all greatly rewarded for making it so far. That sunset was crazy! If aliens were watching us all scramble around photographing it, they surely would have thought that there is no intelligent life on earth! We had to have looked like monkeys bouncing back and forth from spot to spot!

      Reply

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