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First Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 26 April 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

My previous blog post got me thinking about Sentinel Dome, and how much I enjoy photographing there. With a 360 degree panorama that includes a who's-who of Yosemite icons (Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Nevada Fall), and a foreground assortment of granite boulders, gnarled trees, and wildflowers, I'm a kid with a sweet tooth and Sentinel Dome is my candy store.

The precipitous Sierra crest to the east and a gentle downslope to the west means Yosemite gets much better light at sunset than at sunrise. But at 8,000 feet, Sentinel Dome's elevation above the surrounding terrain makes it one of the most accessible sunrise exceptions. Here I can watch the sun ascend from behind Half Dome and photograph the day's first rays of sunlight skimming the textured trees and granite.

Only accessible by car during the long days of summer, photographing Sentinel Dome at sunrise requires a bit of planning and effort. The hike to the summit is a pretty easy mile on a fairly well-marked trail, but since ensuring I don't miss any color requires being in place at least 45 minutes before the sun appears, I have to travel most of trail in the dark.

The night before capturing this image I spent the night in the back of my truck at a backcountry trailhead about five miles down the road. I started my hike in total darkness, and it wasn't until I ascended final two hundred yards of steep granite to the top that the eastern horizon started to show hints of the approaching day. On top I was pleased to find that I had the dome to myself. The sky was clear (nothing dramatic happening), so rather than start right into photography, I just pulled up a boulder to bask in the utter silence and wait for the sun.

When I finally got to work with my camera I knew only had a few minutes of ideal light. My eyes were drawn first to this clump of wildflowers at the base of a dead tree; as I approached I realized I could align these two foreground subjects with Yosemite Falls in the background. I wanted the flowers and tree sharp, and at my chosen focal length knew it wouldn't be possible for the fall to be sharp too. I stopped down to f16, which softened the background just enough to underscore the crispness of the foreground, then bumped my ISO to 400 to allow a shutter speed I was confident would stop the motion of the flowers in the slight breeze. Since there was nothing interesting happening in the sky, I simply eliminated it from my composition.

Sometimes I'm extremely excited when I capture an image and can't wait to get home and see it large. But this was one of those images that started out under my radar--I liked what I'd done, but it wasn't until I got home that I really began to appreciate it. While it's not spectacular, I don't tire of looking at it and its staying power has made it one of my favorites. And I was particularly gratified a couple of years ago when Sierra Heritage magazine selected it for one of their covers.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

MK from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

superb compo n lights

26 Apr 2010 5:11am

kate from lincolnshire, United Kingdom

just beautiful!!:)

26 Apr 2010 7:37am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Lovely textures and perfect light ! I love this composition :)

26 Apr 2010 9:51am

Don Smith from California, United States

This has always been one of my favorite images for many reasons. To name three: it would be the soft light of sunrise, the way the bend in the tree mimics that of the falls, and lastly, the foreground wildflowers. This was clearly your personal vision. How many photographers would have walked right past this without even a glance?

26 Apr 2010 2:02pm

Julie from Easton, United States

Another wonderful shot of yours! Lighting, focus, composition, and backgrounds are outstanding!

26 Apr 2010 2:04pm

Shahryar from Isfahan, Iran

great capture :)

26 Apr 2010 3:01pm

Elora from Genoa, Italy

great capture, the tree sort of looks like a seal to me :) What I really like is the shot of pink from the flowers below!

26 Apr 2010 3:48pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

so many symbols in your images...Virility of the wood, the femininity of flowers...Ying and the Yang of the nature! a real spring vision!

26 Apr 2010 6:28pm

Curly from South Shields, United Kingdom

Delightful light and coarse textures Gary.

26 Apr 2010 7:44pm

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria

Beautiful composition, great image!

26 Apr 2010 8:05pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Another winner, Gary ... the wonderful foreground detail, exquisite focus on the wood, and then the waterfall and DOF ... perfect!

26 Apr 2010 9:09pm

ISO from Bogota, Colombia

I love this...really like the colors, the texture, the back ground...excellent!

26 Apr 2010 10:43pm

Sandy Weston from Madison, Maine, United States

Gary ....perfect for a cover! Awesome :)

27 Apr 2010 12:32am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

wonderful composition and light the details in the tree and rocks are excellent! the fall behind is almost an afterthought although it still looks good there!

27 Apr 2010 2:08am

kiwisa from North Shore, New Zealand

This photo definitely has the WOW factor. Great work.

27 Apr 2010 3:02am

Marie from FRESNES, France

superbe lumière, et très beau cadrage.

27 Apr 2010 3:21pm

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Maybe this image is not spectacular in the way a thundering falls might be, but it definitely is worthy of a cover, and Sierra Heritage is the perfect description. You have everything in this composition that I associate with the Sierra Nevada-the granite, the flowers, the pine tree, and the gnarled texture of dead wood. Thanks for the story behind the image, I always enjoy them!

27 Apr 2010 10:20pm

Kelly from United States

Unbelievably BEAUTIFUL!

28 Apr 2010 2:12am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

fantastic image, the details are amaizing.

28 Apr 2010 8:12am

Michelle from Elverson, United States


28 Apr 2010 12:30pm

steve loos from hollister, United States

For all the same reasons as Don said beautiful image. One of my favorite images taken from one of my favorite spots (I have photographed this tree, but never noticed how the falls interact with the tree) well done Gary.

29 Apr 2010 3:55am

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Very beautiful composition , beautiful photograph

29 Apr 2010 12:01pm

Ansie from Paarl, South Africa

The golden glow, the pink flowers in the foreground - superb!

30 Apr 2010 6:15am

steve loos from hollister, United States

Gary; I realized I had posted an image of this very tree a few weeks ago in my blog. I provided a link to this image, again it is stunning.

1 May 2010 8:47pm

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Superb composition and light! Perfection all around! As always :)

3 May 2010 5:58am

Self-Indulgence from Chicagoland, United States

The texture monster in me likes this as well as it tickling my fancy for closeups. The waterfall in the background just shows how precious details are in close, at least to me. We all see what we see out of each image to our own design.

4 May 2010 4:05am

Demo from Villeneuve d, France

Amazing composition! Bravo !

9 May 2010 8:03pm