Horsetail Fall by Moonlight

Horsetail Fall by MoonlightHorsetail Fall has become a celebrity, attracting more lenses than Brangelina. In February hundreds of photographers try to catch the fleeting sunset light on this little waterfall. Suitable vantage points are limited, so it’s hard to find new and different ways to portray this iconic subject. But it occurred to me that if I could catch the moon setting at just the right angle I might be able to photograph it at night. 

It turns out that the right conditions for moonset light on Horsetail Fall are quite rare. The moon’s path varies greatly as it waxes and wanes. It has to set at the right angle while close to full (to provide enough light), before sunrise (so the dawn light doesn’t wash out sky), and there has to be water in fall. Such conditions may occur only once every other year, at most.

Fortunately I found perfect conditions last spring. As I walked up to one of my favorite Horsetail Fall viewing locations at about 4 a.m., I saw an amazing sight: that beautiful, low-angle backlight on the waterfall, with the cliff behind it in the shade. It looked exactly like it does at sunset in February, only with stars in the sky above it.

Our eyes can’t see color in the dark, but cameras can, so as soon as I made my first test exposure I could see that now-classic orange glow on my LCD screen. I used both short and long shutter speeds, but ended up liking the short ones, with pinpoint stars, best.

This photograph was selected to be part of the Best of Nature show at the Ordover Gallery in the San Diego Natural History Museum. Two more of my images, Winter Sunrise From Tunnel View, andWinter Morning Along the Merced River, were also chosen. The opening reception is November 13th, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and will be on view until January 30, 2011. Hope to see some of you at the reception!

Speaking of Horsetail Fall, right now is it’s mirror season. The light is identical to February, and the only reason hundreds of photographers don’t try to photograph it in October is because there’s usually no water in the fall. But Yosemite Valley received almost four inches of rain in the last 48 hours, so there should be plenty of water in Horsetail Fall for the next day or two.


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13 Responses to “Horsetail Fall by Moonlight”

  1. [...] others require planning. This is obviously an example of planning, as is my photograph of Horsetail Fall by moonlight. But most of my best images were made by simply reacting to what I saw around me—fleeting light [...]

  2. [...] Related Posts: Juniper and Star Trails; Horsetail Fall by Moonlight. [...]

  3. [...] Related Posts: The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised; Horsetail Fall by Moonlight [...]

  4. Alan Siegle says:


    It would be helpful if the date of your article was shown and if you would refer to the dates you are referring to in your blog.

  5. Michael Frye says:

    Alan, the date is shown, though it’s rather hard to find. It’s at the end of the post between the tags and comments (October 25th, 2010).

  6. [...] Edited to add: Michael Frye was the one to do the initial legwork to photograph Horsetail by moonlight. Read his account and see his image here. [...]

  7. Lady Labyrinth says:

    Will you offer a poster of Horsetai Ffall by Moonlight for sale?

  8. […] you see at sunrise and sunset. (I used this same idea – low-angle moonlight – to photograph Horsetail Fall a few years ago.) While the quantity of light from the moon is low, the quality of light is […]

  9. […] I could only see hints of the gold, sunset-like color with my eyes, but the color showed up very well on the back of the camera, and later in Lightroom. The color-recording cones in our retinas don’t work at low light levels, so we tend to see nighttime scenes in black and white. But the camera can record colors at night perfectly. And when the moon sets, its light turns gold and orange, just like at sunset (for another example of this, take a look at this photograph of Horsetail Fall by moonlight). […]

  10. Hung hoang says:

    Only with the artist’heart can make this happened. The best of nature photograph. My view is two years late, but it’s still warm and touches my heart. Thanks Micheal !
    By the way, what’s time of the year of this photograph ?
    Happy late Thanksgiving to my artist !

  11. […] and the idea for the photograph came from thinking about light first. After making a photograph of Horsetail Fall by moonlight several years ago, I asked myself whether other waterfalls could be backlit by low-angle moonlight […]

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