Hold My Gear

Gary Hart Photography: Sunstar, Horsetail Fall and El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunstar, Horsetail Fall and El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/6 second
F/20
ISO 100

Most people know how much photographers love their toys. Whether it’s the latest ultra-fast lens, that new space-age composite tripod that’s a full 1/4 ounce lighter, or (especially) a “game changing” camera body with even more megapixels than last year’s game changing camera body (and even though we already have more resolution than we’ll ever need), we can’t wait to get our hands on it and start sharing our new and improved images with the world (while somehow figuring out a subtle way to mention our new gear). But let me share a dirty little secret: Probably the single piece of equipment that most photographers have more versions of than anything else is the camera bag. Yawn. Don’t believe me? Ask any serious photographer how many camera bags they own—if the answer is less than five, they’re lying.

I don’t think anyone can deny that an efficient instrument to store, organize, and transport all this gear is essential. But let’s face it—a camera bag, as essential as it is, isn’t sexy. And when it comes right down to it, what’s the point of having the latest, greatest (and most expensive) gear if it doesn’t foster envy? So we’ll purchase a new bag simply because we can’t imagine living without our newest toy, but never for bragging rights.

Full disclosure: I’m as guilty as the next person of harboring an obscene number of camera bags. More than I can count. In fact, a few years ago I stuffed as many camera bags as I could fit into a 100 gallon garbage bag, shoved it into my attic, and haven’t seen them since.

Here’s my theory

Most photographers fantasize about carrying a compact, lightweight kit in the field (we want all the gear, we just hate carrying it). And to justify the purchase of the next great thing, we convince ourselves that (despite all history to the contrary) this will the final piece of equipment we’ll ever need. Of course since that’s what we told ourselves the last time we bought new gear, our current camera bag is suddenly too small. In other words, our camera bag is always just big enough to carry our current inventory of gear because we never imagine wanting more. Which is all well and good—until we start coveting the next toy.

This cycle repeats many time before the photographer gets wise. And some photographers, even those with a large garbage bag full of slightly used camera bags in their attic, never seem to get wise.

By now you might have guessed…

That’s right, I just got a new camera bag. This time it’s a Shimoda Action X50, to replace the Mindshift Backlight 26L I bought in late 2019. Sigh. In my defense, while I may be a slow learner, I did figure out a few camera bags ago to always get a bigger bag than I think I need. Nevertheless, the need for more space was a factor in this decision because, now that I have two Sony a7RIV bodies, I’ve been trying to store each with a lens attached: my Sony 16-35 GM on one, and my Sony 24-105 G on the other. But this new paradigm suddenly made my Mindshift bag cramped and awkward. Not so bad that I couldn’t have lived with had I loved the bag—but I didn’t, so here we are.

The primary reason to get new bag this time was comfort. While I was originally thrilled with the space and the way my gear fit in the 26L, I made the mistake of not fully loading it and walking around before buying. There are many things to like about the Mindshift bag, but fully loaded comfort over extended distances isn’t one of them. For someone who logs a lot of miles with a camera bag on my back, from trudging switchbacks to scrambling rugged terrain to airport sprints, comfort is essential.

Introducing my new camera bag

I really, really hope the Shimoda Action X50 will be my final camera bag. In case you haven’t figured it out, the numbers both names, the Mindshift 26L and the Shimoda X50, represents the displacement in liters. So the Shimoda has almost twice the capacity. While all of that extra room isn’t just for camera gear (there’s other storage galore), the camera gear section is significantly larger. I can’t imagine either needing, or wanting, to carry any more weight than I currently have, so if I ever decide to replace this one (heaven forbid), it won’t be because I need more space.

The most important thing for me is the X50’s comfort. I had the advantage of test driving a couple in my February workshops. And I’ve been trying mine around the house enough to know that it’s night-and-day better than my Mindshift bag. It feels like an actual back pack, not a camera bag with straps.

Gary Hart Photography: Shimoda Action X50 Outside

Shimoda Action X50 Outside: Yes, that’s my logo on the outside (it’s nice to have generous, talented friends).

Gary Hart Photography: Shimoda Action X50 Inside

Shimoda Action X50 Inside: I’m still tweaking the layout, but as you can see, I have space to spare, even with lenses on both bodies. It has a sleeve that will fit my 16-inch MacBook Pro, and I can also fit my Sony 200-600 in the top compartment if I really want to punish myself.

Let’s look inside

The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I go with my Sony 200-600.

Here’s what’s I carry today (spring 2021):

Always in my bag

  • 2 Sony a7R IV camera bodies
  • Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens: Though I don’t use it a lot, 12mm allows me to photograph things I never could before, and I love that it’s compact enough to keep with me at all times. (I also can’t wait for the pandemic to end so I can get out and use it for serious night photography this summer.)
  • Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This focal range is covered by other lenses in my bag, but I love the lens too much to leave it behind—crazy sharp, and f/2.8 means it’s fast enough for night photography in a pinch. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to use with polarizing and neutral density filters than the 12-24.
  • Sony 24-105 G lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This is my workhorse—what a fantastic focal range! Really sharp, too.
  • Sony 100-400 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): Replacing my 70-200 with this slightly bigger lens doubled my focal range—and it’s a fantastic match with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
  • Sony 2X teleconverter
  • Filters (in a Mindshift filter bag attached to my tripod): 72mm and 77mm Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND filters, Breakthrough 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter (which I don’t use a lot since switching to Sony, but still nice to have)
  • Other stuff: Several lens cloths, headlamp, insulated water bottle, extension tubes, Giotto Rocket Blower, and a couple of RX Bars (because photography always trumps meals).

Specialty Equipment (not pictured—stays behind unless I have a specific plan for it)

  • Sony a7S III camera body: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—it’s “only” 12 megapixels (remember when 12 megapixels was huge?), but this camera sees in the dark.
  • Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—I can’t believe how compact this lens is.
  • Sony 28mm f/1.8 G lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—this one’s even more compact than the 24mm.
  • Sony 90mm Macro: I use this lens a lot with extension tubes to get super close for my creative selective focus work (wildflowers, fall color).
  • Sony 200-600 G lens: When I want to go big on a moonrise/moonset—sometimes I’ll pare it with the 2X teleconverter and really go crazy. I also use this lens with extension tubes for selective focus fall color.

Support

  • Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod with a RRS BH-55 ball head: Sturdy enough for whatever I put on it, in pretty much whatever conditions I encounter. I also like that, fully extended with the head and camera, even without a centerpost it’s several inches taller than I am.
  • Gitzo 1530 tripod with a RRS BH-40 ball head: My travel/hiking tripod. Without extending the centerpost it’s not quite as tall as I prefer, but it’s tall enough and I like the compactness for suitcases and long hikes.

Final camera bag thoughts

A camera bag is personal choice, based on many individual variables. So I’m not recommending against the Mindshift bag, which I found great in many ways. Because everyone’s body is different, I can only tell that the Shimoda was best for me.

If you’re in the market for a camera bag, make sure you try your candidate with weight before purchasing. And don’t just throw the bag on your back and call it good—actually walk around with it, bounce up and down, twist, bend over, take it off and put it on, and so on until you’re sure.

I know this kind of testing isn’t easy in this day of online shopping. If you don’t have a chance to try out your next camera bag before placing an order, find a nearby camera store do your research there. But if accept even a little of the camera store’s goodwill, don’t even think of ordering it online—support your local camera store.

About this image

For better or worse, February is Horsetail Fall month in Yosemite. For years I’ve thought about photographing the fall from the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, but never had the time or motivation to make it happen. Though this is my favorite trail out of Yosemite Valley, I hadn’t been on it in years and figured I’d need to scout it first. But this year a couple of people in my first February workshop shot Horsetail Fall from there on their own, and were able to give me enough info that I figured I could make it work without any advance recon.

I drove to Yosemite the afternoon before my February Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. With all the people, and Southside Drive closed to all parking, I had to walk nearly a mile to get to the Four Mile Trail trailhead. Even I’d been on level ground, my back and shoulders were already fatigued by the time I started ascending the switchbacks. I only had to walk another half mile or so, but by the time I reached my photo spot, I’d decided it was time for a new bag.

After scrambling up a short but steep hillside, I found a small gap in the trees with a good view of Horsetail Fall. Shedding my gear, it was time forget my aches and pains and to get to work. The first thing I noticed was how clearly visible the top of El Capitan was. It’s not visible at all from Northside Drive; it is visible from some of the vantage points on (now closed) on Southside Drive, but this was even better because I could clearly see the Horsetail Creek drainage.

For this shoot I loaded up both a7RIV bodies, one with my 24-105 and the other with the 100-400. Because I was shooting through a window in the surrounding foliage, I thought I’d be shooting mostly telephoto, but when I saw the setting sun slipping through the trees, I recognized a sunstar opportunity as well. This isn’t possible on the valley floor, so I took full advantage. With only one tripod on hand, I frequently switched between my 24-105 and 100-400 bodies, firing non-stop until the light finally faded about five minutes after sunset.

I was already on the verge admitting camera bag my mistake when the pandemic shut everything down, but by the time I made it back to the car that evening my mind was made up. Fingers crossed that I’m finally done.


February 2021

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

 

My Horsetail Fall Epiphany

Gary Hart Photography: Windswept, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Windswept, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

I’ve written quite a bit about Horsetail Fall over the last few weeks, but believe it or not, I have a few words to add.

In recent years it has become fashionable for photographers, myself included, to criticize the whole trophy shot phenomenon that creates a rugby scrum of photographers jostling to get their own version of something that’s been photographed a million times before. I’m thinking about, to name just a few, events like sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, the Maroon Bells fall color reflection, the light shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon, and of course the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall.

Each experience has its own set of undesirable challenges that make it easy for many to wonder why others go through so much hassle to capture something that’s virtually guaranteed not to be anything close to unique. But this year’s Horsetail Fall event was kind of an epiphany for me because on the fourth attempt in two weeks (twice with my first workshop group, once with my second group, and once by myself), it suddenly occurred to me how much I was enjoying myself.

More than anything else, photography should make us happy. For me that happiness comes from witnessing nature at its most special, and Horsetail Fall at its best is truly special. Indescribably special.

But that wasn’t my epiphany. Last month’s epiphany was realizing how much being surrounded by thousands of awestruck others adds to the experience, which is where I think the Horsetail Fall experience is unique compared to most other trophy shots.

That’s because most of these trophy scenes are overrun by far more photographers than can comfortably (or even uncomfortably) fit, creating a Darwinian competition that usually spells disappointment for the defeated majority. At these spots I’ve witnessed failure, tears, and actual fistfights as too many photographers jockey for not enough positions.

16Feb21 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite

2021 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite: This scene repeats itself all along a nearly one mile stretch of Northside Drive as sunset approaches in the last two weeks of February

I won’t argue that the Horsetail Fall scene is ridiculously crowded. But to photograph Horsetail Fall from Northside Drive (the more challenging, and competitive, Southside Drive perspective is now off-limits during Horsetail Fall season), you’re pointing up, and most likely using a telephoto lens (or at least not using a wide angle lens). This means that no matter how many people are trying to view the fall, no one is in anyone else’s shot. The result is a tailgate party atmosphere as the entire crowd unifies around a single goal: that special light on Horsetail Fall.

About this image

My second February workshop was scheduled for the full moon, so I made clear to everyone who signed up that even though we’d be there right in the heart of “Horsetail Fall season,” Horsetail Fall wouldn’t be a priority. But when the crowds pretty much wiped out one of my planned sunset locations, and with the Horsetail Fall conditions so ideal (water in the fall, no clouds), I decided we’d give Horsetail one shot.

By this (my fourth) attempt I had the traffic and parking strategy down to a science, so we were easily in position and set-up with about 90 minutes to spare. I actually like getting there so early because it’s cool, especially for those who haven’t witnessed Horsetail Fall before, to see the light warm as the vertical shadow advances across El Capitan’s face.

While watching the light change, we all chatted and laughed amongst ourselves and with the other nearby gawkers. Some of our neighbors had cameras too, and some were just there to watch.

With so much time to kill, a few of us even spent some time walking up and down Northside Drive, taking in the party atmosphere. Unlike most of the trophy scenes I’ve photographed, I saw lots of kids and even a few (leashed) dogs. Many people had brought chairs and ice chests, some were barbecuing, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

About 15 minutes before sunset the light had acquired an amber hue and the photographers stopped chatting and went to work. The light this evening warmed steadily, from amber to the deep orange in this image. I tried to time each click for when the wind near El Capitan’s summit caught the falling water just right, spreading it into a glowing veil.

After such a great Horsetail Fall experience with the previous week’s group, it’s impossible not to compare the two. On this evening we had less concern about the light because there was no sign of clouds. And though the prior week’s clouds had created a unique opportunity to have some character in the sky, I was pretty sure that there was a little more water this week. I also noticed that the last light was thinner, more tightly focused on the fall, but also didn’t stretch as far down the fall. And while the color wasn’t quite as red as it had been the prior week, I heard no complaints.

Read about the entire Horsetail Fall experience and how to photograph it


A Few Trophies of My Own

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

 

 

Shared Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Last Light, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/2 second
F/9
ISO 100

Everything was progressing perfectly. With a little strategic planning and vehicle shuffling, I’d successfully navigated my workshop group through the teeming throng to the El Capitan Picnic Area. When we’d arrived, more than two hours earlier, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and everyone was pretty confident that the Horsetail Fall gods would smile upon us this evening. Spirits were sky-high, but I just held my breath and crossed my fingers…

For those who have been living under a rock and have never heard of Horsetail Fall, for most of the year it’s probably Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. But for a couple weeks in February, it seems like all the photographers on the planet (and their cameras) assemble to pray for the confluence of conditions that renders this El Capitan trickle an otherworldly shade of red: the position of the setting sun (a mid- to late-February thing), water in the fall (depends on rainfall and/or snowmelt), and a clear path for sunset light to travel from the horizon to El Capitan (cross your fingers).

I’d made last week’s workshop group very much aware of the uncertainties, warning them in advance not to get too high or low about anything they see leading up to the 5-minute Horsetail Fall sunset window. But despite my admonishment, and the arrival of a seemingly endless swarm of puffy clouds above and near El Capitan’s nose, as the magic moment approached and the sunlight on the fall held steady, they couldn’t contain their excitement.

About an hour before sunset a countdown started—every few minutes someone would check the time and announce how many minutes were left until showtime. My job was to be the wet blanket, trying to temper their enthusiasm with stories of times (So. Many. Times.) when everything looked perfect until just a couple of minutes before the main event, when some unseen cloud on the horizon snuffed the sunlight and crushed the spirit of every person who had already mentally printed and framed their Horsetail Fall image above the sofa. One hour; 50 minutes; 45 minutes; 30 minutes; 20 minutes… And then it happened—less than 20 minutes before sunset, the clouds dancing around El Capitan’s nose thickened suddenly the light was gone.

In my many years leading photo workshops I’ve had more special moments than I can count—the warm light, vivid color, spectacular clouds, breathtaking celestial event, or whatever else makes a group giddy with excitement. These moments are the most rewarding part of leading photo workshops and may be the number one reason it never gets old for me.

But every once in a while a group and I share something that’s so off the charts magical that I can count it, and recall every little detail and who I was with. There was the 2-hour Grand Canyon lightning storm punctuated by a sunrise rainbow; the Lake Wanaka sunset that turn the sky red from horizon to horizon; the unexpected northern lights display at Glacier Lagoon in Iceland; the rainbow at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that spanned from rim to rim—and few more magic moments that I’ll never forget.

You never know when these events are going to happen, and they’re infrequent enough that you never really expect them. Nevertheless, when the light on El Capitan shut off, I switched from wet-blanket mode to cheerleader mode. I explained that experience has taught me that you really can’t anticipate what the Horsetail Fall light will be in five minutes based on its light right now. What really matters when the sun gets that low is what’s happening on the horizon, which isn’t visible down there amidst the granite and trees of Yosemite Valley. But I don’t think I convinced anyone.

About five minutes before sunset, many people around us started packing up their gear and shuffling off in defeat. I told my group we were staying put until five minutes after sunset, and shared stories of two previous February evenings when Horsetail Fall’s light had disappeared shortly before sunset, only to return after all had seemed lost. They still weren’t convinced, and I’d be lying if I said I believed that’s what was in store for us this evening—until I glanced up and saw a shaft of light moving up from the bottom of the fall. Before I could get the words, “There it is!” out of my mouth the entire fall was glowing red. Not orange-red, or pink, or reddish—it was red, actual RED.

I’ve only seen Horsetail Fall this red once before. People who have never seen Horsetail Fall at its best can’t believe that it really can as red as it can get in the pictures (and having seen the actual thing, I can tell when a picture’s red has been juice), but it’s very real—thanks to the same phenomenon that turns clouds red at sunset.

We got about three minutes of unforgettable magic this evening, but I’m pretty sure everyone who saw it left with a memory that will last for the rest of their life. I know I did.

Read about the Horsetail Fall phenomenon and how to photograph it

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Shared Magic

(Particularly memorable moments I’ve shared with a workshop group)

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

Back in the Saddle Again

Gary Hart Photography: White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/80 second
F/11
ISO 100

After losing 12 workshops to COVID since last February, today I returned to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also a little apprehensive. One thing I’m not too worried about is COVID, because I’ve put in place protocol that will keep everyone in the group safely distanced: things like suspended carpooling (everyone can drive their own car), and Zoom for meetings and image review sessions, among other things. And this won’t be my first pandemic workshop because last October I was able to get one in, so I know my protocols work without significantly impacting everyone’s experience.

My anxiety is always a little elevated going into my Horsetail Fall workshop because Horsetail Fall is very important to most of the people who sign up, but many natural unknowns make it impossible to guarantee. Usually it’s the light that thwarts us, some unseen cloud on the horizon that snuffs the sunlight at the last minute. Last year the light was great, but the fall was dry. But I’m hopeful because this year there is lots of water in the fall, and the weather forecast is promising (fingers crossed).

Compounding my standard Horsetail Fall apprehension this year is some new rules put in place due to COVID, and the crowds Horsetail Fall always attracts—the most stringent Horsetail Fall viewing restrictions ever—and it’s entirely up to me to make sure these restrictions don’t affect my group.

Of course this is Yosemite, a place where things always seem to work out for photographers. But even though I have a Horsetail Fall plan that I’m pretty confident will work, and the things I worry about never happen anyway (to quote Tom Petty), I won’t breathe easily until I’ve seen exactly what form “work out” takes in this workshop.

About this image

But anyway… Rather than recycle an old Horsetail Fall image (which you can see below anyway), I’m sharing another image from my December snow day in Yosemite. This is the Three Brothers, probably Yosemite Valley’s most anonymous rock formation. Anonymous not because it’s less worthy than other Yosemite landmarks, but because there are just not that many places to view it.

To align the Three Brothers with the ribbon of autumn leaves, I had to alternately scale and boot-ski a few snow drifts to make my way to the river’s edge. To eliminate a couple of other photographers from my frame (not to mention more than a few footprints in the snow, I moved forward and extended one tripod leg into about a foot of river water. This put my viewfinder out of reach, but by bracing myself on the tripod to keep from joining it in the frigid river, I was able to get a clear enough view of my camera’s LCD to compose this frame. (It’s awkward angles like this that really help me appreciate live-view on the LCD.)

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints || Instagram


I like to include some kind of knowledge or insight in each blog post, but this week workshop prep has left me without a lot of time. Instead, I’m sharing my Horsetail Fall article, just updated with all the 2021 Yosemite NPS changes. You can also find this article in my Photo Tips section.



Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

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

2021 Horsetail Fall update

While much of the Horsetail Fall article below is still valid, crowds and COVID have led the NPS to make some fairly impactful changes.

  • Access to Yosemite is by reservation only. In other words, if you don’t have a reservation, you will be turned away at the gate. The reservation system will be in effect through February at least, which means for the entire duration of the 2021 Horsetail Fall season. You can make a reservation here: https://www.recreation.gov/timed-entry/10086745. If you have lodging in Yosemite Valley, your reservation is included.
  • 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. 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.
  • Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm

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 risk complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.



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 people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

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

Don’t call it “Firefall”

One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall 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.)

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 prime benefit of doing it a week earlier is light almost as good, with far 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

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

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

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

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

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

Merced River south bank bend 

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

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

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

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

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

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

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

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

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

Strategy

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

Composition

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

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

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

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

Filters

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

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

Exposure

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

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

And finally

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

Join me in a Yosemite Photo Workshop


A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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

Horsetail Fall: Let the Mayhem Begin

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t call it Firefall

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

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

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

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

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

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

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

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

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

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

From the National Park Service, February 2019

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

2020 Update

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

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

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

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

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

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

Merced River south bank bend

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

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

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

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

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

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

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

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

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

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

Strategy

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

Composition

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

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

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

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

Filters

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

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

Exposure

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

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

And finally

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

Join me in a Yosemite Photo Workshop


A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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

 

Endless Possibilities

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 200
f/10
1/160 seconds

This picture from last February features two beautiful photographic phenomena, one with (literally) thousands of cameras trained on it, the other virtually ignored. You might be surprised to learn that for most, the “main event” about to take place in this scene wasn’t the moonrise, it was the light on the thin stripe of waterfall trickling down the diagonal shoulder of El Capitan (the top is in shadow). But while (it seemed) virtually the entire photographic world was elbow-to-elbow in Yosemite Valley hoping for their shot at the day’s last light on Horsetail Fall, I was one of a half dozen or so photographers chilling at Tunnel View, waiting for the moon to rise.

When I’d arrived at Tunnel View and saw a herd of several dozen photographers already set up, I was initially heartened to think that so many photographers had foregone the Horsetail mayhem in favor of the moonrise. But why had they set up so far down the wall, behind trees that obstructed their view of Half Dome? It wasn’t hard to conclude that they weren’t there for the moon at all, they were there for Horsetail Fall. And as I waited for the moon, still more photographers showed up, and though there was plenty of room at spots with a far better view of the entire scene (including Horsetail Fall), every single new arrival crammed in to the scrum pointed at Horsetail Fall.

Photographing Horsetail Fall is kind of like dropping a quarter in a slot machine and hoping all the cherries line up: 1. Sun angle—the light’s right only at sunset for a couple of weeks in February (and October, when the fall is dry); 2. Snowmelt—no snowmelt, no waterfall; 3: Sunlight—all it takes is one cloud to block the sun and send everyone home disappointed. The jackpot? Some version of a picture that’s not much different from thousands (millions?) of other pictures.

Don’t get me wrong—the Horsetail Fall phenomenon is breathtaking, unique, and absolutely photo-worthy. But I do think that photographers, myself included, can be somewhat myopic when it comes to subject choice, deciding far too soon what “the” shot is and missing something even better as a consequence. And when they’re not sure what the shot is, instead of trusting their own vision, they just do what everyone else is doing.

We all could be a little better about considering photo opportunities beyond the obvious. Never is this more clear than in the image reviews in my photo workshops. In my image reviews everyone shares an image taken during the workshop (I project the image for all to see), and I offer constructive feedback. When I started doing workshops, I assumed that the prime benefit from the image reviews would be my “expert” critique, and while I like to think my suggestions do help, I didn’t anticipate how effective this image sharing is at conveying to everyone the unlimited possibilities each scene offers. We’re all photographing the same locations, but the variety of images always catches me off guard. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a workshop student’s image and thought, wow, how did I miss that?

It turns out the photographers who locked in on Horsetail this evening were disappointed. A rogue cloud, low in the west and unseen from Yosemite Valley, blocked the sun at just the wrong time. But that’s not the point—even if Horsetail Fall had lit up like red magma, there were other things to photograph in Yosemite that evening. And I wonder how many photographers would have opted to photograph the moonrise had they known about it.

I don’t share this image to pat myself on the back—I came to Yosemite specifically for this shot and didn’t really look for anything else. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that something even more special was happening behind me. (One reason I write these blogs is to remind myself of stuff like this.)

In life, we stop learning the instant we believe we have the answer. It’s equally true that photographers stop being creative the instant they “know” what the shot is. Our ability to grow as photographers is determined by our ability to open our eyes (and mind!) to the endless possibilities not yet visible.

An Evening’s Rewards

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Alternate Perspectives

(Views Away from the Conventional Scene)

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

 

A Horsetail of a Different Color

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan Glow, Yosemite

Winter Glow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1 second
F/16
ISO 100

Last week’s Yosemite photo workshop was ostensibly about Horsetail Fall, but it turned out to be so much more than that. In fact, after photographing more snow than I’ve seen in Yosemite in many (many) years, Horsetail Fall was a bit anticlimactic. The only evening that Horsetail Fall got the coveted direct light everyone came on our second day. Going all-in on Horsetail Fall that evening, we got a decent (not spectacular) show that satisfied everyone enough that they were content to return our attention to the rest of snow-covered Yosemite Valley.

Ironically, what could arguably be called the best shoot of a workshop filled with spectacular shoots might just have been at the mega-popular, always packed view of Horsetail Fall on Southside Drive—on an evening when fall didn’t quite light up. To get here we had to trudge 50 yards through 3- to 4-foot deep fresh powder, but we were utterly alone (unprecedented in my many years photographing Horsetail Fall) to watch sunset paint a diffuse glow on El Capitan and magenta clouds overhead. And as the first visitors here since six-inches of snow had erased all evidence of prior human presence, we got to photograph the scene framed by virgin white snow glazing every exposed surface.

Yesterday I returned to Yosemite, making the 8-hour roundtrip not to photograph Horsetail Fall, but to photograph the full (“super”) moon rising behind Half Dome at sunset. But before setting up shop at Tunnel View, I couldn’t resist circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check out the Horsetail Fall mayhem. With new snowfall decorating the trees and blanketing the roads, conditions were equal parts beautiful and treacherous.

Unlike last year, the National Park Service isn’t requiring permits, but they have blocked off many normally open parking areas. Cruising around in my Subaru Outback, I witnessed multiple cars that had foolishly ignored the R2 chain requirement (chains except for 4WD/AWD with snow tires) slipping, sliding, and spinning tires unproductively—some sliding backward downhill and others blocking the road. I also saw many cars parked illegally on the road or in closed parking areas. Given the fact that Horsetail Fall didn’t deliver last night, I doubt they’ll feel that their parking tickets (or towing bill) were worth the indiscretion.

I also talked to people who pulled into Tunnel View 30 minutes before sunset hoping to photograph Horsetail Fall. Some even thought that Bridalveil Fall was Horsetail Fall. If you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall, please do your homework. It truly can a remarkable experience, but it can also be a nightmare for the unprepared.

And speaking of Horsetail Fall preparation…



Here is a just-revised version of the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section

(Check out the “Breaking News” section if you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall in 2019)

The Horsetail Fall phenomenon

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

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

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

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 was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. On the other hand, I tried Horsetail once on March 1 and found the shadow no longer cooperating. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most precisely focused on Horsetail Fall in the third week of February.
  • 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.
  • 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, relative ease access and two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

* Breaking News *

From the National Park Service, February 2019:

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

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are

that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

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

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

Merced River south bank bend

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

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

Photographed from the 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 Sentinel Rock almost directly above you (which also gets fantastic late light) 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 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. 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, 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. Since you have no idea when the light will disappear for good, just keep shooting, especially in the final fifteen minutes before sunset (trust me on this). 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 eventually red. The best light is in the final ten minutes before sunset; that’s when you might have a hard time resisting burst mode.

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 200mm or full frame. I use my 24-105 and 70-200 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.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan.

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

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. To get the color in the fall and Horsetail, I usually underexpose slightly. The trees have little value beyond framing and usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter. And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels. Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend.

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 take in the amazing spectacle of Horsetail Fall.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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Stop the madness

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/40 seconds
F/8
ISO 160

For some background, read about photographing Horsetail Fall

Anyone who doesn’t understand what all the Horsetail hubbub’s about hasn’t seen it. When all the conditions align—ample water (rain and/or snowmelt), sun position,  and unobstructed sunset light—there’s nothing in the world that compares. And while these convergences are rare, that doesn’t seem to deter the gawkers who show up to witness it.

Conventional wisdom says that the end of February is the best time to photograph Horsetail Fall. And if there’s one thing many years of photography has taught me, it’s that trophy-hunting photographers rarely deviate from conventional wisdom. Because Yosemite’s proximity to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and all the Central Valley cities makes it an easy target for photographers with only enough time for a quick trip, I usually avoid February’s final two weekends when I schedule my Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop. But this year I couldn’t resist the full moon, which I knew I could align with Half Dome on multiple workshop nights.

For a workshop leader, another Horsetail Fall dilemma is that when the sunset light isn’t just right, there are many much better photo options elsewhere in the park. Spending an afternoon waiting for Horsetail Fall to do its thing on a day when the light decides to take the day off (always a distinct possibility) means pretty much wasting the best time of day for photography in Yosemite. That problem is compounded by the fact that the western horizon isn’t visible from the valley floor, making it impossible to anticipate what the sunset light is going to do until it’s doing it. For each time I’ve been surprised when a shaft of light slips beneath overcast skies to illuminate El Capitan at the very last minute, I can cite a clear sky sunset that was snuffed by an unseen cloud just as the light started to get good.

My plan for this workshop was to go for Horsetail Thursday evening, and again Friday if Thursday didn’t work out, then concentrate on the moon for the final two sunsets. I figured by the time Saturday came, anyone whose life depended on photographing Horsetail Fall would have enough experience to do it on their own.

The workshop started Thursday afternoon, and because it had snowed earlier that day, I postponed the orientation until after dinner so we could go straight out and start shooting. After an hour or so photographing light-catching clouds and waterfall rainbows (Horsetail and Bridalveil Falls) from Tunnel View, we beelined to the picnic area beneath El Capitan. Despite the fact that we were far from the first photographers there, my group managed to score the last three legal spaces in the parking lot (that’s not to say others arriving after us weren’t able to employ creative parking strategies), and we found plenty of room to set up and wait with fingers crossed for the Horsetail show.

Aside from a handful of for-the-record images (to remind myself of the conditions for each year), I rarely photograph Horsetail anymore. But conditions that evening were so nice that at one point I actually had both tripods set up, one with my a7RII and 24-70 for wider images, the other with my a6000 and 70-200 for tighter compositions. Rather than the standard stand-around-and-wait-for-the-light-to-get-good experience that’s the hallmark of a Horsetail shoot, lots of water in the fall and clouds swirling on and around El Capitan made our entire 90-minute wait photographable.

While I’ve seen Horsetail get more red than what we saw, everyone was so thrilled that I was able to declare Horsetail Fall captured for 2016, freeing my group to spend the rest of the workshop’s sunsets concentrating on other things. Phew.

It wasn’t until we tried to navigate Yosemite Valley during the workshop’s final three days that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to be done with Horsetail Fall. I’ll spare you the gory details and instead just give you the bullet points of what we witnessed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday:

  • The Southside Drive parking area (with room for a dozen or so cars) closest to the most popular Horsetail View on that side of the river was full by 9 a.m. So were all the prime views of the fall at that location.
  • By 3 p.m. (sunset was about 5:45) the parked cars, crammed bumper-to-bumper in Southside Drive’s coned-off left lane, stretched two miles, from just past the Cathedral Beach to Sentinel Meadow (I clocked it on my odometer).
  • Many of the early arriving, legally parked cars were completely blocked by a second row of late-arriving cars whose drivers apparently decided that merely being able to fit into an area made it parking spot. The pinned first-arriving drivers would be stuck until the late-arriving drivers moved their cars.
  • Many cars had simply gone off-road and parked in the forest, apparently deciding that paying towing and/or ticket charges was preferred to parking legally and walking a mile or two.
  • Several times traffic in the lane that was supposed to be moving (not designated for parking) stopped long enough that drivers got out to find out what the holdup was. The only time I saw the cause, it was a driver using the driving lane to turn around and squeeze perpendicularly between two parallel-parked cars.
  • On both sides of the road, every possible square inch of forest containing even a partial view of Horsetail Fall was crammed full of tripods, sometimes stacked 100 photographers deep (I didn’t actually count, but I think that’s a pretty good estimate). I heard through the grapevine that the general mood at these scrums was testy.
  • I personally redirected many photographers poised to photograph the wrong waterfall—some were clustered around Bridalveil Fall, others had targeted Ribbon Fall.
  • We saw man getting handcuffed and arrested by rangers. It may have been a routine DUI arrest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some kind of Horsetail-view real estate violence. Interestingly, that was the only time I saw rangers all weekend—it was almost as if they’d thrown up their hands in defeat.
  • After sunset, the lines at the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria stretched out the door, and we heard from others that the cafeteria actually closed for the night while there were still hundreds outside, waiting to get in.
  • Gridlock exiting the park after sunset was so bad that some drivers just gave up.

While I can’t fix the crowds, I do believe the Horsetail Fall experience can be both rewarding and enjoyable. Despite the crowds, I still enjoy it after all these years, and I never cease to be awed by the beauty. Here my suggestions for anyone considering joining the fray next year:

  • Avoid the weekends. Period.
  • While I think the best views on Southside Drive are better than the views from (and near) the El Capitan picnic area, the dense forest near the river means far fewer good views on Southside Drive. Also, the proximity to the river means photographers will to include the river in their frame—they tend to be less than thrilled when someone encroaches on their frame. This all adds up to more tension on Southside Drive.
  • Conversely, the mood at the El Capitan picnic is generally more like a tailgate party, with people mingling and barbecuing. That’s because the view of Horsetail Fall is much more open than on Southside Drive, and poor foreground options make it almost exclusively a telephoto location. In other words, everyone is point up with a telephoto lens and no one is in anyone else’s way.
  • Arrive early, or be prepared to walk a mile or more.
  • If I weren’t leading a group and really wanted to maximize my mobility, I’d bring a bike and just park wherever it’s convenient.

And don’t forget that you have options. If the crowds become too much for you, you could simply forget Horsetail Fall and concentrate on the other great winter scenes that are everywhere in Yosemite.

Avoid the mayhem in my

2017 Yosemite Horsetail Fall and Winter Moon photo workshop


Winter in Yosemite

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A Horsetail of a different color

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall Rainbow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall Rainbow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/250 second
F/8
ISO 125

I just returned from my 2016 Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop. I’ve the photographed the midday light shafts at Upper Antelope Canyon, Schwabacher Landing at sunrise, Mesa Arch at sunrise, winter sunset at Pfeiffer Arch, and Horsetail fall each February for over ten years. But nothing compares to the mayhem I witnessed this weekend at Horsetail Fall. Not even close. I’ll be writing more about the experience soon, but right now the only words I have are: Oh. My. God.

But anyway…

About an inch of snow fell the night before my workshop’s 1:30 p.m. Thursday start. Because the storm was clearing and the snow was melting fast, I postponed the orientation that always precedes each workshop’s first shoot and, following quick introductions, hustled the group straight out to photograph what would likely be the best conditions of the workshop.

Our first stop was Tunnel View, and it didn’t disappoint. I rarely get my camera out at Tunnel View unless I can get something truly special, and I had no plan to that afternoon. But the storm had rejuvenated Horsetail Fall enough to make it clearly visible, a rare treat from that distance, and I decided to click a couple of frames.

Extracting my a7RII, I attached my Tamron 150-600 lens and targeted the fall, clicking a few images of the fall amidst shifting clouds. When the clouds opened enough to illuminate El Capitan, I did a double-take when splashes of red, yellow, and violet appeared in Horsetail’s wind-whipped mist.

After alerting my group to the rainbow, I zoomed all the way to 600mm and snapped a few vertical images of my own. With the wind tossing the spray, each image was a little different from the one preceding it. As I clicked this frame, an ephemeral spiral of wind spread the mist, making it the most colorful of the group.

As the sun dropped behind us, the rainbow climbed the fall and finally disappeared. Soon another rainbow appeared, this one at the base of Bridalveil Fall across the valley. We stayed long enough to photograph that rainbow, then headed out for what turned out to be a very successful, more classic Horsetail sunset shoot. Our Horsetail success that night allowed us to concentrate on other Yosemite subjects the rest of the week, while thousands of Horsetail Fall aspirants jockeyed for parking and a clear view through the trees.

Stay tuned for more about the Horsetail Fall experience, which has now officially achieved ridiculous status.

Let me help you photograph Horsetail Fall next February

~ ~ ~

Or, (if you’re brave) you could do it yourself


Ten Years of Horsetail Fall Images

(Look closely at the horizontal, “Twilight Mist” image to see Horsetail’s location)

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Four sunsets, part two: Classic Horsetail

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, Yosemite

Molten Monolith, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/5 second
122 mm
ISO 100
F11

While we’d been incredibly fortunate with our Monday night Horsetail Fall shoot, we didn’t get the molten glow everyone covets (though I’d argue, and several agreed, we got something better). Nevertheless, based on the relatively clear skies, I decided to take everyone back for one more try on Tuesday.

On Monday we’d been able to photograph in relative peace from my favorite spot on Southside Drive, but given that the weekend storm had left us in its rearview mirror, and that word had no doubt gotten out that Horsetail Fall was once again flowing, I guessed that the Horsetail day-trippers (Bay Area, Los Angeles, Central Valley photographers who cherry-pick there Yosemite trips based on conditions) would begin crowding into Yosemite Valley. To be safe, I got my group out there a little after 4:00 (sunset was 5:35). Despite being earlier, both parking turnouts were already teeming cars (if everyone squeezes, there might be room for fourteen legally parked cars)—just a few minutes later and we’d not have found room for our three vehicles (all the late arriving cars that had attempted creative, shoulder parking solutions returned to find parking tickets decorating their windshields). With so many more cars, I wasn’t surprised to find my preferred spot down by the river was already starting to fill—but we spread out a bit and everyone managed to squeeze in.

Unlike Monday evening, the Tuesday sky started mostly clear, with only an occasional wisp of cloud floating by. While the scene lacked the drama of Monday, the clear skies boded well for the fiery show we were all there for. We watched the crisp, vertical line separating light and shadow advance unimpeded across El Capitan. The mood was optimistic—borderline festive. Then, a little after five, with no warning the light faded and El Capitan was instantly reduced to a homogeneous, dull gray. Many people reacted as if their team had fumbled on the two yard-line, but those of us who know Horsetail Fall’s fickle disposition just smiled.

In all the years I’ve been photographing Horsetail Fall, I’ve come to recognize how much it likes to tease—while this is more of a gut feeling, it has always seemed to me that the evenings when the shadow marches without pause toward sunset, the light is much more likely to extinguish right before the prime moment. On the other hand, my best success seems to come on the evenings when the light comes and goes, teasing viewers right up until it suddenly reappears in all its crimson glory just before sunset. So, until the light disappeared I was a little concerned that things were going too well. But when the light faded I was able to guide them away from the ledge and reassure them that there’s no reason to panic just yet. And sure enough, about ten minutes later the sunlight came flooding back and everyone exhaled.

As shadow advances from the west, the remaining light warms—by 5:25 it had reached a rich amber. Once it reaches that stage my advice to everyone was that, since the show will either get better (more red) or worse (the light snuffed), and there’s no way of telling which it will be, they should just keep shooting until the light’s gone. And that’s what we did. At first there were no clouds and my composition was fairly tight to eliminate the boring sky. Then, just a few minutes before the “official” 5:35 sunset (I should add that “sunset” when you see it published refers to the time the sun sets below a flat horizon—it set far earlier for those of us on the valley floor, and it wouldn’t set on elevated Horsetail Fall until  nearly 5:45), a nice cloud wafted up from behind El Capitan and I quickly went wider to include it.

On the way to dinner with the group I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that my life had just become much easier. For many in the group, what we’d just photographed was their primary workshop objective—for some Horsetail Fall is a bucket-list item. But the nights Horsetail Fall doesn’t light up are far more frequent than the nights it does, and in fact I’ve seen Februarys when it’s only lit up like that once or twice (and I’m sure there have been years when it doesn’t happen at all). While I knew nobody would hold me accountable if Horsetail didn’t put on a show for us, the fact that it did (not to mention the fabulous Horsetail shoot of our first night), meant that I was free to focus the group’s final two sunsets two very special moonrises.

Next up, sunset number three: A marvelous night for a moondance

*    *    *

Read when, where, and how to photograph Horsetail Fall

Join me next February when we do it all over again

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