Yosemite Horsetail Fall update, February 2020

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall Light, Merced River, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall Light (but no visible water), Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
3 2/3 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

On Thursday night I returned from a week in Yosemite following back-to-back workshops there. The featured goal of my first workshop was to photograph the full moon; the highlight of the second workshop was supposed to be Horsetail Fall. The moon cooperated wonderfully, but Horsetail Fall…? Well…, I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

First, the good news…

Despite reports to the contrary, Horsetail Fall is flowing (and I have the pictures to prove it). Not only that, with no clouds in the forecast, Horsetail Fall’s normally fickle warm sunset light suddenly looks like a pretty good bet. What could possibly go wrong?

The bad news

Unfortunately, you can’t actually see Horsetail Fall’s water from Yosemite Valley (and I have the picture to prove it).

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall Light, Merced River, Yosemite

This is what Horsetail Fall looked like at sunset the same day (about 30 minutes later), from the same location in Yosemite Valley (no visible water, even when I zoom way into my 61 megapixel file)

More bad news

No rain or snow is in California’s forecast for at least ten days, which means little chance for more water in the fall. Also, as my group wrapped up our workshop on Thursday evening, the National Park Service was putting up cones and signs to prevent people from accessing all Horsetail Fall views on Southside Drive (such as the one in the above images) between noon and 7 p.m. through February 27.

This is why we can’t have nice things

In recent years, photographers have obliviously trampled sensitive riverbank areas while jostling for Horsetail Fall vantage points. Three years ago the weight of hundreds of photographers caused an entire section of elevated riverbank to crack and slump toward the river, damage that persists and worsens each year.

Screenshot from the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall web page of a recent Southside Drive viewing experience.

I know most photographers care about and respect their subjects; it’s sad that a selfish minority have to ruin it for everyone. This problem doesn’t just apply to Yosemite; photographer abuse seems to be pretty universal and I’m afraid we’re going be dealing with more (justifiable) restrictions at other popular photo spots in the future.

The 2020 Horsetail Fall prognosis

Even without visible water, I expect hundreds of photographers, and possibly thousands on peak weekends, to attempt to view Horsetail Fall from the open vantage points on Northside Drive. The El Capitan picnic area is the epicenter of this activity—you’ll need to walk 1 1/2 miles to get there this year—but there are other spots for people with advance knowledge, or who spend a little time scouting.

About this image

As this year’s Horsetail Fall workshop group learned, a Horsetail Fall photo workshop without Horsetail Fall is not the end of the world. February’s lack of crowds (at any location that’s not Horsetail Fall) is a joy for anyone who has visited Yosemite in spring and summer. And even without snow or clouds, Yosemite Valley has some pretty spectacular in winter. Winter delivers the year’s best light to El Capitan and Yosemite Falls (the late light on Half Dome is always good), and the Merced River is low and slow enough to flash reflections nearly everywhere. Though not at their spring peak, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls flow nicely in winter, even providing nice rainbows for those who know where and when to look.

The red sunset light that colors Horsetail Fall in February also works its magic on Half Dome. In fact, when there’s no water in Horsetail, I prefer the light on Half Dome to the light on Horsetail because the entire face of Half Dome lights up all the way to sunset (and a little beyond). Another reason to favor Half Dome over a Horsetail Fall of dubious potential (dry, or a good chance clouds will block the light) is that from most of the favored Horsetail Fall vantage points, there’s not much to shoot besides Horsetail Fall—if it doesn’t put on its show, you’ve pretty much wasted a sunset. So for this year’s Horsetail Fall group, most of our sunset shoots featured Half Dome.

Nevertheless, wanting to give everyone an idea of the Horsetail Fall light, for one of our sunsets I chose a popular Merced River spot just upstream from Cathedral Beach. Unlike the most popular Horsetail Fall photo locations, the view here is wide open, with views and reflections of Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, and the Three Brothers. So regardless of the conditions, the view here is always good—maybe not the classic Horsetail perspective everyone sees, but a good compromise that shows off the Horsetail light while still offering other nice stuff to photograph at sunset.

Arriving about 40 minutes before sunset, we found a few photographers set-up by the road with telephotos trained on (virtually dry) Horsetail Fall, but we were the only ones to venture down to the river. I’d taken my group to the same spot for the morning’s first light on El Capitan, so there was no need to orient them—everyone beelined to the river and went right to work.

Unlike the morning shoot, when the group spread out, we pretty much stayed together at the best view of El Capitan. The first thing I did was attach my Sony 100-400 and 2X teleconverter to my Sony a7RIV and point it at the top of Horsetail Fall. With my camera in APS-C (1.5 magnification) mode, I maxed the digital magnification in my viewfinder and saw that there was indeed water springing from the top of El Capitan—maybe not a lot, but enough to get airborne as it reached the precipice.

After sharing the magnified view on my LCD with the rest of the group, I fired off a couple of frames as evidence of water for any skeptics. Then I went to work on El Capitan’s beautiful, rapidly warming light and its reflection in the Merced River. The light this evening did its classic Horsetail thing, warming and turning orange as the lit patch shrunk with the setting sun. Also in character, the light teased us by fading to nearly nothing about five minutes before sunset, but I knew this had to be due to an unseen cloud because El Capitan stays lit for three or four minutes after sunset.

Sure enough, just two or three minutes before sunset the light bounced back, now with a distinct orange-red hue. For the next five minutes we watched the light redden and fade (the light gets more red as the sun sets, becoming most red just before snuffing out completely), clicking frantically. That evening’s light was about as good as it gets (at least a 9 on a 1-10 scale of what I’ve seen in previous years)—in other words, with water, Horsetail Fall would have been nearly perfect. But water in the fall or not, this turned out to be a pretty successful shoot.

Join me in a Yosemite photo workshop (including next year’s Horsetail Fall)


Horsetail Fall from Many Angles

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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Moon's Rest, Cloud's Rest, Yosemite

Moon’s Rest, Cloud’s Rest, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G (APS-C crop)
Sony 2x teleconverter
1800mm focal length equivalent
ISO 200
f/13
1/20 second

Size matters

About 15 years ago I pitched a moon photography article to a national photography magazine. I was declined because, according to the editor, “No one likes to photograph the moon because it looks too small in a picture.” While I respectfully disagree and in fact love using a small moon as an accent to my landscape scenes, that felt like a challenge to prove that it is possible to capture the moon BIG.

Then…

When I started plotting and photographing moonrises (long before The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills), my longest lens was 200mm—adding a 100-400 to my bag was just a dream. When I finally got a good deal on a slightly used Canon 100-400 lens, I thought I was set for big-moon photography for life—until my friend Don Smith’s 150-600 lens gave me feelings of inadequacy. Soon I was packing a Tamron 150-600 lens. I liked the extra size my Tamron 150-600 gave my moons, and while found the images sharp enough to continue using the lens with an adapter after switching to Sony, when got my hands on the Sony 100-400 GM lens, I was so excited about that len’s sharpness with the Sony 2X Teleconverter, that I jettisoned the Tamron for good.

For a couple of years my standard big-moon setup was a Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 with the 2X Teleconverter, giving me 42 megapixel images and 800mm for the biggest, sharpest moon I’d ever photographed. Better still, putting the Sony 100-400 and 2X Teleconverter on my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, I was able to capture 24 megapixel files at a 1200mm equivalent. Wow, 1200 megapixels: Surely I’d achieved the zenith of my lunar supersizing aspirations. Nope.

… and now

Last year Sony released its 200-600 lens and the 61 megapixel a7RIV body. Since the APS-C (1.5x) crop on the a7RIV is 26 megapixels (2 megapixels more than the a6300), I dropped the a6300 from my moon shooting arsenal. In October I played with my new setup a little using a crescent moon in the Eastern Sierra, but I couldn’t wait to try it out on my favorite moon shoot of all: the Yosemite Tunnel View full moon.

Last Saturday night I assembled my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop group on the granite above Tunnel View to wait for the moonrise I’d timed the workshop for. Sunset was 5:30, and I expected the moon to appear directly behind Cloud’s Rest between a little before 5:35, which meant the sky and landscape would already be starting to darken. The exposure for a post-sunset full moon is trickier than many people realize because capturing detail in both the daylight-bright moon and the rapidly fading landscape requires vigilant scrutiny of the camera’s histogram and highlight alert (blinking highlights). To get everyone up to speed, I used nearly full rising moons on the workshop’s first two nights to teach them to trust their camera’s exposure aids and ignore the image on the LCD (kind of like flying a plane on instruments). With two moonrises under their belts, by Saturday evening I was confident everyone was ready.

I was ready too. In my never-ending quest to photograph the moon as large as possible, I went nuclear—none of that wimpy-ass 200mm glass for me, for this moonrise I used every resource in my bag. I set up two tripods: mounted on one was my Sony a7RIII and 100-400 GM lens; on the other tripod was my Sony a7RIV and 200-600, doubled by the 2X teleconverter: 1200mm. But I wasn’t done. Normally I shoot full frame and crop later (for more compositional flexibility), but just for fun, on this night I decided to put my camera in APS-C mode so I could compose the scene at a truly ridiculous 1800mm—I just couldn’t resist seeing what 1800mm looked like in my viewfinder.

While waiting for the moon the group enjoyed experimenting with different compositions using the warm sunset light illuminating Half Dome and El Capitan. I used the time to test the focus at this unprecedented focal length. Waiting for an event like this with a group is one of my favorite things about photo workshops, and this evening was no exception. Between questions and clicks, we traded stories, laughed, and just enjoyed the spectacular view.

The brilliant sliver of the moon’s leading edge peaked above Cloud’s Rest at 5:33. It is truly startling to realize how quickly the moon moves through the frame at 1800mm, so everything after that was kind of a blur. Adjusting compositions and tweaking exposure and focus on two bodies, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band, but I somehow managed to track the moon well enough to keep it framed in both cameras.

By the time the moon was about to clear Cloud’s Rest, the darkening sky had started to pink-up nicely—underexposing slightly to avoid blowing out the moon’s highlights enriched the color further. The image you see here is exactly what I saw in my viewfinder (not cropped in post-processing), a full 1800mm equivalent that nearly fills the frame top-to-bottom. After years of thinking I’ll never need a bigger lens, I know enough now not make that claim again, but I’m definitely satisfied (for now).

Learn how to photograph a big moon

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Fifteen Years of Supersized Moons

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Good Times at Badwater

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley

Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
.8 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

When I decided to make my living as a photographer, about 15 years ago, I promised myself that I would photograph only what I want to photograph. That’s one reason, and perhaps the prime reason, I built my business around photo workshops rather than image sales. Because not only do photo workshops align with some of my personal strengths, they allow me to select my photography subjects and compositions for their personal appeal instead of their salability. By photographing and sharing only the images that most please me, I give potential customers a pretty good idea of what I have to offer—if you don’t like my photography, you probably shouldn’t sign up for my workshops.

That’s a long way of explaining why you see so many moon and stars, lightning, rainbow, and reflection images in my portfolio: I can photograph anything I want, and photographing those things makes me happy. With all the online ridicule and disagreement in the online photography community, sometimes its easy to forget what a joyful endeavor photography is (or should be).

In 2005, the very first time I visited  Death Valley as a photographer, there was water on the Badwater Playa—so much water that a kayaker scooted atop its surface. But I didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of that experience enough to take full photographic advantage, which is is how I ended up waiting 15 years to see water at Badwater again.

The Badwater lake was much smaller this year than it was in 2005. That year, the water lapped at the shoulder of Badwater Road; this year the lake was a 10-minute walk from the road. And I don’t know how deep it was in 2005, but this year it wasn’t deep enough for a kayak, not even close. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have walked all the way across in sneakers without getting my socks wet.

But because the lake was so shallow, the reflection was off the charts. So nice in fact that I took my workshop group out here twice, once for sunrise and again a day later for sunset. For the sunset shoot most of us ventured far enough into the lake that we were entirely surrounded by reflection. The sky that evening was a disorganized medley of thin clouds that throbbed with sunset color, and its reflection completely surrounded us.

The water was thin enough that the polygon patterns that Badwater is famous for remained clearly visible at our feet. Composing this spectacular sunset, I went with my 12-24 lens to include as much sky and water as possible, dropped low, and positioned myself to feature the symmetry of the polygon patterns.

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|| Here’s an updated version of my Photo Tips article on reflections ||

Reflections

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Reflection

Dictionary.com: The return of light, heat, sound, etc., after striking a surface.

Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?

WikipediaThe change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated

Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.


Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is: El Capitan!

But other photons striking El Capitan head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, and others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons pass beneath the river’s surface to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others bounce off. The ricocheting photons that travel from El Capitan and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).

Mirror reflection recipe

The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)

The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.

Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Playing the angles

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.

A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.

When the water’s in motion

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.

In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came out in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 6-stop neutral density filter.

Where to focus

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the El Capitan reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.

The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.

Think ahead

It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.

For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.

Photo Workshop Schedule


A Reflection Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show.

Near and Far: Thinking in Three Dimensions

Gary Hart Photography: Prickly Sunset, Hell's Gate, Death Valley

Prickly Sunset, Hell’s Gate, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
.4 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible—but impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is to think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.

Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it (this is one reason I love including the moon in my images). Of course it’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/far mindset should drive every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances usually isn’t enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye because viewers will subconsciously connect certain elements to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual leading lines, a term I like to use is “visual weight”: a quality in an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. Qualities in an object that can create visual weight include mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but usually a combination of more than one is more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon will pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.

With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I usually prefer diagonal relationships because I like the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. Creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, but it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.

An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is the up/down shift. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. And when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.

For example

On the first evening of my Death Valley Winter Moon workshop earlier this month, I took my group to Hell’s Gate. At Hell’s Gate the view south is straight down the valley toward Furnace Creek and Badwater; in the east are rutted hills that turn gold with the sun’s last light; the view west takes in nearby Death Valley Buttes, with the Panamint Range in the distance. While I like this spot for these grand vistas, it’s the assortment of cacti, rocks, and shrubs to include with the vistas that especially appeal to me.

Of the many barrel cacti that dotting the hillside at Hell’s Gate, I’m especially drawn to a large specimen above the trail and about halfway up the steep slope. But because I’m leading a group and this barrel cactus usually taken by someone else, I rarely get to photograph it at prime time. This year, however, the rest of the group was occupied with other foreground subjects, so when the sky started to turn pink with sunset, I scrambled up the talus and went to work.

The color was best in the direction of the pyramid-shaped Death Valley Buttes, so I started working on a composition in that direction. I knew my foreground would be the barrel cactus, and the background subject would be the buttes, but I still needed to turn the scene into a picture. Using my Sony a7R IV, I started with my Sony 12-24 G lens to allow me to get as close as possible to the photogenic barrel cactus. Scanning the scene, I quickly recognized the visual weight potential in the bare shrub—not for its inherent beauty, but for the its contrast (against the dark rock) and flame-like shape. These qualities gave it enough visual weight to balance the right half of the frame and move the viewer’s eye diagonally toward the buttes.

I positioned myself so the cactus was closest to the frame and left of center, and the shrub was right of center, with the Death Valley Buttes right down the middle. With my camera at eye level the empty plain in the middle distance occupied too much of the frame, so I dropped down to near cactus level. Doing this had the added advantage of increasing the prominence of the interesting jumble of rocks in the near-right—they don’t stand out enough to pull the eye from the cactus-shrub-buttes path I’d laid out, but their texture added some secondary visual interest in that part of the frame.

At 12mm I had a ridiculous amount of depth of field to play with, but I still took care with my focus choices. My rule of thumb for these extreme front-to-back scenes is to identify the closest thing that must be sharp (the cactus), and focus a little behind it—if I focus on the cactus, I get near sharpness I don’t need, at the potential risk of essential distant sharpness. I probably could have gotten away with f/8, but since the light was changing fast, I didn’t want to take the time to check my hyperfocal app. I stopped down to f/11, focused on a rock a foot or so behind the cactus, metered, and clicked.

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Near and Far

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Dawn’s Early Light

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn's Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California

Dawn’s Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 100

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and pink. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth draw out the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

The magic begins long before the human eye can register detail and color, when a few stars still burn overhead and nearby objects loom as vague shapes. Lacking enough light for the eyes to do their thing, the human experience an hour before sunrise is biased toward the non-visual senses as the sounds of gentle breezes, flowing water, and stirring creatures mingle with the smells of dew and plants. For the next 30 minutes, the horizon seems to brighten faster than the rest of the scene, but as the sun approaches the horizon, the earth’s shadow appears, swallowing stars with its steely blue. Behind the earth’s shadow is the twilight wedge (or belt of Venus), as the sun’s longest wavelengths battle through the atmosphere to color the sky pink.

Photographing this pre-sunrise show can start earlier than your eyes might tell you. Experienced photographers understand that what we perceive as darkness is just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light, combined with the brain’s insistence on processing this limited input instantaneously. But a camera’s sensor accumulates all the light that strikes it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching the “instant” of perception indefinitely and allowing us to use every possible photon.

Another advantage a digital sensor has over the human eye is its ability to extract color from this apparent darkness. The human eye uses rods and cones to collect light, with the rods doing the heavy lifting in low light, pulling enough monochrome information to discern shapes, but providing little help with color and depth. The cones that complete the scene with color and depth information don’t kick in until there’s much more light. But a digital sensor, though blind to depth, captures photons without discrimination, allowing it to “see” color in very low light.

The ability to capture aspects of the natural world that differ from the human perspective might just be my favorite thing about photography, and these sunrise moments provide a great opportunity to engage the camera’s strength. When the scene is in the same direction as the rising sun, I look for shapes to isolate against the sky, then underexpose enough to turn the shapes into silhouettes, and to prevent the color from being washed out by the sun’s brilliance. When the sun is rising at my back, I take the opposite approach, giving the scene extra light to extract invisible detail from the virtually shadowless light and reveal hidden color in the sky and landscape.

About this image

On the penultimate day of each Death Valley Winter Moon workshop, my group makes the scenic, 90 minute drive from Death Valley to Lone Pine for the workshop’s final sunset and sunrise. The view in the Alabama Hills faces west, so at sunset we’re photographing shaded mountains beneath the brightest part of the sky—not ideal conditions for photography. If we’re lucky enough to get clouds, these Alabama Hills sunsets can still be special, but really it’s the sunrise that we’re here for. At sunrise in the Alabama Hills, we face the Sierra as the sun rises at our back, first coloring the sky with the blue hues of Earth’s shadow, followed by the magenta and pinks of twilight wedge.

Another special aspect of an Alabama Hills sunrise is the Sierra Crest. Towering 10,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, Mt. Whitney and its neighbors jut into the twilight wedge, and for a few sweet seconds take on its pink pastels that photographers call alpenglow.

This year’s sunset was nothing spectacular, but we walked out to the famous Mobius Arch, checked out a couple of other less noteworthy arches nearby, and I pointed out some of the area’s many movie-shoot spots. I was also able to show everyone where the morning sun would rise, and where the moon would set, and introduce them to the most prominent peaks on display: Lone Pine Peak on the left, Mt. Whitney in the middle, and Mt. Williamson on the right.

The forecast for the next morning was clear skies—maybe not dramatic, but good for the planned moonset and ideal for alpenglow on the crest. My general rule for any location is to arrive at least 30 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise time, but in the Alabama Hills in winter, I like to get out there even earlier because the warm light from the eastern horizon light reflects off the snow and granite makes the peaks appear to glow in the dark.

The next morning, loading up in the dark at the hotel I glance toward Mt. Whitney and saw a bank of clouds fringing the crest. At first I was concerned that these clouds would obliterate Mt. Whitney, but arriving at our spot in the Alabama Hills, I realized the peak was indeed out, its tip just barely poking into the clouds. We’d arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, but I barked (gently) at everyone not to delay, that the light (that still required headlamps to navigate) was great photography, despite what their eyes told them. Most beelined to the arch, but I saw a telephoto opportunity and quickly set up right next to the car.

White with snow, Mt. Whitney stood in dramatic contrast to the dark sky and foreground. Using the thin strip of clouds to frame the crest, I started by including some of the sky above the clouds, but quickly tightened my composition to simplify the composition. My 30-second exposure to brightened the image far beyond what my eyes saw, and smoothed all detail from the shifting clouds.

The eastern horizon was already gold from the approaching sun, and while I couldn’t really tell that by looking at Whitney, it was apparent with my very first frame. The light you see on the clouds and Whitney in this image is reflected from the horizon, even though the sun was more than a half-hour from rising. All of the darker terrain below Whitney was too low for a direct view of the horizon light.

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Before the Sun

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Horsetail Fall: Let the Mayhem Begin

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (from the Merced River south bank)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/4 second
F/8.0
ISO 100
220 mm

Later this week I hope to have a new blog post featuring something from the fantastic Death Valley Winter Moon workshop that just wrapped up yesterday. In the meantime, with Horsetail Fall season just a month away, I’ve dusted off and polished my Horsetail Fall photo tips article. 

For eleven-plus months each year, Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even when flowing strong this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

Don’t call it Firefall

One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real fall of burning embers pushed each summer night from Glacier Point—it was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.

Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

  • The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot (at the top of the page) was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is thinnest (and therefore most tightly focused and photogenic) in the third week of February—the benefit of doing it a week earlier is fewer people.
  • Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours or even a day or so.
  • Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.

The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.

If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.

And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

From the National Park Service, February 2019

– Stopping or parking on Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge are closed.
– Roadside parking along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is closed to pedestrians.
– The Cathedral Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– The Sentinel Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– Stopping or parking on El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– Roadside parking along El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– The number 2 lane (right, northern lane) of Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is closed to all vehicles.
– Stopping or parking on Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross are closed.
– Roadside parking along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– El Cap Picnic Area is closed to all vehicles except vehicles displaying an ADA placard.
– The speed limit along Northside Dr between Camp 4 to El Cap Cross is 25 MPH unless posted otherwise.

2020 Update

– The NPS has closed the a significant section of the area between Southside Drive and the river to all access from February 14 – 27. This means that during that period, you can ignore my instructions for photographing Horsetail Fall from the Merced River south bank bend location on Southside Drive (mentioned below). Read the details here.

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.

You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. In recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

Merced River south bank bend

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

Merced River south bank bend, GPS: 37.72885N 119.60743W

Photographed from a bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.

I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

Driving east on one-way Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.

Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.

Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when the light will shut off, don’t wait until the light is perfect—it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago—just keep shooting . I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.

The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.

From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.

A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.

A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.

Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.

And finally

And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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Yosemite Full Moon Bingo

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moon Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

Do you have little games you play in your head? Private challenges that range from small amusements to all-encompassing obsessions—things like guessing how many miles until this desert highway crests that distant rise, or how many peanuts in a row you can land in the cocoa mug on the coffee table, or guessing the current time to the minute before looking at the clock. You do? Really? Wow, you should probably see a mental health professional about that. Just kidding—I do too, and I’m pretty sure we’re not alone.

Leading as many photo workshops as I do, one technique I use to keep myself mentally challenged at locations I visit over and over is to try to create sets of images with a single connecting thread. I’ll capture an initial version of a scene, then each time I return, look for complementary versions that portray the scene differently. For example, in a different season, or with the moon in a different phase or position. I consider this a personal game because I rarely (never?) use them as actual set, or share the connections with others, I simply get private pleasure from the symmetry they create.

That the moon is now featured in many of my images is no accident: it’s photogenic, easy to predict, and it just makes me happy. But I think I’d get bored just clicking random pictures of the moon, so sometimes I like to spice it up. First by making sure I could pair it with favorite terrestrial subjects, and later by creating related sets of moonrise (or set) images.

Yosemite is great for moon photography because of its distant, east-facing vistas that allow me to magnify the moon with long focal lengths. Setting up at one of Yosemite Valley’s west-side vistas, with the right timing I could point a telephoto lens in the direction of Half Dome and wait for the rising moon to slide into my frame.

On the other hand, Half Dome views on Yosemite Valley’s east side, with their closer perspective and Merced River reflections, are special, but I initially ruled them out for moonrises because of the wide, moon-shrinking focal lengths required. That changed on an autumn evening at one of my favorite east-side Half Dome views, when I realized the power a small moon can add to an already pretty scene.

While photographing tight shots of the moon rising above Half Dome, I decided that Half Dome and the autumn-gold cottonwoods reflecting Merced River merited a wider view, even if the moon would be quite small. And while moon is definitely not the focal point of this image, I was surprised by how much I liked its subtle presence in the scene.

Some images thrill me at capture and slowly fade in significance with time, while others seem to make me a little happier each time I see it. This is autumn moonrise is one of those images.

So when I was at the same location on a spring evening about a year-and-a-half later and saw the moon hanging way off to the right of the scene, I composed an even wider frame to include it. This tiny moon was even less prominent than the moon in my autumn image, but I liked the way it accented the frame, providing an extra reward for anyone who spends quality time with the image (full disclosure: not everyone agrees that the tiny moon enhances this scene, but oh well).

I now had a matching pair of similarly composed images from the same location, featuring the moon, Half Dome, and a reflection, each most decidedly distinguished by its season. So of course my next thought was, can I complete the set with a similar image that highlights winter (summer in Yosemite is for tourists)?

The second (spring) image was taken in 2015, and while I was far from obsessed with completing my set, in the ensuing winters I did make a number of attempts that were thwarted by schedule conflicts, clouds, or conditions that weren’t wintry enough. But I was finally able to complete my Half Dome full moon bingo card last month, when all the parts aligned on the first night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. I had the moon arriving just a few minutes before sunset, snow and fog prominently visible in my scene, and the clouds parting just enough—bingo!

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One last thought

This Half Dome moonrise set offers a little insight into my approach to composing a scene. In the autumn image there wasn’t much going on in the sky and I framed it as tightly as I could without cutting off the trees and their reflection. In the spring image the sky and its reflection were spectacular, so I went wide, taking care not to truncate the pink cloud in on the left. And in the winter image I found more of a middle ground, framing it as tight as I could without cutting into the cloud in the top-center. And in all three images, the evergreens on the right serve as a frame.

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Here’s a collection of moonrises taken from the same location

(A great illustration of the role of focal length in the moon’s size)

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
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