The Rock Star of Yosemite

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a very sheer, 3000′ tall granite rock), you’ve heard about the landmark free solo ascent of El Capitan that climber Alex Honnold made this week.  Free soloing is exactly as it sounds – climbing by yourself, without any safety gear to secure you to the rock except your own two hands and feet.  It’s about as risky as it gets, and when you combine free soloing with a granite face higher than the world’s tallest skyscraper…well, we just summited a whole new level of crazy.

Without any warning, without any fanfare, the internet suddenly went ablaze this week with stories of this amazing feat of physical and mental dominance.  I mean SERIOUSLY – who does this??!!  I can’t even shimmy within 5 feet of a 30 foot vertical drop without a jolt of leg-liquifying adrenaline pulsing through my vertiginous joints.  How does someone have the power and nerve to climb the incredibly flat, notoriously fragile face of a cliff that is over a half mile high?  Without ropes?  Without a safety harness?  Without a parachute or wing suit or paraglider or God knows what to ensure a pleasant glide to the bottom should one of your 3,000 steps fall short?  Can someone please explain to me….HOW DOES SOMEONE DO THIS?????

The point is, we can’t explain it.  That’s why Honnold’s story has captivated us so much.  He has single- (or, more appropriately, double-) handedly thrown not just the climbing world, but the world of rational thought into an existential tailspin.  Because it’s not just his awesome athleticism that is inspiring – climbing El Cap in under 4 hours is insane enough to make him the stuff of legends – it’s the mental muscle it took to overcome the very real, very human fear of falling/dying and will himself to do something humans (or really, any animal) aren’t supposed to do.  Didn’t he ever look down and think, “man, that’s pretty far, I kind of wish I had my ropes with me today?”

In the short snippets of interviews with Honnold that have already been released, he mentions that mental preparedness is just as important to his free solo ascents as physical fitness.  That’s why we didn’t hear anything about this landmark climb until after it was all said and done.  Heck, his MOM didn’t even know he was doing it, which in retrospect, was a fair call there, Honnold.  For him to believe, truly believe that he could do the incredible, he needed to only be surrounded by others who believed he could do it.  Too much worrying, too much hype, too high of expectations and his whole chi could go haywire.  Which pretty much meant Honnold’s circle of trust centered around himself (and a handful of National Geographic photographers, videographers, and journalists that may or may not have believed he could do it, but wisely thought it best to keep those thoughts to themselves).

In celebration of what is either the craziest or most inspiring thing to happen in Yosemite this year, I thought I’d share some rock-centric images from my April trip to the park.  Congratulations to Honnold for proving that what was once impossible can become incredible – if only we look within, and then UP.

Cheers!

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In the early morning, warm sunshine bathes the east face of El Capitan.  Look closely and you’ll see the cables for a climbing route.
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“El Cap,” as it is affectionately called, is on the west end of Yosemite Valley.  Here it is silhouetted against a sunset view of Half Dome, giving some perspective on just how tall and sheer it is.
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The abstract beauty of Yosemite’s granite walls is something I never tire of.
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Coffee, anyone?  Climbers waking up 1500′ above Yosemite Valley, preparing for another day of climbing the face of El Capitan.
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A tributary fall spills over the east edge of El Capitan, catching the dawn light as it cascades to the rocks below.

 

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Mary & Bart’s Engagement Session

Happiness!  That’s pretty much all I need to say about Mary and Bart’s amazing evening engagement session at the Burroughs Family Ranch in Ballico.  When we started the session, I warned them that it was going to be one big love and kissing fest, but wasn’t prepared for them to take me so literally.  (Haha, I’m glad they did though!)  These two only had eyes for each other, laughing and enjoying some peaceful moments together on Mary’s family ranch.  Aside from Bart’s constant joking that kept Mary in stitches, there were photobombing lambs and their rambunctious Jack Russell, Brodie, to keep things lively.

I met Mary several years ago on a Best Buddies cycling team, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Mary and Bart are also involved with Team In Training and are avid adventurers, so it was only natural that they include something athletic in their engagement session.  I was so excited when Mary told me that they were bringing vintage bikes – because what could be better backdrop for some vintage cycling than dirt roads and ranch silos?

Everything about Mary and Bart’s engagement session was perfect: the light, the location, and of course, the LOVE between these two amazing people.  Seeing your friend find someone that means the world to her, and then becoming friends with that person too – understanding just how awesome he is in the process – is priceless.  I can’t wait to photograph their wedding this fall.

Thank you Mary and Bart for inviting me to capture your love for one another.  And special thanks to my husband Steve for providing lighting assistance and offering his flawless dog handling skills!

Love & Happiness,

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Arevalo Family Almond Blossom Session

The Arevalo Family picked a beautiful spring evening for their photography session at Burroughs Family Farm.  The session started with warm, late afternoon sunshine bathing everyone in a happy glow and ended with a soft blush sunset over the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It was so nice to step out into the fresh green grass and clean March air that the weeks of rainfall had brought to the valley.  From start to finish, the evening was filled with happy laughter, big smiles, and lots and lots of love.  In other words – perfect!

I really enjoyed chasing John around through the blossoms.  Once he hopped out of the car, he was ready to run – so naturally, we all followed suit!  It was so sweet to see how much he loves his mom and dad, and how much fun they all have together.  Working with beautiful families like the Arevalos is definitely the highlight of my job.

Thank you Jamie, Drew, and John for the wonderful spring evening in the almond blossoms!  And thank you Burroughs Family Farm for offering such a lovely ranch for their family session.  We can’t wait to be back!

Cheers,

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Mitchell Family Almond Blossom Session

The Mitchell Family braved bright sun, bees, and a few barking sheepdogs to enjoy the almond blossoms at beautiful Burroughs Family Farms.  I had so much fun following Owen and Amelia around on orchard roads and through grassy pastures at this organic almond ranch, dairy, olive oil farm, and pasture-fed egg provider.

After days of rainy California skies, we were treated to an unusually clear afternoon – and got to see Half Dome from the ranch property, too.  What an amazing sight!  From what mom Diana tells me, the kids had such a good time on the ranch that they are already asking when they can have another photo session.  I say, bring it!

While it is tempting to tread through any ol’ roadside orchard to photograph the almond blossoms, establishing a relationship with a rancher ensures that you are entering the land when it is safe to do so (i.e. no pesticide residue or protective guard dogs on patrol) and that you aren’t disturbing the peace and tranquility of someone else’s property.  I feel so grateful to Benina Montes and Mary Burroughs of the Burroughs Family for giving myself and the Mitchells the opportunity to enjoy this piece of paradise.

Thank you Diana, Kevin, Owen, and Amelia for sharing the afternoon with me!  I am excited to share a few of my favorite images from your session.  I’m already looking forward to the next session with these little adventurers!

Your Buddy in the Blossoms,

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Adriana & Jeffery’s Yosemite Adventure Session

Some adventures are just waiting to happen.  It’s just…some adventures have to wait longer to happen than others!

Adriana and Jeffery’s Yosemite adventure had to be rescheduled twice on account of some pretty epic weather.  When it’s winter in the Sierra’s you have to roll with the punches, and Mother Nature was certainly throwing them – first with a white-out storm that crippled the park with icy roads and pea soup visibility, and second with a deluge that flooded the Valley Floor and triggered a total park closure.  So it was with elation and anticipation that we looked at the forecast for their late January session and saw nothing but white snow and blue skies.  And those thundering waterfalls, of course.

Little did I know how special of a place Yosemite is to Adriana and Jeffery!  As we roamed around the Valley they filled me in on several fun facts: that first date hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls (oy!), their wedding at the Ahwahnee (majestic), Jeffery’s solo winter ascent of Half Dome (wow), and many other fantastic moments that they have experienced in this beautiful place.  Without a doubt, this is a special setting for many of their memories.  I was so excited to be with them to document one more!

From waterfalls to rivers, rock walls to granite bridges, we made quite the circuit in our two hours together.  I could have photographed them all day.  Thank you Adriana and Jeffery for choosing this fabulous place for your portrait session!  Here’s to many more Yosemite moments for you two.

Your Wild(erness) Photographer,

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Yosemite Winter in Black and White

No matter how advanced digital photography gets in color capturing and printing technology, there will always be a special place for black and white photography in Yosemite.

John Muir was spot-on when he christened this natural gem the “Range of Light.”  The rugged 2,000+ foot granite walls sheltering the narrow Yosemite Valley, with its northeast-southwest orientation, make for spectacular plays of reflected light and deep shadow all through the year.  Anyone who photographs in Yosemite is aware of the challenges that such hard contrasts in light can bring to a full color image.  But when viewed in black and white, these hard stops reveal texture, form, gravity, and emotion that aren’t immediately obvious in the full color scene.  There is a sensitivity and richness that comes through when the color is stripped away and the landscape laid bare.

Ansel Adams was, of course, the king of black and white Yosemite photography.  If he were alive today and had the option to record his vision in color, I wonder if he would see things differently?  I’m secretly glad he didn’t have a palette of technicolor tools at his disposal.  There’s a reason why, despite having access to advanced technology, millions of photographers continue to emulate his style.  Adams’ images are so clear, so honest, so strong yet delicate in their handling of light and darkness.  It’s like watching a ballet unfold frame by frame.  Without the beautiful distraction of color, a whole new world opens up that invites a new kind of contemplation.

This January was my first winter camping trip to Yosemite.  Although I did not approach every scene with the intent of capturing it in black and white, I found that I was often pulled that direction in my editing.  White snow, black shadows, bare tree branches outstretched against a pale gray sky…all lent themselves perfectly to the black and white approach.

What do you notice first in each of these images?  Would you see something different if they were in color?

Cheers,

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Winter Solstice

I had forgotten it was the winter solstice when I set off for a photo walk yesterday afternoon.  I just knew it was a beautiful day and I desperately needed a break from my desk.  For the past week I have been heavily focused on editing and marketing, a task familiar to many photographers during these short dark days.  Between the sedentary nature of my tasks and a constant craving for sugar cookies, my body was aching, and it finally succeeded in sluggishly nudging me off my chair to get a little fresh air.

I grabbed my camera and my 35mm with no real goals in mind other than to have some fun and give my creativity a workout.  I happened to be at my mom’s house, which is next door to a strip of open space that I just love to walk to.  I slung my camera over my shoulder, stuffed my Fitbit into my pocket, and headed out the door to do some exploring.

Without a model, my photo walks are pretty predictable: Take a couple photos of nature.  Take a few more photos of nature.  Oooh, look at that tree!  Snap snap.  Wow, beautiful sunset.  Snap snap snap.  Ahhh, now it’s twilight.  LOVE those colors.  Snap snap snap snap snap.

As I relaxed into the evening, blissfully enjoying and engaging in the wilderness around me, I became aware of how peaceful it was.  No wind, no rain, just the silent slipping of the winter sun below the horizon as the birds called from the rushes.  I remembered then that it was the solstice, and the moment took on new meaning.  From this sunset forward darkness would cede to light, and with it the regeneration of life.  There was something very circadian about it all.  The world may be topsy turvy at times, confusingly raw and occasionally wrong, but nature will always find the balance.

When I got back home to my editing desk, I gravitated towards the images that spoke to this balance between light and dark.  I wanted the images to show a candle of hope amidst the shadows.  Though darker than my typical work, I don’t feel like they are sad or depressing, but rather emotionally deep and grounded.

There is wisdom in winter.

Happy Solstice – and may you follow the light into 2017!

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Tatiana Sotelo Portrait Session

When Tatiana showed up for her portrait session, she declared “I’m a really bad model!”  I took one look at this raven haired beauty and I said “Umm…I don’t think so.”  She slipped into the role so easily and was so comfortable taking my cues, it was like she’d been doing this her whole life!  I was so excited to get back to my editing desk and see that the images captured were even more amazing than the previews I was seeing flash across the back of my camera.  Not a model?  Pfffft.

Tatiana chose Del Valle Regional Park for the session, which I hadn’t been to before but am  most definitely returning to.  This large park nestled above Livermore has lots of beautiful rolling hills, a quiet lake, gorgeous old growth oak and sycamore trees, and some great country roads straight out of a Johnny Cash song.  It was early December but the fall colors were still vibrant, and the sky was draped with a thin veil of clouds that allowed the most amazing autumn light to filter through.  I really didn’t want the session to end!

On the way back to town we pulled in to a local vineyard for some twilight shots.  It was the perfect ending to Tatiana’s portrait session.  I’m looking forward to the next time I can add this Livermore gem to my itinerary – and Tatiana, the next time you feel like being a “really bad model,” my camera is ready. 😉

Lovin’ this light,

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Fall in Love with Yosemite

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Pssst…I’l let you in on a local’s secret: Yosemite National Park is horrible in the summer.  When the waterfalls are raging and the days are long and warm, there is no place I’d rather NOT be than Yosemite.  During this extremely popular time of the year, there are throngs of people and cars clogging every walkway and road, dirty air fed by forest fires and Central Valley smog, and a dry, sweltering heat that leaves me pining for air conditioning and a freezer full of Mint Oreo ice cream.

Pretty much every month outside of June, July, and September is better for visiting, although I think Fall is the best. There’s a cool crispness to the air…mmmm, that pristine mountain kind filled with the fresh, lung-scrubbing fragrance of damp pine needles and joyously littered with a colorful confetti of falling leaves.

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There’s also that glowing, golden sunshine that bathes the Valley Floor during the day, a luscious light that only comes at this time of year.  It’s warm and beautiful, especially as it illuminates the face of Half Dome in the mid-afternoon.

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A face I never tire of.
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I always say “I won’t photograph Half Dome this time!!”  But that’s lazy-talk.  All it takes is challenging myself to look at this classic image from a new perspective.  There are a million ways to “see” Half Dome, and I intend to capture them all!

This past weekend Steve, Mila, and I went “glamping” (i.e. tent camping, but with enough kitchenware and bedding to stock a Macy’s Home Store) in the shadow of the world’s most famous monolith.  What ensued were several days of peace and rejuvenation in this idyllic park.  Although I said I’d go easy on the photography  this trip (really, how many pictures of Yosemite Falls do I need??), I scrapped that idea once I immersed myself in the splendid beauty of Yosemite.

A recent rain storm had erased the memory of summer, wetting the soil and refilling the High Sierra watershed, bringing the famed waterfalls to life again.  The fall colors were peaking, the light was amazing, and I just couldn’t help myself!!  Scroll down to see more of my photos from our Yosemite Fall “Glamping” Trip.

Have you been to Yosemite?  If so, when is your favorite time of year to visit?  Litter my my blog with comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers,

Jessica

P.S. – One of these days I’ll post on the finer points of “glamping.”  Mila still doesn’t understand it – like why would you take all the comforts of home to someplace that’s NOT home – but believe me, it’s kind of a thing these days!

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There is a certain moment at dusk when the warmth of sunset blends into the coolness of twilight.  It only lasts a minute, but it’s worth every second!
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Three of the best things in life: My two favorite traveling buddies and a hot thermos of coffee.
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You’re my best friend.
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I was taking a picture of the berries on the dogwood tree when this little robin hopped in front of my lens – a much more interesting subject!

 

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Curious things happen at the intersection of darkness and light.
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Sooooo refreshing to see Yosemite Falls flowing again.  It always breaks my heart when the water runs dry.
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When your humans take you camping, and you’re like “meh”.
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The secret forest.
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Camping is fun, no?
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You know how hard it is to take a handheld macro shot of a patch of mushrooms in the shade?  Next time, I’m bringing a tripod. :-p
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Mirror Lake…aptly named.
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Serenity at Valley View.  It’s easy to miss this gorgeous vista on your drive out of the park – but trust me, it’s well worth the stop.

 

 

 

Beel Family Portrait Session

There’s nothing like photographing people in one of their favorite places.  Last week’s family session in Yosemite Valley with the Beels was certainly a prime example of that.  Brett and Lindsay Beel share a love for Yosemite, born of their passion for rock climbing, so it was only natural that they introduce their new little man to the mountains as soon as possible!

Nolan made his first national park visit at the tender age of 1 month and 1 day.  Yes!!!  You heard that right.  For a newborn, he weathered the outdoors unbelievably well and was quite content to be held by Mom and Dad as we played around in Cook’s Meadow.   Judging by how comfortable and relaxed he was, I’m thinking this is just the first trip of many!  Babies everywhere: the bar has been set, and it is HIGH.  🙂

Congratulations Brett and Lindsay on the new addition to your family.  I know you’ll miss Yosemite when you move to Pennsylvania, but here’s hoping that these photos remind you of your special time in California.  Thank you for inviting me to share in these memories with you.

Cheers!

Jessica

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