Yosemite rainbows - WellsFineArtPhotography

The day before we were getting ready to drive to Yosemite in February of 2015,  Gary says to me on the phone, "You know there isn't going to be enough snowmelt for Horsetail Falls to appear this year. We might as well not even go". 

"Yosemite has to look better than Los Angeles. Anyway, I've blocked off the time. I'm going," I reply. "Besides, I've been reading about rainbows. I think we should try for some shots of rainbows on the waterfalls. Despite the drought, Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls should be going strong".

"What did you read?" Gary asks.

"The sun needs to be behind us and up at 42 degrees to get the strongest rainbows. We just have to position ourselves with the sun shining on the back of our heads about half way up into the sky. Because of the height of the waterfalls in Yosemite, that 42 degree angle is likely to be happening at some point along the falls as long as the sun is behind us."

"Well, whatever. It will be an adventure. Do you have circular polarizers for your lenses?"

"Got 'em."

"Okay. I'll see you in the morning."


It's about a five hour drive through not so picturesque farmland in the Central Valley. For long stretches, there are only two lanes each way, with big trucks barreling along at 70 mph and passenger cars trying to weave through and go even faster. It's not a relaxing drive.

The road gets more interesting after Fresno, as farmland gives way to rolling hills dotted with Oak trees and some wildflowers. 

We stop for gas in Oakhurst and pull out our sandwiches for lunch on the road. For the next hour and a half, the road winds through pine forests as it climbs in elevation. Finally, we enter the tunnel that leads into Yosemite Valley. I begin to anticipate the view ahead. 

If you've never been to Yosemite, this is the route (CA 41) I recommend. The view coming out of the tunnel, known appropriately enough as "Tunnel View" is jaw-dropping. Yosemite Valley is laid out below, with the great granite monolith of El Capitan on your left, Half Dome in the distance and Bridalveil Falls to your right. It is perhaps the most photographed vista in the world. Every tourist including me stops at the parking lot at Tunnel View. I stop every time. I can't help myself. It's that beautiful.

As I am finding a parking spot, Gary starts yelling, "A rainbow! There's a rainbow on Bridalveil Falls!" We both start yelling, most of it not suitable for print because we are scrambling to unpack our tripods and cameras, mount the correct lens, etc. before the rainbow disappears. We are so excited, we can hardly contain ourselves.

Tunnel View rainbow

The rainbow slowly worked it's way up the waterfall as the sun dipped down behind us. We had a good 20 minutes to shoot. We couldn't believe our luck.

After the rainbow was finished, we packed up our gear and drove down into the valley. The main road in Yosemite Valley is a loop that travels East up the North side of the valley, crosses through Yosemite Village and heads back West on the North side of the valley. We took our time making the loop, not wanting to check into our tent cabins just yet. As we circled around to the crossover between Northside and Southside drive, we approached Valley View, another iconic view of Yosemite Valley. I was intending to stop anyway, but as I glanced across the Merced towards Bridalveil Falls, I was again stunned to see a rainbow! "Oh, my God! There it is again!"

We couldn't believe our lucky timing. Once again, we scrambled to assemble our gear and catch the shot while it lasted. 

Bridalveil rainbow from Valley View

What a fabulous day! After that, we went back up Northside Drive to Curry Village and unloaded our gear. After  putting things away, we got some food out of our ice chests and began to walk towards our car. In the parking lot, we noticed a beautiful pink glow in the sky behind the trees above Half Dome. Again, we quickly grabbed our cameras but there wasn't a clear shot, so we drove to the meadow  near the entrance to Camp Curry and caught the last of the sunset and watched two hawks riding the thermals.

Sunset clouds over Halfdome


The next morning after eating a bowl of cereal in front of our tents, we drove over to Cook's Meadow. Again to our amazement, there was a rainbow on Upper Yosemite Falls! This was unbelievable! By now, I had my circular polarizer firmly mounted on my lenses. I used my 70 - 200mm, f2.8 at 70mm for this shot.

Upper Yosemite Falls rainbows

By now, I was getting the feel of the position of the sun so I said to Gary, "In about an hour, let's go over to Lower Yosemite Falls. I think there will be a rainbow over there."

Sure enough, there it was.

Lower Yosemite Falls

We met our hiking friend, Ted (of the hiking blog, Ted's Outdoor World), at Yosemite Village and decided to hike up to Columbia Point and beyond to the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. I figured that by the early afternoon, we would have the sun at our backs when facing the falls. I also mentally calculated that by a little later, we could have the sun at our backs with both the falls and Half Dome in our viewfinders. Too late and the falls would be in shadow.

I had been up that way in 2011 with my wife so I knew a good spot to see the base of the waterfall. We had not been able to go up higher that year because of the record snowfall. When we were there in March of 2011, there was snow in the shadows on the valley floor and a large "snow cone" at the base of Yosemite Falls. The trail opposite the base of Upper Yosemite Falls was a foot deep in snow. March was also the wrong time of year to see a rainbow from that vantage.

"Snowcone" at base of Upper Yosemite Falls, March 2011

This year, the trail was much drier. It was hot in the February sun, with the air temperature around 70 degrees. The climb begins in shade but becomes exposed and very steep in parts.


Trail up to Columbia Point

1,000 vertical feet later, the view starts getting better

Nice view of Half Dome from the trail

After climbing up to Columbia Point, we continue up the trail (not as steep at this point) to a point opposite the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. Ah, what a view. And there it is, a double rainbow!

Close up of the base of Upper Yosemite Falls

Climbing further up the trail and with a little rock scrambling, I reach the spot I had been to in 2011. A panorama of Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome only this year, there's the rainbow!

Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome

Because the trail this year was dry, I could hike up farther and get the shot I had seen in my mind, looking past the rainbow at Half Dome. Another quarter mile and I found an opening in the trees. Not much of an opening, but just enough. And once again, a double rainbow.

Upper Yosemite Falls rainbow with Half Dome

What a day! I was exhausted after the hike up Yosemite Falls. I went to bed early, which in the tent cabins requires earplugs as canvas provides no sound barrier. Crying babies, loud teenagers and people clanking their bear boxes open and closed to get out a snack or toothpaste, etc. make a near constant cacophony.

Now that I knew the timings for the various rainbows, I was better prepared for them. I went back to Upper Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil from both Valley View and Tunnel View and shot more still images but also video, panning and zooming. On the image below, the wind kicked up, spreading the mist that gives Bridalveil it's name.

Bridalveil from Tunnel View at 200mm

The key to getting really colorful photos of rainbows is to use a circular polarizer. While looking through the viewfinder, slowly twist the polarizer until the colors are most vivid. Remember to rotate it 90 degrees if you turn the camera up for a vertical shot. If the polarizer is in the wrong position, it will make the rainbow completely disappear. In post production, you can spice up the colors with "vibrance". It doesn't take much because the colors are already amazing.

The next day, Gary, Ted and I hiked up to Inspiration Point.

Gary and Ted at Inspiration Point

That night, I went out for a few night shots. The best one is in my post about happy accidents http://www.wellsfineartphotography.com/Blog/Happy-accidents

Here's one of the Milky Way. There was a setting crescent moon for this shot. Dark enough to show the Milky Way but just enough light to barely illuminate the falls color the small clouds.

Milky Way over Yosemite Falls

Most people going to Yosemite will take photos. Years later, we all like to see ourselves and family members having a good time in a beautiful place. The memories we share together make for wonderful images. But of the four million people who visit every year, a large percentage are photographers hoping for a new take on an iconic view. I have to say, it's harder than you might think to get a truly magnificent shot at this magnificent park. Why? Because there is so much grey rock. If you are Ansel Adams, shooting in black and white, it doesn't make a difference. The forms and textures are beautiful in their own right. But if like me, you are looking for color, it's tough. Besides the pure fun of it, I go to Yosemite to shoot rainbows, wildflowers in Spring and early Summer, Fall colors, the "firefall" and lunar rainbows, or "moon bows". I hope for an interesting sky or some wildlife, but I depend on these for color. If you have never been to Yosemite, do it this year. Don't wait. If you have been before, go again at another time of year. It's an amazing place.

As we left 2 days later, we took some parting shots from Tunnel View just as the sun was coming over the mountains. Gorgeous!

Tunnel View sunrise

Have fun!

David


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