The Firefall Returns

In Photography, Things to do
Firefall February 2 2011 Edie Howe

Horsetail Fall in Yosemite also commonly known as the Firefall.

Taken just a few days ago on February 2nd, this awesome shot of Horsetail Fall by Edie Howe heralds the return of the firefall.

It’s time once again for the annual ‘firefall’ in Yosemite. No, it’s not rangers dumping glowing embers from the top of Glacier Point, this one is the best kind of firefall, one created by nature. Every February, if the conditions are just right, Yosemite Valley visitors are treated to a spectacular show as the seasonal Horsetail Fall on the east buttress of El Capitan magnificently turns red in the suns fading light.

Although there are good vantage points throughout the Valley the most convenient, and frequently shot view of Horsetail Fall is at the El Capitan picnic area about 1.7 miles past Yosemite Lodge on Northside Drive. The parking lot present a great view of the event but also fills very early in the day with photographers as they vie for the best shot. Some other common points to view and photograph the event are the Bridalveil Fall viewing area on Southside Drive, most of the pull-outs along Southside Drive, Cathedral Beach, Sentinel Beach, the Four Mile Trail, the beach by Swinging Bridge and even the Mist Trail above Vernal Fall. Just to warn you now, anything with easy access or close to the road will fill up quickly. Photographers have started flocking to Yosemite in droves to catch this event making it harder and harder to find parking. Try to hike to where you want to shoot or catch a ride with someone going the same way. Shuttle buses aren’t running this time of year.

The ‘firefall’ beings in early February when the sun reaches the proper angle to shine on the east buttress of El Capitan in the evening. Cloudless or lightly cloudy evenings are usually the best. Of course, there has to have been sufficient seasonal rain and snow to provide Horsetail Fall it’s life giving water. The ‘firefall’ generally peaks in mid-February but it is possible to catch beautiful shots all month long.

Horsetail Fall on the east buttress of El Capitan can present an awesome show when the conditions are right.

How to Shoot It
Over the years I’ve seen any number of shots of Horsetail Falls from just about every vantage point you can think of in Yosemite and they all seem to have one thing in common, a long lens. Although the event is spectacular the most dramatic shots seem to be the ones where the fall is isolated against the darkened wall of granite behind it. Some photographers prefer the slower shutter to make the water look silky and some prefer a faster shutter speed. I personally haven’t developed a preference yet. Depending on the shot it looks good either way. Since you’re shooting a very contrasty subject (dark granite/bright fall) use a low ISO (100) and noise reduction.

Helpful Advice
Bring a flash light. The best shots are often taken right at dusk.

Bring something hot to drink. Once again, best shots are in the evening and Yosemite Valley gets very cold in winter with snow and ice on the road.

Wear warm clothes. Stocking hat, gloves, scarf, ear muffs, warm jacket, thermals, etc. Since you’ll be standing in the same area for a while taking pictures wear extra layers to help keep you warm.

Chains. Yeah, it’s winter. Bring your chains in case there’s snow on the road.

Watch for rocks. Early evening in winter is one of the most dangerous times to be driving. It’s hard to see and water from melted snow is refreezing to ice and can cause rocks to heave and fall into the roadway. If you’re staying outside the park on Highway 140 be extra careful. Rocks on the road are a daily occurence. Drive a little slower and keep a sharp eye on the road. Don’t watch the guy ahead of you thinking the road is safe. Rocks have been known to fall between cars and even on top of cars.

Photo by Edie Howe of Little Red

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