How Yosemite Changed My Approach To Photography
Eight months ago, I went to Yosemite National Park for the first time. Yosemite is famous in the photography world as it is one of the most photographed sites around the world. Photos really don't do it justice. To be there in person is awe inspiring. In the valley, among trees hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of years old; with rock faces extending thousands of feet above you and all around; with waterfalls everwhere you look…you just don't know where to point your camera next. I was there only for a short time, a leg of a business trip. But I believe it has changed my approach to photography. Here's why:
Yosemite Reminds You To Put The Camera Down
Ritalin, a pharmaceutical drug designed to help hyperactive people focus, works by overwhelming your brain. It overloads the brain to the point that the brain nearly shuts down. The side effect is that you can then slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Hyperactive or not, Yosemite has that same effect. There's great sights everywhere, and you want to photograph everything. But after about an hour in the valley, your brain shuts down and you realize you can't have it all. So you relax, breathe the mountain air and just take it all in.
I learned very quickly that if I had the camera to my eye all the time, I was going to miss it all. It hit me while looking through my telephoto lens below El Capitan – a massive 3000 foot slap of granite reach high above the ground. I noticed a red spec on the side of the rock face through a borrowed 300mm lens and I asked the tour guide what it was. It was a camp site for rock climbers that started the climb two days earlier. They were pinned into the rock face and they were waiting out the weather. That's when the sheer size of the rock came into perspective. The valley is 2 miles wide, but the rock faces around you are so tall that you feel like you're in something much smaller. I suddenly felt very small and very insignificant. I told myself that I would spend the next hour with my camera in the bag. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but I also knew exactly what photos I wanted later in the day when I had more time to myself.
The experience reminded me that it's important to look with my eyes, without the camera. Walk around, take it in, thoroughly plan your shots. Your photos will be better and as a bonus, you'll look less like a tourist.
We’re All In A Really Big Club (Take Advantage)
Photography can be a lonely hobby at times. And that's okay. But deep down, we really want to geek out and talk to other photography geeks. To some degree, we're all like that. Fortunately, most photographers are pretty friendly with each other. We get together and compare notes, and we learn from each other. Yosemite has no shortage of photographers of all skill levels. It's the guys with tripods that you notice first, and they are the ones I tend to talk to. The way I figured, they probably knew the park better than I. I saw one fellow who had a camera set up on a tripod with a very nice telephoto lens…and he was reading a book. So I approached and inquired. Turns out that he was waiting for the sun to come into position. He invited me to hang around: The Sunlight would be awesome, he promised. So I hung around, we spoke about gear, shooting styles, music, books and so on. About 15 minutes later, sunlight started shining on El Cap, seemingly from everywhere. Some was direct, some was reflecting off of the lake. And if that wasn't enough, clouds started flowing down into the valley. It was unbelievable. And that's when I got the shot at the top of this page. He got some awesome photos of rock climbers.
My new friend couldn't have predicted the cloud cover pouring down the mountains. But he did have the insight – insight that I didn't have – about the sunlight. I owe this shot to him and his wisdom. So don't be shy. Talk to other photographers as you happen upon them. They may just have some wisdom for you. Just remember to return the favor, if you can.
Traveling Light Isn’t Bad
If this were a photo trip and if I had more time, I would have certainly brought a larger kit. I would have packed all of my lenses, at least. I would have had all my filters and some accessories. I might have even taken one of my flashes. But as it was a business trip and because time was going to be short, I only took my camera body with my walkabout lens, my 18-135mm. There were shots that I couldn't get because I didn't have the right lens. But I still got a bunch of really good shots. On the other hand, the limited kit meant that I wasn't fiddling with my gear very much and I wasn't flipping between lenses unnecessarily. My process was simplified and I was therefore fairly efficient.
I'm not saying you shouldn't carry extra lenses. But you should probably fight the urge to change out lenses or gear too frequently. Since visiting Yosemite, and since being reminding of how great simplicity is, I have changed the way I plan my photography trips. Now I plan to do things in a circle so I visit some areas more than once. I'll keep one lens mounted for my first trip round. Then I'll change lenses on the second trip around. But on that first trip, I was taking notes for when I returned. So when I was back, I knew exactly what photos I wanted with the other lens. Very efficient, very smooth, far less fiddling.
You Can Always Come Back
Unfortunately, Yosemite is on the opposite side of the country from where I live. But I am already planning to return one day. I kept a journal, as I always do, when I was out there and there were several shots that didn't pan out exactly as I wanted. But I will be back one day, and I will try again. It doesn't have to be the opposite side of the world or a different country…it could just be a park down the street from your house. There's no reason to worry if you miss a shot because you will find a reason, someday, to go back.