Photographing the Firefall: Horsetail Fall, Yosemite 2016

Too early for the Fire effect but still so beautiful!
Getting closer…

 In late February, Horsetail Fall is directly struck by the setting sun leading to the Firefall effect.  For half an hour, the surrounding rock and waterfall have an orange glow that makes it look like magma is flowing off the cliff.  The effect is slightly more dramatic on camera than to the naked eye but either way, it’s very cool to see.

Firefall 2016 on Sat 2/13, Sun 2/14 and Mon 2/15
We were there for three nights, each with a completely different look.  Saturday was the best night.  The absolute key was that there was not a cloud in the sky.  Almost as important, a high wind blew mist against the cliff and into the air which led to increased light dispersion.  It was absolutely stunning.  On Sunday, the Firefall effect did not occur because there were clouds to the West which blocked the sun too much.  Overall, it was clear but the clouds were in the worst spot for those hoping to see the Firefall.  Monday was a pretty good day, but not as spectacular as Saturday.  The skies were clear but the difference was the lack of wind so the cliff was more dry and the mist spray more muted.   

Monday was the day we took a film photo with some settings assistance from our little digital camera.  Sunset was at 5:36 and SMS took his picture at 5:34.  At that point, the light had narrowed onto the Falls alone which really highlighted the Firewater effect.  The key window was 5:27-5:34 on a day where the official sunset time was 5:36.  Shooting earlier allowed for highlighting the brighter cliffs, which is beautiful but slightly decreases the contrast of the water.  It really depends on the effect a photographer is going for.  On Saturday, the cliffs were gorgeous because the moisture created an incredible luminance that looked like the inside of an abalone shell.   

An excellent article goes into extensive detail about the effect for those who are interested but there were a few key takeaways for me.  First, where to photograph? People set-up near the Cathedral Peak picnic area, parking areas just before the El Capitan Picnic Area or the El Capitan Picnic area itself.  My preference is the slightly oblique view from the El Capitan Picnic Area.  The two pullouts before the picnic area give a more oblique view/profile shot of the fall, which is also stunning.  This is where a local photo academy set up.  The Cathedral Beach Picnic area is more en face and gives a longer view of the Fall since the bottom portion is less blocked by the cliff to the right of the fall.  Really, I don’t think you can go wrong.

Parking-wise, the Park Service allows parking by blocking the left lane to traffic on Southside Dr. for the Cathedral Peak site.  On the El Capitan side, the two parking pullouts have limited parking.  The second pullout (right before the picnic area) has a deep lot that people can double park without blocking in the front row of cars.  The picnic area has a lot of parking, designated and self-made.  
Just a bunch of people, hanging out in the woods
There are a lot of photographers at all these spots!  Our last night, we showed up at 5:15 and still got a spot in the El Capitan picnic area.  We had been climbing there earlier and saw people setting up at 3:30!  Unless that’s fun for you and you’re making an afternoon out of it with a hammock and a picnic (which some people did), there’s really no need to stake out a place that early.   Everyone’s camera is pointed up at a pretty steep angle so you can get very close to a person without ruining his/her shot.  To be polite, we did ask the people around us if it was ok to set up where we did.  They were there first and even though we didn’t impact their set-up at all, I wanted to acknowledge that they had the right to tell us to move.

It’s a pretty cool sight to both see and to photograph.  It’s a well-known event and it won’t result in a world-wide exclusive photo but it’s ok!  Seeing it in person is well worth it.


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