Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall

For years my friend and fellow photographer Keith Walklet and I have been debating this question: When is the best time to photograph Horsetail Fall (at right)? Sometime in February, for sure, but when exactly? Keith thought it was closer to the middle of the month, while I always maintained that it was later. To get the answer, I was able to gain unique access to archives from one of the Yosemite Association's web cams. And the answer is... around February 12th to 22nd. So Keith was probably closer to being right than I was, but there are a lot of variables. You can read a full-length article on my web site that explains all the details.


  1. Great shot Michael. I need to see this for myself someday. I love your Photographer's Guide book also.

  2. Thanks Richard. Yes, it's something everyone should see sometime, even if you don't photograph it.

  3. Hi Michael, I greatly enjoyed your Photographer's Guide to Yosemite book too. I'm looking forward to the update.

    In regards to Horsetail Fall, my personal experience of taking photos of it during the past seven years is that one can get good shots of it lit up at sunset, weather permitting, within a three-week window in February starting around February 8th-10th and ending around the 1st and 3rd of March.

    But one thing interesting I'll note is that early in this window, Horsetail Fall will often light up with a more pinkish than orange glow while during the latter half of the window, the fall will have that bright orange glow that you captured so well in your photo.

    Still there has often been years where the weather conditions were right (read: no clouds blocking the sunset) for only three or four days during that three-week window. One year I think there was only one day where the conditions were right and unfortunately, I wasn't in the park that day!

  4. Michael -
    Although I've not seen this phenomenon live, I've long admired this sight starting with Galen Rowell's image in 'Mountain Light.' I read and enjoyed your article about the best time to photograph the falls and did a little more research to determine the magnetic azimuth of the setting sun on Oct 22, 2008. It was 241-242 degrees. Checking the same for Feb 12, 2009 the figure is the same. So it seems that one could reliably predict and 'bracket' a range of days when the 'Firefall' should be visible by identifying when the setting is at a magnetic azimuth of 241-242 degrees.
    Also (and you may have thought of this already) it might be interesting to have the Yosemite Association webcams capture images during the key period in Feb 2009 similar to those they captured in Oct 2008 for your article.

  5. Thanks for your input Joe. After reading your post I checked one of my sun/moon programs. Using the actual azimuth instead of magnetic, it said 257 degrees for Oct. 22, 2008, at sunset, and gave a similar azimuth for sunset on Feb. 17, 2009. But what's really puzzling me is the times. Sunset for October 22nd is 7:16 daylight time. Sunset for February 17th is 6:45 standard time. Sunrise times are also half an hour later (taking into account daylight vs. standard time) in February than in October. I've never noticed this before and I'm at a loss to explain it. I would think they'd be the same.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing this out and getting me to think about this!

  6. Michael,

    I really like the idea of this blog. Living in the Bay Area, Yosemite is close enough that if conditions are promising its not too hard to get there (OK, winter has its own set of issues).

    As for Horsetail Falls, I hope both you and Keith are right as I will be at Keith's workshop in mid-February. My goal is to come and learn as much as I can, seeing & capturing a picture of Horsetail falls during that would be amazing.

    BTW, it looks like some snow and rain have finally come back to the area.

  7. Thanks for your note Jeff. Who know what will happen with Horsetail, but you'll have a great time with Keith and his assistant Mike Osborne.

  8. After reading Joe's post above, I did a little research to find out why sunrise and sunset times are different in the fall than in the spring, even though the day lengths might be the same. Luckily a workshop student of mine has an astronomy background, and was able to point me in the right direction. Here are a couple of links he provided:



    The difference seems to be mostly due to the Earth's wobbly, elliptical orbit. Realizing this actually complicates the Horsetail question. If I base the optimum time on the azimuth (angle relative to true north) of the sun when it's setting, then the optimum day is either February 17th or 18th this year, depending on which program I use, and the best window from the 10th to 20th or 11th to 21st. The more I look into it, the more variable's there seem to be, so take all of this as an estimate.

  9. Michael, thanks for the wonderful blog. I'm really enjoying the pictures and the stories.

    Just thought you might want to know:

    Horsetail Fall viewing: Access will be available from El Capitan Crossover to El Capitan Picnic Area from the afternoon of January 30 through February 27, conditions permitting.

    --From http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/conditions.htm

  10. Thanks very much Theresa for your kind comments. That's good news about the El Cap picnic area. I wonder what "conditions permitting" means.



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