How to photograph the views of Yosemite Valley

Tunnel View Panorama

Tunnel View Panorama

Yosemite is a natural wonder, a spectacular landscape and magnet for photographers. Over four million people come to Yosemite every year. With so much competition, it is vital to come prepared and know what to photograph when. On this page, I will show you the classic views of Yosemite Valley. Everyone expects those must-have shots from the park.

Yosemite Valley was Ansel Adams playground. With so much history in greatness, photographers constantly feel challenged by the majestic park.

How to get there

From the San Francisco Bay area, I usually arrive on Highway 120, which is the shortest route. During the winter months, I prefer to drive the south route via Highway 99 to Merced. From there I take 140 into the park via Mariposa and El Portal. Highway 120 is sometimes closed and very often snowy. Highway 140 follows a valley into the park and often proofs to be the better alternative in winter.

If you are coming from the south (L.A. area), take Highway 41 from Fresno into the park.

How to photograph Tunnel View, Valley View and Bridal Veil Falls

El Capitan in Winter

El Capitan in Winter

Do not get intimidated by the amount of equipment you can see in the park. Most photographers seem to be under the impression that expensive gear will automatically yield the best results. Yosemite is as much an equipment show as it is a nature spectacle.

At Tunnel View, all you need is good timing and some luck. Come early to ensure your spot for the sunset. The parking lot is relatively large, but the best spots are gone almost 2 hours in advance. The lighting changes quickly during those hours of the day. Make sure you set up your tripod ahead of time. This helps you to keep your spot and be prepared when you need it. Bracket your exposures or use a split ND filter, as the forest in the valley will be very dark while the cliffs light up beautifully.

Valley View is an excellent location for sunset photography. After a snow shower or during spring and fall I prefer this place, since it gives me more foreground choices (see picture below). Use a wide-angle to medium format lens and mount your camera on a tripod. Focus on the hyperfocal distance to achieve maximum depth of field.

Bridal Veil Falls are difficult to photograph. I like the view from the other side of the valley (see GPS location below). To get close always bears the risk of getting wet when a gust of wind blows the mist your way, a very unpleasant feeling in winter. I like to photograph the small creek, a runoff from the falls, during spring. Use a strong neutral density filter, to slow down your exposure for a misty look of the water.

Best Time of the Day and Best Season

I prefer winter for a visit to Yosemite Valley. The crisp colors and luminous lighting after a winter storm are out of this world. The fresh fallen snow and golden light are simply amazing. In February, the unique spectacle of the Firefall draws a small crowd here hoping to see a miracle that is unique to Yosemite.

Since winter is officially off-season, you will not have to deal with the throng of tourists clogging the valley and cluttering the hotels. You will get better deals on your room.

However, if you are unlucky you will have dull and grey overcast skies without chance of sunshine or continuous snowstorms. Driving conditions can be very challenging and temperatures may plummet very low.

Spring is also a good time to visit Yosemite Valley. The melting snow will ensure full waterfalls and tourist crowds are still hibernating somewhere. The Valley will be easier to navigate and the Valley is very photogenic when it comes to life.

During the summer, I usually prefer the Tioga Pass / Tuolumne Meadows area. The Valley transforms into California’s second longest traffic jam (after L.A.)

Fall is a great time to capture the valley with a lot of color. Tourist traffic will still be strong.

Time required

You can spend a day or a weekend in Yosemite. Getting here takes some time, so do not plan anything else for the day.

Equipment

You should bring your entire bag of lenses, tripods, filters, and cameras. Yosemite is extremely versatile. For the locations in this article you will need:

  • Tripod (Sunrise, Sunset)
  • Remote Shutter Cable
  • Mid Range Lens for the views
  • Wide-angle for Bridalveil falls
  • Neutral Density Filter to photograph the streams
  • Split Neutral Density Filter
  • Polarizing Filter

GPS position

Tunnel View:

Valley View:

Bridalveil Falls:

Bridalveil Falls Viewpoint:

Fees

The national park entrance fee is $20. I recommend getting the National Park Pass for $80, which grants you access to all National Parks for a Year.

Difficulty Getting There

In winter, you will most likely need snow chains, snow tires or a four-wheel drive. I usually enter Yosemite from El-Portal during this time of the year. Snow Chains are for rent in El-Portal, but I do not know how much they charge and if they always have enough. I recommend bringing your own.

Close Locations

Useful Resources


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