Every autumn there is a great chance to see some of our national parks dressed in fall colors. This year I was excited to lead the group to Yosemite National Park. It is
known to have some of the grandest landscapes in North America. People from all over the world visit Yosemite at all times of the year, but no season is prettier than autumn. The park’s open meadows turn golden with the changing seasons, frost covers the layers of grasses, and the leaves on the trees turn vivid colors of yellow, orange and red. The scenic elements of Yosemite all come together during the autumn. Waterfalls gracefully stream down the larger than life walls of granite, framed by the golden leaves, making their way to the Merced River. The Merced winds its way from start to finish through the middle of the Lower Yosemite Valley. It is in this central heart of the park where everything combines that is the perfect place to photograph in autumn.
The tour began when the group left the Fresno Airport and headed north for Yosemite. On the drive into the park we were met with autumn hues everywhere, especially as we got nearer to our destination. The fall foliage was at its peak and the group was soon motivated to get out and shoot. This fall season was a little different from other years—in a good way—as Yosemite had significant rainstorms, which caused a massive amount of water to flow into the valley. The iconic waterfalls, such as Upper Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls, were pouring out large volumes of water, making for a great combination of autumn color and cascading falls.
Let me give you a glimpse into one day in Yosemite National Park during autumn. On our first morning we headed to an area known to locals as Tahiti Beach on the mighty Merced River at the base of El Capitan and the Three Brothers for the sunrise. The group lined up against the shore of the river and photographed with their widest lenses looking for reflections in the quiet pools. This unique location provides several vantage points of the iconic peaks reflected in the river. Again, because of this year’s excess water from the rains, the group found all kinds of rain pools to photograph reflections of fall foliage and the granite peaks of Yosemite.
During the morning the waterfalls and mountains were photographed framed by the colors dressing the trees. Throughout the day we continued photographing along the Merced River, focusing on as much fall color as we could find. As the day warmed, and recent rainwater began to evaporate, the mist rose from the Lower Yosemite Valley. This made for fantastic atmospheric conditions, especially when combined with the colors from the trees.
The highlight of the day was when we came upon a single elm tree in the middle of a meadow with a “spotlight” shining down upon it. At the time most of the valley was in clouds, but an opening in the sky allowed light to shine on this one solitary tree. The combination of the mist, the fall colors, and the light created the perfect conditions. We shot the tree from all kinds of angles as the light lasted for several minutes before moving on. Then, a few minutes later, we found another meadow with atmospheric mist combined with frost. This time the sun peeked through the mist and the crepuscular rays illuminated through the wall of trees and showcased the frost and golden color of autumn.
After having a quick bite to eat the group jumped back into the van ready to locate more fall color in the park. Walking along the Merced River we made our way to El Capitan Meadow and El Capitan Bridge. Standing on the bridge you can photograph in any direction and get perfect fall reflections with the backdrop of El Capitan or the Cathedral Spires mirrored in the river. With the challenges of shooting due to the different kinds of light, the group took a shot at exposure bracketing and HDR. For some of the group this was the first time ever trying this technique. Exposure bracketing is the process of taking several different exposures of the same scene without moving the camera on a tripod. At the end you have several different exposures of a scene to combat the variety of different types of light in one scene. Later, during processing, all of these different exposures are combined into one for one evenly exposed image.
One of the many outstanding features in Yosemite is the number of stunning peaks that rise from the valley floor and are lined up next to one another. This makes for great landscape panoramas. Throughout the day the group put together several panoramas from several locations in the park.
For our sunset shoot we headed to the unbelievable scenic viewpoint at Tunnel View. As the sun began to set and the pink pastel hues began to appear the group waited in anticipation. With the combination of Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls all in one scene it was a memorable sunset shoot that no one would soon forget.
After a full day of shooting autumn color in Yosemite we headed back to our lodging for a group dinner and some well earned rest. And that was just our first day!
Kevin McNeal is a landscape photographer who resides in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He focuses on grand colorful landscapes that reflect the most unique places on earth. Capturing moments of magic light and transferring this on print, images behold a combination of perseverance, patience, and dedication to capture the images in ways unseen before. The stories of how these images are rendered come across in the feelings the images convey.