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Over the Edge, Yosemite Falls

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 11 July 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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On my previous post I discussed that I rarely shoot waterfalls from top to bottom. So alright, I was just proven wrong. After a strenuous three-hour hike with my family (Beri, Rob and Aaron), our French exchange student Florent, my cousin Bob Kutz and longtime friend Mark Franco, we had finally reached the top of North America's tallest waterfall - Yosemite Falls (2,425 feet). The one thought that kept playing in my mind was, I need to get in better shape!

I have been told by park rangers that at least one tourist per year loses their life by tumbling over the top of the falls. I always found that a rather odd statistic as there is a secure metal railing. But there is a large slab of granite that protrudes from the boundary of the fence making an image of person with the falls difficult to capture. I can only image the idiots who think it would be better to stand on the edge of the granite wall and then unfortunately slip - not the way I envision checking out of this world!

My dilemma, thinking strictly as a photographer here, was how do I make an image of the falls given the restriction of the metal fence railing and the aforementioned granite slab? My solution was to extend my tripod as far as possible with my camera attached to my Really Right Stuff ballhead via a L-bracket. Dangling a new $5,000 camera over such a precipice was an exercise in trust that everything would hold given that all the weight was on one end.

My first attempts yielded soft images as I had a shutter speed of 1/125th with my f/11 aperture and an ISO of 200. Thanks to my LCD screen and the ability to enlarge the image, I realized that there was just too much shake. My solution was twofold: set my ISO at 400 that in turn allowed for a 1/250th shutter and also brace the end of the tripod along the top railing of the metal fence. I leaned over the railing as far as I could and extended my left arm to further brace the tripod. I then aligned the camera with something off in the distance (in this case, the top of Sentinel Dome), set the camera to 10 second timer, captured the image, then fine-tune the next frame based on the results. I had preset my Singh-Ray slim neutral polarizer to capture the vivid mist bow prior to positioning my camera.

I shot about 20 different frames before finally feeling content that I had the frame I had envisioned. This is the full frame with no cropping.

Upper Yosemite Fall plunges 1,430 feet into the Middle Cascades (made up of five smaller plunges) that spans 673 feet. The last drop, Lower Yosemite Fall (not shown in this frame) tumbles 317 feet. The portion of the Valley you see below is Yosemite Village, Cook's Meadow (center) and a portion of Ahwahnee meadow (left). A section of the Yosemite Falls Trail can be seen to the right of Middle Cascades.

Beri informed me that there is a total of 60 switchbacks that make up the 3600 foot climb over a course of 3.5 miles (that's roughly 1200 foot vertical per mile). The section of the trail you see here is the only relatively flat part of the entire trail. Feeling rightfully proud of our accomplishment, we were informed by a friend the next morning that a 64-year-old man made the roundtrip climb and descent on the same day in under three hours (If you hear the sound of air, that's just my bubble being burst). For me personally - I'm off to the gym!

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV 1/250 second F/11.0 ISO 400 16 mm

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