About That Photo - North Dome

Every now and then I take a photograph and it seems like the picture doesn't tell the whole story.

That's not to say that I'm unhappy with the image, but more that I want to use words to color in a border around it; to give a bit more detail or context to a picture that I think has a particularly interesting story. I'll try to keep these posts light on the technical semantics and speak more to what makes each photo one of my favorites.

For my first photo in this series, I chose my most popular photo to date, an image of Half Dome glowing in the surreal light of one of the most vivid sunsets I've ever seen. This picture seemed to leave people with a lot of questions: Where did you take this photo? (it's not your typical Glacier Point snapshot) Did you just smash all the buttons in photoshop? (no, this sunset had insane color contrast for reasons I'll explain shortly) Did you plan this photo? (there is no reasonable way to plan this sort of thing)

It was late October, and I had already been in Yosemite for a week. I had mostly been shooting photos of my friends climbing, and felt like I was getting a bit rusty and hesitant when it came to shooting landscapes. The previous day, I had hiked up to Glacier Point (pro tip: don't do this hike with 50 pounds of photo equipment, your knees will surely vaporize on the descent). While I was up there I was reminded of a vantage point that I had always wanted to shoot from: North Dome. To further draw me in, the moon was nearly full and would be rising behind Half Dome during sunset the next day.

North Dome is the leftmost formation in the foreground of this photo (Wikimedia Commons)

North Dome is the leftmost formation in the foreground of this photo (Wikimedia Commons)

Luckily for me, the summit of North Dome can be accessed by an easy two-hour hike from Porcupine Flat. You do have to go up and down a few ridge lines to get to the dome, but it's nothing like slogging up 3000 feet of vertical on dilapidated asphalt (looking at you, Four-Mile trail). A relatively uninteresting walk (by Yosemite standards) drops you down to North Dome's summit, directly across the valley from Half Dome. It feels like the face of the great monolith is right in front of you, staring down at you with vast indifference.

Before making it to my planned vantage point, I committed most of my usual sins as a photographer. I didn't leave myself enough time to assess the scene and compose my shot. I only brought one battery, and one roll of film. I forgot my graduated filters. I got lost (I always get lost).

And so, as I finally reached the North Dome summit, I was already beating myself up about a lot of things. On top of my personal misgivings, the light was remarkably unremarkable. Low-lying clouds were muting the sun and leaving the granite walls gray and lifeless. There was also a strong particulate haze sitting heavy the valley, produced by prescribed burns in Mariposa Grove. Not many lenticular clouds. Any images I took would not only have low contrast, but would suffer from diffraction from the smoke particles. Not a recipe for success.

"Just my luck," I thought. "Oh well, why not set up the tripod and frame the scene while you're here. Maybe the light will be better tomorrow. I'm definitely not wasting any of my Velvia (slide film) on this, though. Bummer."

Flat light and haze. Meh.

Flat light and haze. Meh.

Just as I set up my digital camera and popped off a few test frames, the sun broke free from under the clouds and set the north face ablaze with bright red light. The smoky haze that I had cursed before was rendering the wavelengths of visible sunlight as an absurd, glowing magenta. The sun had almost completely set, so only the faces of Half Dome and Cloud's Rest were illuminated, leaving everything else in a smoky blue-gray haze. It was an obscene, almost lurid display of natural beauty.

As I freaked out (as in: doing a weird spastic happy/is-this-real-life dance) and tried to dial in my camera settings to compensate for the transforming scene, a lone Japanese man walked up and crouched behind me.

"So...beautiful" he muttered.

I responded (in Japanese) that it was indeed a beautiful sight. That was all we said, all that really could be said. At least, until the climbers came.


"I don't know, I'm so psyched, man, this is amazing. What a way to summit!"

"Fuck. I'm crying, dude."

"What? You serious?"

"Yosemite makes me cry, dude. I don't know why, this is the second time it's happened to me on a summit."

"That's weird, man, I never cry. Like, for anything"

"...well anyways dude, this is pretty cool."

"Yeah, best sunset I've ever seen. How do we get down?"

The shot.

The shot.

All told, the color only lasted for about five minutes. I frantically assembled my Pentax 67 and managed to pop off a few frames of slide film before the fireworks subsided. After packing everything up, I sat on the summit a short while longer, masticating bites of sandwich while trying to process what I just saw. The hike back to the car seemed to fly by. My pack felt light, my weary legs felt spry and energized.

Every time I make the effort to hike to a new spot - whether the plan pans out or not - I always walk away feeling fulfilled for at least trying. This day, I got to walk away feeling a hell of a lot more than that.