Ingo Scholtes Photography

Bringing the great outdoors inside.

Scenes from Yosemite Themepack - Behind the Scenes

There probably are only few photography enthusiasts who do not admire Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite National Park, which have become hallmarks of fine-art landscape photography. Admiring Adams' works, it has been my dream to explore and photograph Yosemite myself. Having missed a first chance on a visit to San Francisco in 2007, a trip to Berkeley in 2014 provided a second opportunity that I did not want to miss. I thus reserved a couple of days to hike in and around Yosemite valley, visiting many of the beautiful places I had known from Ansel Adams' photographs. I returned with unforgettable impressions of a majestic nature, some of which were published by Microsoft in the themepack Scenes from Yosemite.

Scene 1: Panorama Cliff

After staying in Yosemite valley for two days, we decided to explore the mountain areas surrounding the valley on a hiking trip. Following personal recommendations, we decided for the Panorama Trail, easily one of Yosemite's most spectacular dayhikes. The trail starts at an elevation of 2200m at Glacier Point and follows the fringe of the mountain area surrounding Yosemite valley, frequently providing spectacular views of the valley floor, the surrounding water falls as well as the mountainscapes of the Sierra Nevada. A particularly scenic view can be enjoyed from the so-called Panorama Cliff, or Panorama Point, a wide and flat rocky plateau which can be used to shortcut one portion of the Panorama trail.

With a steep drop several hundred meters deep, walking close to the edge is certainly not for the light-hearted, especially since there have been several rockfalls over the last decades which left the plateau without any comforting handrails. Luckily I was not aware of the risk of rockfalls, when I took this picture of a young conifer, which is standing close to the edge of Panorama Cliff, fiercly braving the elements. In the background, you can spot the eastern face of Half Dome, while on the left you can see the floor of Yosemite valley.

Scene 2: Valley View

Seeing the calm, meandering Merced river in this image, it is hard to imagine how wild and roaring it presents itself just a few kilometers upstream. In many ways, it is reasonable to view Merced river as one of the major creative forces behind many of the beauties of Yosemite valley. Not only did it - by continuous erosion over a period of tens of millions of years - contribute to the formation of the canyon which forms the floor of Yosemite valley. It also feeds some of the most beautiful waterfalls and waters the beautiful meadows the valley is so famous for.

Exploring the banks of Yosemite valley, I came across this beautiful spot which, for obvious reasons, is called "Valley View". For my taste it offers one of the most scenic panoramas of Yosemite, which comprises Merced river, El Capitan as well as the typical mixed forest and meadow vegetation of Yosemite valley. Given the beauty of this place and the spectacular view it provides, I was actually surprised that it is seemingly seeked out only by few of the valley's visitors. As such, it was great to enjoy the silence and solitude of this place, while searching for the best spot to take a wide-angle picture close to the river bank. I took this image on my first visit of Valley View Point, when I found it in bright sunshine on an early afternoon. Naturally, knowing about the power of changing light conditions in Yoysemite, I came back at other times of the day but never quite experienced the beauty of the scene as strong as on my first visit.

Scene 3: Dead tree trunk

Trees, whether living or dead, are an essential part of Yosemite's ecosystem. Living trees of various kinds, including fir, pine trees, cedars and sequoias, form the typical mixed Sierra Nevada conifer forests which cover Yosemite valley and the surrounding alpine woods. Hiking through these woods, enjoying the ethereal smell of bark, needles and sap as well as the mesmerising outlooks offered by an occasional clearance, is a memorable experience. But even when age, storm or fire have ended the life of a tree, it continues to be important for the ecosystem. Its remains, whether simple dead wood or charcoal, are crucial not only for the next genration of vegetation, but also as hideouts for small mamals and insects.

Sometimes, dead wood is not only ecologically important, but also - as in this image - quite pittoresque. This twisted, and beautifully textured tree trunk nicely decorated the view towards Half Dome. I took this image while hiking on Panorama Trail, one of the most beautiful dayhikes around Yosemite valley. Making use of an extreme wide-angle lens and a low perspective allowed me to capture the organic, rolling line of the trunk, as it points towards the mountains in the background.

Scene 4: Sunset in Yosemite Valley

Quite understandably, most visitors of Yosemite Valley are mainly attracted to its roaring waterfalls as well as its humbling monoliths. However, walking through Yosemite Valley, I found its rich and open meadows, alive with birds and butterflies, just as spectacular. Luckily, a network of trails and boardwalks pervade these meadows, allowing to walk through this ecosystem without damaging it too much. Indeed, the meadows of Yosemite valley are among those spots that offer the largest diversity of plants and animals. Some of the valley's most beautiful are Cook's Meadow, Sentinel Meadow, Leidig Meadow and Stoneman Meadow.

We were passing Cook's Meadow shortly before sunset when we saw the last rays of sun highlighting just the top part of Half Dome. I set up my tripod, attached my polarizing filter and - together with a small number of fellow photographers - took a series of photographs. The photograph shown above was one of the nicest outcome of these shots. I particularly like how the clouds are nicely placed to support the dramatic view of the glowing peak of Half Dome.

Scene 5: Upper Yosemite Fall

Yosemite Valley is home to numerous waterfalls. With a height of 739 meters, Yosemite Falls is not only the tallest of those in the valley, it is actually one of the tallest in the United States and ranks 20th in the world. In fact, Yosemite Falls is a cascade of three waterfalls. With a plunge of 440 meters, Upper Yosemite Fall is the tallest of the three, followed by a more than 200 meter drop of the Middle Cascades, and a final 98 meter plunge of the Lower Yosemite Fall. What makes Yosemite Falls particularly pitturesque, is that they can nicely be seen over a long distance from numerous points within the valley as well as from the surrounding mountains. What's more, Upper Yosemite Falls is well-known for the so-called Pohono effect, which refers to the continuously changing shape of the water curtain that can be seen on windy days.

I took the photograph above on a short hike across Cook's Meadow, which offers particularly nice views of Upper Yosemite Falls. Focusing on the the flowers of a western azalea growing along the path, I decided to push the waterfall into the background, thus adding a sense of depth to the scene.

Scene 6: Golden Half Dome

At a height of close to 2700 meters, Half Dome is a pronounced peak at the eastern fringe of Yosemite Valley. Its characteristic, eponymous shape is world-famous and tens of thousands of hikers climb it every year. The geologic history of Half Dome is actually quite interesting. It consists of Granodiorite, a particularly hard material able to withstand erosive forces. However, Half Dome is located just at the edge of Yosemite valley which during the last Ice Age was filled with glaciers moving down from the surrounding mountains. One of these glaciers abraded the base of Half Dome, causing one half of the mountain to collapse. In more recent times, Half Dome has become one of the key symbols of Yosemite National Park and it probably ranks amone the world's most frequently photographed mountains.

I wanted to shoot Half Dome during sunset, and I drove up to Wawona Tunnel to which I knew would give me a nice overview over the valley. After the sun had already disappeared in the valley, for a few final moments of daylight Half Dome started to glow in an intense orange before the twilight befell it as well. In this very moment, I seized my chance to get a shot of the tree silhouettes in front of the glowing rock face.

Scene 7: Vernal Fall

At a height of 97 meters, Vernal Fall is among the most impressive water falls in Yosemite valley. It is, in fact, the smaller cousing of the larger Nevada Fall, which is located just a few hundred meters upstream the Merced river. Vernal Fall is the destination of the Mist trail, which is one of the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite National Park. Staying close to the fall, it winds its way up the mountain all the way to the top of Vernal Fall. As suggested by the name, depending on wind and the amount of water, hikers are frequently sprayed in mist during their ascend. A popular location to rest (and dry) is the Emerald Pool, a large pool of crystal-clear water which is eventually swept over the fall's top edge. We were quite astonished to spot visitors swimming in the pool, despite numerous warning signs that highlight frequent deaths of swimmers that have been carried over the edge.

This panoramic image was taken during a hike along the Mist trail, a short way up from the base of Vernal Fall. If you happen to be at this spot at the right time of a sunny day, you are likely to see a rainbow forming in the mist at the fall's base. Due to the late summer season, the volume of the fall was rather small and we were thus not getting particularly wet. Nevertheless I had to frequently swipe the front lens to keep it clear from water droplets.

Scene 8: View from Glacier Point

If you want to get a good sense for the at times overwhelming grandeur of nature in the Sierra Nevada, a trip to Glacier Point may be your best bet. At an altitude of 2,200 meters, this viewpoint rises high above the floor of Yosemite valley. It provides a bird's eye view on Yosemite's best-known landmarks, all visible at once and composed into an almost absurdly spectacular scenery. It is thus no surprise that the barren plateau of Glacier Point is extremely popular among visitors and photographers. But being the trailhead of Panorama Trail, it is also an important vantage point for hikers that want to escape the crowds and enjoy the scenery in solitude.

I took this image close to the trailhead of Panorama Trail. We had taken a bus tour from Yosemite Village up to Glacier Point, from where we hiked the 19 km long Panorama Trail back to Yosemite Valley. I spotted this pine tree with an interestingly textured bark and a nice overhanging branch, naturally framing the scenery. Close to the center of the image, you can see Half Dome. The water fall visible on the right is the 181 m high Nevada Fall.

Scene 9: Nevada Fall

Photography is all about capturing emotions. A good picture enables the photographer to relive the emotions that inspired him or her to take the shot in the first place. An excellent picture succeeds in conveying these feelings even to those viewers who have not been at the scene themselves. This particular picture, taken at the edge of Nevada Fall, takes me back to a sunny afternoon in Yosemite valley. Starting at Glacier Point, we had spent all day hiking along the Panorama Trail. When we arrived at Nevada Fall, we had completed the larger part of our tour and the sun was already hanging low in the sky. The heat of the day had passed but it was still warm and the afternoon sun was bathing the mountain scenery in warm light. We stood at the edge of Nevada Fall and admired the sheer power of the roaring river as it is plunges into the depth. We rested for a moment and enjoyed the solitude on this late afternoon, before moving on to complete the last few kilometers of the trail.

Like for most rules in photography, there are also exceptions to the rule that you should never shoot against the sun. In this image, the low afternoon sun is actually an important component: Together with the warm light and the long shadows, it provides a temporal reference frame for the scenery. It also helps to illuminate the churning waters of the fall, as it plunges over the edge.

Scene 10: El Capitan

El Capitan - The Captain - may be one of Yosemite's best-known attractions. At a height of 2308 meters, it is among the largest granite monolits in North America. From the valley floor to the top, its sheer granite wall extends more than 900 meters in an almost perfect vertical fashion. Since the first ascend in 1958 via The Nose, a route previously that was believed to be impossible to climb, El Capitan has become an El Dorado for the international big-wall climbing scene. While the first ascend in 1958 took Warren Harding 47 days, the current speed climbing record for The Nose is an incredible 2 hours and 19 minutes. But way before these efforts to conquer El Capitan, it was held in high esteem by visitors that simply came to admire its sheer grandeur. Some of Ansel Adams' most famous images show El Capitan and the history of photographs of the monoliths actually date back to a shot from early photographer Charles Leander Weed taken in the 1860s only ten years after white settlers had first set foot in the valley.

The image above shows the southwest face of El Capitan as seen from the banks of Merced River. Walking along the river bank, I came across this twisted piece of driftwood, which had seemingly been traveled down Merced River. I realized that, thanks to the color contrast to the granite face of El Capitan, it would make a good foreground for this shot. Remarkably, close to the center of the image you may see a small brown spot hovering in mid-air. This is actually a hummingbird, captured in full-flight as it passed through the scene.

Scene 11: Nevada Fall and Liberty Cap

One thing that you will learn in Yosemite is that no two waterfalls are alike. Each has its own character, beauty, and shape. In fact, waterfalls have their own typology. Nevada Fall, for instance, is classified as a so-called Horsetail, i.e. a type of waterfall whose water slides across rock rather than freely pluging down. Interestingly, the name Nevada Fall is only indirectly related to the surrounding Sierra Nevada. The Spanish name is actually believed to refer to the snow-white appearance of the waterfall rather than to the surrounding mountains. As such the "snowy" waterfall stands in contrast to its "springtime" companion "Vernal" Fall, which is located a few hundred meters further downstream.

This photo was taken on a hike along the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley. We had just left the edge of Nevada Fall and made our way back to the valley floor. When I looked back, I saw the beautiful scenery composed of the 2158 meter high Liberty Cap mountain with Nevada Fall below. I particularly liked the contrast of grey rock, deep blue sky, and green forest. I searched for a foreground interest and found a small rock formation that serves to push back the scenery and convey a sense of depth.

Scene 12: Yosemite Valley

Especially during high season, there is no way around the fact that Yosemite Valley is a well-visited place. In 2017 alone, more than 5 million people visited Yosemite National Park, a number roughly equivalent to the annual German and UK tourists in Mallorca. However, a visit to Yosemite feels much touristic than the mere annual visitor count may suggest. First of all, Yosemite is excellently managed and Park Services cap the number of visitors to a maximum of 21,000 on any given day. Moreover, the majority of visitors stick to those places that are accessible by car, or even drive along the eight mile valley loop without leaving the car altogether. As soon as you move way from the roads, parking places, visitor centers, and restaurants you will gradually find less people around and the solitude and serenity of the valley will surround you despite the visitor masses.

I shot this photo during a stroll along one of the many small trails in Yosemite Valley. The shadow of some trees brought some welcome relief from the afternoon heat of a sunny day. I liked the contrast of the sunny patches in the grass against the spectacular backdrop of Yosemite Falls. I chose a low shooting angle to capture the grass in the foreground. I used a small aperture to get a sharp image from front to back.

Scene 13: Valley View

At a length of more than 230 km, Merced river is not only the main river of Yosemite Valley. It is also a major water source for the farmlands in San Joaquin valley, where the water of Merced River joins San Joacquin river before eventually reaching the bay of San Francisco. In Yosemite Valley, Merced River is a peacefull little stream, popular among hikers, swimmers, and whitewater rafters. In late summer, Merced river is mainly fed by ground water and its volume is generally too small to allow for paddling. In spring and early summer, up to 85 % of its water is snow melt from the Sierra Nevada surrounding Yosemite.

I took this image close to Valley View viewpoint at the banks of Merced river in Yosemite Valley. I used a wide-angle lens with a low shooting angle to capture the rocks in the foreground, as well as El Capitan and the line of trees in the background. The reflection of the sky on the water surface helps to create a sense of depth in this image.

Scene 14: Half Dome Profile

Thanks to its height and distinct shape, Half Dome is easily recognizable from most viewpoints in Yosemite. Apart from its geological history, which I outlined above, the history of mountaineering at Half Dome is particularly interesting. Although the California Geological Survey described Half Dome as perfectly inaccessible in 1870, George Anderson was the first to reached the summit in 1875. For his successful ascend, Anderson had created a route of iron bolts, drilled into the smooth rock of Half Dome. Today, tens of thousands of hikers reach the summit every year, via a steel cable route constructed in 1919 close to the original Anderson route.

I took this photo from Panorama trail, just a few hundred meters below Washburn Point. From this point of view it is obvious how Half Dome got its name. I found a nice pine tree that I could use as a foreground and I used a slight tele zoom of 65 mm to compress the distance in this profile shot of Half Dome.

Scene 15: Moonrise over Yosemite Valley

I took this picture on a truly memorable evening. We had driven up the road from Yosemite Valley to Wawona Tunnel shortly before sunset. The idea was to shoot the sun setting over the classical Tunnel View vista, which is most famously known for Ansel Adam's classic shot Clearing Winter Storm. I also planned to capture the full moon, which I knew would be rising over the valley later that evening. So I set up my tripod and - together with a group of fellow photographers - waited for moonrise for close to three hours. Finally, some time after nightfall, I could spot a faint glow crawling down the face of El Capitan, which is visible on the left of the picture. During the next few minutes, the moon rising over the mountains to the right increasingly illuminated the face of the monolith, bathing the whole valley in silver light.

I took a long exposure to bring out the faint light, producing an image that matches the visual impression. A remarkable detail of this image are the bright spots of light that can be seen at several points in the wall of El Capitan. These are headlights of climbers en route to the summit of El Capitan, who spend the night in Portaledges, hanging tents that are used on multi-day big wall climbs.