Yosemite Long Exposures: Patience Pays Off

You would think a waterfall-mecca like this would be an ideal place to capture the soft motion of flowing water. However, through trial and error I have learned that the larger, more famous falls in the park are actually better suited for automatic camera settings. I’ll explain as I share my photos of Yosemite long exposures…

The Cascades - Yosemite long exposures
The Cascades Waterfall Scene

The photo above shows falls at the upper end of what I would consider using a long shutter for. I do like the way it came out.

The real issue is that, of course, larger waterfalls tend to have more water flow. This means there is no opacity in the water…in other words, you can’t see through to the rock surface behind the falls. The larger the falls, the less detail you get in the flow…and a longer exposure reduces that detail even further.

Light Flow Waterfalls & Creeks – Yosemite Long Exposures

Trickling Boulder Falls at Cascade Creek - Yosemite long exposures
Trickling Boulder Falls

Here is where this technique truly shines in Yosemite. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, the stringy, light-flowing creek falls above were captured perfectly. This was probably taken in mid to late Summer. If I had attempted this during spring’s full flow, the picture would not be so striking and detailed.

Small, Rocky Falls along Tamarack Creek
Small, Rocky Falls along Tamarack Creek

In general, I found that long exposure settings work best for water trickling over rocks and boulders. One exception might be a late summer shot I made of Vernal Falls, which was only possible because all the snow had melted in the high country. Essentially, to the naked eye, the falls were quite weak.

Smooth, Glassy Effect in Log Waterfall - Cathedral Creek
Smooth, Glassy Effect

This perfect little log waterfall was captured along Cathedral Creek. A scene like this is an excellent opportunity for a long shutter. I should also mention my 6-stop ND filter and circular polarizer…both are quite useful on sunny days like this. However, while it was bright out, this particular shot was taken in the shade).

Forest Scene of the Dana Fork - Tuolumne River - Yosemite long exposures
Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River – Broad Daylight

For the occasional photo in direct sunlight, I sometimes even employ a 10-stop ND filter to block a lot of light (and allow for a longer exposure time). For example, here’s an image of the Tuolumne river’s flowing water in bright sunlight.

Graceful, Sinewy Creek Falls in Cool mossy canyon - Avalanche Creek
Graceful, Sinewy Creek Falls

I came across the tall, stringy falls above in mossy Avalanche Creek one day. Even at F22 and 1.4 seconds in the shade, you still can’t pull this off without a filter.

Very Long Exposure Effect in Turquoise Waters - Carlon Falls Area
Very Long Exposure Effect in Turquoise Waters

The super long 30-second exposure above was taken near Carlon Falls. Settings like this allow for very smooth + flowy water effects. Some people may find these images to be a bit fake – I’m OK with them.

Light Trails From Passing Cars

Light trails from car traffic on SR120 - Groveland Foothills - Yosemite long exposures
“Going Home”

This is one of my favorite long exposure shots, captured from the foothills near Groveland. It’s a 30-second exposure of Yosemite traffic on SR120, returning home to the Bay Area at sunset. In the distance you’ll notice Don Pedro Lake.

Streak of Light Over Sunset Jacksonville Bridge, Don Pedro Lake
Streak of Light Over Sunset Bridge

Speaking of which, these headlight trails were taken on a bridge over the lake – at the exact moment a car passed in the opposite direction. The long exposure effect smooths out the lake water, as well as softens the clouds.

However, I have noticed that if you have too many clouds with a lot of sunset color, this smoothing effect doesn’t look so great. In any case, these kinds of shots obviously take some planning and work – but the results can be stunning.

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About My Photos

The images on this website are available for licensing and/or sale as framed prints. If you’d like to purchase them for a blog, news article, or gift, feel free to contact me with the specifics. This way you’re supporting photographers such as me directly (as opposed to buying from a faceless stock photo corporation).

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– Nathan Allen

About Me

Photographer Nathan Allen

I’m Nathan Allen, photographer / creator of YosemiteParkPhotos.com (Yosemite Photos) and international travel site I Dreamed Of This. In truth, I lived in San Francisco, New York, & Singapore…but nothing compares to life in the mountains. I share my experiences HERE.