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.
Making great images of fall color obviously starts with the seasonal changing of the leaves. Where and how this happens is dependent upon elevation and temperature and no two years are ever the same. The higher mountains of the west begin in mid-September, eastern hardwoods in October, and the lower red-rock country of the southwest in early November. Once you’ve settled on a destination and found that great grove of trees the next step is to consider the light.
It might seem like the vibrant reds or yellows before you would be faithfully reproduced by your sensor no matter what time of day, but understanding the quality of the light can go along way towards guaranteeing your success. Using backlight or sidelight when the sun is low on the horizon and illuminates the leaves from behind creates a wonderful warm glow, especially when set against a dark background.
Softlight is another great light source (illustrated above) that occurs when the sky is overcast and acts like a giant studio softbox. Under these conditions, it doesn’t matter what time of day you’re shooting as the shadows are eliminated and the uniform light both reduces the contrast while intensifying the colors.
So when the scene presents itself, consider the light and don’t be too quick to trip the shutter. A slight change in position or a little patience could make the difference between a good image and a great one.