Why I hired a photo guide for Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

One of the most frustrating things encountered when I only have a few days to photograph in a new place is not being able to scout the location before I start shooting. It doesn’t matter how much armchair research is done ahead of time, it is nearly impossible to know what time I need to be where in order to make beautiful photographs that have the right light.

If you have ever done any sort of curiosity search into “how to be a better photographer,” then you’ve come across the sage advice of shooting in the morning light and the evening light. The blue hour and the golden hour. 

I have found that oftentimes, even when I follow that advice, it doesn’t always get me what I want. For instance, recently I was in Yosemite and tried to photograph Tunnel View at sunrise. Sunrise = automatic beautiful photographs, right? Wrong. Even though the light itself was beautiful, it was hitting the monuments all wrong. The sun was rising behind them, which meant I was shooting into the sun. I was dealing with washed out skies, lens flare, and silhouetted monuments that lost their grandeur because they were all massed together in one dimensionless black block.  Somedays, granted, this can work for you. This was not one of those days.

Hire a photo guide to save the day

Luckily though, I had another ace up my sleeve that salvaged the rest of the day photographing. I hired a photography and park expert through the Ansel Adams Gallery to be my private guide for a day. Ansel Adams, for those unfamiliar, is considered to be the godfather of landscape photography. His photography and conservation work in the US national parks, most notably in Yosemite, contributed heavily to furthering the mission of the park service and his iconic black and white images in our national parks are some of the most revered of all time. The official gallery that bears his name is in Yosemite National Park, where many of his most famous images were made. 

Yosemite National Park
The Three Brothers peaks in Yosemite National Park loom high above Yosemite Valley. Photo credit: Amanda McCadams

Ansel Adams Gallery workshops and classes

Through the Ansel Adams Gallery park visitors can sign up for a variety of photography workshops and classes aimed at all skill and interest levels, and in a wide price range. At the intro level, there is a creative smartphone class that teaches how to shoot and edit images using the camera that most people use these days. There is a class about understanding digital exposure. There is also a class that teaches the basics of photography such as learning ISO, shutter speed and aperture. For the more advanced photographer there are multi-day workshops that provide personalized instruction to expand artistic vision or learn an advanced technique, platinum printing for example. People can also hire a private guide for a half-day or full-day session and completely customize the experience of photographing in the park, which is what I did.

The guide I worked with, Michael, is a professional photographer himself and works at the gallery. Before the big day Michael and I emailed back and forth about my skill level, the type of camera I shot, and the equipment I shoot. Most importantly, though, we went over what I was hoping to gain from working with a personal guide. 

The day of the shoot we met at 5:30am in the empty parking lot at Curry Village. I signed a few legal release papers and we discussed a little bit more about the plans for the day and how he anticipated it could go, made sure I was ok with what he had in mind and then we set off to our first location. The sun wasn’t up yet and even though I hadn’t had coffee I was wide awake and ready to go, fueled by the excitement of having a photographer and park expert as my personal location scout. 

Throughout the morning we visited several of the locations I had told him I wanted to photograph and even a few I hadn’t suggested.  He had great timing for our arrival at each one, knew where the sun would be, what time it would be hitting each of the different monuments and the best off-the-beaten-path areas to set up for the shots. During one of our conversations he told me that he often takes morning walks around different areas in the park so he can learn the seasons and views better. He has an intimate knowledge of the park that takes years to gain; it’s certainly not an understanding I would have gotten during my weekend visit. 

Around 10 or so we took a five hour break. Five hours might seem like a long time to not be out there running around and shooting everything you can in what seems like the normal time to do stuff on a trip. Actually though, the middle of the day is the worst time to photograph. The sun is directly overhead, it’s too bright, it’s usually hot, and it’s more crowded with people. It’s hard to mentally pack up your camera and not snap away at everything you see but every photographer knows that morning and evening are the best times to make images. In usual situations this is the time I visit museums, go shopping, or get a bite to eat. Today though, I went back to my cabin, downloaded my images to a backup drive and took a nap. 

Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Fall photographed at the right time of day will show a beautiful rainbow. Photo credit: Amanda McCadams

When three o’clock came around I met Michael in the now very crowded Curry Village parking lot and we set out once again. The sun was in a very different position and the monuments we visited this time were having their moment in the good light. Again, we visited areas that were less crowded than the usual places gawkers stopped at to shoot photos and we strategically arrived when the sun would be at its best. 

Since my objective was to photograph as many of the popular features as I could, during the times that best showcase them, we didn’t do a lot of long hikes. Most of the spots we went to were no more than a few hundred yards away from where we parked. However, ending the day, we hiked to a remote spot across from Bridalveil Fall and I photographed the rainbow created right before sunset. It was spectacular. 

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