Posted by: kerryl29 | August 8, 2017

Thematic Interruption: Yosemite National Park, Land of Icons and Other Photo-Worthy Scenes

In a comment appended to the post covering Day 5 of my time at Yosemite National Park, quietsolopursuits noted how heavily photographed Yosemite is.  He’s absolutely right.  There aren’t many, if any, natural areas that are photographed as frequently, with as many recognizable elements, as Yosemite.  Consider just a few of the icons that populate Yosemite Valley:  El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, the broad scene from Tunnel View.  These elements, and many others, along with well-worn shooting positions from which to capture them, have led many people to conclude that there’s nothing new or creatively stimulating about photographing in Yosemite Valley.  “Does the world really need another shot from Tunnel View?” is a frequently asked question in the photography world, and you could pretty easily substitute one of the other iconic elements or spots for Tunnel View in the rhetorical question above.

My View of Photographic “Icons”

What makes something a photographic icon?  About some things–like the aforementioned Yosemite locales, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park at sunrise, the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado, Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, etc.–there’s a broad consensus.  And there’s generally a reason why such scenes have accrued such acclaim:  they tend to be jaw-dropping in one way or another.  Icons, in other words, are iconic for a reason.

Yosemite Valley at Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California

I have never gone to a location specifically to photograph an iconic scene and I don’t have all that many icons in my portfolio or galleries on my website.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t photograph iconic scenes if the opportunity presents itself.  Not doing so almost seems like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Yosemite Falls from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

One of the challenges of photographic icons, as I see it, is to try to depict them in some way other than by typical or traditional means–a different perspective, a different rendering, a different time of day, from somewhere other than an official or well-worn unofficial viewpoint and so forth.

Yosemite Falls Reflections from Sentinel Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

Misty El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley in Fog from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls from Bridalveil View, Yosemite National Park, California

The point is, it’s usually possible to bring something of a fresh presentation to a frequently photographed subject.

The Rest of Yosemite

The biggest fallacy I’ve seen is the notion that a place filled with icons–like Yosemite Valley–isn’t worth visiting or photographing because it’s been “done to death.”  This, to put it mildly, is patently ridiculous.  There’s so much to photograph in Yosemite Valley without relying on iconic elements, I scarcely know where to begin.

Dogwoods, Mirror Lake Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Merced River, Mist Trail Yosemite National Park, California

Tenaya Creek Intimate, Yosemite National Park, California

Conifer Forest, Yosemite National Park, California

Intimate scenes are an obvious counterpoint, but it’s certainly possible to render wide scenes from Yosemite as well without relying on iconic elements.

Misty El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Horsetail Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall and the Merced River from the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the point is that photography is fundamentally about seeing, even when photographing iconic places (with or without the icons themselves).  The standards by which most viewers will judge a photograph’s relative success or failure won’t change based on the presence or absence of broadly familiar elements.  So journey forth and, wherever you choose to photograph, keep your eyes–and mind–open, whether there are icons present or not.

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park, California



  1. fantastic pictures!

  2. Seeing Yosemite through your lens is an amazing experience; thank you for posting.

  3. Particularly beautiful stuff this time! Fantastic. I need to get camping!

    • Thanks very much!

      Yeah, you can actually visit Yosemite with relatively little difficulty. Just don’t wait for a weekend. Or go anytime during the summer months. Or wait until the prime hours of the day to venture out. Or…

      You get the idea. 🙂

  4. I have several images of iconic scenes hiding on my hard drive, many of them I didn’t know the fuss over until after I photographed them. I kind of miss the early days of my engagement with landscape photography when I wasn’t aware of the stature of some of these places. Is it an icon if you don’t know it’s an icon? Is that a Zen photography koan? 🙂

    I also won’t pass up an opportunity to photograph an iconic scene, but I’m also looking for the intimate details to fill out a fuller story of a place. I think any place can be photographed in a new way.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      “Is it an icon if you don’t know it’s an icon?”

      That’s a great (rhetorical question). It’s kind of a photographic version of “if a tree falls in a forest…” I remember asking an almost identical (equally rhetorical) question on a landscape photography forum roughly 15 years ago: am I absolved from any “responsibility” of “doing something to death” if I didn’t know the subject was an icon at the time the image was made? It probably goes without saying that the question was asked with tongue at least partially in cheek.

  5. I think there is a purpose to photographing icons. For those just getting started in photography, it can be very satisfying to come away with an image of an iconic location with which you are happy. It can be a great confidence booster. Likewise, finding the hidden gems at the iconic locations can also be good for the photographic soul, knowing that you found something that others have missed. I wouldn’t like to miss the opportunity of photographing iconic locations just because I thought no one would care…I care, and I greatly enjoy looking at my photographs years later and remembering being there. As always, your thematic interruption commentary is thought provoking.

    • Interesting thoughts. I hadn’t considered the experience of photographing icons for the beginning photographer. The part about creating personal memories…well, that’s the basis for any photographic experience as far as I’m concerned.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thought-provoking comment.

  6. Really fantastic photos, Kerry. I’ve day-hiked and backpacked in Yosemite many times, and everything looks new each time I see it; it’s never the same. And I’ll return again and again… it’s that good! Thanks!

    • Thanks, Mike!

      I’m wondering if most of your hiking at Yosemite was in the Valley or up in the High Sierra….

      • I ventured into the Valley once during ‘high tourist’ season, snapped some climbers on El Capitan, hiked along the Merced, and snapped Bridalveil Falls, then got the hell out and went back up in the higher country. The Valley was a zoo. I’ll try it again in the shoulder months. I’ve hiked along the Valley from up above in many areas, looking down into it. Hiked N and S off Tioga Rd in the T. Meadows. Also up north -in and out of Hoover Wilderness and Twin Lakes areas. The Kings Canyon/Sequoia areas in the Sierra Nevada, about a hundred mi. S of Yosemite is also fantastic. Lots of backpacking and good photos!

        FYI… I was just out hiking the Presidential Range in the Whites of NH -I know you’ve been out that way with your camera as well. It was work, even w/ no altitude to speak of.

        I enjoy your work!! MH

        • Thanks, Mike.

          I didn’t get a chance to spend any time in the high country, other than at Glacier Point; access to all of these areas was still closed in May, due to all of the snow.

          It’s my impression that Yosemite Valley is to be avoided like the plague during the summer, and on weekends during most of the rest of the year as well. It was plenty busy enough during the week in mid-May, particularly during the middle hours of the day, but tolerable the rest of the time.

          Yep, I was in the White Mountains last fall. I did a bunch of day hikes while there (as well as in Vermont and Maine earlier in the same trip) and one thing that was universally true: the trails themselves were absolutely choked with rocks and tree roots. As I wrote in my lead-in to the New England series of posts:

          “And as for the trails themselves, let’s just say that there’s a perpetual Rock and Tree Root Festival going on in New England and the trail system there is a big part of it. While hiking, you take your eyes off the trail at your peril.”

  7. First of all, thanks for the shout out!

    Secondly, it goes without saying that your images are superb, as good as any that I’ve ever seen!

    And, I believe that we should photograph the iconic scenes, even if they’ve been done to death. We all see things slightly differently, but the main reason as that we are creating our own memories of those iconic scenes. I think that many of us forget that aspect of our photography. While the images may not win awards or contests, we can look back at them years later and remember that we were there, and what we saw at the instant the shutter opened.

    • Thanks, Jerry!

      Your commentary is completely in line with my own thinking. It’s fundamentally a question of why one photographs in the first place and for those for whom that reason is–for lack of a better term–a memory stimulant, including icons in one’s photos is an easy choice to make.

  8. It’s lovely to see Yosemite from your point of view. Your photos are incredible!

    • Thanks very much!

  9. […] there have been some exceptions (cough–Yosemite Valley–cough), when I’ve dealt with crowds on past photo trips, they’ve been in the form […]

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