How to photograph the Yosemite Firefall

Learn how to photograph the famous Horsetail Falls, also known as Firefall

firefallGalen 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.

Time required

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.

Equipment

  • 200mm to 300mm lens to isolate the waterfall
  • tripod
  • cable release
  • something to munch on, as the next food service is in El Portal at this time of the day

GPS position

The picnic area turn off from Yosemite Valley North Side road is at:

Fees

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.

Close Locations

Useful Resources


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16 Comments

  1. B, Haydock
    Posted 2010/06/30 at 06:52 | Permalink

    I wasn’t aware that Yosemite Valley sill had a Firefall. Obviously much different than the original.
    The first time I saw “The Firefall” was in 1953, and again a few years later.
    They would build a huge bonfire up on Glacier Point in the afternoon, and at about 10 pm, when it got dark, they would push the coals off the cliff. It would fall several hundreds feet. Not sure how far. I believe they were doing this everyday during the peak season.
    I know they quit doing it many years ago, probably for environmental reasons.
    ~~~~~It was quite spectacular!~~~~

  2. james bronson
    Posted 2011/09/10 at 00:54 | Permalink

    I went to the “parking lot” last year to photograph the Horsetail Falls and when I got to the parking lot that is suppose to be simple to fine within the view of the Horsetail Falls something was wrong, all I could see was obstructions nothing close to the pictures what I have seen of Horsetail Falls, nor did I see any photographers, it was obvious that I was in the wrong location. I plan on succeeding 2012, could you provide me with better instructions and not the GPS , meaning the longitude and latitude (that will not help me) < PLEASE thanks a million jim

    • Posted 2012/01/05 at 00:16 | Permalink

      @James. The GPS location is correct as well as the text description of where to go. If you went during the right time of year (February) when there was even a modicum of hope of the sun shining at sunset and even a trickle of flow you cannot miss the HUNDREDS (thousands?) of photographers. There are plenty of trees, however, and you’ll have to orient yourself properly to get a clear view. I suggest you obtain and study the NPS maps, and perhaps Google Maps in terrain view. Well before the event, take binoculars, go to the south side drive and survey El Capitan using the map to find Horsetail falls.

      If you go at any other time of year other than February all you’ll see is a granite wall. Wait… in April and May following heavy snows Horsetail Fall is pretty impressive – but no sunlight illuminates it properly.

    • Posted 2012/01/08 at 16:44 | Permalink

      Thanks for the reply Steven. I haven’t been out to photograph Horsetail fall in the long time. During my last visit, there were only a few people there, but I heard it got very popular, which is a reason for me to stay away.
      Frankly speaking Firefall is so popular that all you can hope for is another me-too photograph of a popular phenomenon.

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