Matthew Kuhn's Award-Winning Yosemite Shot

Photographer Matthew Kuhns (www.matthewkuhnsphotography.com) is a California-based landscape photographer, with images published in Popular Photo and PDN.  There is a reason why I'm connected to Matt's image highlighted here today, and that is because I met Matthew several minutes after he took this shot in Yosemite.  I had been foolishingly loitering farther up in the Yosemite Valley and had taken a few other interesting photographs of the breaking storm, but clearly missed the views that Matthew had waited for.  We looked at his equipment (described below) and wondered if it was actually going to ever produce images again.  I was intrigued, therefore, when I saw the issue of PDN with Matthew's photograph taking a second-place award.

A BAD START TO A GOOD SHOT

Matt: "It was a crazy 24 hours in Yosemite, culminating with this photograph of El Capitan.  I had driven overnight to Yosemite in order to be there for the first winter storm of the year. My goal was to make my way towards Olmstead Point from the valley in order to get a dramatic shot of Half Dome with storm clouds framing it.  I started hiking Friday afternoon with pouring rain in the valley; I wasn’t concerned though, since the forecast called for snow higher up.

"I hiked for several hours, about five miles, until reaching Snow Creek, and it was still raining with Half Dome completely obscured by the gloom.  I made the best of the situation and set up camp under a large pine tree in a vain attempt at keeping my gear dry.  Spending the evening in my tent, I waited patiently for snow, which didn’t come that day.  The storm raged through the night, dropping trees around me, booming thunder, releasing torrential rain and winds, which flooded my tent and soaked everything including my camera.  Even a bear came to check out who was crazy enough to be out in the storm!

"It finally started snowing just before dawn, and I awoke to a winter wonderland, but being soaked to the bone, I was unable to revel in it long. I decided to pack up my gear and head down to prevent what I felt was inevitable hypothermia and also save my very wet camera. Half Dome never showed itself.  Once back in Yosemite Valley, and again hiking through the rain, I attempted to salvage the weekend and studied the clouds, trying to figure out the best place for sunset.  From Tunnel View, I watched the clouds move around Yosemite Falls. I decided that a spot from the floor of the valley called Valley View would be my best bet for the evening.  I set up several hours before sunset and waited.   I was concerned about my camera, as it kept slowly losing functionality even after drying out in my car while I was scouting.

FINDING AN AWARD-WINNING SHOT

"Valley View is an iconic location, so it’s hard to find an original shot. I decided that if El Capitan showed itself, I wanted the Merced with smooth water in the foreground.  I was unable to find the rapids I wanted near the parking lot, so I hiked downstream until I found them just as the river split around an island. I set up the camera in the river and framed the shot where I knew El Capitan was, although it was completely obscured by clouds.

"After waiting for what seemed like forever in a cold rain, the clouds parted for only a minute just as the sun set.  The golden light with the wisps of clouds wreathing such an iconic feature of the park was breathtaking!  I excitedly jumped up and started shooting.

"By this point, my camera was in bad shape. All of the buttons on the back were not functional, the auto focus wasn’t responding, I couldn’t review any shots or the histogram, and it had stuck itself in live view mode.  I was unsure if the internal light meter was working or if the shots were saving to the memory card (not all of them did). I would normally use a graduated neutral density filter for a scene like this, but due to the state of my camera, I opted to bracket liberally instead. I bracketed +/- 4 stops around what I thought was the nominal exposure for the scene and shot in RAW.   I also framed my shot wide since I wasn’t sure what the clouds would do if they broke.  I ended up cropping in for the final composition.

POSTPROCESSING THE SHOT

"For post processing, initial adjustments were applied in Lightroom and then two photos were opened in Photoshop and hand blended together a 1/4 second exposure for the foreground with a 1/15 second exposure for the clouds and El Capitan. Luminosity layers were used for final adjustments and everything was sharpened for print. My camera spent a week recovering in a bag of rice and eventually achieved full functionality again six months later."

MATTHEW'S EQUIPMENT FOR THE SHOT

Camera: Nikon D7000
Lens: Nikon 18-105 lens set at 18 mm
Settings: ISO 100, f/22, 1/15thand 1/4th of a second

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