The recipe for fresh snow in Yosemite Valley
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Each season Yosemite offers something that makes it special, but the most beautiful place on Earth is never more spectacular than when it’s blanketed with fresh snow. For a brief time immediately after a cold storm, evergreens sag under their heavy white load, and the skeletons of maples, elms, and oaks are etched in white. Every exposed surface for as far as the eye can see is brand new and without flaw.
Capturing this magic is all about timingy. Yosemite Valley is just 4,000 feet above sea level; California locations at 4,000 feet get significant snow only during the coldest storms, usually just a handful of times each winter. And when the snow stops, the relatively mild temperatures (usually in the 30s), frequent wind, and brilliant sunshine conspire to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, park visitors driven inside by the weather, swarm outside to marvel at the beauty, quickly adding footprints and spreading mud with their bikes, cars, and trucks. The key to photographing Yosemite with pristine snow is to be in the park while its snowing–if you delay your Yosemite departure until you hear that it snowed, you’re too late.
Living close enough to Yosemite to monitor the weather and adjust my schedule when a cold storm is promised, I’m blessed with many fresh snow images in my Yosemite portfolio. While I’ll never tire of photographing Yosemite like this, since starting to conduct workshops I’ve found there’s great vicarious pleasure sharing Yosemite’s special beauty with others. Unfortunately I must schedule these workshops over a year in advance, so there’s no telling what weather we’ll encounter. So imagine my delight when, after six weeks of dry weather and blue skies, Mother Nature cranked up Yosemite’s snow machine just in time for my 2011 Yosemite Winter Workshop (thankyouverymuch), greeting us each morning with scenes that seemed designed to outdo what we’d found the day before.
Until Thursday, Cook’s Meadow was a field of lumpy brown grass, its sentinel elm a drooping, bare skeleton. But six inches of overnight snow transformed this scene into a magic landscape of virgin white. The elm towering in Half Dome’s shadow had become beautiful overnight, but for me the real treat this morning was a foreground sea of snow like frozen waves of perfect white. To emphasize the snow I dropped to my knees and found a vertical composition that leads the eye to the elm and Half Dome in the background. I minimized the brooding sky because, while interesting, it lacked the power to compete with the foreground.
I should add that many in the group had signed up to photograph Horsetail Fall, but perhaps the only downside to stormy weather in February is that Horsetail Fall requires a clear western sky at sunset. When I advised them at the beginning of the workshop that Horsetail Fall wasn’t likely in our future, some were disappointed, but by the time we finished, I don’t think anyone would have traded our experience for even the most spectacular Horsetail Fall shot.