Yosemite Winter Landscapes: Photography Field Notes

February 16, 2013  •  7 Comments

Yosemite National Park: river reflections.El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite National Park, California "Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust…of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both  solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow-beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds."  - - John Muir, 1902

NIKON D300,f/11 @ 13 mm1/200ISO 400

For aspiring landscape photographers, Yosemite National Park holds infinite opportunities for exploration and creative expression.  Landmarks in this geological wonderland are truly awe inspiring, standing as icons of the great Western landscape.  Vivid images of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls and Mirror Lake come to mind. 

At the same time, it is somewhat intimidating to wander in the long shadows of the great Ansel Adams and other world class photographers. Adams resided and mastered his craft in Yosemite, capturing some of the strongest landscape photographs of the twentieth century.   Given this expansive body of work, what more is there to discover and photograph in Yosemite Park?  Plenty, it turns out, with 800 miles of hiking trails and openness to the unexpected.   

And so it was with our first trip to Yosemite:  An exhilarating feeling of adventure, tempered by a sense of uncertainty and reverence for masterpieces of the not so distant past.   El Capitan reflection in Merced River, at sunset. Yosemite National Park. El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite National Park, California

Trip Planning and Murphy’s Law

During winter months, the roads to higher elevations of Yosemite National Park and glacial lakes are closed.  Restricted to the Yosemite Valley area (elevation 3,214 feet), we anticipated short daylight hours with long mountain shadows in the morning and late afternoon.  We carefully mapped out our hiking schedule, referencing two invaluable publications:  Michael Fry’s The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite and Andrew Hudson’s Yosmeite: The Best Sites and How to Photograph Them. 

Despite our best laid plans, Murphy’s Law was in full force from the outset of the excursion. That is to say, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”   First, my otherwise highly responsible brother missed his flight to our rendezvous destination, Fresno, California.  We ended up driving into the park well after midnight, guided by GPS with eight foot snow mounds on both sides of the freshly plowed mountain road (Route 41). 

NIKON D300,f/20 @ 20 mm1/6ISO 400

Secondly, once in the park, we learned that our trailhead road, the North Side Drive, was closed due to winter road conditions and construction.   Thirdly, my brother was suffering from a bad case of the flu - fever, chills and all - which he kindly passed my way. Finally, adding insult to injury, I somehow managed to fall through the snow covered ice on the Merced River bank! Not a drop of water on my camera ...  Rising steam on the Merced River, at daybreak in Yosemite National Park, California. Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

Winter Camera Bag and Shooting Techniques

NIKON D300,f/18 @ 12 mm1/20ISO 200

Given the enormous scale of the Yosemite mountains, wide angle (12 -24 mm) and medium range (28 - 70 mm) zoom lenses were our optics of choice. The one exception was Tunnel View, where a 70 - 200 mm lens with a 1.4x tele-converter was ideal for some distinctive profile shots of Half Dome in the waning, pink dusk light. 

Also known as Inspiration Point, this vantage point is a photographer’s dream come true, offering a vast classic view of Yosemite Valley, with distant Half Dome framed by El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls.      

For most of our photographs, we used a multi-coated circular polarizer filters to reduce glare from the snow, water and rocks.  However, it was often necessary to dial-down the level of polarization to avoid excessive darkening of the deep blue sky.  

Handheld graduated neutral density filters (e.g., .6 and .9) were used to darken the sky in some photographs, balancing the brightness of the sky with that of the foreground.

For some mid-day river photos, we layered a hand held .9 neutral density filter with a polarizer filter, creating long time exposures to “blur” the motion of the cascading water.

Time exposure photograph depicting rushing river waters and canyon wall reflections.  Merced River at Yosemite National Park. Canyon Wall Reflections onto Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

Navigating the Snow and Ice

Although the park was covered in deep snow, most roads were well plowed. Still, our drive to Tuolumne Grove (elevation 8,575 feet) was a bit unnerving due to icy road conditions. Naturally guided by the Merced River, we rarely referenced our GPS unit when hiking. Park regulations at times require tire chains and the use of four wheel drive vehicles is strongly recommended. 

NIKON D300,f/18 @ 190 mm0.5sISO 200

Extremely slick ice slowed down our walking,  both in the Yosemite Lodge area and during our hikes "in the field". The slick walking surfaces were created though a perpetual cycle of melting and freezing, with daily temperature ranging from 12 to 45 degrees F.   We used clamp-on wire cleats (e.g., “Yaktrax”, trademark) on our waterproof hiking boots to gain traction and some peace of mind. 

Although we rented snowshoes, we did not have occasion to use these for our photography treks.  However, the accompanying walking sticks proved to be very helpful, particularly in the deep snow at the Tuolumne Grove. This is a terrific location to photograph the Giant Sequoia (Sierra Redwood) trees.

Early in the morning, we also used Grabber “Peel N’Stick” (trademark) hand warmers in our gloves and boots.   Redwood trees at Yosemite National ParkRedwood Trees at Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, California   

Photographer with walking sticks traversing snow covered Yosemite National Park. Marcus at Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, Yosemite National Park, California Final Thoughts                   

Paintings, photographs and literature celebrate the ever evolving character of Yosemite National Park’s dramatic mountain formations, sheer granite cliffs, massive waterfalls, glacial lakes, rivers and giant Sequoia groves.

The park is said to take on truly unique, awe inspiring qualities with each change of season.  I will certainly return to wondrous Yosemite Valley in the quiet of winter. And, likely, for yet another winter visit after that ….  

Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer


Yosemite National Park at dusk with pink dusk skies, viewed from Inspiration Point. Yosemite Valley Last Light, Yosemite National Park, California


Brower, Kenneth, Yosemite:  An American Treasure, National Geographic Society, 1991. 

Frey, Michael, The Photographers's Guide to Yosemite, 2000.

Hudson, Andrew, Yosemite: The Best Sights and How to Photograph Them,  Photo Secrets  

NIKON D300,f/6.3 @ 70 mm1/25ISO 400

For winter photography and field notes from photographer's state of residence, Arizona, see Landscape Photography PodcastSnow Laced Grand Canyon and Deepfreeze Landscape Photography: Images from Flagstaff, Arizona.  Tips on photography trip planning are also presented in Whirlwind Photography Trek

Tuolumne Grove photo of photographer with walking sticks courtesy of Brian Reinkensmeyer


Eric Hatch(non-registered)
Narrative just as good as the photos. And the photos are, as always, excellent. My fave is the closeup of the Merced river, second fave the Merced with the red bluff towering in the left background.

Sorry to hear you had to struggle so with health and logistics. Did you forget the D800 or forsake it for the D300?
Linda Nelson(non-registered)
Beautiful! How wonderful to capture such an awe inspiring place in natural light with fibrant color.
Paul Sachtleben Ben(non-registered)
wonderful! Thanks. For sharing.
Jerry Sheridan(non-registered)
You are an inspiriation to all us analog photographers out there! Such beautiful work!
Helen S. Schmidt(non-registered)
Love your commentary (brotherly comments) and the photos are, as always, beautiful and very special.
No comments posted.

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