John Muir referred to the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the Range of Light, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting moniker. The play of light amid the high peaks, the unique cloud formations along the eastern escarpment, and the painterly sunsets combine in a luminous landscape to stimulate the senses. And though I have many favorites in the range, one location seems to embody the spirit of these mountains like no other – Tuolumne.
Tuolumne Meadows, in the high country of Yosemite National Park, is a pristine alpine environment of glacial-polished domes, cascading streams and lush meadows under an indigo sky. At nearly 9,000 feet it also has a short summer season between snows with virtually no spring or fall, which makes an annual pilgrimage even more special.
Days here might be spent photographing the landscape, climbing the world-class granite, exploring miles of forest trail, or just lounging by a secluded spot along the river as Muir once did. However you experience Tuolumne, when the daylight fades it’s time to find a clearing in the meadow or scramble up a dome to reflect on the day and enjoy the show as the Sierra magic hour ushers in the night.
The digital age has opened up a whole new world of creative possibilities for the landscape photographer from HDR (High Dynamic Range) and stitched panoramas to focus stacking and exposure blending – and filters have always been invaluable in controlling and shaping the light just as much in the digital realm as in the days of film.
Yet with all of the tools available it’s easy to lose creative focus in an attempt to include a popular technique or push a filter to its limits. As with the constant temptation to buy the latest camera or software it’s important to remember that the gear or the technique isn’t what makes an image shine, but the vision. That’s the essence of creative photography and yet so often misplaced amid the vast array of today’s technical possibilities.
No matter what the future may bring our most important tool as outdoor photographers will always be our mind’s eye, and the equipment in our bag or on our desktop is just a means of helping the viewer connect with what we felt emotionally when we preserved that moment in time.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona is one of the classic destinations in the American southwest. Rich in Native American culture and dramatic geology, it rivals the other more well-known parks in the region, yet it sees much fewer visitors. Although it is managed by the National Park Service, this unique monument is located within the Navajo Indian Reservation, and many local families still live and farm within the canyon walls as their ancestors have done for nearly 5,000 years.
The Park encompasses two major canyons, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘de-shay’), and Canyon del Muerto, both of which include many outstanding Anasazi cliff dwellings perched precariously along the canyon walls. And while there are many excellent viewpoints along the rim drive, nothing compares to a hike down into Canyon de Chelly to visit White House Ruin. This dramatic ruin is an icon of the Colorado Plateau, and the only part of the inner canyon accessible without a Navajo guide. It is a wonderful photographic study in light and shadow as the afternoon light bathes the desert varnish of the imposing sandstone walls above.
Arizona is known as the Grand Canyon state and while that natural wonder is in a class by itself, the smaller scale and equally dramatic vistas make this special park well worth the detour when exploring the Four Corners area.