A couple of weeks ago, I made a quick trip to Yosemite National Park to try to capture one of the most sought after winter photograph – the natural Firefall at Horsetail Fall. Every February thousands of photographers gather in one of two locations in Yosemite Valley in hopes that Mother Nature cooperates and delivers just the right circumstances that turns the ordinarily skimpy (in Yosemite’s terms) waterfall into a blazing orange-red, lava-like flowing river off the top of El Capitan.
The sun has to set in the precise location in order the for its rays to hit the falls at just the right angle, there has to be no clouds blocking the sun AND there has to be water flowing in the fall. The first condition only occurs during a short time frame in February. Over the last 10 years I’ve attempted to capture this phenomena five or six times with little success.
I had two sunsets available to me this year. Both days I arrived at the location of my choice (once on the south side and once on the north side of the valley) three hours before sunset. Both days a score or more photographers were already there with tripods firmly planted in the very spot they wanted them to be. Fortunately for me, both days I found locations that worked well for me. For the next three hours, it is almost like a pop-up party. Some bring their chairs and coolers, others may bring a small table, many bring coffee, others (the most popular ones) bring wine and extra glasses, almost everyone had snacks to snack on. Before you know it, there are several hundred photographers vying for a 3 or 4 foot square to set their tripod. It is rare when I don’t run into a photographer or two or three that I know. The three hours past relatively quickly. Once it gets close to sunset though, the visiting with one another stops and everyone is immersed into their own zone checking their settings, their composition then rechecking everything they just finished checking, all the while keeping their fingers crossed.
The first day, numerous clouds danced in the sky; the threat of rain ever present. There would be short spells of filtered sunshine as clouds danced further to one side or the other of the setting sun, then longer spells of cloudiness. Most were optimistic; some not so much. But all waited. No one left. As the bewitching hour of 5:28 p.m. approached with nary a shadow being casted as the clouds totally blocked the sun, heads began to hang, a few made comments like, “Darn, I missed it again” or “Well, maybe tomorrow” or “next year.”
Two minutes after sunset’s appointed time, just when everyone began to give up hope, a voice somewhere rang out “Look! It’s changing color!” Within 30 seconds the water in the fall changed from a pale nondescript, washed out milky color to resembling full blown flowing lava. This amazing show lasted maybe 45 – 60 seconds. All one could hear were machine gun like fire coming from the shutter releases being snapped repeatedly. Someone down the line shouted out, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” The color disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Everyone began laughing and looking at their LCDs on back of the cameras. Some, including yours truly, began taking our cameras off the tripods. I had my camera in my bag with the long lens off and was beginning to put my regular lens back on my camera when another voice rang out, “Its coming back!” I didn’t have time to change lens again. I threw my camera back on the tripod, composed and focused in less than 10 second. The show, stunning as the first show, lasted another minute before again disappearing as quickly as it came.
With big smiles on their faces, everyone was laughing, clapping and, in some cases, hugging one anyone within arms reach.
The image at the top was taken with my long lens at approximately 400 mm. The second was taken with my 24-70 mm at 50 mm. Same firefall, different compositions. I like them both. Had I not taken my camera down too early, I never would have changed lens quick enough to catch the second image.
The next night everyone again gathered at the river, hoping for a repeat of the night before. Alas, not to be. I had fun watching and waiting with the other photographers. A little let down when the sun set amid clouds which, of course, prevented the sun’s rays from hitting the fall. Anyone that had been there the night before certainly didn’t feel sorry for themselves. We just smiled as we headed back to our cars knowing the SD card from last night was tucked away in a very safe place. The next morning I headed home happy to been able to spend a couple of days in the natural surrounding of Yosemite.
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Remember wherever you are be sure to Look for the Extraordinary in the Ordinary!