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

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

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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