Learn how to photograph the famous Horsetail Falls, also known as Firefall
Galen Rowell popularized this natural phenomenon with his stunning unmatched photography. When the weather conditions are right, during the last weeks of February, it is possible to experience the Firefall.
When I found out about the Firefall, I had to photograph it. On my first mission, the weather conditions were not right and I had to leave without a single shot. Eventually I persevered. I came back several times to catch what I can only describe as an almost supernatural phenomenon.
When you get to the location, you will probably start wondering where to look for Horsetail Fall. When I arrived, there was barely any water running down the Face of El Capitan. The waterfall was invisible from my position. I set up the tripod anyways and waited patiently among a very small group of photographers. Just a few years ago, far fewer people knew about firefall, creating no crowding problem.
Shortly after sunset, the lower end of the fall started lighting up in a spectacle unmatched by anything man can create. The glow crept up the face of the mountain like a golden snake until the entire waterfall was glowing golden.
As the sun dove further below the horizon, the color of the waterfall shifted towards a deeper red until it was glowing like an ethereal flow of blood.
Then the base of the waterfall started losing color until everything was over as quickly as it started. Within only a few minutes, the glow stopped and a deep long sigh rippled through the people fortunate enough to be present at the time.
How to get there
There is a small picnic area (GPS below) about 1.7miles from Yosemite Village. From here, walk about 200m east to a small clearing. You cannot miss the spot. If you arrive at the correct time of the year, a group of photographers always eagerly awaits the sunset at this location. Pick a spot with a good view of the face of El Capitan. Try to position yourself further to the left of the group.
How to photograph Yosemite Firefall
You need a long lens (200mm – 300mm for 35mm Cameras) to create a tightly cropped picture. The glowing part of the waterfall is close to the top edge of El Capitan above the ledge (nose) visible in my picture to the top. The picture above is probably in the 250mm range. A zoom lens will give you some flexibility to try out different compositions, although your creativity is somewhat limited as there are no useful foreground elements.
The phenomenon lasts only a short time. To ensure the best possible picture, keep shooting from the first glow to the last glow and pick the best shot at home.
Try a few different compositions (zoom telephoto) and frame the shot tighter and less tight. See what you like best.
If you have a small camera, take some photographs of the crowd, but wait until everything is over.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
The best time to photograph Yosemite’s Firefall is during the last weeks of February. Then the falls carry enough water and the sun still sets at the right angle to reflect its light. During warmer years, you can get good results earlier if there is enough water on the falls.
Arrive one hour before sunset to ensure a good spot. Look up El Capitan and be patient. The waterfall is not visible immediately as it is rather small from your vantage point.
If there is little chance of sunrays hitting the waterfall on overcast days, I suggest finding another, more rewarding, spot for your sunset photography and coming back to Firefall some other day.
Since this is a premier sunset location in Yosemite, you need to come early to get a good spot. Firefall is a photographer’s favorite.
If you require this photograph, you need to account for several days to ensure that you get the right weather at the right time of the year. If you stay the better part of a week, you will have a very good chance of being able to photograph this.
- 200mm to 300mm lens to isolate the waterfall
- cable release
- something to munch on, as the next food service is in El Portal at this time of the day
The picnic area turn off from Yosemite Valley North Side road is at:
Yosemite Entrance Fee is $20. Buy a National Park Pass if you plan to visit other National Parks this year or if you want to come back. It grants access to all National Parks, National Monuments and National Recreational Areas for a full year.
- Valley View and Tunnel View
- Yosemite Falls
- Mirror Lake
- Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trail
- Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point
- Mariposa Grove
- Wildlife photography in Yosemite
- Fall in Yosemite Valley
- Hetch Hetchy
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