Near, Middle, Far

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite

El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/2 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…

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 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. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always 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 objects to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: 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 combining then can be even more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can 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 like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, 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 up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, 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.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.

For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.

By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.

One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.

In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.

By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).

Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.

I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.

In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.

After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.

Near, Middle, Far

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Secure Your Borders

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, Valley View Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1/40 second
F/16
ISO 100

It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the first sight of a location you’ve longed to visit for years. And since by the time you make it there you’ve likely seen so many others’ images of the scene, it’s understandable that your perception of how the scene should be photographed might be fixed. But is that really the best way to photograph it?

Valley View in Yosemite is one of those hyper-familiar scenes. El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks pretty much slap you in the face the instant you land at Valley View, making it easy to miss all the other great stuff here. This month’s workshop group visited Valley View twice, with each visit in completely different conditions, which got me thinking about about the number of ways there are to photograph most scenes, and how it’s easy to miss opportunities if you simply concentrate on the obvious. Most scenes, familiar or not, require scrutiny to determine where the best images are—on every visit.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

On our first visit, Bridalveil Fall was just a trickle lost in deep shadow, so I focused my attention on El Capitan, opting for a vertical frame to emphasize El Cap, the beautiful clouds overhead, and the reflection. When we returned a couple of days later, Bridalveil had been recharged by a recent rain, the soft light was more even throughout the scene, and patches of fallen leaves and pine needles now floated atop the reflection. All this called for a completely different approach.

On this return visit, since I thought there was (just barely) enough water in Bridalveil to justify its inclusion, I went with a horizontal composition. It would have been easy to frame up El Capitan, Bridalveil, and Cathedral Rocks, throw in a little reflection and call it good. But (as my workshop students will confirm) I obsess about clean borders because I think they’re the easiest place for distractions to hide.

So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple reminder to deal with small distractions on my frame’s perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from fellow photographer and friend Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)

To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.

When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame. Not only does this “rule” apply to obvious terrestrial objects like rocks and branches, it applies equally to clouds.

And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.

Of course it’s often (usually?) impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of the frame, so the next best thing is to cut it boldly rather than to simply trim it. I find that when I do this, it feels intentional and less like a mistake that I simply missed. And often, these strongly cut border objects serve as framing elements that hold the eye in the frame.

To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame. Even when you can’t avoid cutting things off, border patrol makes those choices conscious instead of random, which is almost aways better.

As nice as the Valley View reflection was on this visit, it was sharing space with a disorganized mess of rocks, driftwood, and leaves. Organizing it all into something coherent was impossible, but I at least wanted to have prominent color in my foreground and take care  to avoid objects on the edge of my frame that would pull viewers’ eyes away from the scene.

Unfortunately, as I used to tell my kids all the time (they’re grown and no longer listen to me), you can’t always have what you want. In this case, including the best foreground color also meant including an unsightly jumble of wood, rock, and pine needles in the lower right corner. But after trying a lot of different things, I decided this was the best solution—especially since I managed to find a position and focal length that gave me completely clean borders everywhere else in my frame.

I very consciously included enough of the mass in the lower right that it became something of a boundary for that corner of the image (not great, but the best solution possible). I also was very careful to keep an eye on the ever-changing clouds. The light on El Capitan that broke through just as I had my composition worked out felt like a small gift.

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Valley View Variety

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No Secrets

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
.6 seconds
F/11
ISO 50

It amuses (and frustrates) me when photographers guard their information like state secrets. Photography isn’t a competition, and I’ve always felt that the more photographers can foster a sense of community, the more everyone benefits. (I will, however, protect locations at risk of being damaged by too much attention.) With that in mind, I’m sharing below some of the photography insights I’ve learned from a lifetime of Yosemite visits, and encourage you to share your own insights, wherever and whatever they may be, when the opportunity arises.

Yosemite FAQs

I get asked all the time, what’s the best season to be in Yosemite? For many reasons, including the fact that everyone defines “best” differently, that’s an impossible question to answer. So instead I try to identify the pros and cons of each season in Yosemite and let the questioners decide for themselves what sounds best to them.

  • Winter: Because the crowds have vacated, Yosemite is at its most peaceful in winter. And it’s never more beautiful than when  smothered with fresh snow, but in the relatively warm temperatures of Yosemite Valley, snowstorms only happen a few times each winter so I try to time my visits so I can be there during a storm.
  • Spring: With its booming waterfalls, vivid greens, mirror-like vernal pools, and ubiquitous dogwood blooms (okay, so technically they’re bracts), spring is classic postcard Yosemite. Spring is also when the crowds return.
  • Summer: For tourists only—but if you find yourself in Yosemite on a crowded (understatement) summer day, rising at the first sign of pre-sunrise light will give you at least a couple of hours of glorious peace.
  • Autumn: By autumn the crowds have left, and while Yosemite’s waterfalls have fallen silent, the low and slow water turns the Merced River into a reflecting ribbon that splits Yosemite Valley. The resulting mirror reflections of granite monoliths mingling with the season’s red and gold are one of my favorite things to photograph in Yosemite.

Another question I get asked a lot is some version of, “Where in Yosemite should I photograph sunrise/sunset.” Again there’s no absolute answer, so I just try to provide enough information for the questioners to make their own decisions.

  • Sunrise: Yosemite is not an inherently good sunrise location. In fact, on a typical California clear sky morning, it’s pretty lousy. That’s because most of Yosemite Valley’s best views face east, toward shaded subjects against the brightest part of the sky. Clouds flip the equation, subduing the bright sky and (fingers crossed) filling it with color. But even the cloudless days aren’t an excuse to stay in bed. On these days try to be in position for the first light on El Capitan, about 15/20 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise. And in winter Yosemite Falls also gets beautiful morning light.
  • Sunset: Even without clouds, Half Dome gets nice sunset light year-round. In the long-night months (from the autumnal equinox to the vernal equinox) so does El Capitan. In the long-day months (from the vernal equinox to the autumnal equinox), the late light goes to Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall.

Send in the clouds

Regardless of the season, clouds change everything, especially when storm clouds that swirl about Yosemite’s monoliths. Even high or thin clouds can be difference makers that paint the usually boring sky with color and (if you’re lucky) reflect in foreground water.

Unfortunately, storm clouds often drop all the way to the valley floor, obscuring all the features you traveled to photograph. Rather than giving up, my approach to stormy weather in Yosemite is to wait it out. A clearing storm is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography, an experience that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s witnessed. And when I say wait it out, I don’t mean just returning to your room and looking outside every once in a while, I mean circling the valley in your car, or parking somewhere with an eye on the sky. Tunnel View is a great spot for this.

My other tip for photographing a clearing storm in Yosemite is not staying in one place too long. If you wait until it’s not beautiful anymore before moving on, you won’t leave until the show’s over everywhere—instead, remind yourself that it’s just as beautiful everywhere else, and move on when you find yourself repeating compositions.

Reflecting on reflections

Regardless of the location or conditions, a reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. That’s especially true in Yosemite. Yosemite’s reflection spots change with the season: in spring, they’re best in the vernal pools that form in the meadows, and a small handful of Merced River spots, where it widens (like Swinging Bridge) or pools near the river’s edge; in autumn (and late summer), pretty much the entire Merced River is a mirror. Winter Merced River reflections can be nice too, depending on the weather and amount of runoff.

A lifetime of Yosemite visits helps me pursue its reflections. But even if you don’t know the spots for Yosemite reflections, they’re not hard to find if you keep your eyes open.

The most frequent reflection mistake I see is photographers walking past a reflection because it doesn’t contain an interesting subject. Maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.

Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter any reflective surface, I scan the area for a reflection-worthy subject and position myself to intercept my target subject’s reflected rays, moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my reflection appears. Another important aspect of reflection management is juxtaposing the reflection with submerged or exposed objects in the water.

Putting it all together

These cloud and reflection factors aligned for me in last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop. Based on the weather forecast when we wrapped up the previous night, I gathered the group early enough for our sunrise departure to swing into Tunnel View for quick survey of Yosemite Valley. If there had been no clouds, clearing storm clouds, or zero-visibility clouds, we’d have stayed there. But when I saw a nice mix of high to mid-clouds, I went with Plan-B and beelined to Valley View.

We arrived more than 30 minutes before sunrise and I was pleased to see only one other car in the parking lot. I’d already brought my group here once, so everyone already had an idea of what they wanted to do—a few went just upstream from the cars to the nice reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall; the rest made their way out to the new-ish (last couple of years) and quite conveniently placed logjam that provides a perspective of El Capitan that previously would have required walking on water to achieve.

I left my gear in the car, moving back and forth between the two cohorts and and monitoring the sky. I’ve photographed here so much, I had no plan to this morning, but when the clouds overhead started to pink up, I couldn’t resist. Rather than grabbing my entire camera bag, I just pulled out my tripod and Sony a7R IV with the Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens already attached and trotted down to the natural platform formed by the log jam.

I knew I didn’t have much time, so I quickly found a spot where, by dropping my tripod a little, I could frame El Capitan’s reflection with several of the many protruding rocks. Since Bridalveil Fall wasn’t flowing very strongly, and the light on El Capitan was better, I went with a vertical composition that featured El Capitan only.

The pink was so intense that for a minute or so, it slightly colored the rocks. Before the color faded, I managed to capture several frames with this composition, each with a slightly different polarizer orientation, but I ended up choosing the one that maximized the reflection.

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Yosemite Autumn Reflections

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Just a Dash of Rainbow

Gary Hart Photography: Bridalveil Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Bridalveil Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
1/60 second
F/10
ISO 100

I’ve spent the last week moving, and with my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers launching Tuesday, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging (and much else). But I’m still committed to posting a new blog each week, so I’m sharing a new image from one of this spring’s Yosemite workshops, and a brief description of its capture. I also dusted off and polished up the Rainbow article from my Photo Tips tab. I’ll be off the grid until May 31, so next week’s post will likely be a little late.

It’s become a tradition to kick off my Yosemite spring workshops with a rainbow on Bridalveil Fall. Though the timing varies with the date, I’ve done it enough to narrow the rainbow’s start down to about a 2 minute window for whatever date I’m there. Not only is this little dash of rainbow a thrilling spectacle and beautiful introduction to Yosemite, it also creates an (unjustified) illusion of genius for the workshop leader.

With rain and maybe even a little snow, this year’s weather forecast for our first day looked great in many ways, but not so much for rainbows. But rainbow or not, Tunnel View is a great spot to start a workshop because it’s the most complete view of all things Yosemite. It’s also the first place Yosemite’s storms clear, so even without sunlight something special might be in store.

The storm was just starting to clear when we arrived and I almost got trampled as my group raced to set up. Between the swirling clouds and Half Dome’s appearance (not always a sure thing during a Yosemite clearing storm), things were already going pretty well when shafts of light broke through to illuminate random parts of the valley and surrounding granite.

I checked my watch and crossed my fingers when I realized that we’d be able to add a rainbow to Bridalveil if the light were to make it there. A couple of minutes later Leaning Tower (the diagonal just to the right of the fall) lit up, and a few seconds later a small patch of light hit the evergreens in front of the fall.

After telling everyone what was about to happen, I set up my composition and said a little prayer that the light would cooperate. The patches of light quickly expanded and merged and there it was. I often shoot this rainbow with a telephoto because the sky is so often blank blue, but the whole scene was so beautiful this afternoon that I went with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my (brand new!) Sony a1.

This was the very first time I’d used this camera, and while I thought I’d set it up to match my Sony a7RIV, I soon discovered that I’d missed a few things. For example, I usually shoot in single shot mode, but my a1 was in fast continuous mode, an oversight that became apparent when my first shutter press (slow and gentle, as always) fired off 6 identical frames before I released my finger. My goodness is this camera fast.

I have so many images of this rainbow that I only photographed it for a couple of minutes—just long enough to be confident that I’d captured something I didn’t have. When I finished shooting I just stood back to watch the rainbow move up the fall—and to listen to the exclamations of marvel from the group.

Fortunately none of my settings oversights were a major hindrance and were quickly corrected. Since that afternoon I’ve used my a1 enough to know that I’m going to love using it, and can’t wait to try it out in the Grand Canyon this week.

Read on to learn about rainbows, how to anticipate them, and how to photograph them…



All About Rainbows



Let there be light

Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. Though a rainbow can feel like a random, unpredictable phenomenon, the natural laws governing rainbow are actually quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.

The sun’s visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When our eyes take in light comprised of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. Color registers when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered (reflected). Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed, some passes through to reveal the submerged world, and some light is reflected by the surface as a reflection.

Light traveling from one medium to another (e.g., from air into water) refracts (bends). Different wavelengths refract different amounts, causing the light to split into its component colors.

To understand the interaction of water and light that creates a rainbow, it’s simplest to visualize what happens when sunlight strikes a single drop. Light entering a water drop slows and bends, with the shorter wavelengths bending more than the longer wavelengths: refraction.  Refraction separates the originally homogeneous white light into the myriad colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (in that order).

But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow. Actually seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be reflected back to our eyes somehow.

A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted when it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. To view a rainbow, our eyes must be in the correct position to catch this reflected spectrum of color—fortunately, this angle is very consistent and predictable.

Red light reflects at 42 degrees, violet light reflects at 40 degrees, while the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. That’s why the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, the longest visible wavelength; the bottom color is always violet, the shortest visible wavelength.

Follow your shadow

Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow somewhere. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 42 – 40 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects light’s refracted spectrum of rainbow colors.

Lucky for most of us, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, put your back to the sun and picture an imaginary line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing into the landscape in front of you—this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun from your viewing position.

It helps to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point—and toward the center of the rainbow, which forms a 42 degree circle around the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point. Unless we’re in an airplane or atop a mountain peak, we don’t usually see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way. So when you find yourself in a mixture sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward—if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.

High or low

Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small arc hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.

While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot—picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of the rainbow’s circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of the rainbow’s circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow appears.

Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops—when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).

Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly above you, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.

Double Your pleasure

Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection of a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.

And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described—instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.

Waterfalls are easy

Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.

A rainbow caused by sunlight on rain can feel random because it’s difficult to know exactly where the rain will fall, when the sun will break through, and exactly where to position yourself to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine. A waterfall rainbow, on the other hand, can be predicted with clock-like precision because we know exactly where the waterfall and sun are at any give time—as long as clouds don’t get in the way, the waterfall rainbow appears with clock-like precision.

Yosemite is my location of choice for waterfall rainbows, but maybe there’s a waterfall or two near you that might deliver. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.

Spring in Yosemite is waterfall rainbow season, and I know exactly where to be and when to be there for both of Yosemite Valley’s major waterfalls. In fact, given the variety of vantage points for viewing each of these falls, I can usually get two or three rainbows on each fall on any given day.

In addition to clouds, there are other variables to deal with. One is the date, because the path and timing of the sun’s arc across the sky changes with each passing week. Another thing that can throw the timing off slightly is the amount of water in the fall—following a wet winter the spring runoff increases, and with it the amount of mist. Generally, the more mist, the sooner the rainbow will appear and the longer it lasts. And finally there’s wind, which spreads the mist and usually improves the rainbow by increasing its size.

While all these variables make it difficult for me share the exact schedule of Yosemite’s waterfall rainbows from the variety of vantage points, I can give you some general guidance: look for a rainbow on Yosemite Falls in the morning, and Bridalveil Fall in the afternoon. And if you don’t mind a short but steep hike, you can also find a rainbow on Vernal Fall in the afternoon.

Moonbows

Understanding rainbow optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rarely witnessed and breathtaking phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.

Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones in your eyes that reveal color, though in bright moonlight you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band. But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.

Probably the best known moonbow is the one that appears on Yosemite Falls each spring. Usually viewed from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the best months are April, May, and June, with May probably being the best combination of moonlight angle and ample water.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t a secret, and the bridge can be quite crowded on spring full moon nights—in high runoff springs, it can also be extremely wet (pack your rain gear). The base of Upper Yosemite Fall can also have a moonbow when viewed from the south side of Cook’s Meadow, especially in wet springs.

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A Gallery of Rainbows

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Making a Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite

Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
1/3 second
F/16
ISO 50

Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.

And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image. For me, one of the greatest challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?

For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible—in fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:

  • Shade: One of my favorite approaches to blank skies is photographing moving water, spring flowers, and fall color in full shade. While not spectacular, shade light is shadowless and easy to work with. It also makes it easy to blur water without a filter.
  • Reflection: For the best reflections, look for sunlit subjects (the brighter the better) reflecting in still, shaded water.
  • Sunstar: Any time the sun’s up, a sunstar is a readily available addition option for spicing up your scene. Position yourself so all but a small sliver of sun is blocked by an opaque object (such as a tree, rock, or the horizon), dial your f-stop to f/16 or smaller. Note that some lenses deliver sharper, more defined sunstars than others, and in general, wide lenses work best, especially primes and high quality zooms.
  • Silhouette: Blank skies at sunrise and sunset are a great opportunity to create silhouettes that emphasize color and shape by eliminating everything in the scene except color and shape. Better still, incorporating a crescent moon (which always rises just before the sun, and sets just after the sun), can take silhouette scenes to the next level.
  • Stars: Don’t forget the night sky. Often when I’m disappointed by a lack of clouds at a nice location, I just wait until dark and photograph the scene by moon- or starlight.
  • Black and white and infrared: While I don’t photograph B&W and infrared, they are wonderful techniques for dealing with harsh midday light.

For example

Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s penultimate afternoon.

Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River. The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.

Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.

I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for my Sony 24-105G lens.

This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.

In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.

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The Cure for Blank Skies

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This is My Office

Gary Hart Photography: Fresh Snow, Valley View, Yosemite

Fresh Snow, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

More than 15 years ago I left a good job at an excellent (and very well known) tech company to pursue a career in nature photography. After all, I had a good camera and years of amateur photography experience—what could possibly go wrong? Turns out I had no interest in any of the kinds of photography that actually make money, so (in hindsight) my decision was somewhat riskier than I had imagined. But, while photography hasn’t brought me great financial fortune, I do indeed feel rich beyond all measure.

Since first picking up a serious camera in my early 20s (an Olympus OM-2, if you must know), I’d been a very content amateur photographer, able to choose my photo destinations and the images I clicked for the sheer joy they brought. Period. But, being stuck in a job that stifles your creativity tends to make you rethink life choices.

At the time I’d found myself swept up in the earliest waves of the photography renaissance spurred by digital capture. I loved the instant feedback and control it brought, and started fantasizing about a transitioning my livelihood to photography. But as I started plotting my transition, I sensed that a significant risk of turning one’s passion into a profession is making choices based on the income they generate rather than the pleasure they bring. Hoping to keep the joy in my photography, I made a personal vow to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never take a picture just because I thought it would earn money.

To honor this commitment while still paying the bills, I blended my 20+ year career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) with my years of photography experience and subject knowledge, to create a photography business based on photo workshops rather than image sales. (Of course I do sell images too, but because I’ve always viewed image sales as a bonus rather than something to something I rely on, I’ve been able to honor my commitment to only take pictures that make me happy.) And here I am.

I’m thinking about this right now because sometimes I’ll come across an image that reminds me how lucky I was to have been at these places when I would have otherwise been fighting traffic or imprisoned in a cubicle. I found today’s image while engaged in one of my favorite idle time exercises: Start with a favorite image, return to the folder for that trip, and look for unprocessed images captured in the conditions of that day. This time, overdue for a blog post, I didn’t go too far back, ending up revisiting my images from the snowy opening day of last year’s December Yosemite Winter Moon workshop.

Given how happy the previously shared images from this day make me, this choice was low hanging fruit, but I’m actually a little surprised to have found something I like as much as, or more than, what I already had.

When I’m in the park by myself I tend to avoid from the popular spots. But these spots are popular for a reason, and since this was the workshop’s first day, I wanted to give my group a chance to photograph the iconic scenes in the best conditions. Granted (speaking of low hanging fruit), Valley View is one of those spots that really doesn’t need help to be beautiful, so adding fresh snow almost seems unfair. But after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, I can honestly say that it doesn’t get much better than this, and it was a treat to be able to share that beauty with an appreciative group. The fact that this was the first view of Yosemite for some (but I didn’t have the heart to tell them it’s not always like this) made it even more memorable for me.

For this composition I used the snow-capped rocks to add a little foreground interest. They’d have been pretty hard to avoid anyway, but I was very conscious of where I set up my tripod to control where the rocks landed in my scene—not too close to the borders, and not merged with the important parts of the reflection.

In addition to the snow, the clouds this afternoon were truly special—not only the swirling fragments between El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, but also the column that appears to be tumbling down El Capitan like a waterfall. Just another day at the office….

The View From My Office

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Yosemite Moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Moon, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Twilight Moon, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/3 second
F/11
ISO 100

Though last week’s harrowing story of a sneaker wave that drenched members of the Iceland photo workshop group had a (relatively) happy ending (R.I.P., 3 cameras and lenses), it generated more responses than any blog post in recent memory. Exactly one week later, that sobering reminder of Nature’s power and ability to surprise was still on my mind when I was gifted a reminder of Nature’s ability to also soothe and inspire.

This epiphany struck me as I reclined on a granite slab above Tunnel View, waiting for the full moon to grace the most beautiful view on Earth. Just as in Iceland, I was with a workshop group. Unseen in Yosemite Valley below us, I knew thousands of photographers were assembled with eyes glued to a section of granite stained by Horsetail Fall’s trickle, praying to avoid a reminder of Nature’s ability to disappoint. If all went as hoped, the moon would appear at about the same time light from the setting sun colored the waterfall some shade of orange or (fingers crossed) red.

While clouds were a factor for both events, I wasn’t concerned about the moonrise because I could see there was only one cloud that might delay the moon’s appearance, but certainly wouldn’t wipe it out. On the other hand, I knew from experience that the people on the ground beneath Horsetail Fall would have no idea of the clouds poised to block the sun, and ultimate fate that evening’s light, until it actually happened (or didn’t). For me and my group, the light on Horsetail Fall would be tomorrow night’s anxiety; tonight was our opportunity to bask and marvel.

My general moonrise approach is to start with max telephoto until the moon gets some separation from the landscape, then go wider as the moon climbs. This evening my tripod was mounted with my Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 composed at full magnification on Cloud’s Rest, the peak between El Capitan and Half Dome, behind which the moon should appear about 25 minutes before sunset. Within arm’s reach was my other a7RIV with my Sony 24-105.

Once everyone was set up with lenses trained, we had time to sit and appreciate the view. From our perch not only could we see the spot behind which the moon would appear, we also could see the part of El Capitan where Horsetail flowed (though there wasn’t enough water to actually see the fall from this distance). As we waited for the moon, we watched the shadow cast by the setting sun move across the face of El Capitan, gradually warming the granite as it advanced.

My eyes were trained more on the cloud taking a breather atop Cloud’s Rest—more specifically, trying to figure out if the cloud was dense enough to completely block the moon. I got my answer when the time for moonrise came and passed, and adjusted my composition by widening my composition somewhat.

The moon came out from behind the cloud about 10 minutes before sunset, still close enough to Horsetail Fall to include both at 400mm. Meanwhile, the light on Horsetail Fall faded as the sun dropped into thin clouds near the horizon—faded just enough to subdue the color and disappoint the massed throngs below.

From our vantage point the light on El Capitan was good, but I could tell that the color wasn’t what people came for. As pretty as our scene was was, my favorite time to photograph a full moon isn’t until after the sun has set and the blue and pink pastels of Earth’s shadow starts to paint the sky. By this time the daylight-bright moon stands out strikingly against the darkening sky. Waiting for this to happen, I switched to my 24-105 and started playing with a variety of compositions that included some combination of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.

Since I need to capture detail in both the moon and the foreground, and I never blend images (combine exposures to make a single image), the exposure margin for error shrinks significantly as the sky darkens around the moon. I captured this image more than 15 minutes after sunset, when the scene looked much better to my eyes than it did on my LCD. This is where I especially appreciate the dynamic range of my Sony sensors—I just monitor the moon, making it as bright possible without blowing it out, then rely on Lightroom and Photoshop to reveal the unbelievable amount of usable detail hidden in the shadows and highlights.

Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite as much as ever. I’m fully aware that I have far more than my share of these images, but it just makes me so happy, I have no plans to stop.

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Yosemite Moonrise

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Back in the Saddle

Gary Hart Photography: Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite (2021)
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

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

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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.

 

Doing the Scene Justice

Gary Hart Photography: Falling Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Falling Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/250 second
F/9
ISO 800

Woe is me

I just returned from nearly a week in Death Valley, where I had virtually no connectivity (wifi at my hotel made the Grand Canyon North Rim feel like a Silicon Valley Starbucks). Workshop or not, I try to post something on social media every day, and a new blog article each Sunday, but with no wifi and spotty 3G cellular that struggled just to send or load a text-only e-mail, I felt virtually cut off from civilization (there was a tsunami?!). I know in the grand scheme of things these are small problems, and that I probably missed the world more than it missed me, but still….

So anyway…

Last week I wrote about creating unique perspectives of familiar scenes, and offered some ideas for achieving this. As admirable as it is to make unique images, sometimes Mother Nature delivers something so magnificent that best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the scene stand on its own.

For example

Though last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until the afternoon I took this picture, I drove to Yosemite the evening before the workshop to get a few hours of morning one-on-one time with the multiple inches of snow forecast to fall overnight. And as hoped, I arrived that morning to find every square inch of exposed surface glazed white—and the snow was still falling.

The paradox of photographing Yosemite during a storm is that all of the features you came to photograph are most likely obliterated by clouds. Sometimes visibility is so poor, it’s difficult to imagine the obscured features ever existed—and quite easy to imagine the comfort and warmth of your hotel room. The key Yosemite storm success is to be there when the storm clears—but job-one for catching the clearing part of a Yosemite clearing storm, is first enduring the storm part.

So, rather than succumb to the temptation of comfort and warmth, I armored up and went to work in near zero visibility. After an hour or so of driving around, interrupted by a stop or two (or three) to photograph some of the more intimate nearby beauty, I pulled up to El Capitan Bridge and noticed the clouds starting to lift (fingers crossed). In the still-falling snow, I quickly set up my tripod, grabbed my Sony a7RIV, attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and hoped.

I digress

Without getting too preachy, let me just say that if you ever want to piss off a photographer, look at one of their images and say, “Ooooh, you must have a great camera.” While that may very well be true, the photographer’s unavoidable inference will be that the questioner means the beautiful image is a product of the photographer’s equipment, not his or her photographic vision and skill.

But…. As much as I’d like to say my equipment is irrelevant and I could achieve the same results with a pinhole camera, I’ll admit that I have images I couldn’t have created without the right camera or lens. And this is one of them.

Back on point

I’ve written before about Sony’s 12-24 lenses, and how they feel specifically designed for Yosemite’s ultra-close views of massive monoliths. El Capitan Bridge is one of those views, so close that I’ve always felt that even a 16-35 wasn’t wide enough to do the scene justice. So when Sony released its 12-24 f/4 G lens, this was one of my very first stops. My excitement was validated when I discovered that at 12mm I could indeed get all of El Capitan, plus its entire reflection, in a single vertical frame. I became so enamored of my new top-to-bottom-reflection power that pretty much every subsequent 12-24 El Capitan composition here (both with the original Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and the newer Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM) had been vertical. My goal this morning was to change that.

While the clouds didn’t completely part for several more hours, during this stop at El Capitan Bridge they did lift just enough to reveal all of El Capitan for about 15 minutes. During that time, their swirling vestiges careened across the granite face so rapidly that the scene seemed to change by the second.

Photographically, there wasn’t really a lot I could do for this scene besides not mess it up. Mounting my camera horizontally, I widened my lens all the way out to 12mm, put the top of the frame slightly above El Capitan (to maximize the amount of reflection below it—more sky would have meant less reflection), and used the snow-covered trees on both sides to frame the scene.

Depth of field wasn’t a factor, and very little contrast made metering easy. Wanting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the falling snowflakes, I dialed to ISO 800 and f/9, which I quickly determined centered my (pre-capture) histogram at a more than adequate 1/250 second. Then I clicked a dozen or so images to ensure a wide variety of cloud formations and falling snowflake patterns, pausing occasionally to appreciate the moment.

This scene felt like a gift that I really didn’t want to overthink. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to photograph it (and the equipment that allowed me to do it justice).


An El Capitan Gallery

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

Dare To Be Different

Gary Hart Photography: Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

What does it take to make a great landscape image? The answer to that question could fill volumes (so I hope you don’t expect the final word in one blog post), but for starters, it seems pretty obvious that a great landscape image should involve some combination of beautiful scene and compelling composition. Of course it’s possible for one side of that scale to tilt so strongly that it renders the other side all but irrelevant: I’m thinking about the masterful composition that manages to extract beauty from the most ordinary scene, or the scene that’s so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible to not return with a beautiful image.

But as much as photographers should strive for the former, I’m afraid ubiquitous cameras and information have given us too much of the latter—because it’s easier. Not only can today’s photographers learn where to be and when to be there with the tap of an app (or the click of a mouse), even when unexpected beauty suddenly materializes before our eyes, we’re almost certainly armed with a tool to capture it. Add to this the power of today’s computers and software to actually manufacture beauty (don’t get me started…), and I’m concerned that the world is becoming numbed to the appreciation of photography as a craft—the ability to see the less obvious beauty and convey it by deftly controlling the scene’s framing, motion, depth, and light.

This is especially relevant to me because I make my living serving people who dream of getting “the” shot at my workshop locations. Usually they’ve seen some other photographer’s version of their “dream” shot and simply want one of their own to display and share. Whether it’s sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a lightning strike at the Grand Canyon, or fresh snow at Tunnel View, I completely understand their motivation and I do everything in my power to make it happen (I love photographing these things too). But still…

In addition to helping my workshop student get their dream image, I also encourage them to make these shots their starting point, not their goal. Photograph the icons without shame, but don’t stop there, also find your own perspective on the scene’s beauty. That could be identifying a foreground element that complements a glorious background, going vertical when the obvious composition is horizontal, introducing motion or focus blur to part of the scene, or any number of large or small compositional twists.

My own approach when photographing a scene imbued with obvious inherent beauty—such as a spectacular sunset, vivid rainbow, or breathtaking vista—is to remind myself not to settle for something I’ve already done, no matter how beautiful it might be. While that’s a relatively small challenge at new or less familiar scenes, this approach makes familiar places like Tunnel View in Yosemite (arguably the most beautiful vista on Earth, and one that I’ve photographed more times than I can count) a much higher photographic bar to clear. So high, in fact, that I rarely take out my camera at Tunnel View anymore. (Well, at least that’s the mindset when I get there—I’m a sucker for this scene and sometimes can’t resist photographing a beautiful moment here because some scenes are too beautiful to ignore—but you get the point.) Even still, these days I pretty much only photograph Tunnel View when I can include some a scecial, transient element, like the moon or a rainbow. Or fresh snow.

Last month my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop group had the immense good fortune to start just as a cold winter storm finished dropping 8 inches of snow on Yosemite Valley. For a couple of reasons, we started at Tunnel View—first, because it’s the best place to introduce first-timers to Yosemite’s majesty; second, it’s probably the best place in Yosemite to view a clearing storm. The scene that greeted us was as spectacular as you might imagine—and as also you might imagine, it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before.

My original plan was to keep my camera in the car, but once I got everyone settled into their spots and was confident they were content (and wanted to be left alone), I couldn’t resist the beauty, no matter how familiar. Oh—and before I go any farther, let me make clear that I am not trying to say, nor do I in any way believe, that this image is more special than thousands of other Tunnel View images that preceded it (or even that were captured that day). I just want to use it to illustrate my approach, and the decisions that got me to something that turned out to be a little different for me. But anyway…

The first thing I usually I preach about photographing Tunnel View is to not go too wide. As beautiful as the entire view is, the real (permanent) visual action is between El Capitan on the left, and Leaning Tower (the diagonal, flat granite face angling up from Bridalveil Fall) on the right. Another problem at Tunnel View is that the sky in Yosemite is usually boring (cloudless), and the foreground trees are nothing special. So not only does the real estate left of El Capitan and right of Leaning Tower pale in comparison to the primary scene it bookends, composing wide enough to include that extra granite also means shrinking the best stuff (from left to right: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, Leaning Tower) while including more bland sky and trees. Therefore, my go-to lens for Tunnel View is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. And when I want to isolate one or two of the primary features, I’ll switch to my Sony 100-400 GM lens.

But this afternoon, with the entire landscape glazed white, those scruffy foreground trees were suddenly a feature worthy of inclusion. So, rather than starting with the 24-105 on my Sony a7RIV, I reached for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Going wider created another problem: that large tree on the left is a usually an obstacle, a potential distraction always that must be dealt with. My standard approach is to move to the right to completely eliminate the tree from my composition, but this afternoon the vista was so packed with gawkers and photographers that moving around without encroaching on someone else’s space was difficult-to-impossible. Because I got my group setup before grabbing a spot for myself, I’d found myself stuck farther to the left than I like, making my plan to shoot the scene extra-wide while eliminating the tree even more problematic. So, grateful once again for the snowy glaze, I decided to use my arboreal nemesis to frame the left side of my composition (if you can’t beat ’em…). For the right side of my frame, I chose to go wide enough to include a couple of more prominent trees in the middle distance, as well as the interesting clouds swirling near the rim behind them.

In any composition, the decision between sky and foreground always comes down to which is more interesting—in this case, despite some fairly interesting clouds overhead, those clouds couldn’t compete with the snowy foreground. To maximize the snowy foreground, I put the bottom of my frame in the homogeneous white snowbank at the base of the shrub line just a few feet below me—just low enough to allow me to include only the most interesting clouds.

And finally, because I know someone will ask, even with so much detail from near-to-far, at 20mm and f/9, my focus point was pretty much irrelevant (hyperfocal distance was 5 feet). As something of a control freak in my photography life (understatement), I’ve always been a manual focus evangelist, but I’m getting lazy in my old age and in this case I just hit my back-button focus button to autofocus somewhere in the scene (wherever the focus point happened to be), then clicked with the knowledge I’d be sharp throughout.


More Tunnel View Magic: One Spot, Many Takes

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

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