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Frozen Merced River, Yosemite Valley

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 24 January 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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Fresh looking winter scenes in Yosemite Valley generally don't last long. Unless the air on the backside of the storm is extremely cold, temperatures on the Valley floor tend to rise rapidly and the fresh look can be gone within hours. Generally speaking, I like to be in the Valley ahead of the storm, then shoot on the tail end.

Today's image is somewhat a rarity in that the storm had departed overnight and I awoke at 1:45 am to make the 3-hour drive to Yosemite from my home in the southern Bay Area. Having followed the weather very closely, I was excited by the fact that a cold trough from the Gulf of Alaska was forming and was going to stream extremely cold air over the Valley for the entire day. As it turned out, the temperatures actually dropped as the day progressed. When I arrived in the Valley at 6 am, the temperature was 28 degrees and when I departed following sunset it had fallen to 14 degrees!

Having such cold temperatures allowed me the luxury of photographing the entire day. This image was captured around 1 pm near Curry Village. Because the sun's path was near winter solstice lows, it was easy to find shaded scenes (very important when photographing snow). What caught my eye was that two-thirds of the Merced River was frozen over - another rare sight.

At first the scene looked too chaotic to my eye. In such situations, I will take the camera off the tripod and simply move around trying different compositions. I feel this frees me from being tethered to my tripod and allows me to experiment in a more relaxed manner. Once I find my scene, I reintroduce the tripod to match my vision (don't be a slave to your tripod, make it work for you).

What I found worked for this scene were the lines created by the snow, ice and trees, which I discovered by taking a low perspective. Lines and shapes are important in my images and must work to lead the viewer's eye through the frame. I felt in this final composition that I tamed the chaos. All the elements worked in harmony. I wish I could have found a foreground element but with all the fresh snow, I did not want to put something white on the bottom of the frame, thus, I allowed the bend in the river to serve as the foreground.

Hopefully I translated to the viewer not only the beauty of this scene, but also the chill in the air I was feeling and the fresh look of the snow (even though it hadn't snowed since the previous day).

Next time you are struggling with a scene, get your camera off your tripod and move around. See if this freedom doesn't in fact allow you to find a composition pleasing to your eye - just remember to get the camera back onto the tripod prior to making the image!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/5 second F/16.0 ISO 100 50 mm

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