How to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall may be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall for 11 and a half months of the year. Usually dry, or (on a good day) a wet stain on vertical granite, even when flowing “strong,” this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. Surrounded by far more notable waterfalls, my workshop groups can stand directly beneath Horsetail Fall, and I still have to guide their eyes to it. However, for a couple of weeks in February, Horsetail Fall takes centre stage based solely on the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, sunset light, and advancing shadow might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe. Drawn to the phenomenon like cats to a can-opener, photographers and gawkers alike stake their territory beneath the fall many hours in advance, and hope. The Horsetail Fall curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when the descending sun sends a vertical shadow on its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the ever-shrinking sunlit section of granite warms; when the sun reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is the narrow strip of rock occupied by Horsetail Fall. For a few minutes, when all the stars align, Horsetail Fall is bathed in a red glow that resembles flowing lava framed by dark shadow. Some years, Horsetail Fall delivers sunset after sunset each February; other years, it’s nothing but daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail Fall on their first attempt and others who have been chasing it for years. Don’t call it Firefall One important note to avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie: don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the ‘Firefall’. Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real display of plummeting embers from a bonfire set at Glacier Point and pushed over the edge every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds the unnatural spectacle drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968. Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that ‘Firefall’ would be a great name for it. But, those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall in person know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall and will never confuse one for the other. It’s also worth remembering that it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls. Where does the red come from? Horsetail Fall turns red for the same reason clouds turn red at sunset. When the sun drops to the horizon, the only rays to make it through the atmosphere are long, red wavelengths. El Capitan, towering more than 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, is high enough above the surrounding terrain to catch these red rays, just like the clouds that reflect sunset colors. Depending on conditions, Horsetail Fall’s sunset color ranges from yellow to orange to red. The color’s hue and intensity are a function of atmospheric clarity – the cleaner the air, the more vivid the red will be. Read more: 10 Tips for Stunning Sunrise and Sunset Photography When to photograph Horsetail Fall The ‘when’ of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions: 1. The sun’s angle This is refreshingly predictable and lines up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset toward the end of the third week of February. While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail photo was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing the phenomenon right up until the end of February. While the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most tightly focused on the fall around February 20, plus or minus two or three days, I prefer photographing it a week earlier, when there are fewer people, and the light is almost as good. 2. Water in the fall This varies greatly from year to year. It depends on how much snow has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed and on how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Conversely, a sparse snowpack or freezing conditions can completely shut off the fall. Sometimes Horsetail is frozen solid in the morning, but the afternoon warmth is enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And snowpack or not, a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours, or even a day or two. Read more: 6 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls 3. Direct sunlight at sunset This is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience. For every tale of a seemingly

How to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall may be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall for 11 and a half months of the year.

Usually dry, or (on a good day) a wet stain on vertical granite, even when flowing “strong,” this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank.

 

horseshoe fall yosemite

Surrounded by far more notable waterfalls, my workshop groups can stand directly beneath Horsetail Fall, and I still have to guide their eyes to it.

However, for a couple of weeks in February, Horsetail Fall takes centre stage based solely on the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, sunset light, and advancing shadow might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe.

Drawn to the phenomenon like cats to a can-opener, photographers and gawkers alike stake their territory beneath the fall many hours in advance, and hope.

The Horsetail Fall curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when the descending sun sends a vertical shadow on its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face.

horseshoe fall yosemite

As the shadow advances, the ever-shrinking sunlit section of granite warms; when the sun reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is the narrow strip of rock occupied by Horsetail Fall.

For a few minutes, when all the stars align, Horsetail Fall is bathed in a red glow that resembles flowing lava framed by dark shadow.

Some years, Horsetail Fall delivers sunset after sunset each February; other years, it’s nothing but daily doses of February frustration.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail Fall on their first attempt and others who have been chasing it for years.

Don’t call it Firefall

One important note to avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie: don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the ‘Firefall’.

Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real display of plummeting embers from a bonfire set at Glacier Point and pushed over the edge every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds.

The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds the unnatural spectacle drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.

horseshoe fall yosemite

Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that ‘Firefall’ would be a great name for it.

But, those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall in person know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall and will never confuse one for the other.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.

Where does the red come from?

Horsetail Fall turns red for the same reason clouds turn red at sunset. When the sun drops to the horizon, the only rays to make it through the atmosphere are long, red wavelengths.

El Capitan, towering more than 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, is high enough above the surrounding terrain to catch these red rays, just like the clouds that reflect sunset colors.

horseshoe fall yosemite

Depending on conditions, Horsetail Fall’s sunset color ranges from yellow to orange to red. The color’s hue and intensity are a function of atmospheric clarity – the cleaner the air, the more vivid the red will be.

 

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The ‘when’ of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

1. The sun’s angle

This is refreshingly predictable and lines up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry).

Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset toward the end of the third week of February. While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail photo was captured February 9.

I’ve also had success photographing the phenomenon right up until the end of February.

While the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most tightly focused on the fall around February 20, plus or minus two or three days, I prefer photographing it a week earlier, when there are fewer people, and the light is almost as good.

2. Water in the fall

This varies greatly from year to year. It depends on how much snow has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed and on how much of that snow is currently melting.

horseshoe fall yosemite

A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Conversely, a sparse snowpack or freezing conditions can completely shut off the fall.

Sometimes Horsetail is frozen solid in the morning, but the afternoon warmth is enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And snowpack or not, a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours, or even a day or two.

Read more: 6 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls

3. Direct sunlight at sunset

This is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience.

For every tale of a seemingly perfect evening beneath a clear sky, only to have the sunset light doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about an overcast evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap on the horizon just as tripods were being collapsed.

I’ve experienced both.

The frustration, and thrill, are compounded by the fact that by sunset, the sun and potential clouds are too low to be visible from Yosemite Valley, so viewers have no idea when the light will shut off, or suddenly appear.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hordes of single-minded photographers setting up camp like super-fans outside a theater, anticipating the premier of the latest superhero movie.

In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd.

Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk. If Horsetail Fall is at the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early.

The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography opportunities waiting for something that might not happen.

horseshoe fall yosemite

While my absolute favorite place to photograph Horsetail Fall was at a specific riverbend along Yosemite’s Southside Drive, this spot is now off-limits.

Sadly, it became so popular, and the number of good views here were so limited (imagine 500 people clambering for 50 “premium” spots), that fights broke out – one year the crowd actually collapsed the riverbank.

Though no one was injured, the damage to the sensitive riverbank was enough for the National Park Service to pull the plug on all Southside Drive access during Horsetail Fall season.

Now a two-mile stretch of road is completely off-limits to cars and pedestrians, a closure that’s strictly enforced.

That leaves Northside Drive.

When the late Galen Rowell, the photographer probably most responsible for highlighting the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, cited the El Capitan Picnic Area directly beneath El Capitan on Northside Drive as his go-to spot, this became the epicenter of the Horsetail Fall experience.

The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking (but far from enough), and has a toilet (plug your nose).

The downside is that there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

But since the Southside Drive closure, the National Park Service (NPS) has had to take steps to handle the crowds that started overwhelming the picnic area and other views east on Northside Drive.

Though the stretch of road affected is normally two one-way westbound lanes, during Horsetail season, for 1 ½ miles on either side of the El Capitan Picnic Area, the NPS reserves the right lane for vehicles, and the left lane for pedestrians.

Driving this three mile stretch, you’ll know the Horsetail Fall viewing zone when the string of determined pedestrians gives way to photographers and gawkers crowded into every clearing with a clear view of El Capitan, on either side of the road.

Though crowds and photography rarely mix, I’ve grown to love the tailgate party vibe that permeates the scene. Part of the reason for this is that people arrive so early.

With little else to do before the show starts, they bring lawn chairs, snacks, barbecues, frisbees, and pretty much anything else you might find in the parking lot before any major sporting event.

And since the view angle is high above the trees, and all the photographers are pointing steeply up with a telephoto, no one is in anyone else’s way, which completely diffuses any potential tension.

The downside of this new arrangement is that only handicapped parking is permitted in the Horsetail Fall viewing zone; everyone else needs to park at least a mile away and walk.

But the walk is flat, entirely on the paved dedicated pedestrian lane, which is actually quite pleasant if you allow yourself enough time.

horseshoe fall yosemite

My suggestion is to scout Horsetail Fall views in any month that’s not February; if your only Yosemite visit is the day you’re there to photograph the fall, scout Northside Drive early in the morning.

Or, if you don’t have the time to scout, park and join the crowd walking to Northside Drive until you find a view that you like – the earlier you park, the shorter the distance you’ll need to walk.

Though the view from the picnic area is the closest (there’s nothing worthwhile farther west), I’ve grown to prefer the views a little east of the picnic area.

The farther east you set up, the less extreme the viewing angle, and the better your view of the top of El Capitan’s sloping shoulder, which adds a little more visual interest.

But too far east risks being so aligned with El Capitan’s face, that you get more side view of Horsetail, making it very hard to see, unless a breeze separates the water from the granite, which can create a beautiful backlight effect.

Wherever you end up, try venturing off into the woods for a better angle through the trees. Given its popularity, finding something no one else has done is not easy. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Even with Southside Drive shut down, there are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with views of Horsetail Fall; they just take a little hunting (but unless you want a citation and quick exit, stay away from the area between Southside Drive and the Merced River).

In recent years people have started hiking out of Yosemite Valley on the 4-Mile Trail, toward Glacier Point. There are great views up here, though you need to be pretty familiar with the trail (and off-trail), so do your homework.

Wherever you end up, please respect the people nearby and especially the natural surroundings. Southside Drive was justifiably closed to Horsetail Fall viewing because of abuse by photographers.

If damage starts happening along Northside Drive, the NPS won’t hesitate to do whatever is necessary to protect its natural resources, including closing all access to Horsetail Fall viewing.

 

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Here are some recommendations to help you capture great images of Horsetail Fall.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when or if the light will shut off permanently, don’t wait until the light is perfect – it’s best to start early and photograph often.

horseshoe fall yosemite

Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light was a minute ago, so just keep shooting.

I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the light warms to amber (maybe 20 minutes before sunset), then pick up the pace as it goes orange, pink (fingers crossed), and (if you’re really lucky) red.

The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset until up to, believe it or not, five minutes after sunset. Regardless of what the sky or fall look like, I never leave until five minutes after sunset.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be taken using moderate telephotos, up to 300mm (full frame). I’ve used my 24-105mm, 70-200mm, and 100-400mm lenses.

Use the trees to frame your wider shots, and don’t be afraid to let them go very dark to save the highlights. With longer focal lengths, you can isolate aspects of the fall, and eliminate a boring sky and some or all of the trees.

horseshoe fall yosemite

From most locations, I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too.

I identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical versions. If the sky is blank, minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, go wider to include them.

A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom.

I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the best way to compose your frame, ensure you include at least some of the diagonal ridge Horsetail disappears behind.

Read more: Composition – How to Create a Frame within a Frame

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes like this, especially when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite.

Regardless of the exposure mode you choose, monitor your histogram and take extra care not to blow out the highlights.

horseshoe fall yosemite

To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green or even black anyway. 

Since the most important thing to avoid is overexposed highlights that completely wash out the color you’re there to capture, your camera’s highlight alert (blinking highlights) can be helpful.

While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and darken the exposure as much as necessary.

 

In conclusion

Don’t get so caught up in photographing Horsetail Fall that you forget to step away from your camera long enough to appreciate the spectacle you’re viewing.

It’s an unforgettable sight, and well worth seeing with your own eyes – not just through the lens.