When I went searching for a Yosemite photography guide, I couldn’t find one that had the answers to the questions I was looking for… so I made one!
There are couple things that you should know before diving into the guide. The first is that this is intended to show you my favorite locations, features, and times to photograph Yosemite National Park. It is not intended to teach you photography, that’s what our “Learn Photography” section is for!
I also need to clarify that this focuses only on the Yosemite Valley section of the park. Yosemite is simply too large to include everything.
With that said, I hope you find some inspiration in my photos and some useful guidance for your next photoshoot!
Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post may contain affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂
Other Northern California & Yosemite Guides
Before you get too immersed, you may want to queue up some of our other helpful guides to Yosemite National Park, including:
- Yosemite Day Trip: The perfect itinerary for one day in Yosemite
- Ultimate Guide to Yosemite Firefall: Everything you need to know for photographing the Yosemite Firefall
- Best Things to do on a Northern California Roadtrip: Where to go and what to see in NorCal.
- Photographers Guide to Shasta-Trinity National Forest: Best places and times to photograph the Shasta region.
- Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls: Everything you need to know for a visit to Burney Falls.
What to Photograph in Yosemite
Whenever I explore a new destination, my goal is to capture the “essence” of the place in a frame.
The question, then, is what makes the place so uniquely beautiful? How does it feel to be there?
This section showcases the iconic subjects and features you will want to photograph in Yosemite Valley.
The large, stark granite rock face that will appear in most of your frames is known as El Capitan.
Whether you actually intend to include “El Cap” or not, is such a prominent feature that you will often find it looming in the background.
The night photo above features El Capitan bathing in moonlight. As will be discussed more throughout this guide, I enjoyed photographing the Yosemite Valley more at night than any other time.
Another iconic rock formation that will surely find its way into your images is Half Dome.
The unique shape of Half Dome makes it a favorite subject for any landscape photographer visiting Yosemite. Whether you actively choose to feature it or leave it as background interest, there is something captivating about its shape and the light it collects.
The Yosemite Valley loop road is divided down the middle by the Merced River, which runs throughout most of the park. It is rarely going to be the actual subject of your photos, but it can serve as a beautiful feature to create foreground interest for your shots.
Imagine the photo above without the Merced River… pretty boring, right? But the hooked tree, light snow, and soft water all create a stronger visual journey for the viewer. This is what landscape photography is all about!
I genuinely have no idea how many waterfalls exist in Yosemite National Park, but there are a few extremely prominent ones.
Most of the major waterfalls are easily accessed via short trails if you want to photograph them from the base. However, my favorite Yosemite photographs tend to include the waterfalls within the context of the granite cliffs and valley. There are exceptions, but I find most waterfalls start to feel the same from close up.
Further down in this guide, we will discuss each waterfall individually.
What makes Yosemite a landscape photographer’s paradise is the granite mountains of the Sierras. There is something indescribably magical about their shapes and textures and the way they collect light. It is something only a photo can convey!
When it comes to capturing the essence of Yosemite through your photography, you will want to key in on the unique beauty that these granite monuments create.
When it comes to Yosemite photography, few things excite visitors as much as the opportunities to encounter wildlife!
The valley is usually teeming with wildlife. Of course, some animals are more exciting for visitors than other. If you are lucky, you may encounter bald eagles, coyotes, foxes, or black bears… and you will almost definitely see deer!
The coyote photo above was captured from the open meadow near the Swinging Bridge parking area in the early morning. This is the best time to snap a shot of them as they are likely to be out hunting mice.
This guy cooperated with a fantastic leap-attack on his breakfast, but unfortunately I did not have my camera ready in time.
As mentioned, this Yosemite photography guide is primarily focused on the valley. In addition to keying in on some of the many features that make the park so beautiful, you will also want to try and take some wide-angle shots that capture its essence with context.
There are a few viewpoints that are particularly well-suited for this purpose. Tunnel View (featured above) is easily the most iconic. And for very good reason, I might add!
Yosemite Sunrise Photography
Below are my favorite locations for photographing sunrise in Yosemite. Please keep in mind that as a valley is, by definition, nestled amongst mountains, you are unlike to actually see the sun cross the horizon from many places.
Still, you don’t need direct views of the sun for your camera to record something for the trophy wall! Instead, focus on photographing the morning fog and atmosphere, and hope for some sky interest!
Tunnel View Sunrise
We touched on Tunnel View already. This is the most iconic view of Yosemite National Park. Not only is it a naturally perfect composition that includes Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Yosemite Valley all in one frame, but it requires no hike or effort at all.
While I usually prefer at least some hike to thin out crowds, I will make an exception for sunrises as it means you can get a little extra sleep.
During the late spring, the sun will actually rise directly in line with the rest of this frame. Most of the year, however, the light will be coming in angularly. Still, you get plenty of interesting side lighting and sky drama, and it’s tough to beat this scene.
The one thing to note about photographing sunrise here is that the parking lot becomes an absolute zoo very quickly. Many photographers will actually set their tripods up hours early, then hide in their car and catch a few extra winks. Whether you feel comfortable with that or not, be sure to get there at least 45 minutes before sunrise to ensure you get a good spot.
Valley View Sunrise
The bad thing about photographing sunrise at Yosemite Valley View is that the sun will be completely blocked for hours. The good thing is pretty much everything else!
The scene doesn’t need the actual sunrise light to be stunning. What you will mostly be looking for in a sunrise shoot is the low fog that is prevalent much of the year, and hopefully a bit of sky interest with some high clouds to catch the color.
This is the second-most popular spot in Yosemite to photograph sunrise, so you will want to arrive early here as well. Parking is extremely limited!
Hwy 120 Overlook
If you want to get that first light as it kisses the mountains, you will need to get out of the valley. The fastest way up is via Hwy 120.
Just a short drive up Hwy 120 are two tunnels. In between them are some small pull-outs that provide a perfect view of the Merced River snaking between granite walls.
This composition does not include as many of the iconic monuments and features, but I feel it still strongly captures the essence of Yosemite National Park.
In particular, I love that first light beam highlighting the mountainside. I also love the leading line that the Merced River provides to the distant Bridalveil Fall.
Yosemite Sunset Photography
While the same obstacles of being in a valley must be considered at sunset as well, there tend to be a few vantage points that go from beautiful to spectacular at sunset.
Below are my favorite locations to photograph sunset in the Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Valley View Sunset
Look familiar? As popular as it is for sunrise, Valley View is even more heralded for sunset. The light on El Capitan and the color you can get in the sky and water further enhance an already spectacular scene.
Once again, be sure to get a spot early as parking is very limited. I also recommend bringing a polarizing filter and/or an ND to drag the shutter a bit and get that nice soft water and reflection.
While the long exposure look can be a bit overdone, I strongly feel that it provides a much more emotive dynamic in this particular scene.
I recommend reading our guide to long exposure photography if you want to know more about this photography technique.
Four Mile Trail at Sunset
Don’t worry, you don’t actually have to hike all four miles of the Four Mile trail to enjoy a spectacular sunset view!
Somewhere within the first mile, you will already discover at least one clear view similar to the one photographed above. However, I hiked in total about 1.5 miles to capture this scene. In the winter, the trail closes just beyond this point due to very dangerous conditions, but it is open during the warmer months.
This is easily my favorite location for Yosemite sunset photography. Not only do you get a full panoramic view of the Yosemite Valley, but the sun will set perfectly in line with the scene. The lighting it creates while descending can be absolutely brilliant.
Make sure you bring a flashlight of some kind as you will likely be descending in the dark following your shoot!
Depending on the cloud action, I personally find the view of Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge worth considering for your sunset shoot. The open face of Half Dome can get some amazing light and if there are clouds to collect it as well, the scene can really pop.
As you may notice from the photos in this section, I had very clear nights without enough sky interest to bother shooting the scene. On clear evenings like these, I recommend shooting sunset in one of the other favored locations, then going straight to the Sentinel Bridge for blue hour and maybe even some astrophotography.
The photo below shows the fading light that Half Dome collects and gives some idea of why it can be special for sunset as well, if conditions align.
Yosemite Night Photography
Astrophotographers, particularly those based in California, will rejoice at how dark the night skies of Yosemite are!
The crowds, noise and bustle of the day can certainly detract from the natural experience, but all that goes away at night. This is why I found moonlit nights to be the best time for Yosemite photography.
You have undoubtedly noticed many night images throughout this guide already; this is because I would stay up after the crowds had left each night and drive around the Yosemite Valley under moonlight, collecting photos that I felt better-captured the magic of the park.
Yosemite Moonlight Photography
Astrophotography is typically done when the moon is not present. However, I found the best nights to photograph Yosemite were those with a 20-50% moon. If it gets much brighter than this, you will lose the stars and your foregrounds will look like daytime. If there is no moon at all, it is difficult to get the bright exposures for your scene.
What you will discover on your first night exploring Yosemite by moonlight is that every natural feature just looks more magical under the stars. El Capitan, Half Dome, Tunnel View, waterfalls, they all just sparkle a bit extra.
If you are interested in doing some lunar light photography during your next visit to Yosemite, you will find a handful of compositions to consider in this guide. None of those covered required hiking or detours from the main Yosemite Valley loop road.
If you happen to visit during a full moon, be sure to hike to Upper Yosemite Falls to witness a “moonbow”!
INTERESTED IN NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY? Check out our Night Photography Guides
Yosemite Milky Way Photography
I have to open by saying my visits to Yosemite thus far have either been on ticking clocks or in the winter, so I have not had the chance to explore many of the views that require significant hiking.
Obviously, being in the so low in elevation will mean that the Milky Way core is blocked from anywhere on the Yosemite Valley floor. If you want to include the galactic center in your photos, you will have to find somewhere higher up.
In the winter months when most of those options are closed, the only area I found to capture Milky Way photography in Yosemite was from the “Half Dome View” pullout.
The composition is limited and not the most spectacular I have found, but it is certainly strong enough. You do get a beautiful view of the entire Milky Way stretching across the sky. If you look closely, you can even see Half Dome very small on the horizon!
Yosemite Waterfall Photography
Waterfalls will appear in the backdrop and scenery of most of your photos already. However, all of the major ones are easily accessible if you want to throw on an ND filter (and maybe a poncho) and get a closer look.
If you are just getting into photography or don’t live in a place where you see many waterfalls, these may be the most exciting features of all to you.
As an Oregonian, I must admit I am a bit spoiled and desensitized to them due to the many beautiful waterfalls in Oregon! Instead, I focus my photography on capturing them within the context of the scenery unique to Yosemite.
Note: Please do not mistake my personal preference for a recommendation – you should shoot what makes you happy! It is only to say that you will not find many close-up waterfall photos in this guide.
I suggest reading our guide to waterfall photography if you want to know more about capturing long exposure waterfall images.
The first waterfall you will see regardless of how you arrive in the Yosemite Valley is Bridalveil Falls. It is a standout feature in many of the compositions we have discussed already, such as Tunnel View, Valley View, and the entire North River Road.
You can quickly and easily hike to Bridalveil Falls as it is only a half mile roundtrip. When the wind is strong and the water level is low, you may discover it doesn’t even touch the ground!
Vernal Falls & Nevada Falls
The Nevada Falls hike begins at the Happy Isles parking areas and is about 5 miles roundtrip, but it is a very steep climb. If you are someone who is passionate about waterfall photography, by all means, plan some time for this thunderous cascade.
If your interest is more passive, at least consider a trip to Vernal Falls on the same trail. It is only a 1.4 mile hike roundtrip!
What I enjoy photographically about Vernal Falls is the striped rock wall that it spills over. The naturally-occurring pattern is something to behold.
Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls
You will see Upper Yosemite Falls from much of the loop road. Like Bridalveil, most of my photos featured the waterfall itself from a distance. I liked how it looked as part of a frame, rather than filling it.
With that said, the hike to Lower Yosemite Falls is so short that you may as well go for a visit. I made a moonlight visit and preferred it at night… no surprise there!
Upper Yosemite Falls is a bit more of an effort, but can be very special on a bright moon. This is one of the few places where you can photograph a “moonbow,” where the spray picks up the lunar light and forms a rainbow at night!
Firefall aka Horsetail Fall
It felt incomplete to write a Yosemite photography guide that didn’t include the legendary natural event known as Firefall. However, this occurs only during a small window in February, so you will have to plan carefully if you wish to capture it.
Fortunately, I was recently able to finally cross it off my photography bucket list. After spending a week in 2021 photographing and researching the event, I created this comprehensive first-time visitor guide to Yosemite Firefall.
If you are not able to get to the park during this time, you will likely not even see Horsetail Falls. It tends to be such a light flow that it is almost invisible or completely dry most of the year, though spring visitors may get lucky.
DISCOVER EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS NATURAL PHENOMENON: Ultimate Guide to Yosemite Firefall
There are many seasonal factors to consider if planning a visit to Yosemite with photography in mind. For starters, most of the park is closed for half the year!
Each season brings about unique opportunities and challenges for photographers. I personally favor the months of February, May, and October for reasons I will explain, but your camera will be firing constantly any time of year!
Winter Photography in Yosemite
I love photographing Yosemite in the winter, particularly in February. While most of the park is closed, the roads and trails in the Yosemite Valley are usually fine. Most photographers find that the fresh snow adds an exciting visual element to the scenery.
I like February in particular because this is when the incredible Yosemite Firefall phenomenon occurs, and also when the park limits the number of daily visitors! That is a huge bonus for most nature lovers!
Opportunities: Fresh snow dustings, atmospheric low fog in the morning, flowing waterfalls, vibrant sky color, and Firefalls.
Challenges: Most of the park is closed, some trail closures as well, road can get treacherous following storms.
Spring Photography in Yosemite
Many consider spring to be the best season to visit Yosemite. The wildflowers are in bloom, wildlife is active, the waterfalls are gushing, and the roads and trails begin to open.
No doubt, the opportunities for photography increase, but with them, so do the crowds!
The reason I mentioned May as one of my favorite months is that the Tioga Pass road tends to open around this time, as do numerous trails. This is a stunning road to drive!
Opportunities: Wildflowers to add foreground interest, roaring waterfalls, vibrant sunsets, increased wildlife sightings and baby animals, and rainbows likely.
Challenges: Large crowds, roads will not be open until later spring.
Summer Photography in Yosemite
To be honest, summer is generally my least favorite to photograph most places, unless I am there for Milky Way photography. However, since everything will be open by the summer months in Yosemite, at least the crowds are better disperesed!
The other good thing about photographing Yosemite in summer is that you have nice long days which can be used to take on some lengthy hikes that provide unique views of the park.
Opportunities: Best possible access, Milky Way opportunities open up, long days for exploration.
Challenges: Crowds, heat, long days means less sleep if photographing sunrise and sunset.
Fall Photography in Yosemite
Is there any place that doesn’t look better in the colors of autumn? Yosemite is no exception.
While much of the park will remain in shades of green, there are enough deciduous trees to pick up some vibrant hues and autumn feels. You will find most of them in the central meadow. Use these to provide that extra pop of color to your photos!
October was listed as one of my favorite months to visit as this is when you get the best color and school is back in, meaning the crowds thin out (slightly).
Opportunities: Everything is open, temperatures cool, colorful trees.
Challenges: Waterfalls are drying up.
It is not difficult to see why Ansel Adams devoted so much of his time to photographing Yosemite National Park. The natural beauty of the Sierras is incredible, but is particularly exquisite in this region.
I hope you have found this guide inspiring and helpful in planning your own visit. If you are interested in prints or licensing any of the images you have seen, please send us an email!
You are more than welcome to share this guide with everyone you like, but please do not share any photos on social media or use them on any personal websites.
And, as always, leave me a comment if you have any questions or concerns that I can help you with! I cannot teach photography in the comments section, but I will do my best to provide clarity anywhere that it is needed.