Clouds Over Half Dome

The Scene

The popular Glacier Point Overlook may offer the most stupendous view of Yosemite Valley in all of Yosemite National Park. The photo shown here was taken during my first visit to Glacier Point and it was a memorable experience. As I approached the overlook to view the scene before me, I was overwhelmed and had an urgent desire to record a photograph before the scene changed. I hurried to set up my 4inch x 5inch camera, quickly attached a slightly long lens (210 mm) and composed an image of the Half Dome monolith. I liked the wonderful distribution of sunlight across the face of Half Dome but resisted the urge to expose the film after realizing I had already viewed that particular scene in a thousand photographs made by other people.

My “close call” nearly exposing (i.e. wasting) a negative made me recognize that excitement was getting the best of me so I decided to calm down and think a bit before continuing. That’s when I realized the pertinence of the first sentence of this blog post – Glacier Point Overlook may offer the most stupendous view of Yosemite VALLEY. A “normal” lens for a 4inch x 5inch negative is 150 mm so I replaced the 210 mm lens on the camera with a slightly wide angle 120 mm lens that could image a large part of the valley rather than only a relatively small portion. This was a much better approach I thought.

I composed an image of the valley that included Half Dome. The sky was clear and the scene was literally breathtaking but I didn’t think it would make a particularly inspiring black & white photograph so I still didn’t expose a negative. I pondered Ansel Adams photographs of Yosemite Valley and remembered that many of his best images were not simply photographs of the valley but rather photographs of things that

were happening in the valley (e.g. a clearing winter storm). I concluded that the scene before me needed something else if it was to become an inspiring photograph so I decided to sit, admire the fantastic scenery and wait for something to happen. I still had not exposed a single negative that day.

An hour passed and then a line of clouds in the distance seemed to head my way. I pulled an orange-red filter from my bag and placed it in front of my spot meter to determine its effect on the scene. A few readings indicated that the filter would darken the blue sky and enhance structure within the bright clouds. I knew the darker sky would help increase the importance of the brighter clouds and enhancing the cloud’s texture would increase their visual excitement. I also knew the filter would enhance the coarseness of the terrain and clear atmospheric haze to make the rock formations look more solid.

At this point I noticed that the clouds were not simply advancing leisurely but were racing toward me at high speed. I realized that time was extremely limited and my excitement grew even though I tried to remain calm. The scene was changing too fast to carefully compose an image containing the clouds, focus, insert a film holder into the camera and then expose the negative in a normal fashion.

I estimated where the clouds would go, composed an image based on that estimate and focused. While attempting to screw the fine threads of the orange-red filter onto the lens as fast as I could, excitement caused me to fumble and I lost precious seconds as the clouds shot across the sky. I finally succeeding in attaching the filter but knew I was running out of time so I slipped a film holder in the back of the camera and pressed the cable release without even looking at the scene. I felt slightly sickened as the front line of clouds passed quickly by and I realized that my fumbling with the filter may have caused me to miss the shot. I would have to wait until I returned home to develop the negative and see what the image contained.

Because the clouds moved so fast, the exposure was not planned as deliberately as usual. Selecting an fairly strong color contrast filter (orange-red) was deliberate since the clouds were far enough away to give me time to think but most other decisions were made hastily after I realized the clouds were racing toward me.

I recall briefly contemplating choices for f-stop and shutter speed. In my last post, I discussed how wind can create unwanted blur in landscape images and the rapid cloud movement created a similar challenge for the photograph discussed in this post. However, depth-of-field was extremely large since a slightly wide angle lens was used and the whole scene was essentially focused at infinity. In other words, I could select any f-stop that I wanted so I was free to base the exposure on the speed of the clouds.

I estimated that a shutter speed of 1/30 sec or faster was needed to freeze cloud movement adequately and my light meter indicated this shutter speed necessitated an f-stop of f/22.5 (about half way between f/22 and f/32). In the rush to capture the rapidly changing scene, I quickly selected these exposure settings on the lens without additional thought. Fortunately, the exposure resulted in acceptable tonal values for all parts of the scene and a normal development time for the Tri-X negative was appropriate.


I think this was a situation where experience helped a lot. Familiarity with landscape photography helped guide filter selection, f-stop choice, shutter speed choice and image composition. Image composition also involved a large measure of guesswork for the cloud positions since they were moving so fast and I worried that my guess was wrong. Happily, luck was on my side that day.

The basic subject of this photograph is a line of clouds moving over Yosemite Valley (and Half Dome). Even though the valley is spectacular by itself, I doubt that I would have printed the image if the clouds were not present since they are so important to the composition. I believe the clouds add a dynamic element to otherwise motionless terrain in a fashion similar to some of Ansel’s photographs which contrasted weather occurring on a fast time scale with stationary geology.

One of my goals during printmaking is to elicit the same emotional response from a print that was experienced firsthand at the scene. This involves identifying the most important elements in a scene that produced the initial emotional response. The immense size of the scene at Glacier Point was one of those elements but it is often surprisingly difficult to communicate enormous size effectively in a print.

A good way to communicate size in photographs is to include similar objects in both the foreground and distant regions of the image so viewers can logically relate object size to distance. In the photo discussed in this post, the valley probably communicated size and distance most effectively since it appears to be wider in the foreground and narrower in the background of the photo. I was lucky that the valley was tonally quite distinct from the surrounding bright rock since that provided an opportunity to communicate valley information more convincingly. I made a mental note to emphasize tonal differences between the valley and surrounding rock in PhotoShop later to increase the visual importance of the valley.

The clouds in this photograph contribute size information two important ways. First, the clouds (like the valley) appear to become smaller at distances farther away from the viewer. I made another mental note to edit the clouds locally in PhotoShop so the ones closest to the camera would appear thicker and the ones farthest from the camera would appear thinner. Second, the leading edge of the clouds reinforces the valley since both are aligned in the same general direction as they become smaller at greater distances from the camera. Repeating this design element in two different objects reinforces the size-distance relationship of both.

Trees are a common element in landscape photographs that can help communicate distance. For the image discussed here, viewers can compare trees on the valley floor nearby with trees further down the valley to comprehend the long length of the valley. For the comparison to be effective, however, the image must contain enough resolving power to differentiate individual trees. Although my camera body is relatively modest, I paid a considerable amount of money for lenses since image quality is largely determined by the glass hanging on the front of a camera. The 120 mm lens that was used to record this photograph is a Super-Angulon made by Schneider so it did an excellent job of resolving distant trees.

Another point must be considered when small objects such as trees communicate distance in a photograph. That is the need for substantial image enlargement to resolve fine details far from the camera. The ability of human eyes to see fine details can limit the effectiveness of the details to communicate important image information. For this reason, it is often common for large prints to elicit considerably more emotion than small prints. Unfortunately, low resolution images presented on the web contain little detail so the contribution of trees to the perception of distance in the image shown above is not easily seen. As said many times in these posts, there is no substitute for viewing an original photographic print.


Tonal values of the negative were good, no hardware adjustments were required during scanning and the high resolution digital scan file required little editing with PhotoShop. As is usually the case, I began editing by performing a small levels adjustment and a small curve adjustment to nudge image tones to slightly better values. In particular, a curve adjustment was used to emphasize tonal differences between the valley floor and the bright surrounding rock as discussed previously.

A small amount of local burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening) were performed to maximize the impact of some image areas. In particular, burning and dodging were applied to the clouds so the ones closest to the camera appeared thicker whereas clouds farthest from the camera appeared thinner as discussed previously. This work concentrated on thick edges of clouds which faced the camera. For clouds nearest the camera, areas on lower portions of these edges were brightened to emphasize edge thickness. For clouds farther from the camera, areas on lower portions of the edges were darkened to de-emphasize edge thickness.

Since the basic subject matter of the image was a line of clouds moving over Yosemite Valley, I thought the overall strength of the photograph would be increased by bolstering the link between the clouds and the valley below. This was achieved by intensifying a couple of the darkest shadows on the terrain that resulted from clouds. Intensification was accomplished by burning only the darkest tones in the shadows to increase visual weight without changing their overall character too much. I think the increased shadow weight from this approach increased the apparent “tonal dimensionality” of the image and also bolstered the link between the clouds and valley. The apparent physical depth of the scene also was increased by this approach since it used tonal variations to separate shadows in the foreground (at the beginning of the valley) from shadows further down the valley.

I have printed this image at several different sizes and larger prints convey considerably more emotion than smaller prints since the additional detail seen in larger prints helps viewers comprehend the enormity of the scene. This helped me as a viewer remember the overwhelming emotion I experienced while present at Glacier Point.


Even though zillions of photos have been taken from Glacier Point, I think this photograph compares favorably with the better ones. The mood is strong, the technical quality is hard to beat, and the subject matter includes both dynamic and rock-solid elements. Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, its composition, or image workup will be appreciated.

For a larger view of this photograph, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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