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

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Read when, where, and how to photograph Horsetail Fall

Join me next February when we do it all over again

Four sunsets, part one: A Horsetail of a different color

Revelation, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Revelation, El Capitan and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/20 second
154 mm
ISO 100
F11

If the National Weather Service website were human, it would have long ago slapped me with a restraining order. You see, California is in the throes of an unprecedented drought that has shriveled lakes, rivers, creeks, and reduced even the most robust waterfalls to a trickle. With my Yosemite Horsetail Fall (which on a good day is rarely more than a thin white stripe on El Capitan’s granite) workshop just around the corner, recent weeks have seen me behave more like an obsessed infatuee, as if constant monitoring will somehow make my weather dreams come true. But so far this winter, each time I thought Mother Nature had winked in my direction, I found my hopes quickly dashed as every promising storm made an abrupt left into the open arms of the already saturated Pacific Northwest.

So, imagine my excitement when, just in time for this week’s workshop, an atmospheric river (dubbed the “Pineapple Express” for its origins in the warm subtropical waters surrounding Hawaii) took aim at Northern California. During the four days immediately prior to my workshop, our mountains were drenched with up to ten inches of liquid—not nearly enough to quench our three-year-and-counting drought, but more than enough to recharge Yosemite’s parched waterfalls for the three-and-a-half days of the workshop. Phew.

Monday morning I arrived in Yosemite to find, as hoped, the waterfalls brimming and Horsetail Fall looking particularly healthy. Eying Horsetail from the El Capitan picnic area a few hours before the workshop started, I suddenly remembered the stress that comes with other photographers counting on me for the bucket-list shot they’d traveled so far to capture. It occurred to me that hen Horsetail Fall is dry I can concentrate without distraction on Yosemite’s other great sunset options; when Horsetail is flowing, I need to decide whether to go for the notoriously fickle sunset light and risk no photographable sunset at all if it doesn’t happen. That’s because, not only does Horsetail Fall need water, the red glow everyone covets also requires direct sunlight at the exact instant of sunset—never a sure thing, even on seemingly clear days. And if Horsetail doesn’t get sunset light, there’s little else to photograph from its prime vantage points. With the forecast for the workshop’s duration called for a disconcerting mix of clouds and blue sky, our odds were even longer than ordinary. Compounding my anxiety was the full moon that I’d promised for workshop sunsets three and four (of four total sunsets)—if we don’t get Horsetail on sunset one or two, I’d have to decide between going for Horsetail or the moon. (And woe betide the workshop leader whose group watches a fiery sky or ascending moon from an unsuitable location—tar and feathers, anyone?)

During the orientation I did my best to establish reasonable expectations. I told the group that we’ll go all-in on Horsetail for sunsets one and two, and that if it doesn’t happen, I’ll decide our priority for sunsets three and four based on the conditions. What I meant was, we’ll go all-in for Horsetail on sunsets one and two, and I’ll hope like crazy it that does happen and I won’t have to decide anything for sunsets three and four. What followed was four sunsets filled with anxiety, each culminating with a rousing success—two our our successes were of the exactly-what-I’d-hoped-for variety, while the other two were far beyond what I could have imagined.

Sunset number one, above, was in the more than I could have imagined category. After the orientation I took the group to Tunnel View, where we kicked off the workshop with Yosemite Valley beneath a nice mix of clouds and sky. From there we headed to the night’s sunset destination, my favorite Horsetail Fall view on Southside Drive. A few years ago I could pull in to this spot a few minutes before sunset and be relatively confident of finding enough room for my entire group. But this spot is no longer a secret; on the drive there I crossed my fingers that the storm had kept most of the day-trip photographers home—if not, Plan B was to loop over to the El Capitan picnic area where there’s more parking and ample room for many photographers. On this afternoon my concerns were unwarranted as we found only two other cars there, and nobody down by the river where I like to set up. And set up we did, with a little more than an hour to wait. From the time we arrived the clouds were nice, but with no sign of the sun the scene was a little flat, with gray the predominant color—nevertheless, I encouraged everyone to be ready because it can change in a heartbeat. Little did I know….

As we waited we watched Horsetail Fall, spilling more water than I’d seen in years, play peek-a-boo with the storm’s swirling vestiges. But without direct sunlight, the scene, while pretty, wasn’t spectacular. Then, shortly before 5:00, without warning the clouds lit up like they’d been plugged in and I (unnecessarily) told everyone to start shooting, that we have no idea how long this light will last. For the next ten minutes we were treated to a Horsetail Fall show the likes of which I’ve never seen. Suddenly the exposures, quite easy in the flat gray, became quite tricky and I spent lots of time bouncing between workshop participants struggling with exposure. I managed to get off a handful of frames, some fairly wide, and a few a little tighter like this one. When the light faded we were left with cards devoid the “classic” Horsetail image; instead, we had something both beautiful and unique, a difficult combination for such a heavily photographed phenomenon. From the conversations in the car, and from images shared later during image review, it was pretty clear that everyone else was as happy as I was. Nevertheless, I sensed most still wanted the red Horsetail image, and I was ready to give it one more try with sunset number two.

Next up, sunset number two: The “classic” Horsetail.

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Read when, where, and how to photograph Horsetail Fall

Join me next February when we do it all over again

Greetings from Squirrel Rock

Sunset Reflection, El Capitan and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Sunset Reflection, El Capitan and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

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Every workshop has its inside jokes, some comment or reference that gets everyone laughing and somehow seems to find its way into every location or mealtime conversation. So today I offer this beautiful reflection of Yosemite’s Squirrel Rock. Often mistakenly referred to as “El Capitan,” this frequently photographed granite monolith…. Okay, okay, I know, I know, this really is El Capitan, but for the duration of my just completed Yosemite Winter workshop our group affectionately referred to this Yosemite icon as “Squirrel Rock.”

Huh? It seems that my friend Don Smith, who was assisting me in this workshop (I’ll return the favor by assisting Don’s Northern Arizona workshop next month), was photographing at Tunnel View the day before the workshop when a man approached and introduced himself as a fellow pro photographer, then proceeded to position himself as a Yosemite-expert extraordinaire. As if to make his point, he went on to tell Don and all who would listen that the rocks above Bridalveil Fall that we all know as Cathedral Rocks are in fact the “Three Graces.”

In all fairness, the Tunnel View perspective of Cathedral Rocks was once upon a time called the Three Graces (I haven’t heard this reference in years); if he’d have stopped at that all would have been fine and his audience might have learned something. Our amusement was fuel by his adamant insistence, delivered with professorial authority (picture Cliff Clavin), that this ancient Three Graces label (and ignoring National Park and USGS topo maps to the contrary) means the rock formation above Bridalveil Fall cant’ be Cathedral Rocks. That his proclamation was uttered almost literally in the shadow of a National Parks Service sign labeling said icon Cathedral Rocks seemed no deterrent.

Fast forward to workshop Day-1: Don shared his story with the group at Tunnel View, finishing with a grand wave in the direction of El Capitan and telling us all in Clavinesque fashion that its true name is Squirrel Rock. It wasn’t long before Yosemite Falls became Kangaroo Falls, and with these new monikers grew Native American legends of their origins and…, well let’s just say that a workshop’s worth of laughter ensued.

If all this sounds a little silly, please understand that the workshop’s prime objective was Horsetail Fall, a February phenomenon with far more photographers than room to photograph. To ensure a front row seat at the best spot, for two nights in a row we queued up at my favorite vantage point beside the Merced River two hours before sunset. That’s a lot of waiting (and story swapping, and joking, and embellishing, and just plain frivolity).

Our time passed quickly, and while (if the goal is the classic Horsetail blood red sunset stripe) neither night will go down in the annals of Horsetail Fall photo moments, we were nevertheless rewarded with some magnificent photography. On Monday billowing cumulus clouds decorated Squirrel Ro…, uhhh, El Capitan and reflected in the Merced River. Tuesday night we almost hit a home run, but as we rounded third, thin clouds unseen on the western horizon dulled the setting sun and we had to settle for a stand-up triple. Very nice nevertheless.

Both evenings were a blast, well worth the waiting, both for the photography and the good time. Because I already have my tight Horsetail Fall shot from this spot, and the highlight of the first evening was the clouds and reflection, I opted for the wide composition you see above. This location has far more compositional options than the popular El Capitan picnic area spot (which has more room). In fact, even though Horsetail didn’t perform to perfection, both evenings we had things to photograph for the duration of our wait. At one point the tree on the shore at the right of the frame lit up like it had been hit by a spotlight, and Sentinel Rock, directly behind and above us, spent much of the afternoon bathed in warm light.

It seems every workshop has something memorable to set it apart from all the others. In this case it was night after night of warm light and crisp reflections, plus a large dose of laughter. Long live Squirrel Rock.

Horsetail Fall: Yosemite’s natural firefall

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (2008)

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This is the story of my 2012 Yosemite Winter workshop Horsetail Fall shoot. For more about when, where, and how to photograph Horsetail, read my Horsetail Fall Photo Tips article. 

I returned home late last night from my annual Yosemite winter workshop. I’m happy to report that weeks of snow-dances, incantation, prayer, and just plain crossed fingers seem to have done the trick, as Yosemite Valley’s winter-long dry spell ended with two doses of snow last week. Since the most beautiful place on Earth is never more beautiful than when it’s blanketed in fresh snow, that was definitely the highlight of the week, but it was also fun to share the Horsetail Fall phenomenon with my group.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, for eleven+ months Horsetail Fall is probably Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Even at its best, this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank–we can be standing directly beneath it and I still have to guide my students’ 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 about two and a half 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 red stripe, draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises more than an hour before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south-facing flank. As the shadow advances the sunlight warms; as the unseen sun reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is Horsetail Fall; for a few minutes when the stars align–water in the fall, no clouds blocking the sun’s path to El Capitan, and enough haze to scatter all but the sun’s red rays–the fall is bathed in a red glow that resembles flowing lava. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was suspended by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset; other years bring daily of frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: 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 found a gap just as tripods were being collapsed. I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

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 baby-boomers queueing for Stones tickets, securing a vantage point to capture (fingers crossed) their version of Horsetail Fall’s sunset pyrotechnics. When I lead a group it’s a always a tough call whether to sacrifice a nice Yosemite sunset at a more reliable location, or go all-in for the fickle grand prize. Generally, when February skies are cloudless, I might take my groups to the Horsetail circus multiple evenings (until we get it), because that’s what most are there for.

This year (2012) we had fresh snow and great clouds on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I targeted Thursday evening for Horsetail. Because we detoured to photograph the daily rainbow on Bridalveil Fall, I was resigned to dropping my group off, parking down the road, and walking back to the El Capitan picnic area beneath the fall (the spot best suited to large groups). But I was pleasantly surprised to find the necessary three parking spaces still available not much more than an hour before sunset. After a brief orientation (that started with helping everyone locate the fall), we all set up in fairly close proximity, practiced compositions and exposure, and shadow-watched. I’ve reached the point where I spend as much time watching the photographers as I do watching El Capitan–Horsetail Fall in February really has become an Event, not unlike waiting for the next act on the lawn at a concert.

Flow in the fall this year was low (it was bone-dry when I arrived Sunday), even by Horsetail standards, but still enough to make a photograph. We all held our breath, pleaded, and cheered as the shadow approached the fall. Shortly before sunset the amber light acquired a distinct pink hue and the chat, laughter, and cajoling died quickly in favor of clicking shutters. Instead of intensifying to the hoped-for red, the pink held for a few minutes before fading. So while we didn’t hit a home run, I think this year’s group still managed a stand-up triple.

I haven’t had a chance to get to this year’s images, so I’m posting a (better) 2008 Horsetail capture from a different spot. Despite appearances to the contrary, I didn’t have to scale shear granite to achieve this vantage point–I was in fact securely planted on the valley floor, shivering atop a snowbank beside the Merced River. Also of note is that this image was captured on February 9, earlier than many people claim the angle is right. I actually got it like this on consecutive nights that year, leading two different groups.

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