I visited Yosemite for the first (and only so far) time in October 2019. It is a truly spectacular place that I have always wanted to see, but as a photographer, the thought of taking my Sony camera there is almost appalling. Of all the places that have been photographed to death, Yosemite has to be near the top of the list. But it is the place where Ansel Adams discovered his vision for photography, so how could I not want to follow in his footsteps?
My solution, and I was genuinely excited when I thought of it, was to take only my film cameras (plus my phone). I felt that might be a way to get unique Yosemite photos in the age of Instagram, or if not unique then at least different. And my guess is that even with the resurgence of film, I was probably the only person there that day carrying a Yashica-Mat TLR and a Chinon Genesis SLR.
It was a beautiful fall day as I drove into the park, and I skipped the stop at Tunnel View on the way in because I was hoping to catch the bus up to Glacier Point and hike back down into the valley. Unfortunately, the sign in the main visitor center informed me that the bus was sold out for the season (useful information that the concessionaire could have posted on their website), and smoke from the Briceburg Fire outside the park was beginning to drift into the valley as I walked back to the car. The smoke came in fast, and the valley was completely filled with smoke a short while later.
I snapped a few photos before the smoke got too bad, then decided to head back to Fresno. A young couple waved down my car and explained (in a strange accent) that they had parked at Glacier Point that morning and hiked down into the valley thinking that they could ride the bus back up. I had some sympathy for them since my plans had also been thwarted by the bus (although I did see it clearly posted that one should not expect the bus to be available to return you to your car at Glacier Point), and I figured I was reasonably safe picking up hitchhikers in Yosemite who spoke with strong foreign accents. It turns out they were from Israel vacationing in the U.S. touring several national parks. We had a nice conversation as I drove them up to Glacier Point where there was a relatively clear view of Half Dome although it was still vey smoky in the valley below.
These images were captured with my Yashica-Mat TLR and Kodak Portra 400 film. I had some issues converting these negatives with good results. Because this was only my second attempt at home developing, I initially thought there were some problems with the process. But the roll of 35mm film that I developed immediately afterwards turned out perfect, so that gave me more confidence in the developing. After working on the negative conversions some more in Negative Lab Pro, I think that the haze from the wildfire smoke is a major factor, followed by some issues with the development of the larger 120 film.
Before developing these photos, the only images I had from that day were captured with my Pixel 3a smartphone. I had processed a raw image of half dome from the phone and actually made a decent photograph with some heavy use of the dehaze slider in Lightroom. My theory is that Negative Lab Pro expects a certain amount of contrast in the negative, or at least, it is setting a white and black point and then applying a set of contrast curves to transform the negative into a positive and correct the color. The extreme haze from the smoke reduced the contrast in the actual scene, in addition to raising the black levels. When converting the negative images, NLP is just pushing the negatives too far which emphasizes any imperfections in the negatives (of which there are many).
When I created some additional conversions in NLP while consciously trying not to remove too much haze, I was able to significantly reduce many of the artifacts that appear in the initial conversions. Of course, those images look smoky and hazy rather than crisp and clear. But there are still some artifacts in the film including some tonal variations in the lighter parts of the images that run parallel to the length of the film roll along with some darkening of the negatives along the sides of the frames. I think both of these may indicate insufficient agitation of the film in the developer, so I’ll have to try to be more vigorous next time.
Despite the smoke, I did come away with the three compositions presented in this post that I really like. One of them was processed entirely in Lightroom with NLP, but the other two required some work in Photoshop to achieve my vision for the images.
I left Yosemite that day feeling frustrated and disappointed (and more than a little selfish that I was so concerned about the smoke ruining my photos when the fire was causing so much destruction). But after seeing these images on the film as it hung to dry, staring in awe at the computer screen when they appeared in true color, and applying all of my digital post-processing knowledge to turn them into presentable photographs, I am glad that had the opportunity to be there. And I am looking forward to having an opportunity to go back again with more film.