Yosemite Photography: The Magic of Water
Gorgeous photography and advice by Grant Ordelheide
Yosemite National Park is loved the world over for its watery attractions. Towering waterfalls. Tranquil lakes. Magical rainbows. Here’s where to find and photograph our favorite spots in the national park.
Location Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
See it Pass this view of Upper Yosemite Fall on the 7.2-mile (round-trip) hike from Camp 4 to the top of the cascade.
When to go Spring for the highest flow (and most impressive waterfall)
A moonbow, or lunar rainbow, occurs when moonlight refracts off of clouds of mist. Count yourself lucky if you see one—the phenomenon happens only a few times a year.
Pro tips Moonbows require specific conditions to form. Wait for a night with a very bright moon, high water in Yosemite Falls (needed to create enough mist), and clear skies.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark III camera, 17-40mm lens at 17mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 25 seconds
Location Tenaya Lake
See it Drive Tioga Road 31 miles from Crane Flat to reach this alpine lake.
When to go Summer for water activities (Tioga Road is usually open late May to early November).
Mile-long Tenaya Lake draws swimmers, hikers, canoeists, and kayakers to its high-altitude shores and offers an escape from the busy Valley. Take a dip on several sandy beaches, or walk the 2.5-mile loop trail around the lake.
Pro tips Include foreground objects that complement the background. Here, the round rocks in the foreground echo the gentle granite domes beyond.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 17mm, ISO 50, f/16, .8 second
Location Wawona Road
See it This route connects the park’s South Entrance with the Valley and is peppered with scenic overviews.
When to go Year-round
Winter is a truly fantastic time to visit Yosemite—crowds vanish, ski and snowshoe trails open, and snow gives the park an entirely different look.
Pro tips Experiment with different camera angles. Try getting low to the ground or shooting “through” something, such as these icicles. Sometimes these experimental images will end up becoming your favorites from the trip.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 17mm, ISO 50, f/20, 1/40 second
Love the look of a crisp mountain skyline reflected perfectly in an alpine lake? These dramatic shots require absolutely still water. Wake up early for the best conditions; wind tends to pick up as temperatures rise throughout the day. Smaller bodies of water, such as ponds or tarns, give you the best chance of a smooth surface even if there is a slight breeze.
Location Upper Cathedral Lake
See it Hike the 7-mile (round-trip) Cathedral Lakes Trail in Tuolumne Meadows.
When to go June through October
One look at this photo and you’ll know why Upper Cathedral Lake is such a sought-after dayhike destination and backcountry campsite. The trail is part of the 211-mile John Muir Trail, a long-distance hiking path considered by many to be the country’s prettiest.
Pro tips Don’t let bad weather keep you inside. Lulls in a storm can bring very dramatic light. It was raining heavily when I started the hike, but the storm finally broke to give me this striking image.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 40mm, ISO 50, f/11, 1/4 second
Go with the Flow
Some of the most striking photos of waterfalls and rivers capture the water’s silky, flowing effect. To nail a shot like this, you’ll need to use a long exposure time. Try exposing between .5 seconds and 8 seconds: Any shorter and the water won’t be blurred enough, and longer exposures can make the water lose its definition and look more like fog. Experiment with several different exposures to find the best settings. A tripod is essential anytime you’re working with long exposures. In daylight, you may also need a neutral density filter. These tools darken your image, allowing you to get those long shutter speeds even when it’s bright.
Waterfall Photo Tips
Yosemite’s iconic cascades can be challenging to capture. For best results, shoot waterfalls in the mornings, evenings, or on cloudy days—anytime they’re not in direct sunlight. Flat light reduces contrast and gives you the option of using a longer exposure (see page 42). Slower shutter speeds blur the water, while faster ones can show texture and emphasize the waterfall’s power. Keep a small towel handy to wipe drops off your lens.
Location Tunnel View
See it Just east of Wawona Tunnel on Wawona Road
When to go May for peak flow
At 620 feet tall, Bridalveil Fall is one of Yosemite’s tallest and most famous cascades. See it up close on the half-mile (round-trip) Bridalveil Fall Trail.
Pro tips Come early and stay late. Sometimes the best photos happen before sunrise or after sunset. I took this image after the sun went down and temperatures cooled, bringing this mysterious-looking fog into the Valley.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark III camera, 70-200mm lens at 129mm, ISO 400, f/14, 10 seconds
Location Tuolumne Meadows
See it Drive Tioga Road east into the park’s upper elevations.
When to go June through October
Yosemite’s Cathedral Range owes its signature spiky peaks to glacial activity; the ice rounded the granite slopes but didn’t reach the highest peaks, leaving the tops rugged and uneroded.
Pro tips If you have good color in the sky, always look for something to reflect it in to maximize your pleasing light. Lakes, streams, and ice all effectively double the color in your image.
Shot details Canon 5D Mark II camera, 17-40mm lens at 20mm, ISO 50, f/16, 1 second