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Emergence, Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 18 October 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

One of the things I enjoy most about landscape photography is the element of surprise, the anticipation that comes with never quite knowing what's going to happen when I go out with my camera. I usually start with a plan, and while there are times I get exactly what I hoped for, many times I don't. But it's the times I witness something I never imagined possible that excite me the most.

On the final night of my Eastern Sierra workshops I like to take my groups to Olmsted Point in Yosemite. The Olmsted trip is a particular treat because it presents a view of Half Dome's less photographed east flank behind a photogenic foreground of trees, boulders, and glaciated granite. Another highlight of the Olmsted shoot is the opportunity to photograph Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, the best experience of the High Sierra's raw granite topography possible without a backpack. But after four days of spectacular photography, my second workshop group's Olmsted finale was jeopardized by an early snowstorm that closed Tioga Pass, the only route into Yosemite from our current base in Lee Vining. Disappointment would have been difficult given all we'd seen so far, but I nevertheless had already planned an alternate sunset location when I got word that Tioga had just reopened. I quickly returned to Plan A.

As we ascended Tioga Pass, the storm's vestiges darkened the sky and sprinkled our windshield and I wondered whether another pass closure would trap us on the wrong side of the pass, suddenly six circuitous hours from our lodging. The ranger at the entrance station assured me we'd be okay, so we continued on to Olmsted Point, stopping on the way to photograph at a couple of my favorite Tuolumne Meadows locations.

Arriving about an hour before sunset, we found Olmsted Point completely enshrouded by clouds that obscured everything beyond 100 yards. Not quite what I'd envisioned, but the group had lots of fun exploring the nearby granite and creating compositions featuring large boulders (glacial "erratics," deposited by retreating glaciers) and gnarled trees amidst the dense fog. As sunset approached I kept an anxious eye on the sky hoping for a break, wavering between cautiously optimistic and hopelessly resigned. Nevertheless I reassured the group (and myself) with one of my favorite Yosemite axioms: It's impossible to predict what it will be like in five minutes based on what it's like right now.

Shortly before "official" sunset (when the sun reaches the horizon on a flat, terrain-free Earth) the sky lightened noticeably. Hmmm. Soon the persistent fog still engulfing us started to glow, first amber and then pink and we quickly realized we were actually in the midst of clouds alive with the sunset color we'd all our lives only seen in the distance. This was both eerie and spectacular and everyone scrambled frantically looking for subjects, trying to photograph a moment that defies photography. Within five minutes the color was gone, leaving us all breathlessly grateful to have witnessed it with others who could validate what we'd just experienced.

With night falling fast and the visibility still measured in yards it would have been easy to pack up and revel in our success over dinner. But when the clouds in the direction of Half Dome showed signs of thinning we greedily decided to stay put in the hope that Mother Nature had an encore for us. Within minutes the clouds on the western horizon llifted, revealing Half Dome's summit against sunset's orange afterglow. Everything after that was a blur of churning clouds, exposed granite, and deepening color as Yosemite's most distinctive monolith emerged from its shroud. We were all positioned close enough that I could hear everyone's amazed gasps punctuated by rapid shutter clicks. Confident that everyone else was under control I went to work, frantically zooming wider and tighter, changing orientation, and swapping lenses, all in a futile attempt to capture every single compositional possibility before the darkness was complete.

The entire scene, from Cloud's Rest on the left to Mt. Watkins on the right, swirled with clouds, with Half Dome at the vortex. In this frame I opted for a tight composition to emphasize the churn of clouds surrounding Half Dome. I exposed to hold the color in the sky and timed the exposure to silhouette the trees against an ephemeral finger of clouds rising from Tenaya Canyon. (I'd love to tell you my f-stop was a conscious choice, but if I hadn't been rushed I'd have been at f11 rather than the f16 left over from a couple minutes earlier when I was trying to include a foreground.)

In addition to some amazing images, my group finished that evening with a first-hand understanding of how long after sunset the shooting can be good. Our final shots were thirty second exposures that included stars, coming late enough that flashlights were necessary to make our way back to the cars. Dinner was really good.

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

DULCIE from Danville, CA, United States

A stunning image...layers and layers of interest, one buried in another.
A MOST gorgeous image of Half-Dome. 5 Stars!!

18 Oct 2010 5:35am

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria

Wow, stunning landscape, 5 Stars!

18 Oct 2010 5:48am

Claus Petersen from Herfølge, Denmark

It looks just amazing the way the clouds just huggs the mountains.

18 Oct 2010 7:27am

k@ from Paris, France

I can feel a deep soul here and i love that. Bravo.

18 Oct 2010 9:18am



18 Oct 2010 9:54am

Judy aka L@dybug from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! GORGEOUS!

18 Oct 2010 11:13am

Don Smith from California, United States

Hi Gary, this may be one of the best Half Dome images I've ever seen. I thought we had great light five days prior but this certainly trumps my experience. Congrats! This must make a summer's worth of blank blue-sky days fade like a distant memory. Let's hope we see something this dramatic starting Thursday!

18 Oct 2010 1:12pm

@Don Smith: Thanks, Don. Yeah, that was a pretty amazing scene. This is exactly why I look forward to the end of our blue sky summers. If conditions permit I'm already thinking about taking the group up there Saturday. Right now the NWS is talking about a chance of showers and lots of clouds every day, but no major storm. Fingers crossed.

Mici from Toronto, Canada

Very impressive, a beautiful and dramatic photography at the same time. Thank you for sharing the story behind it as well ;)

18 Oct 2010 2:07pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

This image is the "icing" on a wonderful "cake" of an experience! The image is so beautiful it has the power to make me teary.....But what stands out so much for me is the feeling and the experience of being there to witness this that you all share! Amazing!

18 Oct 2010 2:26pm

Barbara Lee from Oakland, United States

Gary, this is breathtaking! When I opened your image, I said to myself - OMG! What a great capture! I was standing there last Monday afternoon with my husband on our way home from a visit to Sorensen's. The clouds were terrific. How I wish I could have stayed another 4 hours to wait for what was probably an amazing sunset. But when you are traveling with your know. I am SO glad that you had this opportunity! It is a 100% 10 star image!

18 Oct 2010 4:04pm

@Barbara Lee: Thanks, Barbara. Sorensen's to Oakland via Olmsted Point is quite a drive, but I'm sure it was beautiful. I've photographed many sunsets at Olmsted but never one quite like this. We actually had a nice sunset there for my first workshop group too, but we didn't get any color and the clouds weren't quite as dramatic. I'll probably post one from that night at some point.

Julie from Easton, United States

I just have not words for this photo Gary! I am just in awe over it! Amazing!!!!!!

18 Oct 2010 4:36pm

Marie LC from Dauphiné, France

Splendid ! 5*

18 Oct 2010 4:37pm

Barbara Lee from Oakland, United States

Yes, Gary, it was an 8 hour return but well worth it. Tracy had never been over Monitor Pass (breathtaking) and Conway Summit was terrific as was Mono Lake. Just a great fall color ride, though there was still plenty of green! I'll post a late afternoon photo from Olmstead Point later this week.

18 Oct 2010 8:38pm

steve loos from hollister, United States

Gary I agree with Don. What makes this image so beautiful is that it is unique; I have seen half dome in person dozens of times from all sides (including the top,) and have looked at hundreds of images and yet have never seen this light in combination with the clouds. It is rare to be able to clearly see the north east sail leading off the face from Olmsted and the fact you have a cloud racing up the face that backlights the feature is astounding; great catch and great image!

18 Oct 2010 10:17pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

absolutely stunning

18 Oct 2010 11:08pm

Manu from Lynchburg, Va, United States

what an impressive photo!

19 Oct 2010 12:28am

amy from Nanaimo, BC, Canada

Perfect! All the stars aligned for this shot... ;-)

19 Oct 2010 3:13am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

superb photo - certainly very different and very original - not what we usually see captured! you used the light and conditions to perfection here - the resulting dramatic mood is just brilliant!

19 Oct 2010 4:36am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Breathtaking... It's really amazing how beautiful nature can be ! Fantastic capture Gary ! Have a lovely day :)

19 Oct 2010 8:54am

PD from Overland Park, Kansas, United States

Wow - truly amazing!

19 Oct 2010 6:25pm

Kelly Morvant from Lafayette LA, United States

This is what I missed? :-( WOW!

19 Oct 2010 6:41pm

@Kelly Morvant: 'Fraid so, Kelly. If it makes you feel any better, we all had a moment of silence in your honor. :)

Andy Wallace from Davis, CA, United States

What a gorgeous image!. One of the mos beautiful I have seen of Half Dome.

19 Oct 2010 7:54pm

Jesus Sousa from United States

Hey Gary, I went there 3 days in a row, and Half Dome was a dude, all around Tenaya Lake it was great, Sunrise and sunset. I had to be back to work and I saw your post on my phone, this is an awesome shot
of Half Dome, timing is everything, and the light is great. See you on the road later.

20 Oct 2010 2:09am

Vaido from Võrumaa, Estonia

This is such an extraordinarily great scene in nature and perfect photo of that! Thanks for good story, too...

20 Oct 2010 11:53am

Jason Kravitz from Brussels, Belgium

epic shot Gary - amazing colors and atmosphere

20 Oct 2010 4:36pm

Kelly Morvant from Lafayette LA, United States

I really appreciate that! :-)

20 Oct 2010 6:24pm

Mike from California, United States

Awsome image Gary...another great image to showcase in your portfolio.

20 Oct 2010 6:57pm

Chris Delle from Sacramento, United States

Great story and a beautiful image to accompany it. Just when you think you've seen it all, mother nature throws a curve ball :)

20 Oct 2010 7:35pm

Michelle from Elverson, United States

I love it. There are no words for how beautiful this is!

21 Oct 2010 12:39pm

Dutçh from Chicagoland, United States

An amazing story and an incredible view. I had to grin at your left over f-stop.. I guess we all do that. Still it turned out remarkable.. and yes this looks like something that needs validation because it's.. so very fantasy looking.. just wow!

21 Oct 2010 5:16pm

Jen from United States

Wow!!! It's so nice to see a different view of this classic landmark. It must have been amazing to see this in person. You've captured it beautifully!

22 Oct 2010 5:43pm

The MaJor from TM HooD, Iran

wow..ultra excellent

22 Oct 2010 7:01pm

Brent Fraser from Dublin, CA, United States

Beautiful capture Gary! Everytime I have been to Olmstead Point I have had nothing but clear skies. Well Done!!!

22 Oct 2010 11:17pm

Michelle from Elverson, United States

By the way, congrats on the color spotlight!

23 Oct 2010 1:54pm

Hiro from Kyoto, Japan

Wonderful ! I like the layered composition.

23 Oct 2010 10:29pm

Steve from Camdenton, United States

Indeed a superb shot...very dramatic with the different layers from foreground to background....EXCELLENT!

24 Oct 2010 2:17am

Laura AKA DrMarm from United States

What a fabulous moment in time you captured. Amazing view and colors, splendid. What an end to your workshop!

24 Oct 2010 2:01pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Gary - I have been gone so I missed your previous image postings for the last few may not ever see this comment here, but I still have to say how awestruck I am by this and how dearly I wish I could have experienced this at least "know" someone who has helps, and to know that the person is you and your students makes it even better,. This is just jaw dropping to look at...All the Best - Denny

26 Oct 2010 8:40pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

PS - If I may say so, I think your dad would be magnificently proud of this one too!

26 Oct 2010 8:41pm

Scott Lewis from Shreveport, United States

Gary, that picture is why I want to become a good photographer. Cant wait until my trip with you in Yosemite.
That picture is breathtaking.

26 Oct 2010 9:31pm

Shahid from W Bloomfield, United States

Gary, this HAS to be one of the best pictures of the half dome. You have out-done yourself.

27 Oct 2010 2:36pm

joel from alliance, United States

One of the most impressive shots of this view I've ever seen! Bravo, Gary.

27 Oct 2010 7:43pm

Donald Hamburg from New York City, United States

Gary: I had the good fortune to be standing right next to you when you took that amazing photo. I was lucky enough to have taken similar ones but not nearly as beautiful and dramatic as yours. The workshop was one of the most memorable and exciting shooting experiences ever. Your description of the circumstances that evening is perfect and not at all exaggerated. Thank you for insisting that we remain there long past dark. The fact that our shutter speed was 30 seconds at ISO 100 testifies to how dark it was. Donald

27 Oct 2010 10:27pm

Bill Gillon from West Hills, ca, United States

Serendipity may have had a hand in this in making this wonderful photo in more ways than one. Shooting at f11 instead of f16 may have taken the edge off the drama.

28 Oct 2010 4:07pm

raymond marlow from salt lake city, United States

Definitely one of your better images Gary and you have alot to speak of. My friend has mentioned several times we ought to drop by Ohlmstead point and work it over. I have thought better but after reading your blog on glaciated granite and erratics not to mention this image I think I'll be making a stop by on my next trip to try and make something work. No doubt this power won't fall into my lap but you never know what can be found. Thanks for sharing the power.

29 Oct 2010 2:40am

KriKridesign from Cully, Afghanistan

My heart is pounding...and I'm speechless...No words...just simply fantastic...Thank you for this masterpiece...So much...

29 Oct 2010 11:33pm

Mary Hart from United States

Spiritual rush, comes to mind. To be sitting there watching every words would be spoken and I'm sure I wouldn't be able to breathe; only watching in awe. For me, I know a few tears would be shed knowing that there is a my Heart hope.

4 Nov 2010 4:53am

Patricia Huff from United States

Breathe Taking and Amazing As Always.

16 Nov 2010 6:50am

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Absolutely breathtaking!

16 Dec 2010 3:56pm

Hediyeh from Tehran, Iran

really fantastic !

6 Jan 2011 9:25am