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Photographing In Yosemite
By Scott Bourne

When I think of cathedrals, I think of Yosemite. It's not just because Cathedral Beach is a great Yosemite morning shoot, it is because Ansel Adams made it hallowed ground for photographers.

While it may be a cliché to everyone but me, I couldn't help feeling a connection to Ansel Adams as I spent four days there in May, 2004 with my shooting partner Rod Barbee.

Yosemite has "been done to death" as one photographer recently said. But I never get tired of its scenic vistas, intimate landscapes and awesome icons. I don't care if it is the most photographed place in the world. I like the park so much that I have two Adams originals hanging on the walls of my home. Both feature Half Dome. And no matter how many times I look at them, I find them to be engaging photos.

On my ,most recent trip, I went with three goals. 1) I wanted to try to duplicate one of Adams' iconic photos from Tunnel View. 2) I wanted to challenge myself to photograph one of Adams' icons but with my own personal twist. 3) I wanted to hunt for something different that I could make my own.

Thanks to some decent weather, patience and luck, I think I achieved all of my goals.


May is a magical time in the park. The waterfalls are at their fullest. The streams, lakes, creeks and rivers have more water in May than any other time of year. That allows for great reflection shots. The weather is also quite predictable in May. During my recent visit, there was no rain and temperatures were in the middle to high 70s. Spring flowers seem to peak at Yosemite in May, and this offers close-up photographers a chance to document California's beautiful poppies and lupine. Another reason that May is a great time to photograph in Yosemite is the lack of crowds. While the park can be crowded at any time, May is right before the peak tourist season starts and mid-week you'll find many of the best photo locations completely deserted. Local hotels and restaurants are also slightly less crowded and less expensive this time of year.


You have a choice between Oakland, San Francisco or Fresno Airports. Fresno is 90 minutes from the park but is usually the most costly option. The Bay Area is approximately four hours away by car and flights into and out of San Francisco are usually very affordable. You can also take Amtrak to the park via Merced, CA and catch the YARTS (The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) bus for $5 or less into the park and surrounding area. You can also use free shuttle buses to navigate within the park.

If you are traveling by car, take Highway 41 from Fresno or Highway 140 from Merced.


Lodging is usually the most expensive part of any trip to Yosemite. The park service maintains and operates camping spots and hotel-like accommodations. They are expensive and they fill up quickly. Rates start at $130 per night for the Yosemite Lodge and average about $160. While I often think it is worth the money to stay close to the action, Yosemite is a park that photographs best 30 to 90 minutes after sunrise. Accordingly, you have some extra time to drive into the park, and you can save money by staying 15 to 45 minutes away.

Rooms at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal (about 10 minutes from the park entrance) go for around $100 in May. If you are willing to drive 30 minutes further, you can stay in Mariposa. Hotel rooms are plentiful here and start at $40 a night. Mariposa is also a good place for groceries, cheap gasoline, restaurants and film processing. Rod and I were able to book two rooms at $42 a night (including a Saturday) at the Mother Lode Lodge in Mariposa. While it was as far from the Ritz as you can get, the room had air conditioning, a comfortable bed, free HBO, a small refrigerator and a microwave. There are seven other hotels in the area.


In May, the east side of the park is still closed. So your visit will be limited to Yosemite Valley. If you are interested, the Mariposa Grove is also open in May. Rod and I concentrated this recent visit in the Valley.

If you arrive in time to photograph the sunset, the Tunnel View is the place to start. This is the grand vista showing the whole valley from end-to-end. And no matter how many times you see it, it will take your breath away. This is also where Adams made his famous 1944 photograph called Clearing Winter Storm.

To get there, go 4.5 miles west of the Yosemite Lodge and turn left at Highway 41. Go another mile and turn right at the next junction, continuing on the road that says to Highway 41. Go another 1.5 miles and turn into the parking lot right before the tunnel. If you can, take a position near a large tree on the left of the viewing wall. This offers the best view without the obstruction of the trees below. You can also hike up a short but steep trail directly across from the parking lot. About half way up you will see a clearing that offers an even better view of the valley because it is devoid of foreground trees.

You will need a wide-angle lens to take in the entire valley.


One of the best morning shots in Yosemite is at Cathedral Beach. This is a tremendous May morning location. About an hour after sunrise (you get to sleep in) the light starts to bathe El Capitan. There are numerous compositions available, including the river. Pray for clouds. They will make a good shot great.

To get to Cathedral Beach, enter the park and follow the signs to "Valley Destinations." Go one tenth of a mile past the El Capitan Crossover and look for signs on the left that say "Cathedral" with a picnic symbol. If the gate is locked, park in the turnout just past the gate. If unlocked, you can drive through and down to the picnic parking area. Head out to the beach and find a vantage point that offers both the peak and its reflection.

Another great early morning location is Cathedral Rocks Vista. This is two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. There is a small turnout on the left side of the road that offers access to a small pond and a view of the rocks. In May, this pond is large enough to offer a perfect reflection of the rocks and surrounding trees.


Sentinel Bridge is my favorite late-afternoon location. It provides the vantage point that Adams used to create his famous 1959 image of Half Dome from Merced River.

The bridge is located at Viewpoint 11 at the crossroads to Yosemite Village. Enter the park and stay on the loop road until you see the signs for Yosemite Village. As you turn left to move toward the village, you will cross the Sentinel Bridge. Park in the parking lot just across the bridge and try to take up a position at the center of the bridge. In mid-May, the light here is perfect at around 5:30 p.m. If you are lucky, you will get some clouds. On stormy days, this is a great place to photograph clearing storms.

There are many other classic views within the park. Many people photograph Bridal Veil, Horsetail, and Yosemite Falls. I made nice images in the streams surrounding the park. Swinging Bridge offers waterfall views. Valley View is an alternative to Tunnel View and is often less crowded.

There are too many locations to list in one article. If you want more locations, consult Bob Hitchman's "Photograph America Newsletter" or stop by the Visitor's Center and ask park rangers for advice on good locations for waterfalls, flowers and trails.


More than four million people go to Yosemite each year. It has to be one of the most visually inspiring landscapes on the planet. Some of the most accomplished and well known photographers in the world are likely to be there in May.

No matter what your goals are, Yosemite is a place that every serious photographer should attempt to capture. It is an opportunity to walk in Ansel Adams' footsteps and to record your personal vision of one of America's most beloved national parks.

Don't let the fact that "it has been done to death" detour you. While the masters have recorded their impressions of this park, YOUR vision of the vistas and scenic landscapes is unique.

Yosemite Road & Weather Info 209-372-0200
Yosemite Campground Reservations 800-436-7275
Yosemite Accommodations 559-252-4848
Yosemite Web Site

Entrance Fees:
$10 on foot, bicycle, motorcycle, bus, horse – seven days
$20 in private vehicle – seven days
$40 One Year Yosemite Pass
$50 National Park Pass


Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.

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