The sight of Horsetail Fall glowing in the last rays of the setting sun is a magical moment to witness. With the explosion of Firefall (as it has come to be known) images captured by photographers in recent years, the number of people attempting to see and photograph the rare beautiful moment has led to increased popularity and a whole army of people attempting to capture their own version of an image similar to the world-famous original.
The thin lava-like ribbon of Horsetail Fall was first captured by Galen Rowell, a prolific climber and photographer, in 1973. His creative nature led to many first ascents in the Greater Ranges as well as in his home, the Sierra Nevada. As creative in photography as in climbing, he became well-known in the mainstream media through many spectacular images from steep walls and sweeping landscapes which ended up published in National Geographic, and other magazines.
One evening, as I quickly soloed the moderate rock climbs on Manure Pile Buttress, at the base of El Cap’s Southeast Face—home of the Horsetail Fall—I pondered what it must have been like the first time Rowell noticed this rare phenomenon. Was he also soloing at Manure Pile at the end of his climbing day? Was he walking along the south shore of Merced River and became a random witness? Did he see something in Ansel Adams’ portfolio that tipped him off? Did he do some sort of complicated calculation that helped him figure when the light would line up just right? The answer is likely easy enough to find via any one of the popular search engines out there, only a few clicks away. But the mystery and the element of the chase added to the allure of the Firefall for me, and was a major motivation in my pursuit of it this season.
I went on to photograph it over multiple day-trips this winter. Because I work as a nurse, I usually do about one to two days on and get as many, or more days off. Three 12-hour shifts allow me to be full-time, giving me ample time to pursue my own adventures. On a typical trip to go capture the glowing Horsetail Fall, I would wake up a 5:00 am, drink strong coffee, drive to Yosemite, and rope solo (minitrax) 10 to 16 pitches of hard climbing. If I had more time to kill, I would drive to the Manure Pile for some free soloing on multipitch routes in the 5.6 to 5.8 range, or go running. It gave me a lot of time to think.
The first time I drove down to (hopefully) photograph the Horsetail was early February, before the period when the “experts” predicted the waterfall to be “in,” as an ice climber would say. For a waterfall to be “in” for an ice climber, it would have to be frozen enough to be climbable and accept “safe” gear placements (whatever that may mean). As much as I find ice climbing safe, the thought of climbing on frozen water is still somewhat ridiculous. So the experts didn’t think the photos would be great that early. What does that mean in a beautiful Yosemite landscape? Beauty can be found there even without a glowing waterfall—on a cloudy winter day, a calming walk in the close-to-empty park feels special. So in the worst case on that first trip, I wanted to scope the location for the shot. In fact, I wanted to scope several locations to take photos of Horestail Fall and go to the one I liked the best on the day when the internet experts predicted the waterfall would be in its best conditions, around February 21.
To my surprise, I was very happy with the results and the photos from my first “too-early” attempt. They were even good enough for a local TV channel to feature them in a segment about the annual Firefall phenomenon. Not that the event needed much promotion: On the weekend of February 21, I went for a 6.5-mile run around Yosemite after a bit of climbing and witnessed a crowd of about a 1,000 people settled in their lawn chairs or in the process of setting up their tripods on the north side of Merced River.
As much as I dislike crowded places, I found something beautiful in knowing that all these people made long drives—or even took international flights—to see a free magic show by Mother Nature. I was also aware that I was one of the selfsame tourons, even if I was planning to photograph from an undisclosed location 500 feet above the valley floor.
These people I saw could have been in front of their TVs, in the comfort of their home, but they chose to be hundreds of miles away, in a cold place, without any guarantee that the waterfall would actually glow. There were plenty of clouds on the horizon which could have ruined the experience for everyone. I realistically estimated the chances of seeing the glowing waterfall as slim to none.
More introspectively, I was also unsure if getting a photo of this phenomenon qualified as creative; so many have already captured it in the past. Earlier in the day while out climbing, I ran into Ron Kauk, a living legend in the Yosemite climbing scene, who was also enjoying some solitude while rope soloing. As opposed to free soloing, rope soloing allows moving meditation without death as the consequence of a mistake. Ron and I started to chat and at some point I brought up the misgivings I had: Where was the creativity in my pursuit of the Firefall?
“Am I simply trying to create a trophy shot, similar to a mountain climber bagging a trophy peak?” I wondered aloud to Kauk. The angles of the shot, the timing, the required focal length, and even the aperture and several locations to shoot from are outlined in numerous places online. Just like the route of ascent to a trophy 8,000-meter peak is hung with ropes set by guides, and just like the adventure of reaching the summit is tainted by an unlimited amount of available information about all the hurdles one may experience—is my and everyone else’s chase of the Firefall the same?
In all the time I had to think about the topic—I made eight separate trips to photograph the waterfall—I found an answer which I personally could accept. Special places, trophy peaks, and popular photos are cool because they are worth seeing, pushing yourself for, or going through the process of trying to figure out how to capture them yourself. In the past, such feats were left to professional photographers and climbers; in 2021, normal working people are able to go on their own little adventures that keep us somewhat sane with our busy schedules and the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
When I was heading up the climb next to Ron and chatting with him, he said at one point, “Don’t overgrip.” And I think Ron’s sage words apply to my artistic dilemma as well: Overthinking things—things we enjoy for the simple pleasure of their beauty—can be as destructive as lactic acid building up in our forearms as we overgrip on small holds of a challenging rock climb.
If you want to take a nice photo of the Horsetail Fall yourself, here is a list of things I learned that I hope will help you on your journey.
1) The best times to photograph the glowing Horsetail Fall is roughly from February 10 to 25. Every year, the dates will be slightly different but the BIG difference I found from photographing it on the February 8, as opposed to on several other days and on the days conditions were predicted to be the best, was that the ribbon of water was illuminated by the rays of the setting sun was thinner, leading to a more defined look of lava flowing.
2) If you are shooting with your phone, even if it is an iPhone 12, you will not be able to get a nice zoom of the waterfall. So decide for yourself if you are going to witness the event or to capture it well in order to produce a print you can hang in your home.
3) Shoot with AT LEAST a nice mirrorless camera or a DSLR on a tripod. YES, a tripod! Pair it with a 100-200mm lens. I personally shot with Nikon D810 and a 150-600mm Tamron monster lens. But, if you have a nice lens known to be sharp around that 150-300mm range (on a full-frame camera body), you should be set. Some high-end point and shoots that cost a ton of money have nice zooms and can also produce decent images.
4) Get to your location and BE SET UP one hour before the sunset. In my experience, locations on the SOUTH side of Merced River led to better photos. The usual spot where the most people photograph, near the Manure Pile parking lot, honestly seems a little too close to see the thin ribbon well.
5) The setting, clouds and other things (like flying birds in the mix) can make the image more—or less—epic. An individual’s desire to take a slightly different angle of the waterfall can also lead to original angles.
6) Most people photograph with a wider-angle view before the waterfall becomes the thin ribbon of beauty and then scramble to change the lens and re-focus, and then find the right settings on the new lens as the precious seconds of the short event tick away. I and other people I watched around me are guilty of it. On my last day, I picked the lens, aperture/zoom/ISO, focused on the waterfall and kept it simple. Unless you have many days to try it, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). I apply KISS to climbing and to everything else in life.
7) For this rare phenomenon to take place A LOT OF STARS HAVE TO ALIGN. It should be clear (not cloudy) on the western horizon, there should be enough precipitation high in the mountains to create a steady snow melt for the waterfall to be fed, and temperatures have to be warm enough for the snow to melt. COLD winter days, cloudy days and low snow years will likely not allow you to take nice photos. So check the snow pack, check the weather and have a few days off to visit Yosemite in mid February.
8) Watch for special permits and regulations posted by National Park Service (NPS) on the Yosemite NP web site. At first, I thought some of the rules ridiculous, but I realized why they were enforced when I saw the army of people the park was dealing with. February 2021 required a special permit which was reserved from Recreation.gov and worked for a week. Who knows what 2022 will be like, but I can’t imagine it will be any less strict.
9) If you can, make your trip on a weekday in order to avoid fighting for parking with a thousand other people, and then hike up into the woods on the south side of Merced. Maybe up the 4-mile trail or its vicinity. I took a few nice shots there.
10) The best way to focus in the waterfall is to choose the appropriate exposure, shutter speed, and ISO to work with your composition (I personally set the ISO to about 100-200, though I could have kept it at 64, but chose to set it higher to let in more light in order to create more contrast and make the waterfall pop. I shot at F14ish, which is mid-range for my lens and my shutter speed was quick 1/150-200). Then you want to use the digital zoom, and zoom ALL the way in on an object by the waterfall on your screen, and in full manual focus, adjust the focus wheel so that the object is as sharp as it can be. Somewhere close to infinity. Take a few practice shots, zoom in on them and make sure your image is in perfect focus. Another helpful tip is to figure out at which aperture your lens is the sharpest and calibrate your lens for the sharpest focus prior to your trip. (Hint: YouTube it.)
11) Every time you adjust your zoom or aperture, or touch the ring of the lens, make sure you didn’t screw up your focus.
12) Shoot in RAW, so that you can bring out all the colors in Lightroom or whatever you use to process images.
13) Respect people around you, take your trash out, take any trash you find on the ground that doesn’t belong to you, and know your limits when it comes to backcountry travel. Don’t get yourself into dangerous situations trying to find a nice spot. Bring a headlamp or a flashlight with fresh batteries to get yourself back down to your car. If you are unfamiliar with the location, bring a GPS. The more trouble we create for rangers, the more regulations there will be.
14) Have fun and experiment. Have an adventure, as silly as that may sound.