Yosemite Valley in Autumn

Here in California, we do not have the autumn hues to rival New Hampshire or Colorado. Nevertheless, the Sierra Nevada mountain range attracts a good number of photographers and seekers of fall colors every autumn. Yosemite Valley, situated on the western slopes of the Sierras has its own display, thanks to the Black Oaks, Maple, Cottonwoods and Dogwoods, which flourish here. Apart from these, there is the famous Elm tree in Cook’s meadow, which in peak color offers a memorable light show at sunrise and I believe it to be the most photographed Elm in the world.

Yosemite in Autumn (3)

Yosemite in Autumn (12)

NIKON D700 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/16.0

During my recent visit to Yosemite, I found the Elm has withered. So I decided to walk 0.5 miles upstream along the Merced River from Sentinel Bridge and photograph the cottonwoods beneath Half Dome with their reflections (one of my favorite spots). The scene came to life as soon as the Sun crested a cliff and backlit the cottonwoods, which were close to their peak color.

Yosemite in Autumn (4)

After making the above image, I walked couple of steps to the left and opted for a vertical composition to include some leaves on the river bank. Using a small aperture allowed me to keep sharp focus across the frame.

Yosemite in Autumn (5)

The above four tree species usually do not turn together and as a result, fall color in Yosemite can linger for a couple of weeks. In some years, an early winter storm juxtaposes the whites (snow) with gold (clash of seasons) and can lead to unique photo opportunities. On the downside, early storms can damage lot of leaves and bring an abrupt end to the fall season. I have seen cottonwoods shedding their leaves without turning at couple of occasions. Typically, Yosemite Valley has sunny, pleasant days with cold nights during the autumn season. Often, early morning frost and mist can be spotted in meadows and forests, both of which make an excellent subject to photograph.

Yosemite in Autumn (13)

NIKON D700 @ 100mm, ISO 400, 2/100, f/8.0

Visitors who have only experienced Yosemite in the spring season are in for a real surprise. There are no roaring waterfalls (Yosemite falls dries almost completely), the Merced River has the lowest water level and the crowds have thinned considerably. The quiet waters of Merced River give rise to beautiful reflections and a hike around the river in autumn can fill your memory card really fast.

Yosemite in Autumn (7)

NIKON D700 + 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 92mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/8.0

Yosemite in Autumn (6)

NIKON D700 + 35mm f/2 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/8.0

Hiking for about 45 minutes from Yosemite Lodge, I found a really picturesque scene along the Merced river. After a few failed compositions, I opted for a 3 image stitched panorama, which worked really well in the end.

Yosemite in Autumn (14)

NIKON D700 + 0mm f/0 @ 55mm, ISO 200, 1/8, f/8.0

Many granite cliffs do not receive either the morning or evening sunlight in Yosemite and in autumn their blue hues act as perfect contrasts to the yellow, backlit leaves of oaks and cottonwoods. Cook’s meadow, El Capitan meadow, Sentinel bridge area and Swinging bridge area are good places to look for such warm-cool juxtapositions that help create unique images.

Yosemite in Autumn (2)

In my recent trip to Yosemite, I really wanted to photograph back lit glowing trees against the blue hues of the cliffs in shade and after half a day of search, I eventually got what I wanted. These cottonwoods lined perfectly along the still Merced River while the sheer cliff served as the desired backdrop.

Yosemite in Autumn (8)

NIKON D700 + 35mm f/2 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/8.0

Soft, even lighting can be easily found in autumn in Yosemite Valley, thanks to the sheer granite cliffs and low angles sun. In such situations, I look for colors and textures to come alive and can potentially shoot almost all day without worrying about harsh light. Bridalveil creek, beneath Bridalveil Falls and the intersection of highway 120 and 140 are two such places among numerous others.

Yosemite in Autumn (1)

NIKON D700 + 80-200mm f/2.8 @ 80mm, ISO 200, 1/10, f/11.0

Yosemite in Autumn (11)

NIKON D700 @ 145mm, ISO 200, 25/10, f/14.0

Clear sky makes autumn a good season for night sky watching as well as for photographing Yosemite Valley in moonlight. Car lights and jet trails are always a nuisance in the Valley if one is shooting in the night. I tend to make shorter exposures (< 5 min) and usually use a lens hood to get around these issues. Many short exposures can be later stacked in Photoshop to create longer star trails if desirable. [caption id="attachment_64538" align="aligncenter" width="960"]Yosemite in Autumn (9) NIKON D700 + 16-35mm f/4 @ 21mm, ISO 1600, 238/1, f/6.3[/caption]

Yosemite in Autumn (10)

NIKON D700 + 16-35mm f/4 @ 22mm, ISO 1600, 219/1, f/4.0

Yosemite Valley in autumn is really picturesque and is a real treat for someone looking for unique images in addition to the Yosemite classics. The play of light and land in this distinctive valley has always left me mesmerized and compels me to visit it repeatedly in every season. Next in my list is to catch Yosemite Valley in an early winter storm with peak fall color as well as photograph those red Dogwoods, which somehow have always eluded me. Maybe next fall, I will get lucky.


  1. 1) Clarence
    December 3, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Great images!! I will try to make it there next Autumn.

    • 1.1) Vaibhav
      December 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

      Hi Clarence,

      I am glad you liked the photos. Yosemite next autumn should be a great experience for you.

  2. December 4, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Beautiful photos. We have some great autumn colours in the UK too, but not on the scale of somewhere like Yosemite!

    • 2.1) Vaibhav
      December 4, 2013 at 9:29 am

      Autumn colors in UK should be just amazing. Maybe one day, I will find time to visit there in fall.

  3. 3) Bart
    December 4, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Such a beautiful nature! I wish i was born there. Here in belgium only concrete….

    • 3.1) jorge balarin
      December 4, 2013 at 6:43 am

      But you are next to other countries with beautiful landscapes : )

      • 3.1.1) Bruno
        December 4, 2013 at 7:25 am

        On the flemish part sucks, the french is much betetr in terms of nature.

        the netherlands has nice stuff, but pretty flat.. hihgest point is 300 and somehing meters high LOL

  4. 4) Ricardo Vaz
    December 4, 2013 at 6:07 am

    Great post Vaibhav!!! I live in Brazil and I’m going to Yosemite on may 2014, do you have any suggestion where to stay? All the hotels inside the park are full, I’m thinking in staying in el portal. What about trails, do you have suggestions? Thanks!

    • 4.1) Vaibhav
      December 4, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Hi Ricardo,

      Staying in El Portal is good option. If that gets full as well, you may look for hotels in Mariposa and Groveland, which are towns 40 min away from Yosemite.

      In May, the waterfalls are close to their peak. Hiking to the top of Nevada falls is a must do. Also hiking to the top of Yosemite falls is also very good (there may be some snow on top). If Glacier point road and Tioga pass open up before your visit then I will recommend driving to Tuolumne meadows and Glacier point to experience the beautiful Yosemite high country. Hope this helps, Thanks!

  5. 5) jorge balarin
    December 4, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Thank you for the nice photos.

  6. 6) Volker Sellmann
    December 4, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Great shots. Beautiful colors. Yosemite is one of my favorite parks next to Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Thanks for sharing.

    • 6.1) Vaibhav
      December 4, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Thanks for looking. I am glad you liked the images.

  7. 7) Natureman
    December 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

    I plan to go there 2015 so I start doing my homework. If you want information, pls go to this website http://www.tripadvisor.com….and type up Yosemite. You will get everything you want to know.

  8. 8) Patrick O'Connor
    December 4, 2013 at 11:58 am

    This is going to sound nit picky but in a lot of your photos their seems to be a reddish color cast. Other than that, and it IS nit picky, they’re pretty good.

    • 8.1) Vaibhav
      December 5, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Hi Patrick,

      I am glad you liked the photos. Is your monitor color calibrated. Let me know, in which photos you see the reddish cast as I do not see any in my TIFFS here. Is it the Adobe RGB vs SRGB conversion?

      • 8.1.1) Patrick O'Connor
        December 5, 2013 at 10:02 am

        Yosemite-in-Autumn-3.jpg appears to have a lot of reddish-orange. A lot of the others do, to a lesser degree. I’m going by the sky since, having never been to Yosemite, I can’t accurately judge the other elements. A few of them appear to be correct. I know a lot of people intentionally warm up autumn photos to bring out the leaves but I don’t like to do that globally. I prefer to boost the individual hues. Hopefully, I’ll get out there some day and verify your colors are correct and the issue was my monitor but, I’ll probably forget all about it when surrounded by such amazing scenery…

        My monitor is color calibrated, though I haven’t updated it in a few months.

  9. 9) JamesV
    December 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Gorgeous photos. Thanks for sharing.

    As both a climber and a landscape photography enthusiast I am simply going to have to visit Yosemite at some stage!

    • 9.1) Vaibhav
      December 5, 2013 at 8:51 am

      I am glad you liked the photos.

  10. 10) SRAI
    December 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I love your post processing . Can you teach me how do you do the post processing for this kind because your post processing is same as Fuji Velvia film. Please call me at 714-665-4274 or email me. If you can do webinar that will be great too.

    • 10.1) Vaibhav
      December 5, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Hi SRAI,

      I never tried to achieve the Velvia look. I just like shadows in my images and try to find scenes that have striking shadows and make sure that the final rendition is close to what I saw in my ‘mind’s eye’. Not over processed, not too saturated etc. Most of the processing is done in Lightroom followed by local edits in Photoshop using Nick Viveza and dodging/burning.



  11. 11) Mark
    December 5, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Great images…more than color makes a good photo.

  12. 12) Richard
    December 5, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Beautiful pictures Vaibhav. Would you mind tellilng what size lens you used please? I am making some decisions about wide angle lenses and this information would help. Thank you.

    • 12.1) Vaibhav
      December 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Hi Richard,

      I used Nikon D700 with the following lenses:
      16-35mm f/4 VR, 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR, Nikon 24mm f/2.8 ai (manual focus), Nikon 55mm f/2.8 ai (manual focus) and Nikon 35mm f/2 af-d. Apart from these, I used Polarizers and grad-neutral density filters.

      I hope this helps. Thanks.

      • 12.1.1) Michael
        December 6, 2013 at 8:49 pm

        Which of those lenses did you use for the second photo? I cant get a decent star effect from Any of my Nikon lenses. I dont know whats different. When I had Canon equipment I had no issue with it, but when I changed over to Nikon a couple years ago, this was something I immediately noticed.


        • Vaibhav
          December 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm

          I used the 35mm f/2 af-d for that image. The 16-35mm f/4 has rounded diaphragm so the stars are not that great. Nikon’s older manual focus lenses have straight diaphragms and make beautiful sunstars.

          • Michael
            December 6, 2013 at 9:40 pm

            Thanks for the info!

  13. 13) alan
    December 10, 2013 at 6:43 am

    Great photos!!!
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I learned a lot from you website.
    I want to know have you used polarizer for take inverted images?
    Particularly the first, the third and the fourth photo.
    For these photos, can you please disclose more details during the shooting? (e.g. time, camera and lens settings)

    Thank you very much!

    • Profile photo of Vaibhav Tripathi 13.1) Vaibhav Tripathi
      December 13, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Hi Alan,
      I am glad you liked the photos and thanks for visiting my website. Now to your questions:
      Yes, I used a polarizer for the reflection images. You need to be a bit careful as a polarizer can also get rid of reflections. Digital helps you there as you can bracket polarizer settings :)
      Most of the reflection images were made when the scene was in shade, i.e. no direct sunlight on water.
      First image: Dusk, 5 minutes after sunset, D700, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR, f/8, 1.6 sec, 20mm
      Third image: Sunrise, D700, Nikon 24mm f/2.8 ai, f/16 (for sunstar), 1/20 sec
      Fourth image: Sunrise, D700, Nikon 24mm f/2.8 ai, f/16 (for dof), 1/20 sec

      Hope this helps. Thanks!

      • 13.1.1) Alan
        December 15, 2013 at 9:33 am

        Hi Vaibhav,
        I will try on next shooting trip.
        Thank you for detail information! :)

        Can I have your email?

  14. 14) KnightPhoto
    January 20, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Awesome photos and ideas. I particularly appreciated your tips about backlit fall colour and juxtaposing cool shaded backgrounds – Thanks!

Comment Policy: Although our team at Photography Life encourages all readers to actively participate in discussions, we reserve the right to delete / modify any content that does not comply with our Code of Conduct, or do not meet the high editorial standards of the published material.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <i> <s>