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Yosemite Nature Notes – Winter Moments

2012 January 4
by YosemiteSteve

For the last days of 2011, my wife Athena and I headed from Yosemite Valley over the mountains to historic Benton Hot Springs to camp and soak. We went over Tioga Pass, down Lee Vining canyon and past Mono Lake, heading toward the north end of the White Mountains near the state line with Nevada. Tioga Pass, the highest paved road in the Sierra, is just under 10,000 feet, and on most years, the first snows of November will close the road for up to 7 months.  Since Halloween however, I’ve made several of what I thought would be “one last” trips over Tioga Pass only to find that it never really snowed and it never really closed.

After a record breaking dry December, when no recorded precipitation fell in nearby Fresno, the pass is still open and Yosemite Valley has been enjoying sunny days in the high 50’s. Throughout the park, even up on 13,000 foot Mount Dana, there’s just not much snow in sight. Perhaps I chose the wrong year to make a Yosemite Nature Notes Special Feature about winter!

Thankfully,  I’ve been shooting winters in Yosemite for a few years now on a variety of cameras, such as the Sony Z1, Canon A1, Sony V1U, & my current Sony EX1R. This new production was mainly an exercise in digging through tapes and hard-drives to find my best winter shots, and trying to match up this disparate footage with color correction and sharpening. Since I didn’t spend time shooting, I focused on the task at hand: creating a short, 3-minute art piece, basically a music video, that’s my Valentine to Yosemite winter lovers everywhere who are patiently waiting for the first flakes to fall.


MintyCam: A Pinhole Camera from an Altoids tin

2011 December 5
by YosemiteSteve

A few weeks ago, in the middle of whole bunch of camera hype, I decided that I’d like to play around with a pinhole camera again. Instead of dicussing sensor sizes, frame rates and power consumption, I’d go back to the roots of photography: a light-tight box, a piece of film and a simple aperture. I’d built a few pinholes back in the day, cameras that were designed to use black & white print paper as the “film” stock, which of course generates a negative image.

For over ten years now I’ve had several rolls of slide film sitting in my fridge and also the corresponding pre-paid processing mailers. I thought that a pinhole camera would be a neat way to finally use this film. At first, I assumed that I’d make my own camera, using a cookie tin or a cigar box.  That was before PetaPixel turned me on to the MintyCam from Chris Keeney.

It was perfect! Small, easy, cheap. I ordered one and a roll of opaque black tape used to mount the film roll. Chris was also nice enough to send me some extra copper foil so I could play with different sized pinholes, and included a small tripod mount on the bottom of the tin. With this gear in hand and one of my trusty tripods, I headed up the Tioga Road in Yosemite.

I was using Fuji Sensia 100 slide film, which has very little exposure latitude, so I bracketed my exposures between one and three seconds in the full sunlight. The handy little magnet/shutter was easy to pop off, count, and pop back on again without shaking the camera. I blasted through a few rolls, and sent the film off to the lab later that week.

Ever since going digital about ten years ago and getting that immediate feedback, I’d forgotten how exciting it was to wait and see what I’d captured!  I checked my mailbox anxiously for days until I finally got the film back. Just the smell of the emulsion took me back in time. I held the film up to the light, cut it into the individual images, and scanned them on my flatbed scanner. Here are some of the highlights:

Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River

Pine & Boulder, Olmsted Point

Shooting Timelapse, Tuolumne Meadows

Do Not Contaminate

It turns out that one second was generally the proper exposure for my sunny subjects. The shallow tin makes for a pretty wide angle image, probably around 14mm equivelant, so there’s some fun distortion. I’m suprised how sharp the image actually is, considering that it’s just a hole! Chris uses a tiny drill instead of a needle, so the .006″ diameter hole is very round, which increases sharpness. The only way to get a sharper image would be to have the hole laser cut.

I own dozens of film and digital cameras and I’m definitely a tech-y gear hound, but there’s a simple joy in taking a step back and using this very basic technology. I really like the shape of the image on the film strip and of course the sprocket holes are a cool retro artifact. I look forward to playing around more with the MintyCam and will probably try building a few other cameras this winter, but I’d better hurry. This sad note was included with the processed film: “We must inform you that due to industry shifts and demand, A&I will no longer process E6 film as of December 23, 2011.”

I’ve still got about ten of these pre-paid film processing mailers laying here so I better get shooting!

Yosemite Nature Notes – Episode 17 – Black Oaks

2011 November 9
by YosemiteSteve

After a final editing push and a few technical hiccups, I’m pleased to announce that I just completed the newest episode of Yosemite Nature Notes. This one features my favorite tree in Yosemite Valley, the Black Oak, showing the tree in its various seasonal moods, and also telling the story of the mighty acorn and the importance that this seed plays in the lives of animals and people. I’m excited to have three people making their YNN debut in this one, in particular Julia Parker, basket weaver, acorn pounder and cultural demonstrator extraordinaire.



I’d like to thank Erik Westerlund and Bill Kuhn for appearing as well. This episode is my most collaborative production yet. I had editing help from my good friend Ryan Christensen, Brent Bain from Yosemite Valley composed a great new piece of music, and as always, Josh Helling helped me get some of the great shots of these awesome trees. I hope you like it!

One last jaunt up into the mountains.

2011 November 1
by YosemiteSteve


Checking out oxidized glacial polish at Cathedral Lake. photo by Shawn Reeder

Cathedral Lakes, near Tuolumne Meadows In Yosemite National Park is a favorite high country destination for many park visitors. Yesterday, my friend Shawn Reeder and I took one last run up there to pick up some shots for an upcoming episode of Yosemite Nature Notes. I brought my camera, tripod and a 5-foot Kessler Crane CineSlider to get some sweet shots of Cathedral Peak and the area around the lakes. Here’s a video blog about our trip.

Shawn and I busted this out in half a day, leaving the car at about 12:30 and getting back before 7:00 with just enough light that we never even pulled out our headlamps. My pack weighed around 45 pounds, and my hips were a little sore after the six mile round trip, but I’m glad we made it up there before this next storm rolled in!


Fall colors and why it sometimes takes over a year to make a 7 minute video.

2011 October 21
by YosemiteSteve

Black Oak in Stoneman Meadow, Yosemite 2010


I just did a quick bike ride around the east end of Yosemite Valley to check out the fall colors, and I’m not too impressed this year. Big Leaf Maple and Dogwoods are doing fine, but my favorite tree, the California Black Oak looks pretty bad. Instead of a golden yellow, most of them are just wilting and turning brown.

There’s lots of variables that affect fall color, but mostly it’s photoperiod (the length of the day) and temperatures. Unfortunately, it got pretty cold here about 2 weeks ago, and we had sub-freezing temperatures in Yosemite Valley. These cold temps froze the leaves, bursting their cells, which led to the brown wilt. Not all the leaves froze and the tops of many of these oaks, which can be over 100 feet tall, still have some green leaves on them, but I’m not very optimistic about this years color on Black Oaks.

So why does it sometimes take over a year to shoot a 7 minute episode of Yosemite Nature Notes?

Right now, we’re working on the “Black Oaks” episode about these charismatic but often overlooked trees. In order to show viewers the seasonal dynamics, I wanted to make sure that I captured them in all moods and seasons. Stark trunks in the winter, red velvety leaves in spring, shady green summers and of course, brilliant fall color.

Of all of these different states, fall color is the most dramatic and unpredictable. That’s why Josh Helling and I spent over a week LAST fall shooting tons of Black Oaks in full fall regalia. In 2010, these trees put on a fantastic display, and it was one of the best falls that I’d experienced in Yosemite Valley. If we hadn’t shot all that great footage then, I would be freaked out right now, scrambling to find a few individual oaks hidden throughout the park that looked presentable.

Now repeat this same concept for peak waterfall flows, wildflower displays, snow storms, frazil ice, moonbows, night skies, bears, et cetera, and you’ll understand why it sometimes takes forever to get the shots I need to do justice to these ephemeral subjects.

Since this years display is less than spectacular, here’s a little taste of the great colors from last year. Enjoy!


Cottage Dome Time Lapse

2011 October 20

Setting up the CamBLOCK Photo by Josh Owens


I just popped over to the Eastern Sierra the other day to check out fall color and ran into fellow time lapse shooters Dustin Kukuk (aka @DrKanab)and @MindRelic Josh Owens. After a day of scouting aspen groves and shooting some time lapse at Mono Lake, we headed up to Tuolumne Meadows to check out a cool location that I’d shot before. The three of us hauled a whole lot of gear to the top of a beautiful granite dome to shoot night sky time lapse shots.

Although we all used the same camera, the ubiquitous Canon 5D Mark II, there were three different motion control systems that were employeed. Dustin had the Kessler Crane Shuttle Pod, Josh the Dynamic Perception MoCo System, and I was using my CamBLOCK system. All three set-ups allowed for a dolly move of between 8 and 10 feet, and we set up three very different scenes and compositions.

One of our motivations was the moonstrike. After sunset, it would be totally dark by 8 pm but around midnight the half-moon would rise in the east and light up the foreground while still allowing the stars to shine through. These shots would be running for around 8 hours, with the camera slowly moving down the tracks. It was tricky to get the timing right, but I think all three of us got some good stuff.

Here’s my shot, pretty much straight out of the camera.

I wish I had started the shot about an hour later, so I could get some more movement after the moon hit. Overall, it’s what I envisioned two years before, but I just had the timing a little bit off.

I’ve been shooting astro time lapse for a couple of years now, and I’m planning on using this and many other shots in an upcoming “Night Skies” episode of Yosemite Nature Notes. It’s a lot of work to get enough material when you can only get one or two shots per night, and things like moonstrikes only work for a few days a month.

It’s also important to me to that the shot says “Yosemite” and these glacial erratic boulders on the granite domes around Tuolumne Meadows are one of my favorite things about the park. I just might have to go back and do it again!


With a little help from my friends.

2011 October 16
Comments Off on With a little help from my friends.
by YosemiteSteve

This is Josh Helling.

Josh has lived and worked in Yosemite for 20 years as a climbing guide, photographer and cameraman. For the past couple years, Josh has been my right hand man when it comes to shooting Yosemite Nature Notes. Yosemite is a big place, with mountains, forests, canyons and miles and miles of wilderness. To tell the stories found here, you often need to put yourself out there, on the edge. If you’re going to shoot on the side of a cliff, or the top of a mountain, or inside a glacier, Josh is who you’ll want along. After dozens of ascents of El Capitan, his climbing and rope skills are superb. Heavy loads and long miles don’t seem to affect him like they do most mortals, and his winter skills even exceed his summer abilities. He’s also good behind a camera, and his diligence at keeping your glass clean approaches the obsessive. Throw in the fact the he’s one of the nicest guys in the world, and it’s easy to see why Josh has been so important to the success of Yosemite Nature Notes.

Thanks, Josh, and I’m looking forward to our next shooting adventure!



Camera Hardware

2011 October 15
by YosemiteSteve

My job takes me all over Yosemite National Park, and wherever we go, we always seem to bring a lot of gear. Here is some of the interesting camera hardware that I use for my work.

Spaceman Josh Helling operates the KesslerCrane at Bridalveil Fall

Like the Innovision Spinning Rain Deflector for shooting in the mist of waterfalls.

and a 12-foot KesslerCrane is real handy for peering over a 300 foot cliff.

The CamBLOCK Motion Control System is a programmable robot that follows my every command.

To see some of this gear in action, here’s a behind the scenes video that we made for the “Moonbows” episode of Yosemite Nature Notes. Enjoy!


Grizzly Bears

2011 October 15
by YosemiteSteve

I was in Grand Teton National Park last week, attending the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and also shooting some scenery while I was there.

Sunday morning, I was treated to a great opportunity when these three grizzlies stepped out of the willow. I was about 300 feet away, and even though I’ve spent a lot of time in black bear country, this was the closest I’d ever been to a grizzly sow with cubs. I was glad there were a couple of other people around and that we were on a ridge about 100 feet higher than the bears. Seeing these amazing animals was a great reminder to never walk lightly in the willow flats behind the Jackson Lake Lodge. It’s a grizzly maze down there!

Snow plant time lapse

2011 October 15
Comments Off on Snow plant time lapse
by YosemiteSteve

Here’s a little time lapse that I did a couple of years ago using a fairly cheap PlantCam. These are snowplants emerging from the ground over a 45 day period. I love watching how the sticks move throughout the day. I assume this is related to relative humidity, and as the sticks dry out throughout the day, they change shape, only to re-absorb moisture at night.