Yosemite Trip: Part 3 – The Water

(You can click on any of the photos to open a larger version.  Then press the backspace key or click on the back button to return to the blog page.  And remember this is part 3 of the posts from Yosemite; to read from the start link to Part 1)

The rocks from the last post might be what one thinks of first in connection with Yosemite, but those mighty giants look as they do because of water.  It was frozen water in the form of glaciers hundreds of feet thick that plowed out the valley as the last ice age pushed through then retreated and left in place the very changed landscape.  Once the glaciers had fled the valley, subsequent eons of flowing water have also worked their slow but unstoppable magic as they honed and polished this special landscape.

The beautiful Merced River, which starts high in the Sierras to the east, is the main actor as it flows through the valley.  Sometimes it is flowing gently and lightly deposits materials carried down from upstream in its eddies and calm spots and thus builds up the land.   At other times, when there is heavy snow pack but sudden warming temperatures early in spring, it comes raging down the mountains and through the valley with incredible ferocity and depth.  These floods sweep the top soil and even some of the rocks on down the valley and out onto the plains.  Occasional extreme floods through the valley have even wiped out some of the concessionaire’s offerings like Camp Curry and flooded up into the visitor’s center area.

But The Merced is not the only source of water by a long shot.  Waterfalls created where other streams and higher ponds finally reach the rim rock above the valley and topple over it are nearly everywhere you look and are especially plentiful in Spring.

Driving into Yosemite Valley from any direction takes you by waterfalls of all sizes from the roar of the spectacular 620-foot drop of Bridal Veil Falls all the way down to the whisper of tiny little springs such as Fern Springs.  All of these water features, big, little, and in-between, flow into and join the Merced while it calmly flows through the valley, catching its breath and getting its nerve up before it starts the rapids-filled drop down toward El Portal.

You cannot get near the view point for Bridal Veil without getting soaked in the spray.   Been there… done that.  This time however I opted for a different approach and shot it from a little farther off.  From here you can see the winds whipping the spray off of the top of the water as it starts its plummet into the valley.

When you are standing there you can see the falling water being torn apart and falling in clumps and clusters and that is what I wanted to capture.   So instead of using a slow shutter speed to let it blur as is often done, including by me, this shot was done very fast at 1/4000 of a second.  The water is moving so fast there is still a slight blurring but it does capture some of the water masses separating as they are impacting on the rocky wall.

When the falling water hits bottom and flows down the creek there is still a mad house of rocks and mini-rapids to further trouble the water until at last it can hit the Merced and then relax… at least for a little bit. This view was definitely worth experimenting with so I shot it at about 1/3200 of a second and then used a post-production technique i had devised to simulate the look of the old uncoated “Petzval” lenses with the aperture tabs that had a central opening surrounded by a halo of smaller openings.  The effect was then aperture specific and usually used for portraiture but in this case it let me really push the eye into that boiling center.

This trip I did not manage to get to Happy Isles or Mirror Lake.   But, like Bridal Veil Falls, another water feature you can see from nearly anywhere in the valley is Yosemite Falls.  This waterfall actually is in two parts with an upper and lower falls with a brief step in between.  There are trails to each and I had some intrepid students actually take the steep, multi-hour trek to the upper falls.  I was truly impressed!  That was a trek I was not going to haul gear along especially with a bum shoulder.  But I have done the lower falls trail several times as well as photographed it across the meadows and now wanted something different for this trip.

Here, to the right, is a shot taken from Cathedral Beach, a popular picnic spot.  It shows Yosemite Falls and also one of the small tributaries flowing into the still calm section of the Merced.  It was this shot that made me rethink the value of the 24mm tilt-shift lens because it allowed me to get the foreground elements that were only inches from the lens.

This second shot shows how the Merced has slowed down and gently travels through the park’s flat valley floor.

I think the water has no idea what it is in for a few miles downstream.  If it did, more of it would decide to stay and nourish the plants and trees of the valley meadows and forests.  But it does allow for some abstract images from reflections of the surrounding rock forms in the slightly moving water.








Just after entering into the Park from the west there is a waterfall just off the road on the north side.  It is amazing how many people drive by this falls and never even realize it is here.

When there are cars parked by it and photographers with cameras out doing their thing then people see THEM and stop.  But if you are parked at a lot some 100 yards away and are down by the creek and out of sight, almost no one stops as they go on by.  This shot was taken in the morning when the falls is just peeking out from behind the shadow.  That seemed to be the perfect time to capture its secretive nature.

On the road (Highway 120) going up to the park service gas station at Crane Flats, there are waterfalls all over the place from large to small.  First is a larger one that flows under the road and down the valley.  Here is a shot of the cascade after it passes under the highway and plummets down to meet the river.

As I mentioned in the post on the rocks, after having been here so many times i was in a “play and experiment” mood.  I had done the rocks almost solely in black and white, something I had not done since my film days, with the water,

I not only played with reflections as shown above, I decided to play with time, that is, motion as it is translated by the camera.  Next is a shot of one of the waterfalls on this road but done with a long exposure combined with the camera following the water flow to get an impressionistic feel for the action.

But in addition to these cascades of tortured water, there are some quiet delicate places such as Fern Springs where a little spring feeds a small pool before it runs over its own little dam to then wind its way downhill to finally join the waters from the other falls in the Merced.  In this shot, to enhance the sense of quiet and calm of this little forest nook, the exposure was for 10 seconds using a neutral density filter and then processed into a warm toned black and white.

As the Merced starts its drop out of the park on the west end, it begins to pick up speed.  Rocks from fist sized to car size have fallen in the water from countless landslides and also being swept down stream by the occasional massive flood.  Once again they start to roil the water and bring it back to life.

Here, to the left, the late afternoon sun rim lights the trees and backlights the little splashing rapids, giving the water some practice at negotiating the smaller rock gardens  before it gets really crazy.

By the time it levels out near El portal, it is still moving at a rapid rate. The rocks are bigger and they often create some  violent standing waves that pour back on themselves, trapping whatever floating debris happened to be riding the rapids.  The next shot is taken at 1/3200 of a second to capture the froth and foam as the water is routed over large boulders in the river from ancient landslides and pours out and back in on itself trying to get it together and head downstream again at a more stately pace.

Even when it gets past the rocks, the river is still moving at a rapid pace but it is not nearly as violent.  Because it was much smoother and since I was playing and experimenting,  I decided to do the next shot using a neutral density filter to allow another long 10-second exposure to capture the flow around some intrepid bushes that had wandered out into the river when it was low and now, with the spring run-off, were still resolutely holding their ground against the implacable water.

In the next post, I’ll show you some of the trees and plant life that abounds in and around the park.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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