Landscape Photography in Yosemite

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Yosemite National park in California is likely to be on the bucket list of any landscape photographer. For those who wish to tread in the footsteps of the greats like Ansel Adams, or forge their own path, Yosemite is filled with great opportunities for Landscape Photography. From intimate details to grand vistas, there is something for everyone.

I was lucky enough to get to spend some time here in September and I’m going to share some of the shots I came home with, as well as some general tips about visiting the park.

*Disclaimer – I am not a travel guide, and these are my own personal thoughts and experiences…take with a pinch of salt!

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Where to stay

For Sarah and myself, this was dictated by budget and we found that staying outside of the park was much cheaper than staying inside the boundary. We stayed in a beautiful lodge in a town called Oakhurst, which is about 45 miles from Yosemite Valley. We used Airbnb and the experience was amazing. Our lodge had a balcony and a hot tub, which I would say is essential after a long day hiking!

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The only downside is that it was about an hour and a half drive to get to the 2 main locations (discussed below), but that really isn’t a long drive in american terms!

Landscape Photography in Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National park is almost 1,200 square miles of beautiful mountains, waterfall, lakes and wildlife. The first thing to bare in mind however, is that the vast majority of visitors (nearly 70%) visit a 7 square mile stretch called Yosemite Valley, and during the months of May to September.

What this means in practical terms is that getting into Yosemite can be a pain as parking fills up quickly. We found it quite stressful driving and keeping an eye out for a space. Now this may not matter to you, but from a landscape photography perspective it isn’t particularly peaceful.

If you do venture into the valley, the first sight you will be greeted with is the amazing ‘Tunnel View’. You get El Capitan to the left, Bridalveil Fall to the right and Half Dome way back in the distance. It is probably ‘the’ iconic Yosemite shot and can be grabbed from the car park!

Personally my favourite shot from Yosemite valley is the ‘Valley View’ which can be found by looping the one way road around to the El Capitan side of the river. 

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(Map sourced from National Park Service).

You will come across a very small car park with about 5 spaces. Stepping down onto the rocks by the river and waiting for sunset (about 3 hours in my case to ensure I got the composition I wanted) will reward you with something like this:

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Alternative locations for landscape photography in Yosemite

Personally, I found that the higher routes offered nicer views of Yosemite, and were a bit less crowded. On the first evening we went to ‘Glacier Point’ which offers stunning views of ‘Half Dome’. Unfortunately the sunset did not materialise due to lingering cloud to the west, but I was able to get these 2 images. They are both stitches of 5 or 6 images to create an ultra-detailed panorama. 

This first image shows the dappled light across the scene. Due to it still being quite early in the evening and there not being much nice colour in the scene, I converted it to black and white.

This version does show some evening colour, but unfortunately not the reddish, pinky hues I was hoping for.

My final shot from this location is probably my favourite. There was a strange pinky glow in the atmosphere when I took this shot, as the sun had just gone down and was reflecting on the clouds. I also like that the composition is a bit more original, where I’ve balanced the trees in the foreground against Half Dome.

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Mariposa Grove

Another fantastic place to visit inside the park boundary is Mariposa Grove.  It is home to the giant sequoia trees, some of which are estimated to be up to  2,400 years old! One of the main attractions in the park, named ‘The Grizzly Giant’ (or the BFT as I referred to him…use your imagination!) has a circumference of 29.5 meters and is 63.7 meters tall! They are so large that photos don’t particularly do them justice, but here is a picture of me next to one for scale (I am 6ft tall).

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As with all woodland photography, creating a decent picture requires perfect conditions which we didn’t have. I ended up grabbing a simple shot of a fallen sequoia’s roots, which although I like doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the thing. For reference, this pile of roots was at least 10ft tall!

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Hiking Sentinel Dome

The final series of images I want to talk about are the most important to me. To get these images I drove for 1.5 hours in the dark by myself, and hiked at dawn through bear territory to arrive on top of ‘Sentinel Dome’ by myself. OK, I make this sound more dramatic than it was but as someone who gets anxious in the face of the unknown, this was quite a big thing for me! Side note – I have found that in almost all cases of feeling nervous about something like this, forcing myself to go through with it always has positive results, as opposed to what I feel like if I don’t do something.

In addition, the main draw for landscape photography for me is the quiet focus that I am able to achieve by being alone in a beautiful place by myself, thinking about what I’m doing and appreciating where I am. I found that as amazing as Yosemite Valley was, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it due to the crowds.

So on to the images….

The first is a panorama I shot of the sun cresting over the hill on which I was stood, hitting El Capitan. 

This next image demonstrates that you don’t need to shoot a technically great picture for the image to work. This camera is blurry from camera shake, is clipped in certain areas and has an odd colour cast, but it all adds up to the ethereal glow and abstract nature of the shot.

Finally, this image shows Half Dome in all it’s glory. As the morning clouds moved over the face of the rock, it looked like they were billowing out of the mountain, and the result is stunning!

Visiting Yosemite: in a nutshell

Yosemite is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited and I definitely want to return in different conditions…perhaps winter or autumn. I would highly recommend anyone visit, but would keep in mind a few things.

  1. Yosemite Valley gets extremely busy in peak times. Try visiting outside the summer months.

  2. For landscape photography in Yosemite, explore the park! There are short hiking routes available near the busiest parts of the park which are much quieter.

  3. Don’t worry about staying outside the park, it is easy enough to drive to!

  4. Bring your camera, and you WILL get good shots, guaranteed!

I hope you enjoyed this article, and it proves useful to you. Thanks, and see you again!

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