Last week, after two productive days photographing poppies, I went to bed on the eve of my final day in Yosemite to the steady hum of rain. The next morning dawned damp and gray, but the rain had stopped. Instead, a thin veneer of fresh snow dusted the trees, and without even thinking about breakfast I headed to Tunnel View to survey the valley and plan my morning. By the time I arrived a patch of sunlight had burned a hole in the clouds above Cathedral Rocks and hints blue sky mingled with the clouds in the west. I knew the show there would soon be spectacular, but I've photographed many clearing storms from Tunnel View and wanted something different.
Without leaving my car I headed back down into the valley, stopping first at El Capitan Bridge, arriving just before the clouds capping El Capitan started lifting. I photographed there for about 15 minutes, long enough to see El Capitan's nose go from obscure shadow to distinct outline to fully exposed granite. Before the clouds parted completely to reveal the rest of El Cap I packed up and made a beeline for nearby Cathedral Beach. In the short time it took to drive a half mile most of El Capitan had emerged from the clouds and I rushed to grab my gear. The road to the beach was closed so I set out on foot, running most of the quarter mile to the river.
I found two other photographers at the west end of the beach and rather than compete with them for real estate I trudged through the brush and crunchy snow to a clearing just downstream. There I was able to set up in solitude and move around at will. I was quite pleased to find a snow covered snag that allowed me to add a little depth to the foreground.
The beauty of photographing a Yosemite clearing storm is that no matter where you are, something spectacular is happening. One of my February workshops had a couple of similar mornings and I moved my group around a little faster than I normally do because I wanted to show them as much as possible before the show was over. But this morning I was teaching a class--we were scheduled to meet at 10, so with no time to explore I knew Cathedral Beach was where I'd be until I had to leave.
Without rushing, I worked the scene, wringing out as many compositions as possible. I started wide, using my 17-40 for vertical and horizontal shots that include El Capitan and the reflection. Next I went tighter, using my 24-105 to capture either all of El Capitan, all of the reflection, or some of each. Finally I switched to my 70-200 and started picking out individual elements: the swirling clouds and brilliant highlights on El Capitan's vertical edge, the snow covered snag in the river, and so on.
A couple of related technical issues this image raises: First, the focus point of a reflection; and second, where to focus when elements are spread from near to far throughout the frame. It's counterintuitive to many that a reflection's focus point is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In other words, since El Capitan is at infinity, it's reflection is in focus at infinity, and not when focused on the snag. If you don't believe me, try it yourself.
Given that knowledge, and the fact that I generally want whatever's in my foreground to be in focus (even if it means the background is slightly soft), I had to find a compromise focus point to ensure that both the reflection and the snag were in focus. With an extremely wide focal length and small aperture I was confident I could get the entire scene acceptably sharp if I focused carefully.
There are different approaches to maximizing focus range, such as relatively accurate but awkward hyperfocal charts, and rule-of-thumb guidelines like focusing a third of the way into the frame. Both have merit, and many excellent photographers employ them, but I prefer a more seat-of-the-pants approach that relies on my own experience and understanding of focus range. I generally find the closest subject I want in focus--in this case the snag--and then focus on something a little behind it.
Here I focused on the shoreline closest to where I stood, knowing that a wide shot at f16 gave me a pretty large margin for error. Is this an approach I'd recommend for others? Perhaps, though it takes trial and error to perfect. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with hyperfocal distances--you don't need to memorize them, but a basic understanding of the relationship between f-stops, focal lengths, and focus distance is invaluable for decisions like this.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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