Back in the Saddle

Gary Hart Photography: Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite (2021)
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Horsetail Fall’s February sunset show is an indescribable delight that thrills all who view it. After photographing Horsetail Fall in relative solitude for many years, when all the people started showing up, I actually started dreading the experience a little—especially the prospect of negotiating tripod space for a dozen workshop participants. But last year, despite record crowds, after adjusting my attitude and actually leaning in to the mayhem, I had more fun at Horsetail Fall than I’ve had in years. And following last year’s experience, I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow’s return for this year’s festivities.

Because arriving early to ensure a good vantage point is important, photographing Horsetail Fall requires a lot of standing around. Of course my priority is always my group, but once everyone was settled in and all the questions were answered, I had time to chat with neighbors, and even wander up and down the road to take in the infectious tailgate party atmosphere, dodging flying frisbees and inhaling mouth-watering barbecue smoke as I went.

But for Horsetail Fall, as sunset approaches, group anxiety starts to take over. That’s because part of the thrill is the possibility that on any given evening, it won’t happen. Not only does there need to be water in the fall (never a sure thing), the setting sun needs an unobstructed path to El Capitan. But those in position to view Horsetail are standing on the valley floor with no view of the sun in the minutes leading up to the main event.

In some years, due I suspect to some nefarious conspiracy between water and light, the sunset fire never happens, not even once. Other years, it seems like every day our social media pages burst with pictures of the previous night’s display.

Horsetail failure comes in many forms, ranging from the fall simply being dry (2020, I’m looking at you), or the sunlight being blocked, for days or weeks at a time, by a string of winter storms. The worst kind of failure happens when the fall is flowing and the light strong as the clock ticks toward sunset—until some unseen cloud on the horizon snuffs the sun and breaks hearts.

I’ve also seen the reverse happen, when there’s no sign of sunlight on El Capitan and people have begun packing their gear when, without warning, the sun sneaks out to spotlight El Capitan for just a minute or two as it is swallowed by the horizon.

Maybe that’s why it seems that everyone who has tried it has their own Horsetail Fall story. And for every Horsetail aspirant who has been trying and failing for years, there’s another one who got it on the first attempt. For the fortunate, success is a badge of honor; for the unlucky, the quest can rise to obsession status.

Last year was a great year for Horsetail Fall, with good flow and light throughout the February viewing window. Trying to recover from 2020 COVID losses, in 2021 I had the good fortune to have scheduled two Yosemite workshops in February. The first one emphasized Horsetail Fall, while the second focused on photographing the full moon rising at sunset.

My Horsetail group enjoyed the first attempt so much that, despite our success, we went back for another shot the next night. And after the first workshop’s success, I gave my moon group the option to try Horsetail on a non-moonrise evening—they jumped at the chance, and weren’t disappointed. In between the two workshops, I hiked by myself up the Four Mile Trail (that goes to Glacier Point) far enough to photograph it from a perspective I’ve never tried. (If you’re keeping score, that’s 4 for 4.)

Today’s image is from my first group’s first attempt. In the minutes leading up to sunset, we’d been teased by light that seemed to come and go, before ultimately staying just long enough to thrill everyone. When the show was over, applause broke out, strangers hugged, and no one seemed to mind the 1 1/2 mile walk back to the car, and the ensuing gridlock.

Look below the gallery for my updated guide to photographing Horsetail Fall


Horsetail Fall 2021

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


Horsetail Fall Do-It-Yourself Guide

(from my Photo Tips section)


Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

2022 Horsetail Fall Update 1 (01Feb2022)

  • No reservations are required to view Horsetail Fall in 2022
  • From noon until 7 p.m., all parking on Southside Drive between the El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
  • Also between El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge, the entire area between the Merced River and Southside Drive side is closed to parking and pedestrians. In other words, you can’t photograph Horsetail Fall from the south bank of the Merced River. This will be strictly enforced.
  • All parking on Northside Drive between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover is closed. You also won’t be permitted to unload or stop on this stretch of road. To view Horsetail Fall, the NPS wants you to park in the Yosemite Falls parking area just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, and walk to the viewing area at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. This is about 1.5 miles each way, but it’s flat, and one lane of Northside Drive will be blocked for pedestrians. If this lot is full, you can park at the Yosemite Village parking lot and walk, or take the free shuttle to the Yosemite Falls parking area (and walk from there).
  • It’s impossible know what Horsetail Fall will deliver in 2022—that will depend on the weather (it needs sunlight at sunset), and the runoff. One small bit of hopeful news is the early and heavy snow Yosemite received this season. Though California is in a drought, several significant storms in October and December gave the snowpack a significant boost, increasing the chances that there will at least be a little water flowing (you don’t need a lot). But no promises, so keep your fingers crossed.
  • Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
  • And finally, if you think you’ll be able to skirt the rules and slip under the radar, think again. I saw a very active ranger presence monitoring the activity on both sides of the river. The rangers were very friendly and helpful, but they were also clearly serious about making sure everyone abided by the rules. So be patient, stay mellow, and enjoy the show…

Please respect these restrictions. The minority of photographers who ignore rules, or try to cut corners, reflect poorly on all photographers, which only leads to even tighter restrictions and risks complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.

16Feb21 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite

2021 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite :: For nearly a mile, scenes like this one from a small section of Northside Drive, repeated themselves every couple hundred yards.



Photographing Horsetail Fall

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 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 the “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real nightly display of burning embers pushed from Glacier Point every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) 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.

(Oh yeah, and it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.)

Where does the red come from?

Horsetail Fall turns red for the same reason clouds turn red at sunset. When the sun drops below the horizon, the last rays to make it through the atmosphere are long, red wavelengths. El Capitan, towering more than 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, is high enough above the surrounding terrain to receive extended exposure to these red rays.

Horsetail Fall’s sunset color varies between orange and red. The color’s hue and intensity is a function of atmospheric clarity—the cleaner the air, the more vivid the red will be. You can read more about sunrise/sunset color in my Sunset Color article.

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.

El Capitan Picnic Area / Northside Drive

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area (highlighted by Galen Rowell) on Northside Drive for years was the epicenter of the Horsetail Fall experience. 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 (now only open to people with handicap parking permits). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

There are variations of the picnic area view all along Northside Drive that in recent years have surpassed the picnic area in popularity (crowds). My suggestion is to scout El Capitan views in any month that’s not February; if your only Yosemite visit is the day you’re there to photograph Horsetail Fall, scout early in the morning. Or, as you set out to photograph Horsetail Fall, simply walk Northside Drive (one lane is blocked for pedestrians walking from Yosemite Valley Lodge) until you find a view that you like (but don’t expect to have it to yourself).

The farther east you set up, the better your view of the top of El Capitan. But some of the east-most views are too aligned with El Capitan’s face, giving you a more side view of Horsetail that makes it very hard to see. You can also try venturing off into the woods to get a better angle, but doing that also means trying to avoid trees that obstruct your view.

Merced River south bank bend 

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

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

Due to extreme crowds and the damage they’ve caused, in 2021 the National Park Service closed Southside Drive to any Horsetail Fall viewing. While there’s no indication that this closure is permanent, it won’t surprise me if it is (in fact, it would surprise me if it doesn’t become permanent). So, until further notice, the information below is strictly historical (as I write this in February 2022).

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.

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

Years ago I used to use a graduated neutral density filter to keep from washing out the color in the bright sky, but today’s cameras all have enough dynamic range to handle the exposure if you monitor your histogram. A polarizer cuts reflections 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.


A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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

 

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