Yosemite Road Trip Spring 2013

A friend of mine asked me if I could help out teaching a class on beginning bird photography and introduction to Adobe Lightroom. That was an opportunity I was hoping to try for a while, so I jumped on it. Even better, it was being taught through Yosemite Audubon and that meant I could schedule a trip to the park. Work schedules being what they are, I couldn’t take much time off, but I made it a long weekend and headed out of the bay area on a friday afternoon.

Much as I like staying in Mariposa, I decided to stay in Oakhurst, which is outside of the park’s south entrance. I picked the Yosemite Southgate motel, which is fairly new and had competitive rates. I loved the place — the rooms are big, the facility is pretty quiet, it had a decent refrigerator in it (one that would freeze blue ice for the cooler and keep things cold), and the staff was both friendly and efficient. Definitely recommended.

Saturday’s class started very early at a private residence near Mariposa, on about 25 acres with a pond. Also on the property was an ancient valley oak — estimated 350 years or so — that was truly stunning to see. Nearby was some granite embedded in the ground with a number of grinding holes where the locals would have ground the acorns of that tree to flour. I, intelligent person that I am, was only carrying my bird lens.

The primary instructor had spent an evening earlier in the week going over basic photography concepts and techniques. Saturday morning had them wandering the property trying to take properly exposed images of things, from trees against the sky to cars to whatever, and then looking for whatever they found interesting and taking images. Everyone was supposed to be in manual mode for this.

About 2/3 of the class were using point and shoots, so this was very much an enthusiastic beginner class. I spent the morning helping them figure out how to set their camera (stay tuned for a rant on just how badly point and shoot cameras suck), and to give them advice on exposure and reading their histograms, composition ideas, and just generally answering whatever questions they had.

Our leader, Ashok Khosla, did a lecture on basic Lightroom concepts, and then all of the students sat down, imported their images, and started whacking away. Ashok and I wandered about offering advice and showing them ways to process their images.

I did a couple of short talks on some of my standard processing tactics and some very basic ideas on how color and light attract the eye and how to use that to shape the image — the idea was to give them some things to think about but things that wouldn’t overwhelm them as they were trying to figure out all the knobs and levers of Lightroom.

At the end of the afternoon, each student chose three images and showed them to everyone for discussion and critique. Ashok and I (and the rest of the class) commented on them and made suggestions on how they might be improved.

if was the first time I had a chance to work with Ashok and watch how he worked. He’s an immensely talented photographer who’s been a huge help in my development, so it was nice to pay a little bit forward with him.

I was impressed with the quality of the images that were produced, as well as the variety. Given we were ostensibly in a bird photography class, the variety of images taken was fascinating. Everyone focused in on things they found interesting, and it went all over the map. Some of them showed a very intuitive eye with a lot of potential, too.

The class seemed well received. Ashok and I have already talked about doing it again next year with Yosemite Audubon. A number of the class asked me if I’d workshop with them in Yosemite itself. I declined, because to do a workshop well requires time I simply don’t have (and permits, and all sorts of details).

All in all the day was amazing. I had a ball, and I was exhausted and fried at the end. I’ve already heard from a couple of students following up from the class, and it helped my finalize some ideas that had been floating in my head for the blog and my site.

My photography that day was quite limited; I spent the time helping out the students instead of trying to shoot myself. Afterward, I went back to the room in Oakhurst and crashed early. I was beat, and I had a long day planned, starting early….

Saturday was spent teaching the lightroom and bird photography class for Yosemite Audubon. Sunday and Monday were the days I reserved for me and Yosemite. My last trip to the park was 2011, since I didn’t find time to get there last year, and the last trip was a mixed bag of weather and some missteps.

For this trip, I got lucky — Glacier Point was open, and Tioga Pass opened up Saturday while I was teaching. So Sunday I set the alarm, cranked up the gear, and hit the park before 7AM. After gassing up at Crane Flat, I hit Tioga Road and headed into the high country.

I must admit I’ve never travelled tioga before. Although I’ve visited Yosemite often, as a kid it was with my family and we always stayed on the valley floor; since I’ve re-connected with the park as an adult, my visits have generally been during the off-season when the pass is closed by weather. I hadn’t expected it to be open this early, so in this way, the lack of rain in California was a bit of a gift (even though I expect this summer to be a nasty one for wildfires, and the early number of fires isn’t encouraging).

I made stops at Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolomne Meadows, as well as some other spots along the road. The trip out was mostly exploring and scouting — I don’t shoot landscapes well on the fly; instead I need to look the area over and find interesting opportunities and try to judge favorable light for them. A lot of my trips like this end up being a fairly quick run out to the far end, then a slower return trip checking out places I’ve noticed in more detail.

In my case, the far end was Lee Vining and Mono Lake, where I literally drove off the mountain, into the museum parking lot, looked out at the lake in the distance, and said to myself “you’re another project” and drove right back up the mountain. Didn’t even stop for lunch, since I’d brought one with me.

The pass was full of fascinating picture opportunities. The area outside of the park on the way down towards Lee Vining was still snow covered

I lunched at Tenaya Lake, watching people drive up for drive-by photos, including one iPhone-holding hand that didn’t even leave the car, but stick it out the moon roof. One thing I definitely don’t get is the SUVs full of family racing through the park as if there’s a deadline to get somewhere. Hint: you’re already here, folks. slow down and enjoy.

I also spent time at Olmstead point, where I was watching a couple of really fat and happy marmots and trying to line up a shot when I found myself surrounded by a tour bus full of really happy Germans. Who smoked. That finally put me back on the road. My sympathies to the tour driver, both for having to haul the bus over that pass safely and having to deal with it being full of Germans who smoke…

One of the highlights of the day — I was off in a side area near Lake Tenaya, trying another futile try at a decent image of a mountain chickadee, when suddenly I heard a woodpecker rattle in a nearby tree. I saw it fly in, and as I was trying to get the camera on it, the damn thing literally sprinted up the tree. I’ve never seen a woodie do that before. I could tell from the quick glance that the bird was a new one for me. I did get some not-terribly-good images of it, and the images confirmed it. Williamson’s Sapsucker, life bird #270.

By the way, I finally caught the damned chickadee with his guard down. For just a second, but it was enough.

When I shot my picture at Tuolomne Meadows, I had that feeling I’d shot it before, even though I’ve never been here.

Later, I realized what was triggering that memory — Yellowstone.

Probably not surprising given Yellowstone’s altitude. I’m actually quite amazed at the similarities and the color/tonal matches of the two images.

Ultimately I headed down out of the pass. A quick trip through the valley reminded me why I don’t visit the valley during high season, so I drove back out and up Glacier Point, another place I haven’t visited in basically forever — I am old enough to not only remember seeing the old, discontinued Firefall, but to have seen it both from the valley floor and from up at the point.

Glacier point itself was also packed, so I backed off and stopped at Washburn Point instead. It’s a short distance from Glacier back down the road with similar vistas but much reduced crowds. I spent some time experimenting with the Fuji camera there and shooting half dome and the falls that are visible.

After that, I was done. I again planned on an early visit and the skies looked blah for sunset, so rather than fight the crowd at Tunnel View for a chance at not very much of interest, I headed back to Oakhurst, grabbed dinner at Okas (japanese food meet a small town coffee shop, recommended if you don’t go in expecting high-end Silicon Valley fare), imported and did a first look at the images from the day while watching the hockey playoffs, and crashed early….

Day 3 of the road trip started out early. I was checked out (thank you, Yosemite Southgate Hotel, I shall return) and back in the park driving up from the south entrance through Wawona. My goals today: Dogwoods, Wildflowers, the valley floor, and Hetch Hetchy. Nice, low-key itinerary.

I’ve been trying to get to Yosemite to shoot dogwoods for years. My schedule has never cooperated. This year? I came in late in the dogwood season. There were still patches that looked nice at a distance, but when you got close, most of the blossoms were well beyond prime. Up Glacier Point road I found some nice trees, even a few still with green blossoms, and all of them in places where I’d be insane to pull over and try to take photos. Ohwell.

But still, I found a few patches and stopped and tried my hand.

The blossoms aren’t in great shape (nobody’s putting that image up on their wall), but still, I now have dogwood blossoms in my collection, and I got to actually see them in person. And yes, there’s a reason folks go a bit bonkers over them in person and photograph them so intently….

I also had found a few fields of wildflowers in bloom around Wawona, so I stopped and experimented with them and tried to find interesting compositions. I don’t think what I did was particularly grand, but I’m happy with some of them. Especially since I was shooting in the shade, hand-held, and being careful about staying outside of the patch so as to not damage it for those that came next.

In case it’s not obvious, I don’t shoot macro much. I definitely don’t shoot it enough.

After that, I headed down into the valley, where I grabbed a spot near the meadow so I could shoot Yosemite falls. This is a favorite spot of mine to shoot the upper falls, which were roaring. This was my chance to do some experimenting with timelapses and taking some video, as well as traditional shots of the falls.

Being a Monday, the crowds hit the park with less intensity than the weekend, so I spent more time experimenting with the gear and hanging out. I got to chat for a while with a nice english couple vacationing here in the state and a few other photogs, say “yes, that is Yosemite Falls” about 12 times to tourists, and generally had a good time.

If you’re wondering about this shot, I found out the hard way about the challenge of using a vari-ND and light leakage through the viewfinder affecting exposure. The hat is blocking off the viewfinder.

I finally decided to get a move on, and I drove up to Hetch Hetchy. Surprisingly few people get out of the park up here, although since my previous visit they’ve closed off the old (nicely sized) parking lot at the dam and you now park back at the admin buildings in a much smaller, very much “making this up as we go along” lot, so the area has a smaller capacity for people than it did. There’s now a quarter mile hike to the dam itself, wich given my time and the heat, I declined. I did stop for a slow and enjoyable lunch, listening to and attempting to photograph the birds up there — and pretty much failing.

I like the Hetch Hetchy trip because it can be a good one for birds and critters. This day was hot enough and I was late enough that the critters were in the shade, the birds were in the shadows, and so I didn’t get anything of interest. My one hopeful bird, Mountain Quail, was nowhere to be seen or heard, but I’d been warned that was likely and that they’d followed the snow lines further up the mountains. The only quail heard along the trip up was California Quail, and those were in much abundance and great voice.

Still, this is a nice drive through a nice area that’s usually pretty empty and quiet, and a way to get away from the crowds of the valley. I wish I’d had another day at the park, so I could have done this trip early in the morning when I can almost guarantee seeing deer and a number of interesting birds. But since the heat had built in, what I mostly got was ravens.

The ravens are, if anything, more habituated and more common than ever. Every picnic area, every parking area, seemed to have one or two happily waiting for you to move away from your food for just a minute. Fortunately, they also seem to take “no” for an answer and go look for an easier mark.

After lunch, the drive out. It was time to go. I had work on Tuesday, and a Sharks playoff game that evening. Since I was already down the 120 some way for the Hetch hetchy run, I took 120 down out of the mountains. If you’ve never taken that road, it seemingly was designed by an evil genius. It’s switchback heavy and steep, and if you like technical driving, you’ll love it. Until you get stuck behind that tourbus full of Germans…

And then, home, in time for the second period of the Sharks game. And sleep.

Like any trip of mine, this one had some goals going on. First, to help out at the class and be useful without embarrassing myself. Second, unplug and unwind, get away from work and the internet and everything else and just relax a bit by pushing myself into Yosemite and into my photography and letting everything else lapse. Third, experiment with the Fuji X-Pro-1 and see if it is the camera I’m looking for (more on this soon. Short answer: sadly, no, but it’s not the camera, it’s me). And fourth, try to generate some good images.

Item the first: pass. everyone seemed to enjoy the class and I felt comfortable with my contribution to that. Ashok’s a hell of a teacher, and that helps, but now I have a better feel for what to expect in this situation and I have some ideas for material I want to have available next time, and to create for this place.

Item the second: pass: I generally kept up on email, but believe it or not, it is possible to just drop everything else for a while and the universe will not fall apart. I highly recommend it, much as I’m the first to admit I rarely go anywhere without my devices and the net welded to my hip. It was a nice refresher, short as it was.

Item the third: self-applied pressure — send yourself to a place with a camera you’ve never used before and make yourself take acceptable pictures. I’ll talk more about this in a separate posting soon, but if you feel you’re in a bit of a rut and need to kick yourself in the head, this is a great way of doing it. Especially if you’re primarily a big-glass geek like me and you hand yourself a 15-55 and say “this is what you have for the next few days…”.

Item the fourth: I came home with about 300 images shot over the two and a half days, excluding the timelapsing and the video. Of that, I dinged about 50 into the trash, stuck about 200 into the “good but nothing special” retirement home on my spare drive, and kept 40 in my active lightroom collection and posted to Flickr.

Of those, there are probably four I think are worth some special attention, and so far, I’ve run two through my extended processing workflow, printed them out, examined them, and now have 11×14’s hanging on my wall and added to my portfolio collection.

Is two portfolio-worthy images out of a couple of days of shooting a success?

Hell, yes, if you end up with a couple of shots like that. So are the 40 or so usable shots, even if they aren’t special, they’re still interesting and usable in various projects. That’s actually a rather high number compared to my expectations — and I can thank the Fuji X-Pro-1 for that. Lots to like about that camera, and I love the quality of the images it takes.

One interesting thing happened on the trip I didn’t expect. When Ashok introduced me to the class, he introduced me as a landscape photographer.

I’ve always self-defined myself as a bird photographer that dabbles in landscapes. To be honest, I struggle with landscape shots (voiceover, valley girl whine: landscapes are hard!”). I don’t get to shoot it nearly as often as I’d like. It’s so much easier to just grab the big lens and go off chasing birds (oh, I know I just pissed off a bunch of bird photogs. It wasn’t meant THAT way. honest).

Heck, the logo of my site now self-defines me as a bird photographer.

And yet — when I sat down and put together my set of “no compromise kick butt” images, my core portfolio, almost half of it is landscape, and honestly, my best images in that group are as well. And whenever I take time off and get a chance to go somewhere to shoot, am I running off to Arizona or Texas to sit in a bird blind?

No, I’m shooting landscapes — and birds, if I can. But my trips always seem oriented around shooting landscapes.

This is something I’ve been arguing with myself for some time. After all, one of the most common pieces of advice given to photographers is to figure out what you are and specialize — and my work seems strongly reluctant to do so. Having Ashok rip off that band-aid (without even realizing it) turned into another bit of a kick in the head, one I thought about all weekend.

And I think now I kinda get it. Bird Photography is to some degree my hobby. It’s fun. I enjoy it. I’m pretty good at it. I’ve invested a fair bit in gear to make better images. It’s what I do most of the time. But when the rubber hits the road and I get serious about my photography, I seem to shift into landscapes instead. Which fight back, challenge me, and I spend a lot of time struggling with my gear and my vision.

And when I make it all work, it’s amazing. This trip wasn’t really set up to help me understand that internal mini-conflict, but it seems to have generated some answers. That doesn’t mean I’m going to choose one over the other, but I do have a better understanding of how they relate and interact, and where I want to focus my energies moving forward.

Birds and bird photography is great fun, but landscapes make my toes tingle. And that’s something that’s important to figure out.

I’m a landscape photographer who shoots birds, too. I guess. One who still really sucks trying to create interesting images wider than about 30mm. Still work to do.

So, onward…

This is a short timelapse of upper Yosemite Falls. It’s okay. Compare it with timelapses taken on a slider and you can see how motion with the camera makes a huge difference. This static picture gets boring quickly. But it’s an interesting experiment that I might find use for as “B Roll” material later.

This is the first of two videos. This one was pure experiment, to make sure I knew how to take video (testing before hitting the field? Yeah, nice idea… I hadn’t planned on shooting video at all this trip, so I’m improvising). It’s okay, but it’s early; the light is barely touching the water in the falls, so the shadows are wrong. Still, if you watch the water, we’re at spring peak flow for the fall, and the movement of the water is fascinating.

And here’s a second, longer video. I like the framing and exposure on this one better. I’ve got an ND on the lens now which helps a lot. I’ve let the light move to hit the water so it’s lit, but part of the rock face is still in shade, but as the video goes on, you’ll see the shadow move. The time I took the video is when, IMHO, I should have taken the timelapse, so emphasize that shadow movement. Still, that’s an awesome, powerful flow coming down the falls. The audio is mostly traffic and people, so I really should suppress that (but I didn’t think to. The joy of seat of the pants experimenting…)

Live and learn. Which is the point.