Photographing The Yosemite Firefall - Behind The Lens

All around the world, I have been fortunate enough to witness events that could be described as mesmerizing, unforgettable, and moving. From the Aurora Borealis dancing above my head in the Arctic Circle to watching the Kilauea Volcano erupt just a few hundred feet in front of me, the Firefall in Yosemite National Park certainly rises to the top of that list in my memories. It was an event that I will highly encourage my fellow photographers to add to their calendars in hopes of capturing. So, you may be asking yourself, “What exactly is the “Firefall”? Well, before we get into what I captured, let me give you a quick history lesson.

Nikon D850 | Nikon 70-200mm - Image captured from just East of the Cathedral Picnic Area on Southside Dr.

Nikon D850 | Nikon 70-200mm - Image captured from just East of the Cathedral Picnic Area on Southside Dr.


The Firefall

In the summer of 1872, the owners of Glacier Point Hotel in Yosemite Valley started a near-century long tradition of tossing burning embers off the top of Glacier Point. These embers fell nearly 3000 feet to the valley floor below and from a distance, appeared as a glowing waterfall. The fall of fire attracted visitors from all across the nation and quickly became a tourist attraction for the park. However, in January of 1968, the National Park Service terminated the event in order to protect the park and because it was not a naturally occurring event.

Now fast forward 117 year, every February, thousands of tourists flock to Yosemite to witness the return of the Firefall, but alas, this one is not man made. For a brief two-week window, the last fleeting rays of sunset fall perfectly upon Horsetail Fall located on the east side of El Capitan. The sunlight ignites the fall in a brilliant vibrant red and orange glow, reminiscent of the original Firefall. The colors are so impressive that the waterfall appears to be on fire as the rest of the valley fades into darkness. Although the timeframe in which the event occurs is quite easy to predict, actually witnessing it involves various natural elements coming together in perfect unison.

Nikon Z6 | Nikon 200-500mm - Image taken from just East of the Cathedral Picnic Area on Southside Dr.

Nikon Z6 | Nikon 200-500mm - Image taken from just East of the Cathedral Picnic Area on Southside Dr.

How Does This Happen?

What exactly needs to happen for the Firefall to come to life? Well, it takes four key ingredients to cooperate perfectly prior to sunset. The first is that the Yosemite Valley needs to receive a decent amount of snowfall throughout the winter. This snowfall provides the water necessary to create Horsetail Fall, as it is fed directly by snow melt and does not run year-round. The next step, is during the last two weeks of February when the sun perfectly aligns, temperatures must be above freezing to help with the melting of the snow. If temperatures remain below freezing, any small amount of water flowing will simply just freeze and the fall will remain dry. Even with water flowing, the clouds to need to cooperate as well. The Firefall typically occurs within the last 10-15 minutes prior to sunset, so light needs to be able to come into the valley. Even with a small cloud out to the west, the event could be a dud. Finally, the last factor involved is the wind. If strong winds are prevalent, the little bit of water that falls in Horsetail Fall can be sprayed away, resulting in a glowing mist, and not a distinct waterfall.


When Should I Go?

The Firefall begins right after Valentine’s Day and typically lasts until around the 28th of February. If you plan on coming out for the event, I would suggest targeting around the 21st as the duration of light reaching the fall at that time will be the longest, therefore increasing your odds at witnessing the phenomena. Photographers can utilize apps like PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris® to accurately time out the event.


Where Should I Shoot From?

There are several vantage points within the valley that offer great angles to shoot from. Make sure to take time prior to the event to scout these locations and to get there early, as you can easily be joined by a few hundred fellow photographers. There are three popular locations on the Northside Drive. The first is probably the most popular, located at the El Capitan picnic area. The second and third locations are the two parking pull offs located just to the east of the picnic area. On Southside Drive, there are two areas with great vantage points. The first point is approximately one mile east of the Cathedral Beach picnic area, near where the Merced River bends to the north. The second point requires hiking up Four Mile Trail just above the tree line. During heavy snowfall, this trail will most likely require snow shoes to get to. There are numerous other areas along the Merced River to see the Firefall in action, but those locations can only fit a few tripods. As this event becomes more and more popular with each passing year, it is highly encouraged to visit the Yosemite National Park website for parking instructions.

Nikon Z6 | Nikon 24-70mm - Photographed from just East of the El Capitan picnic area.

Nikon Z6 | Nikon 24-70mm - Photographed from just East of the El Capitan picnic area.

What Gear Should I Bring?

With only a few minutes to capture the event, knowing which body and lens you are going to use beforehand will allow you to have a much more enjoyable and stress-free time shooting. During my experience this year, I relied on three main lenses: the Nikon 24-70mm, Nikon 70-200mm, and Nikon 200-500mm. Each lens presented a unique frame for the Firefall. The 24-70 gave a nice wide view of the entire scene and allowed me to see the entire environment from the valley floor all the way up to the top of El Capitan. The 70-200mm allowed for a tighter view, but still enough room in the frame to establish the mountain side and some visible clouds. The 200-500mm gave a wonderful detailed view of the Firefall with each edge of the wall face being tack sharp. I would recommend using the 24-70mm or 70-200mm when there is a bit more atmosphere around the Firefall. In the instances when there were clouds or mist lingering in the air, I opted for these two lenses. If there was an empty or flat sky, I would utilize a longer focal length like the 200-500mm to eliminate any negative space that was present. I also shot with my Z6 on the tighter compositions because I knew I would not need to crop in, but for the wider frames, I shot with the D850. If I decided to crop in a bit, resolution wouldn’t be any issue on those 46 megapixels.  



Shooting Tips

A few quick tips to help you achieve that perfect Firefall image:

·      Utilize a tripod to take advantage of low ISO’s and a cleaner image. I typically shoot at 100 ISO, F18 and adjust my shutter accordingly

·      Horsetail Fall is a weak flowing waterfall, so don’t prioritize your shutter speed. Whether you shoot at 1/1000s or 1”, the fall will have the same look and texture

·      If you are shooting with a telephoto lens, make sure to turn the Vibration Reduction to OFF if you are mounted on a tripod

·      Make sure to use either Manual Focus or AF-S (auto focus single)

·      I found that metering off of the Firefall using center weighted metering worked best

·      Make sure to shoot in RAW so you can non-destructively edit your image in post and bring a bit of life to it by raising your shadows and lowering your highlights. The dynamic range in this scene is quite large

·      Try shooting both vertical and horizontal compositional orientations

·      If shooting a bit wider, say 24-70mm, try to incorporate the trees around you for a unique framing of the fall

·      A cable release is quite beneficial and can help reduce any unwanted camera shake

·      Set your White Balance to Kelvin at around 5600, this will allow your Firefall to have a really nice warm and vibrant glow

·      Be patient. The closer you get to sunset, the narrower the light gets on Horsetail Fall and the Firefall will only get even more dramatic. Also, clouds can move in and obscure the fall, but they can also move out and reveal it

·      Take some time during the day to scout locations, the further East, the better. If you are too far West, you will be able to see the fall but the light will be quite flat on it. Sometime a matter of 100 feet in positioning can make all the difference. Bring a pair of binoculars with you as it is quite difficult to see Horsetail during the day (it really is a very small and narrow waterfall)

·      If there are clouds, embrace them! All it takes is a brief moment of clearing to illuminate and view the fall!


Now, with all that said, nature is in control and there is no way to know whether or not you will see the Firefall until you are in the park. But don’t let that uncertainty deter you! Yosemite is a wonderland for photography, especially in the winter. From photographing the towering falls to Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Peaks and more, you will find yourself searching for just a quick moment to grab a bite and a moment of rest!  

Tunnel View

Tunnel View

Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls

Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls

Valley View

Valley View