Behind the Shots: Sentinel Dome

Jeffrey Pine Dawn
Jeffrey Pine Dawn

After some encouragement from a friend, I’ve decided to start writing more about the images I’ve made, not just from a technical or an artistic standpoint, but also a personal one. My first post in this series was Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse. The images highlighted in this post were taken two years ago this month.

In March 2015, I was just beginning what would become the roughest period of my life. I didn’t quite yet know what was coming, but there were enough harbingers of the coming tribulations that I was rarely at peace during this time. In late March, I found myself on a business trip in the East Bay area. I had an event Saturday morning, but the event that was planned for Sunday had been cancelled the day before due to lack of interest, so I quickly adjusted my plans and drove the 4 hours to Yosemite National Park to be there in time for sunset.

Sentinel Dawn
Sentinel Dawn

After shooting sunset, I headed to my hotel to plan for sunrise. As I was driving I had heard that the road to Glacier Point had opened early for the season, the day I arrived. That helped make my decision easier. I had heard that sunrise from the top of Sentinel Dome was spectacular.  It was a mile hike from the parking area to the top, so I allowed some extra time and was awake at 4am. I was at the top of Sentinel Dome by 6am. Sunrise was 6:48, but already the sky was starting to glow.

There’s something about being alone, on top of a mountain peak, with nothing but the sounds of nature filling the air, Yosemite Valley stretched out below, and the Sierra Nevada range all around you. Despite the rumbling of thunder from the oncoming storms in my life, the mountain air, low rumble of three waterfalls- the Nevada, Vernal, and Yosemite-, and the soft light that was beginning to come up brought me complete peace.

Sunrise on Sentinel Dome
Sunrise on Sentinel Dome

The top of Sentinel Dome is bare granite.  Once a famous Jeffrey pine grew there, but it died in the drought of 1976 and eventually collapsed in 2013.  There are a few other trees on or around the peak. I set about making some photos, focusing first on the husk of the Jeffrey pine, just as some wispy clouds were passing behind them. As the sun began to edge closer to the horizon, the clouds glowed a bright pink and orange, lighting up the sky.

I used a Vü Filters 3-stop soft edged ND grad to hold the brightness of the sky in check, and my Induro tripod to steady my Nikon D810. My go-to lens for shots like these is my Nikon 16-35 f/4. I just love the wide angle view and being able to get close to my foreground subject.

I spent about two and a half hours at the top of Sentinel Dome that day, and then another few hours hiking to Taft Point and back again. On that morning, everything was perfect.

Yosemite Morning
Yosemite Morning
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Yosemite

Half Dome at sunset.
Half Dome at sunset as seen from Tunnel View through a long lens.

Since I first became interested in photography, Yosemite has been on my list of places to visit. I’ve now been there three times, for a total of about 10 days, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface of this incredible place.

My last time there, I had only a day and a half, as it was an unscheduled trip I made when I found I had some extra time on a business trip. Most people, when visiting, never get out of the Valley, the main area where many of the iconic features of Yosemite, such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls can be seen. It truly is breathtaking there. But on this last trip, while I didn’t get to locations outside the valley, such as Tuolumne Meadows, I did manage to visit some lesser known locations and get some amazing images.

I arrived in the afternoon on a Saturday and found myself a spot to photograph Half Dome over the Merced River. It’s a bit of a different angle than the more commonly seen ones and I was happy with the images. The next morning though, for sunsrise, I wanted to try and find a place I hadn’t been before.  I’d photographed sunrise from Valley View along the Merced River, from Cook’s Meadow, and from Glacier Point. This time, I decided I would make the mile hike in the dark to the top of Sentinel Dome and photograph from there.  While the hike in the dark was a bit unsettling since I’d never been there, I managed to find my way to the summit in a reasonable amount of time.  I was not disappointed.

View from the top of Sentinel Dome at sunrise.
View from the top of Sentinel Dome at Sunrise.

The sun rising over the Sierras is an incredible sight, and from Sentinel Dome, one of the highest elevations in Yosemite, it becomes even more incredible. The rocky top of Senitnel Dome features few trees, along with the withering husk of the jeffrey pine made famous by Ansel Adams long ago. I made several excellent images I was very happy with.

El Capitan viewed from Taft Point.
Half Dome at sunset as seen from Tunnel View through a long lens.

After that, I decided to hike the mile to Taft Point, another new location for me. It features an elevated view of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. A little nerve wracking due to the height of the point and the lack of any restraining wall or railings, but an incredible sight well worth photographing. I feel like it might make an excellent location at sunset also.

I finished the day with the classic location Tunnel View. While it’s often photographed, it is always stunning and worth a visit from any photographer. On this day we were treated to a show as a storm moved across the far end of the valley giving dramatic skies and colors.

If you’d like to join me on my next trip to Yosemite, I am leading the excursion for Worldwide Photo Tours in May. More information is available here.

Tunnel View
A storm moves across the far end of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View.
El Capitan
El Capitan from along the Merced River, just after sunrise.
The Merced River
A view of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.
Upper Yosemite Falls
Upper Yosemite Falls