For two weeks every year Horsetail Falls, in Yosemite National Park, becomes one of the most sought after spots to photograph. Made famous by Galen Rowell in his ”Natural Firefall photograph” (Ansel Adams did document this photograph but as a black-and-white landscape photo), many photographers (including myself) try to duplicate his effort. As the February sunset hits the rock wall behind Horsetail Falls, it reflects back, striking the waterfalls and back-lighting it and making the falls appear to be on fire! A clear sky is needed, as well as a small amount of water (too much and it will block the sun from striking the granite behind it).
We got to Yosemite at about noon on Sunday, hoping that the incoming storm would keep the clouds away and light up the falls for us. We scoped out all 3 locations and decided that the Southside Dr location was best. We arrived back there at 2:30pm, which was just in time, because photographers were starting to line up and we had to rush to claim a good spot. We made friends with the photographers around us — which was a good thing because we had 3 hours to kill while the sun set. Peak ”Firefalling” was supposed to start at 5:22pm but clouds had settled in and we started to get sad that we drove/waited all this time for nothing. At about 5:31pm we noticed the bottom of the falls started to glow. Sure enough a couple seconds later the clouds parted and the entire falls lit up on fire, right before our eyes! We had 7 minutes to snap our hearts away (and stop and just gawk at this amazing site) before the sun set and the firefalls returned to waterfalls.
I rented a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR for this shoot. I wanted to make sure I got the sharpest images possible. I stuck my old 70-300mm lens on my D80 and an extra tripod and snapped away with that as well. I should have paid more attention to my good camera/lens because I made some silly mistakes (like allowing the photos to be over-exposed) due to my running back and forth between cameras.
I hope you enjoy these photos of Horsetail Falls (Fire Falls)!
Nikon D300s w/Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR:
95mm, f/8, 1/10 sec, ISO 200, Tripod
Available for Purchase at Aaron M Photography
Where to See/Photograph Horsetail Falls:
There are 3 popular locations (click the link for Google Maps and GPS coordinates) that can be easily accessed to view and photograph Horsetail Falls on fire.
1) El Capitan picnic area (on Northside Drive). This is the most popular (click to see Michael Chang’s photo) and most crowded view of Horsetail Falls. This is where Galen Rowell took his famous ”Natural Firefall” photo. This location provides the closest view, but it’s further east and a harsher angle and is better in late February (perhaps the last week of the Fire Falls as the sunset moves east). You can get some great photos from here but it is recommended to go further east during the early week of the Fire Falls and to hit this spot at a later week. Parking fills up really quickly (the lot was full by 2pm) so get here early!
GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 41.82”, -119° 37’ 13.62”
2) Southside Drive, West. This provides the best angle to see the actual waterfalls but from this angle the falls won’t appear to be on fire (see Eloine Chapman’s photo here). The granite rock lights up with a glorious orange glow but it may be disappointing if you’re expecting Fire Falls. I prefer the other 2 shooting locations to this one. There is a parking lot here and then a small hill to walk down.
GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 23.30”, -119° 37’ 17.56” (Park at: 37° 43’ 22.11”, -119° 37’ 12.73”)
3) Southside Drive, East. This is the location where my photo above was taken. This angle is a bit further south east than the Picnic Grounds so you’ll need a slightly longer lens (as you can see, 200mm was enough) but allows you to capture El Capitan and the falls at the same time. This viewing spot also gives you an angle to see the trees and snow above the falls. There’s a small turn-out on both sides of the road just before this spot that can handle about 10 cars. Plan on arriving by 2:30pm if you want a spot. The rangers have been known to swing by this location about 5 minutes before the falls turn on fire and give anyone parked on the road a $300 ticket (so get here early and claim your spot in the pull-out area)!
GPS Coordinates: 37° 43’ 39.84”, -119° 36’ 33.06” (Park at: 37° 43’ 36.74”, -119° 36’ 33.06”)
What to Bring:
- Your camera (obviously), preferably an SLR, but a point-and-shoot with a longer zoom will work too.
- A telephoto lens (100-200mm lens is enough. Full Frame cameras may want a 300mm lens).
- A sturdy tripod (I used a crappy tripod and had some small shake from the heavy lens).
- Cable release/remote control shutter (to avoid camera shake).
- Warm clothes (layers, gloves, hat, sweatshirt, jacket, etc).
- Flashlight (for after sunset).
- Lawn chair (to sit on while you wait for sunset).
- Mode: Aperture Priority (you have a tripod to allow for slow shutter speeds and you want to make sure you have a good depth of field).
- Aperture: Use the sharpest aperture for your lens (typically around f/8). Once you have a couple good shots you can start to play around with other apertures.
- Focal Length: A focal length of about 100-150 should be enough (150-225mm on a full frame dSLR).
- ISO: Lowest ”standard” ISO, to ensure the least amount of noise.
- White Balance: Auto White-Balance. You’ll probably warm it up in post-processing.
- Focus: Manual focus with Live-View (if available). Many photographers had trouble getting clear shots because autofocus couldn’t be obtained or it focused on the mist and not on the rocks. Turn on manual focus and image stabilization (vibration reduction on Nikon), zoom as far in as you can on live view, and manually adjust the focus until it is sharpest then turn-off image stabilization and LiveView.
- Shutter: use a remote shutter release. It will decrease the chance of motion blur.
- Mirror-Lockup: If you need to, use mirror-lockup to reduce motion blur. I had a crappy tripod and this was needed to get better shots.
- Exposure Compensation: Under expose your photo. The falls are really bright and can cause a slightly overexposed photo if shooting in Matrix Metering. I found a darker image with dark granite looked best and you’ll also get a faster shutter speed and thus sharper photo.
- Use 14-bit RAW images if you have the option. Don’t shoot in JPEG.
Tips for Shooting Horsetail Falls:
- Scope out the locations before hand and choose your favorite spot.
- The sunset starts out on the west side of the rocks during early February and progressively moves east (from left to right in the photos). If you want to see the falls all lit up in the early ”Fire Falls” season, go further east. As the sunset moves east you can move east (towards picnic grounds) to get good shots. See Steve Thuman’s shot for an example of going too early in February.
- You need to shoot this at an angle to get the falls on fire. The ”Fire Falls” effect is created because the granite rocks face east/west and happens to reflect the February sunset. This reflection then backlights the waterfalls. Too much water and it blocks the sunset from hitting the falls. Too far west and you aren’t at an angle to see the sunset reflecting off the rocks onto the water.
- Get there early! People started showing up at the picnic grounds by 2pm and at the Southside Dr location by 2:30. Parking is limited and you can get a $300 ticket for parking on the street!
- Don’t get stressed if you do not see much water on the falls. The mist will light up beautifully. In fact, from the picnic grounds we couldn’t see any water but they still got a great Fire Falls!
- Re-adjust your focus a couple minutes before sunset is supposed to start. The dropping temperatures will change your focus.
- A really sturdy tripod is recommended. Add some weight under the center column if you can. Shutter speeds will be less than a 10th of a second and even the slightest movement can ruin your shots.
- An L bracket on your tripod can be handy for stabilization when shooting in portrait orientation. Some lenses have a slip ring that can rotate 90º to allow you to do this without an L bracket (for example both Canon/Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses do this).
- You do not need a polarizer. The light is soft and the polarizer didn’t do anything to enhance the photo.
- Take a couple practice shots before hand so you can figure out your settings and make sure everything is super sharp.
- The snow/ice that you’re standing on can be really slippery when the sun sets. There are lot of dried pine-needles on the ground so take a bunch and put it on the ground below you to provide some extra traction.
- Be patient! You’ll be sitting outside for a while so make friends with the other photographers, ask em for tips, and just have fun!