Yosemite National Park’s Firefall at Horsetail Fall is a natural phenomenon that can be seen for a couple of weeks each year in late-February, assuming ample water flow. This post highlights some of my tips for photographing the Firefall, based upon my experiences over the last several years. (Last updated February 3, 2018.)
First, the bad news. It’s looking like 2018 will not be a good year for the Yosemite Firefall. After seriously good conditions and large amounts of snowfall the last two years, I guess we were due for a return to normal (or rather, the new normal?) with a bad year.
Unfortunately, this year California is on the precipice of another drought, and the snowline is around 6,000 feet in Yosemite. Even where this is snow, there’s less than a foot. This means there’s not a ton that can melt to feed the Firefall. The silver ling is that water is not a strict necessity for the Firefall (can you even see water in the photo above?). Although the effect is much cooler with strong flow, the lighting occurs regardless, so all is not lost if you’ve already planned the trip…
Before I get to my tips for photographing Yosemite National Park’s Firefall, how about some background? The Firefall was made famous by Galen Rowell, who in his memoir Mountain Light detailed his scramble to photograph the Firefall when he spotted it in February 1973. Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall is the first known photo of the Firefall, and endures to this day as one of the most iconic photos in landscape photography.
Ironically enough, 1973 did not mark the first photo of a firefall in Yosemite National Park, just the first photo of the natural phenomenon. From 1872 until 1968, burning garbage was dumped from the top of Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley’s floor 3,000 feet below, which looked like a waterfall of fire (in reality, a flaming garbage-fall, but who’s keeping score?). This fire-fall occurred nightly at 9 p.m. in the summer, and was held by Glacier Point Hotel. In fitting irony, Glacier Point Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1969, and has not been rebuilt.
The National Park Service eventually ordered it to end because it was causing damage to Yosemite Valley, both in terms of meadows being trampled and the whole flaming garbage thing. All of this might seem absurd and a case of “what were they thinking?!” to us today, but keep in mind that this was also an era during which people fed bears out of car windows and park rangers encouraged guests to watch bears eat at garbage pits. It was a different time.
The Firefall has since gained popularity among photographers wishing to capture their own photos of this iconic scene, with its popularity proliferating in recent years in the era of social media and virality. Now, it seems like the Yosemite Firefall has gone mainstream, and is not just on the radar of photographers. It’s a big draw for anyone wanting to experience the stunning natural phenomenon.
When I wrote about this on TravelCaffeine a few years ago, I wasn’t exactly enamored with what I had witnessed. That was after my first visit to Yosemite National Park, and I wrote that “it was a fun ‘Bucket List’ item to cross off, but it wasn’t even close to the highlight of the trip…it paled in comparison to the rest of the trip.” Given that “the rest” of Yosemite National Park is absolutely breathtaking and amazing any time of the year, these may not be harsh words, but suffice to say, I was not overwhelmed.
In fact, when talking with Bill McIntosh about possibly going to see the Firefall the following year (there was awful water flow anyway), I wasn’t interested at all. He and I head up to Yosemite pretty often, so making the trek up from Southern California would’ve been no big deal, but I told him photographing it again wasn’t high on my list. In terms of Yosemite photography, I had other priorities.
However, some photography friends were coming out to California for the Horsetail Fall Firefall last February, so I figured I might as well join. It’d be a fun weekend, and we’d do plenty of other shooting, as well. It was when we saw the Firefall in its full glory that I realized what a difference good water flow and the right conditions make. The scene was breathtaking.
Here are some of my tips if you want to photograph it yourself…
Firefall Photography Tips
There are no specific dates when the Firefall is guaranteed to be visible. The window for which you should aim if you want to see it is mid to late-February. The best potential dates are going to fall within a roughly two week window around this time, but the Firefall could potentially be seen before or after this window, too.
I’ve seen some sites and photographers list a single, “peak” date, but this is total speculative B.S. to make them sound like experts. The reason being, the Firefall is largely contingent upon weather conditions. Sure, there’s a theoretical “peak” date, as there is with any natural phenomenon like this, but the difference between the peak date and a date +/-7 days from that peak is negligible, assuming all other variables are the same.
The bigger concerns are weather and water flow. The latter is the biggest thing, and what really distinguished last year from the Firefall a couple of years ago, in my mind. Yosemite National Park received a decent amount of snow last year, and that coupled with abnormally warm weather during our Firefall attempts meant some seriously good water flow.
I’d consider Bill as a Firefall expert, and he called last year the best conditions for the Firefall in the last 6 years. The photos in this post are all from a year with good water flow. You can see how the spray in the close-up photos really enhances the scene (at least, in my opinion it does). For 2018, you’re most likely not going to have this, so composing a wider scene to “fake it” a bit might be necessary, or at least the safer bet.
Weather matters, too. Unlike a normal sunset, which is best photographed with some nice clouds that are illuminated by the sun, a clear sky is ideal for the Firefall. You need the sun hitting the mountain for the full effect of the Firefall, and all it takes is a single rogue cloud to kill it. (As we witnessed on night 1 of our Firefall attempt.)
Likewise, we learned that a bit of wind can really help with the effect, as that can really exaggerate the waterfall’s visible intensity, and the spray from the waterfall catching the fleeting sunset light is a breathtaking sight. My favorite shot I captured of the Firefall is the one at the top of this section from a side view of Horsetail Fall shot from a clearing in the woods about a mile before the El Capitan Picnic Area.
The way the mist is catching the light has an ethereal quality, and seeing this in person actually gave me goosebumps. I fired off over 100 photos and each shot with the mist like this has its own unique character. I started editing about 15 of them before I decided I need to narrow things down.
Don’t be worried if you can’t see the waterfall an hour or two before sunset. Unless the water flow is looking really good, chances are you won’t be able to see it. Don’t feel dumb about asking another photographer to point it out to you when you get to the viewing locations. It’s a pretty common question, and info you’ll want to have if you arrive early.
Speaking of views, there are two go-to spots, both of which are pull-outs on the Yosemite Valley Loop. The most popular spot is the south view, which is a parking area near Cathedral Beach. The second is the north view, east of the El Capitan Picnic Area. These are good, safe locations for viewing the Firefall.
If you’re worried about being able to find these spots, don’t be. Hundreds of photographers descend upon Yosemite National Park for the Firefall, and there will be cones set up along with signage about Firefall parking. Because of this, it’s recommended that you arrive to one of these spots at least an hour early, as you will be jockeying for position with a lot of other people.
I highly recommend sticking to one of these spots for your initial attempt at the Firefall, unless you’re with someone who has shot it before or you do a lot of homework to figure out an alternate vantage. Once you shoot from the go-to spots on night 1, I recommend finding an alternate spot on night 2.
This is my recommendation for a few reasons. First, finding the Firefall on your own is tricky, and there are few other locations in Yosemite Valley that offer as good of a view as these parking areas. Second, there is something to be said for the communal experience of witnessing such an amazing moment (or moments) with other visitors to the park. I’m not exactly keen on photographing sunrise at Tunnel View elbow-to-elbow with 50 other photographers, but it’s totally different; there’s a palpable energy to the collective experience, and one enjoyed by photographer and non-photographer alike.
Finally, the flip side of the communal energy is the individual solitude. It’s nice to have one night of a communal experience followed by one where you’ll alone with nature, soaking in the tranquility and remarkable beauty of the scene. If you have more than 2 nights (and I’d budget a third as 2 really is “dangerous” in terms of the stars aligning for the right confluence of circumstances), experiment with other locations as you see fight.
For my last trip photographing the Firefall, I shot from two new locations away from the go-to spots. The photo at the top of the post is taken from a scramble up to get a view above the Yosemite Valley floor, and the others are from the woods before the El Cap picnic area.
In terms of light, you can expect things to start looking good about 15 minutes before official sunset. The light won’t quite be a sliver, but depending upon your angle, this can yield quality shots. I’d recommend grabbing a few shots even earlier than that, as a cloud could come out of nowhere to kill the scene, so you want to hedge your bets. In my experience, the light peaks almost at the official sunset time on the dot.
Over that weekend, the official sunset time was 5:34 p.m., and the EXIF data on the above photo shows that I shot it at 5:34:59 p.m. It literally was the last light–my actual last shot was taken at 5:36:34 p.m., and by that time, portions of the waterfall no longer have light hitting them. Many photographers wait until the last light to grab their shots as the sliver of light is the narrowest and the falls glow red, but I actually prefer my shots from around 5:20 to 5:30 p.m. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
As far as equipment goes, you want a zoom lens. I’m still in the process of switching over to the Sony a7R II, so the only capable lens I had with me over the weekend was the Sony 24-240mm, which I actually found worked really well. It allowed me to zoom out and capture wide vista scenes (like the photo at the top), as well as get in tight for 200mm+ views that show the detail of Horsetail Fall. I know “serious” photographers probably scoff at the notion of using a super-zoom as opposed to something like a 70-200 f/2.8, but with the fleeting nature of the light, you don’t have much time to change lenses if you decide you want a wider view. You’ll also definitely want a tripod. Some of my photos are around 1/4 second, which isn’t handheld territory for most people.
If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re looking for more Yosemite photo spots, check out my Yosemite National Park Photo Spots & Tips post. Also, another great resource is Michael Frye’s book on photographing Yosemite National Park.
Have you seen the Firefall at Yosemite National Park? What did you think of it? Is it on your bucket list? What do you think of my shots this year at the Firefall? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!