Update for 2012
After reviewing images I made last year, I've come to the conclusion that the best window of light for Horsetail Fall starts later than I previously thought. Until more evidence comes to light, I estimate that the best window is from around February 16th to 23rd. I talk about my reasons for changing the estimate in this blog post.
Update for 2011
The best dates for Horsetail Fall vary only by a day or two each year. This year it looks like the window will be slightly later than usual, from around February 12th to 22nd.
Update, February 1st, 2010:
Since posting this article in January of 2009, I learned that the light 60 days before the winter solstice is not exactly the same as it is 60 days after the solstice; it seems that the earth wobbles a bit in its orbit. So I now use the angle -- the azimuth -- of the setting sun, rather than the number of days from the solstice, as the best way of estimating when the peak day will be for Horsetail Fall.
This article describes how I determined that the light on October 22, 2008 was ideal. That day it set at an azimuth of a 256 degrees 52 minutes. The closest equivalent in February of 2009 was the 17th, when the sun set at 256 degrees 45 minutes. The closest day in February of 2010 will be the 18th when the sun will set at 257 degrees 2 minutes. The window of best light stretches from about seven days before the peak to three days after, so this year that means from February 11th through the 21st.
From January 2009:
Horsetail Fall has become a photographic phenomenon. This skimpy waterfall, a trickle compared to the thundering volume of nearby Yosemite or Bridalveil Falls, attracts hundreds or even thousands of photographers to Yosemite Valley each February. What makes this little fall so visually appealing is its unique location. Descending from a high shoulder of El Capitan, it catches the light perfectly at sunset for about ten days in February. With enough flow and the right light, this sliver of falling water glows neon orange.
I guess we can partially credit - or blame - Galen Rowell for Horsetail Fall’s popularity. Although Ansel Adams photographed it in black and white in mid-afternoon light in 1940 (he called it El Capitan Fall), Rowell was the first to photograph it in color at sunset with that orange glow in 1973. He described spotting the light on Horsetail from across the valley and driving at high speed to a location near the current El Capitan picnic area and the rock formation climbers call “Manure Pile” to capture his now-famous photograph “Last Light on Horsetail Fall.” You can see this photo on the second page of Rowell's Yosemite portfolio.
I also share some of the credit or blame for popularizing Horsetail Fall, since I put it in my book The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite in 2000. But by then it was already a popular topic in online forums, and it’s probably the growth of the internet that has most directly increased this waterfall’s fame.
Rowell said that the best light on Horsetail Fall was in late February, when the fall is lit by the setting sun but the cliff behind it is in the shade. He offered no more specific dates than “late February.” My friend and fellow photographer Keith Walklet, who lived in Yosemite Valley for 15 years, told me that he thought the best light was in mid-February, around Valentine’s day. He contended that this was when the sun set through a gap in the ridges to the west of El Capitan, creating the lowest angle of sunlight and the most vivid color. I always felt that the shadow behind the cliff is an important element, so tended to agree with Rowell. But how could we really know? Even if you had the time to observe Horsetail every evening in February, you would need perfectly clear skies for the whole month - an unlikely scenario.
The answer came to me while looking at the Yosemite Association’s web cam on Turtleback Dome. It has a perfect view of Horsetail Fall. Rather than sit and watch the fall for a month, I just had to look at the web cam! Better yet, maybe the Yosemite Association had archived images.
Well, it turns out they don’t keep them. But Yosemite Association is the publisher of my book, The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite. Since I’m working on a revision of the book, I thought that accurate information about Horsetail Fall should be included. The folks at YA agreed, and they were able to archive images for two hours each evening in late October.
October? Yes, because the angle of sunlight in late October is exactly the same as in late February. The recent winter solstice was on December 21st. October 22nd was 60 days before the solstice, and February 19th will be 60 days after it. And October is much sunnier than February, so actually provides a better view of the light. The only reason hundreds of people aren’t photographing Horsetail Fall in October is that the fall is usually dry.
So I now have a near perfect photographic record of the evening light on Horsetail Fall when the sun is at the same angle as in February. The only reason it’s not perfect is that haze and clouds sometimes interfered. Keith Walklet and I reviewed these photos and both learned a lot. And I have to say that Keith was closer to being right than Galen or I.
At right are four photos from that web cam. Click to view larger versions.
The arrow in the first image points to the black stain that marks where Horsetail Fall is when it’s flowing. Keep in mind that from the Valley floor, where most photos are taken, only the upper one-half to two-thirds of the fall is visible.
The first photo is from October 14th, which is equivalent to February 27th. You can see a shadow almost halfway up Horsetail, yet sunlight hitting the Valley Floor to the right. So clearly Horsetail is not getting the lowest-angle sunlight possible. The light is getting cut off by the Nose of El Capitan and the ridge visible in the lower-left portion of this photo before the sun hits the horizon.
The second photo is from October 19th, equivalent to February 22nd. This is closer. Again the shadow is almost halfway up Horsetail. You can see that the shadow forms a broad V, with the left side of the V steeper than the right. The bottom of that V is still a bit to the right of Horsetail, so this is not quite the optimum day.
The third photo is from October 22nd, equivalent to February 19th. Here the bottom of the V is right underneath Horsetail. This is the optimum day, give or take a day or so. The sun is as low to the horizon as it can get while still illuminating Horsetail.
The fourth photo is from October 25th, equivalent to February 16th. The bottom of the V is now to the left of Horsetail, and the light is being cut off by the Turteback Dome ridge - where the web cam is.
Now, the angle of sunlight on October 19th and 25th, while not the optimum, is still very low. There is not just one good day for photographing Horsetail - there’s a window of about 10-12 days. Since the V is steeper on the left than on the right, this window is not symmetrical. My best estimate is that the window is from about February 12th through 22nd. So while the optimum may be around February 19th, the light is good for some time before that as the sun slides down the shallow side of the V. After the optimum, the light changes rapidly as the sun slides up the steep side of the V.
Keep in mind that the solstice changes every year. The date can range from December 20th to 23rd. So the optimum day and window for photographing Horsetail shifts with the solstice. The optimum could range from February 18th to 21st, and the window from February 11-21 to February 14-24.
Also, the best time to photograph Horsetail depends on where you are. There are basically two good spots: near the El Capitan picnic area along Northside Drive, and a spot along Southside Drive about .8 miles east of the Cathedral Beach picnic area. The latter gives an almost direct profile view of the fall, so the background is the Nose of El Capitan, which will be in the shade at any time during the window. But near the El Capitan picnic area the cliff to the left of Horsetail is in clear view. Here it’s more important to have that cliff in the shade, and that happens at the end of the window. So the best time to photograph this view is probably around February 19-22 (assuming a December 21st solstice), or possibly even a day or two later.
Finally, weather plays a large role in all of this. Without enough snow in December and January there won’t be enough water flowing to make Horsetail Fall even visible in February. And in some years clouds block the light throughout most of the window. On the other hand, if the sun breaks through clouds right at sunset the color can be intense even before or after the window.
So that’s my estimate of the best time to photograph Horsetail Fall. But here’s a better question: How do you make an original photograph of something that thousands of other people have photographed?
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