The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised

Horsetail Fall from "Rowell's View" near Northside Drive, February 19th, 2009, 5:29 p.m.

Horsetail Fall from "Rowell's View" near Northside Drive, February 19th, 2009, 5:29 p.m.

That special time of year is approaching, when children write letters to Santa Claus, people put colorful lights on the their houses and inflatable reindeer on their lawns, and… oh wait, wrong one. That other special time of year is approaching, when photographers of every stripe migrate to a sheltered valley in the Sierra Nevada, and Nikon and Canon users stand side by side in peace and harmony, hoping for a break in the clouds and a moment of magic. Yes, Horsetail Fall season is coming.

The forecast for the season is, well, iffy. After two months with no precipitation whatsoever, Horsetail Fall was completely dry. But last weekend two storms dumped over five inches of rain in Yosemite Valley, and that precipitation fell as snow up higher. Horsetail Fall is fed by snow melting from a small drainage on top of El Capitan, and there is now some snow there, finally. But that’s not enough—we need two or three more snow dumps between now and mid-February. Then we need a stretch of clear, warm weather at the right time to melt some of that snow, feed the waterfall, and allow the sun to cast it’s golden, late-day light on the water. Not too much to ask, is it?

So when is that right time? An excellent question, but a difficult one to answer. In January 2009 I put an article on my web site describing how I used one of the Yosemite web cams to determine the optimum time for photographing Horsetail Fall. This was the best method I could find since it’s difficult to get on-the-ground first-hand information in February (too many clouds!). I thought the best time was an eleven-day window from approximately February 12th to 22nd.

My observations last year, however, have led me to question that conclusion. I photographed Horsetail on February 11th, and again on the 15th, and I think even the 15th was too early.

The perfect Horsetail Fall photograph needs three things. First, there has to be enough water. Second, the sun has to be low in the sky when it’s still hitting the fall to give it that orange glow. Third, the cliff behind and to the left of Horsetail has to be in the shade when the water is on fire; the contrast between the backlit waterfall and dark background is what makes this event so dramatic.

While those web cam images were helpful in figuring out when the sun would be at its lowest angle when striking Horsetail, from that viewpoint you can’t tell whether the cliff behind the fall is in the shade. The only way to see that is to be on the ground at one of the Horsetail viewing locations on a clear evening at the right time of year. And my observations from on the ground last year showed that the cliff was not in the shade even as late as February 15th. So the best window has to start after February 15th. And I know that March 1st is too late—by then the nose of El Capitan blocks the sun before it sinks low enough to create that orange glow.

I’ve posted four images here, with dates, to show what I mean. The photograph at the top of the post was made on February 19th, 2009, and shows excellent conditions: enough water, that orange light, and the shaded cliff to the left of the fall.

The photographs below include ones I made last year on February 11th and 15th. The image from the 11th was made at the Southside Drive location. Even taking into account the low water level, too much of the background cliff is in the sun. (And note that this was the very last light—the sun had already left the bottom of the fall.) The photograph from February 15th was made from the other side of the valley (I call this spot “Rowell’s View), and again the waterfall doesn’t stand out very dramatically because that background cliff is lit. This image was made at 5:26, and sunset was 5:39 (the light was cut off by clouds before the sun hit the horizon), but I don’t think that shadow line could move that far in 13 minutes.

Finally you’ll see an image from February 22nd, 2010. Here the background cliff is nicely shaded, but the color is not as rich as in some other photographs. It’s hard to judge the color here though because this was a brief moment when the sun broke through clouds. If the skies had been clear the sun would probably have reached a lower angle, with more colorful light, before leaving the waterfall.

It’s hard to draw any definite conclusions from this scanty evidence, but I now think that the best window begins sometime after February 15th, and probably ends before the 25th. So I’ll say February 16th through 23rd until I gather more information.

You can actually help with this process. There are plenty of Horsetail Fall photos on the web, but few give the date they were made or include the EXIF data. So if you’ve captured a Horsetail Fall image with good light during the dates in question—let’s say from February 12th to 28th—post a link to it in the comments, or email a small JPEG to me, and include in the comments or email the date and time the image was captured. But please only do this if you’re sure the information is accurate; I know it’s all too easy to have the wrong time or date set in your camera.

Thanks in advance for your help! And good luck to all of you with Horsetail Fall aspirations this year.

—Michael Frye

From Southside Drive, February 11th, 2011, 5:35 p.m.

From Southside Drive, February 11th, 2011, 5:35 p.m.


Near Northside Drive ("Rowell's View"), February 15th, 2011, 5:26 p.m.

Near Northside Drive ("Rowell's View"), February 15th, 2011, 5:26 p.m.


Near Northside Drive ("Rowell's View"), February 22nd, 2010, 5:23 p.m.

Near Northside Drive ("Rowell's View"), February 22nd, 2010, 5:23 p.m.

Related Posts: It’s That Time of Year Again

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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137 Responses to “The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised”

  1. Thanks for the info, Michael. Let’s hope we get some more weather before the 15th!

  2. Andrew Kee says:

    Your estimate falls perfectly in line with the calculations I did back in 2010 based on the angle of the setting sun and the topography of the “notch” the sunlight beams through from the west to illuminate the falls:

    Because the solar year is actually 365.25 days long, the truly “peak” date shifts by a day every few years, but the best times generally fall between 2/15 and 2/28.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Andrew, I’m glad this jives with your calculations. But I think calculations like this can only go so far, which is why I asked people to show actual photos, with dates, so we could match theory with reality. Hopefully we’ll learn something.

  3. Cathy says:

    Here is a link to a horsetail falls photo I took on Feb 15, 2011.

  4. Susanne says:

    Thank you for the post! I was wondering about the conditions, the room for the yearly pilgrimage is booked ;-) So let’s hope for some more snow/rain…

    Here two links to two different blog entries and one website link:
    the photo in this blog was taken on: 02/15/2011 5:28 pm

    must have been in line with you and Cathy ( from the comment above ) without knowing…small world…
    taken on 02/16/2010 5:35 pm

    And last, my favorite:
    taken on 02/14/2008 5:31 pm

    What would we do without our metadata??

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks very much Susanne – these are very helpful. The second image, from Feb. 16th, is interesting, because it shows that background cliff in the shade at an early date. Looks like you caught the very last light, so maybe that cliff can be in the shade on the 16th, or even a little earlier, if the sun doesn’t get blocked by clouds before it reaches the horizon.

  5. Enrico says:

    If it comes to the sun and what should be lit up and what not is only math. Sure water needs to flow in a certain amount but still it is just math when it comes to something like this. And of course no clouds blocking the sun.
    To have the same angle of sun as on February 19th, 2009, 5:29 p.m you have to be there this year one day later at the same time +/- a few seconds.
    There is however certain a time frame and it does not need to be the exact angle/position of the sun the question is how far up/down and left/right it can be. Andrews website is a good source but not sure if that already includes that the rock behind it is not lit up.

    I’ll be there :)

    • Michael Frye says:

      Enrico, math will work only if you have all the information to calculate everything. All the information in this case would include a photograph taken from halfway up Horsetail Fall, looking west-southwest, so we could see the exact configuration of the landscape where the sun would be setting. We would also need to match this photograph to compass coordinates, which shouldn’t be too hard. But to my knowledge that photo from halfway up the fall doesn’t exist.

      And there is part of this that you can’t calculate, because it’s subjective. First, there’s the part about the shadow on the cliff behind Horsetail Fall. At exactly what point does this cliff go into the shade enough to create the drama between glowing waterfall and dark background? There can be no definitive answer to this, though we could probably agree on a range. Second, there’s the latter part of the window. At some point the light on Horsetail starts to get cut off (by the nose of El Cap) before the sun reaches the horizon, and so you don’t get that orange color. But it’s not like one day it’s brilliant orange, and the next it’s faded to gold. It’s a gradual change, and where to draw the line is again subjective.

      • Enrico says:

        Well the cliff goes into shade when the sun light is blocked because of the angle, right?
        The color of the sunlight depends on how low the sun is and the weather/atmospheric conditions. There are always ways to narrow down the exact time but if we can narrow it down to the best 2-3 days that is close enough for me. Assuming that the weather plays along (no clouds blocking the sun and enough water at the waterfall).
        Are you sure that your picture from February 11th, 2011 was taken at 5:35pm? Because that was around 3 minutes after sunset (maybe time on camera was not right?).

        • Michael Frye says:

          Enrico, it’s possible that the time on my camera might have been off by a few minutes, but Horsetail Fall is 5000 to 6000 feet in altitude, so sunset is later than it would be at sea level. Sunset time also depends on what program you’re looking at. One program I have says sunset is 5:32 for that date; another says 5:37. It was clearly the very last light, as you can see that the light is already off the very bottom of the fall.

          • Enrico says:

            I used TPE. 6000ft should be around 0.3 degrees altitude towards the sun but the sun was at -1.2 degrees altitude at that time.

            • Aram Langhans says:

              And I believe that sunset also varries with atmospheric pressure. Thickness in the atmosphere bend the sunlight more or less dependent on many things. That is why no amount of math can predict the actual sunset time or even the actual angle in advance. That is if I am remembering my few astronomy classes correctly.


  6. starlady42 says: 16th Feb 2010 18th Feb 2010

    Though I’m positive of the dates, I’m not sure of the times on either, sorry! My EXIF data is screwed up – definitely didn’t have the right date/time set in the camera. I know the dates are correct because I posted each of them to my Twitter account the following day.

    Both were taken off of Southside Drive between Cathedral Beach and Sentinel Beach. I believe the first one was from the road where everyone pulls off and there are are always a bunch of photographers (not too far from the Four Mile trailhead) and the second was from down by the river more to the west.

  7. Ian Parker says:


    Here is a link to several photos taken over the last few years, with dates noted (scroll down the page to see all of them).

    My feeling is that Horsetail actually looks better earlier in the time window. Later in February the setting sun catches only the falls, creating a bright but narrow ribbon of light against a very dark background. Earlier, the sun illuminates wet rock on either side making, in my mind, for a more complex and interesting composition. That said , I have been there only when the water flow has been modest, and without much spray. I suspect a late February shot would be spectacular if the flow is high, with spray blowing everywhere, and maybe even some low mist and high cloud. I keep returning each winter in hope!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks very much Ian – these are very helpful. Everything in photography is subjective, of course, but I think the light in your Feb. 18th photos is perfect. That “bright but narrow ribbon of light against a very dark background” is what creates the drama and makes the Horsetail phenomenon so unique IMO. In fact I’ve made photos of it in March, April, and May, when there’s no color, but you still get that backlit, translucent water against a dark background, and it’s spectacular in a monochromatic way. Keith Walket might agree with you though, as he seems to think that the color is more important than having the background cliff in the shade.

  8. Juls says:

    Great information. I’ll pray for more snow AND for time to get away and play.

  9. Paul Evans says:

    well what a coincidence – I was looking at Rowell’s shot of this just yesterday in “Mountain Light”, and then this blog post arrives today! Being a brit I never realised how narrow the “window” for this shot is, makes it all the more precious. Good luck for this year!


  10. Nice post, and informative, Michael. Though sometimes I think that the best things about “horsetail fall season” is that it is the time of year when all but two spots in the valley become very quiet and peaceful and wonderfully lonely at sunset… ;-)


    • Michael Frye says:

      :) Yes, you might have Tunnel View to yourself at sunset in late February, because all the photographers are at the two Horsetail viewpoints. On the other hand, in the morning there are a dozen cars parked at some usually deserted spots, because all the Horsetail aspirants have to find a sunrise location to photograph.

  11. Eric Jaeger says:


    I’ve been looking at the images trying to work out the difference in perspective between the two viewpoints: the picnic area off Northside and the parking area on the south road. Comments?

    In part, my motivation is that the only time I went to “galen’s spot” I found a couple of hundred photographers (or so it seemed) and I don’t think of photography as a team sport. Also, the thought has occurred that the lit fall is a stunning phenomenon, but there’s got to be an alternative to using the same tripod holes for the same image. I keep wondering if there’s another view somewhere….


  12. Michael Frye says:

    Eric, I prefer the Northside Drive location (“Rowell’s View,” as I call it, since I think Galen deserves some recognition for his first-ever Horsetail photograph), because the sky creates a clean, undistracting background. From the Southside Drive spot you see the top of El Cap, which usually has snow, is not particularly interesting, and, I think, a bit distracting. But early in the Horsetail window the Southside spot might be a little better because less of that background cliff is visible.

    Many people have tried to find those alternative views, but they are scarce. You have to be looking at almost a direct profile view of the fall, so there is only one angle. The Four-Mile is too far east – you can’t see the fall from anywhere near it. Taft Point (if you want to cross-country ski from Badger Pass) is too far west – not enough of a profile view. I have found a few alternate spots, but sorry, I’m not posting them here. :) Honestly though, they’re not that different. The photos look similar, and the only real advantage is that you have the place to yourself.

  13. Eric Jaeger says:

    I understand the appeal of solitude here :) who knew photography drew crowds? Have you tried over towards Manure Pile Buttress, or is that too far north?

  14. Kevin says:


    Thanks so much for this. We were already planning for the weekend of the 18th, but I wasn’t sure if that was too late. Last year, we got lucky on the 13th. Nothing but clouds until a minute or two before the sun hit the falls.

    And we were over by the Manure Pile. I liked the view from there, even though the bottom is blocked.


  15. Chuck Giordano says:

    I was lucky enough to be in the Valley last year on Feb 12th. After looking over my photos I agree with you that it was too early for a darkened wall to the left of the falls, although the wall was partially shadowed. I hope the conditions improve soon for this year. I live in Sonora and hope to try my luck again this year.

  16. Vivienne says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for reposting your article on Horsetail Fall. My husband and I were fortunate to catch it in 2010 – we weren’t even thinking of photographing it when we visited, but heard the talk and went to join a 100 others. We went the day after I took this shot, but the conditions weren’t right.

  17. Lovely photographies with beautiful light !!!
    Thank you very much .

  18. Nikhil Shahi says:

    Hi Michael. Thanks for your informative articles. It definitely helped me in 2010, when I first set out to photograph HT falls.

    This one was taken on 12 Feb, 2011:!i=1187211674&k=G5Pgc&lb=1&s=A

    And this one on 19 Feb, 2010 (although I did not wait until the last light):!i=798346082&k=VyfCu&lb=1&s=A

  19. Mike C says:

    Thanks for the continued updates…I will say lots of extra prayers for the right conditions and more snow pack..if not, there should be sufficient other locations to photograph….Coming up to Bass Lake with two other gentlemen for a week..

  20. Aram Langhans says:

    Thanks for all the info. I hope you keep us who would have to travel a distance informed as to the water content of the falls. If there is indeed a good enough flow, I am considering making the trip down from Washington to view this phenemenon. The long range (10 day) forecast looks like lots of sun and (unfortunately) dry weather.


  21. [...] photographer, Michael Frye, is heading up a conversation with others to calculate the dates when we’ll be most likely to see the firefall, and [...]

  22. [...] Michael Adams, son of Ansel, Tony Rowell, son of Galen, and local photog Michael Frye, whose blog is a great source of information about photographing [...]

  23. joseph says:

    Michael, I met you on Feb 1…2 weeks ago at Tunnel view. Remember, I told you I bought your Yosemite App?
    So how’s the water for HORSETAIL now? I am going again on Tues, Weds, and Thurs…but not sure what’s the water condition for the water fall. Can you update?

    Oh…in the apps…about the cathedral…there’s a image of the 3 brothers shot at cathedral beach. How come I can’t a clear spot like the picture shown in your app? Any more CLUE?

    Thanks Michael!

    • Michael Frye says:

      I do remember you Joseph – thanks for saying hi. Not much water in Horsetail right now. There’s snow in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow, and that might help, but probably not that much.

      If you read the description for Cathedral Beach I mention a bend in the river about 200 yards upstream. That’s where the Three Brothers photo is from.

  24. [...] I’ve been getting lots of questions about Horsetail Fall. Since my last post about this not much has changed; there is little water in Horsetail right now. There’s snow in the forecast [...]

  25. [...] I’ve been getting lots of questions about Horsetail Fall. Since my last post about this not much has changed; there is little water in Horsetail right now. There’s snow in the forecast [...]

  26. Michael,

    Any chance to get a private photo shoot in Yosemite this weekend?



  27. Your Yosemite book has been a true inspiration Michael! I have used it on a few different trips already. I just got the iPhone app, and plan to head there this coming weekend for Horsetail Falls. I realize there may not be enough water flow, but taking the chance anyway! Very excited. Many thanks for sharing your wonderful talent, and advice. peace.


  28. Exactly one year ago Friday I made my first attempt at the horsetail fall with some friends with your book as a guide. I’ll be making another attempt this weekend as we were shut out for three days in a row. I came back with some wonderful snow shots as it DUMPED snow on Saturday, Feb 19, so much so that they closed Highway 41 and we had to turn around and drive aaalll the way back to Mariposa before taking highway 140 to finally make it into the valley. But on our final night, the sun lingered until just about 10 minutes before the color was supposed to change and we lost the sun behind the clouds. Nothing like hearing 300 photographers groan in unison. So I’ll be back this year armed with your WONDERFUL new app on my iPad. I couldn’t read a thing driving around the valley after sunset in our truck, and this year, I’ll be able to read everything. THANK YOU for this amazing app! I will definitely be trying the Southside view of the falls first this year, and maybe Rowell’s if I get a second chance. ( I shot Rowell’s last year and if I recall correctly, it was around 5:30 PM when we lost the sun.) With the snow tomorrow and two days of sun, I might actually get lucky this year! :) Here’s as close as i got last year:

    Hope to see some of you up there this weekend! :)



    • Michael Frye says:

      Bill, thanks for sharing the photo, and sorry the clouds didn’t part for you last year. Maybe everything will come together this year for you, starting with increased water flow. And thanks very much for your comments on the app – glad you like it!

  29. Michael;
    Love your blog AND your new iPhone app. This is TERRIFIC!! Thanks for giving so much to the photography community.

  30. Aussie says:

    Hi, can anyone please tell me if March 5 will be too late? Pardon my ignorance, I only just found out about Horsetail Falls and after much searching found this site (sorry, I’m not a photographer either) and not much else so it would be incredibly appreciated if someone could please advise me. Don’t need the ‘perfect’ shot you guys are seeking, would just love to see the waterfall turn orange. I hope it all works out for you this year. Thank you!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Aussie, I’m afraid March 5 is too late. While Horsetail Fall does get some beautiful light in early March, it won’t turn orange. At best it would golden. But it’s still worth seeing.

  31. Aussie says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you very much for your speedy reply. Golden would be better than nothing, and at this point it will be nothing. Just found out an hour ago that our car company does not allow tyre chains on their rentals. :( We’re really not sure what to do, however from my research done today on Yosemite it seems there is not a lot of snow around this season? I know this is seriously off topic, but given all the people on here will be in the park the new few weeks quite extensively, if anyone could please give me an update at the end of February that would be fantastic!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Aussie, William’s advice (below) is good about taking Highway 140. You’re right that there’s not a lot of snow right now, but that doesn’t mean anything – there could be a big snowstorm right when you’re planning to visit. Rent a 4WD vehicle and rent or buy chains that you can return. The odds that you’ll be required to put on chains with 4WD are extremely small. It has never happened to me in 12 years of frequent driving in the park.

  32. William McIntosh says:

    Just a quick update on last night. We actually made it all the way through, but something tells me we lost a bit of light behind some high clouds that were moving in from further out to the west. At around 5:15, the brilliant gold light on the falls suddenly got a bit dimmer. By 5:30 we could faintly see a bit of red, but not at full strength. By about 5:31, the light was completely gone. As sunset was officially listed as 5:38, I think we still would have had some light to work with, but it must have been completely obscured by clouds. I do have to say that the Southside view is pretty dramatic, even at 5:00. You don’t get that orange/red glow that early, but it still looks like El Capitan split open and light is pouring out. The water level was about where it was last year…just a tiny stream, but enough to catch that sunlight as the sun sets. Hoping for better luck tonight and tomorrow!

    Aussie – If you check back and see this, there are several webcams set up in the valley and one of them is a meadow view where you can get a glimpse of how much snow is on the valley floor. If you check that right before you come and there is no snow in the forecast, you might be in good shape. Also…it is MUCH easier to make it up without chains if you come up highway 140 through Mariposa instead of Highway 41 which takes you into the high country. We were stranded for two hours last year WITH chains on 41 and finally had to turn around and lost the entire morning driving back to Oakhurst and then to highway 140 via 49. I think 140 is your best best if chains are not required in the valley.



    • Michael Frye says:

      Bill, yes the light did get blocked by clouds before sunset last night. Thursday night was the best light this past week I think.

    • Aussie says:

      Hi Michael and Bill,
      Sadly we have decided to skip Yosemite due to the possibility of having to fit chains to our hire car – just couldn’t take the chance! (we’ve had a convertible booked for eons and the other half wasn’t prepared to swap it for an SUV). We will definitely be visiting the park at some stage on a return trip to the US. On a better note, some of you guys have got some beautiful photos even if it wasn’t a great year. Thank you for sharing them.

  33. [...] Posts: The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised; New eBook: Exposure for Outdoor [...]

  34. [...] eastern side of El Capitan during winter and spring, and is positioned in just such a way that the setting sun colors it orange in mid to late February (if there’s enough water and not too many clouds). The effect is unusual if not unique, and [...]

  35. Made it out there this past weekend Michael and thanks to your inspiration I was able to catch this beauty of a sight. I heard Thursday night had some good water flow, but I arrived on Friday and managed to capture this one: Thanks again for your wonderful images.

  36. [...] how unusual those conditions were. The window of best light is short—only about 10 days long. (This post discusses the timing of this window.) In many winters those days pass without a single good [...]

  37. Susanne says:

    It’s all over now, so I’m really glad I just caught in time:

    Thanks for all your inspiration!

  38. We went up Saturday the 18th. Fun group of people from all over the country. but weather was suspect. Around 5:00 pm the clouds started clearing and we could see the amazing light move towards Horsetail fall. But then about 5:20pm the clouds came back. So this is all we were able to capture this year.
    Hopefully next year we’ll have more water and better conditions.

  39. Michael Frye thanks for the information man and your pictures are quit good.

  40. Michael

    I’m heading to Yosemite the first week of may. What are your favorite locations that time of year?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Aubra, there are a lot of good spots in early May. It’s a great time for waterfalls, and the dogwoods are usually blooming. There’s way too much info about all this to write here, so I’d suggest you get a copy of my Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, which is a book or iPhone/iPad app. Hope you have a great visit!

  41. [...] Fall. My thoughts about the best time to photograph Horsetail haven’t changed since I wrote this post last year: basically it’s February 16th to 23rd, or maybe a little beyond [...]

  42. Current condition report: the falls did not light up on Tuesday Feb 12 or Wednesday Feb 13 in spite of totally clear skies. Perhaps not enough water? Or the gods are angry?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Tony, I wasn’t in the park either of those days, but looking at the web cam images it looks like the sun was blocked by some clouds to the west on Tuesday. Skies can be clear overhead, but if there are some clouds near the horizon to the west that will kill the light before it’s at its best. Wednesday, though, the light looked better. There might have been some thin clouds to the west that muted the light a bit, but you should have seen something. Where were you?

  43. 61 Degrees this afternoon in the valley! I hope there is some run off left by the time everyone starts shooting on Saturday! We’ll start shooting today and see what we can get, but I sure hope the falls continue to run through the weekend. More snow expected by Tuesday, but of course we’ll be gone by then. Last Friday was the first time I’ve been able to glance up at the falls and see the water coming down with my naked eye. It was really coming down nicely right after Thursday’s storm. I’m going to be very bummed if we get all the way up there today and the water is completely gone.

    • Michael Frye says:

      William, see my latest post. There isn’t much water now unfortunately. I was also able to see water with my naked eye in mid-morning yesterday, which is usually a good sign, so I was surprised at how little I saw at sunset. Maybe today will be better, but if not there are lots of other things to photograph!

      • Michael- I completely agree. We shot horsetail on Friday night (2/15) and got plenty of color, but not much water. On Saturday, three of us headed up the Four Mile Trail instead of shooting the Falls again and were met by one of the most stunning sunsets we’ve ever seen. We found a spot just before the trail closure where we could shoot up towards Half Dome and then run up the trail about 50 yards for a panoramic view of the Cathedral Rocks and El Cap. We all agreed it was one of the best nights of shooting we’ve ever had. It made me a bit sad for the hundreds of photographers who were camped out waiting for Horsetail which only had a trickle on Friday night. I think folks will have better luck this weekend after this next storm moves in. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that sunset in Yosemite at ANY time of year can be incredibly beautiful and if your sole focus is Horsetail, you might miss out on a completely different once in a lifetime shot.

        • Michael Frye says:

          Great story William, and I’m glad you got to photograph that sunset. I’m not sure that Horsetail will be better this weekend. Maybe, but it’s supposed to get colder, so even though there will be more snow on top of El Capitan it probably won’t be melting very quickly. But I hope I’m wrong.

  44. Aaron M says:

    Hey Michael,
    I’ve written a little computer program to calculate the “optimal” times and days for which the HTF fire falls will occur. It takes into account the optimal Azimuth and Elevation of the light-source (in this case the sun … but could also be extended for other light sources) and when it will fall directly on horsetail. The sun moves left to right and each subsequent day the intense part of the sun moves right (as you have pointed out). That’s why you’ll get better horsetail fall photos as the dates get later into the event. Using my calculations I can find how close to “perfect conditions” each day/time will be. This year the most close to “perfect” fell on 2/21/13. This whole weekend was scheduled to be pretty close to perfect as well. Obviously there’s some wag room as the light is not a pin-point light source and I use about a 6 degree window in the sun’s azimith and a 2.5 degree window in its elevation. Testing out the calculations with Friday’s fire falls turned out to be pretty accurate. I predicted the best time would be at 5:29pm and as you can see from my “timelapse” (!i=2381415668&k=n2WhS52&lb=1&s=A) the photo I liked best occurred right around that time. I also predicted it would finish at 5:41pm and it stopped right about then.

    It’s also interesting to note that as you move further away from the “best day” the window of opportunity shrinks. For example, by Wednesday (2/27/13) the window of good light is only about 3 minutes long, where as on the best day it was almost 15 minutes long.

    I photographed this from southside drive in 2011 and got great results. I photographed it again this weekend but from northside drive and as you know, there was no water. We did get nice wall glow though!

    2011, Southside:!i=1187198802&k=f3XMc6B

    2012, Northside:!i=2381415456&k=HdsvgtW

    • Michael Frye says:

      Aaron, thanks for sharing the links and your interesting idea. I’m curious about what you input into your program to calculate this. Using topographic maps, for example, I found it difficult to pinpoint the exact position and elevation of Horsetail Fall. Also, did you take into account the shadow behind the waterfall that’s created by the Nose of El Capitan? As difficult as it is to pinpoint the location of Horsetail, I found it even more difficult to use maps to find the exact position of the Nose, or it’s slope, and figure out what kind of shadow it would cast on the curving cliff near Horsetail.

      • Enrico says:

        Thanks Aaron. People talked about the “perfect day” last year on this blog and then it was I believe the 20th. The day I think shifts from year to year a little bit. In the end if there is no water then all calculations are pointless. Except of course you can accurately predict if there will be enough water at the time in question.



  45. Denis says:

    I like the one made on the 11th (the 1st “reject”) even more than the one made on the 19th. There may be some light on the cliff, but it’s *orange* light, and the cliff is interesting in its own right. I think this would be a nice photo even if the waterfall was completely dry!

  46. […] still some time. (For more about the light and conditions for photographing Horsetail Fall, go here and […]

  47. steve corey says:

    Very helpful article as I’m going to be in Yosemite Valley for 4 days starting the 17th of Feb.
    I just couldn’t help noticing your top image of horsetail falls and the time and date. I was there the following day at 5:27pm and here is my image:

    That was a very good year ;-]

    Thanks again,
    steve corey

  48. Kentucky Jim says:

    Michael, thanks so much for the information. I first photographed Horsetail Falls last year (Feb. 2013), and I’m hoping for more rain/snow, and that I can make the trip to shoot the falls again this year.

    My shots last year were on February 17, 2013 from 5:24 p.m. through about 5:34 p.m.

  49. Kentucky Jim says:

    ISO 400, 55 mm, 1/80 at f8

    Shot at 5:31 p.m. on February 17, 2013.

  50. […] Posts: A Perfectly-Timed Storm; The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised; Horsetail Fall […]

  51. David Reid says:

    I am wondering if the recent snow/rain provided enough source of meltwater to get horsetail going this year? We’re gonna be up there this long weekend and are hoping for some horsetail viewing miracle late in the weekend (Monday aft?)

  52. […] the window of best light for Horsetail Fall is around February 16th through 23rd (I explain why in this post), this year it might be better to go before that. You won’t get ideal lighting, but at least […]

  53. […] Related Posts: Subject, Meet Light; Will the Approaching Storm Revive Horsetail Fall?; After the Storm; The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised […]

  54. Jack Hall says:

    Here is a photo from 2013. the date was 2/24, but the time on the camera was off. I am guessing that the time was about 4:52 Because I know for sure that is was NOT 21:52, which is what the metadata says. However, I do a lot of traveling into different time zones, so the probability is that the time was exactly 5 hours off. I hope this helps.

    Jack Hall

    Sorry- I tried to do a cut and paste into the body of this email, but it would not work. Send me an email address, and I will send the photo. Sorry- I have no web site to post it to. I am not sure where “Galen’s spot” is, but I think we may have been there. This was about 100 yards east of the two cedar trees in the asphalt.

  55. HEATHER says:

    Please tell what is the trail like to get to the vantage point. How long ? How difficult? Coming down in the dark? Would I most likely be alone during that week of shooting?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Heather, there is no “trail” to these spots, since they’re right by the road. There’s not much chance that you’ll be alone – rather the opposite. You’ll want to get there early so that you can find a parking place, have a spot to stand with a clear view of Horsetail, and you’ll be surrounded by a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred other photographers.

  56. Heather says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you for your response.
    Do you know if Yosemite Park allows drons?


  57. […] But water flow is just one element. You also need the sun to set at the right angle to backlight Horsetail and make it turn orange, yet have the cliff behind it in the shade, so that the glowing, backlit, orange water is set against a dark background. My best estimate is that this happens between February 16th and 23rd, and perhaps even a few days beyond. (I delve into more detail about all that here.) […]

  58. Hi Michael – Just wanted to mention that we were up shooting this weekend (traffic was INSANE) and all of us were shocked at the amount of water and color on Saturday, Feb 13. Not sure how things panned out on Valentine’s Day, because we had already left, but Feb 13 was definitely not too early to catch deep orange and even some red before we lost the glow around 5:40 PM. With the Spring like conditions in the park (I’ve never seen that much water in Vernal in February before!) and the heavy snow fall above, we could easily see Horsetail on our way in , and by the time we made it back from Vernal and came around the corner on the North side, it was just spectacular. We parked at least a couple hundred yards East of the overflow lot, well East of the picnic area as we just wanted to get out and shoot. I’d say the line for parking stretched at least a mile as you couldn’t help but pull over and stare. The MIST coming off the falls was what was so compelling. I had given up on shooting the North side a few years ago, and we were on our way back across to shoot from the South when we just slammed on the brakes. Anyway…just thought we should get the word out that Feb 13 is definitely not too early. If people are within driving distance of the park, the best time to shoot Horsetail, as you mentioned in 2009, is after Feb 11 and when that water is flowing well and you have a clear sky out to the West. If someone is trying to pick a weekend, they should NOT put off going in mid February if conditions are good thinking that the light will be lousy, because I thought it was spectacular on the 13th. By next weekend, clouds could move back in, the temperature could drop and that water could slow to a trickle again. On the other hand, it could be even more amazing over the next two weekends, but Feb 13 is definitely not too early. Thanks for the tip on watching the webcam for color!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks for the report Bill; I’m glad you had such great conditions for Horsetail. There’s never been any question about the color in Horsetail in mid February; it can definitely turn orange or even red-orange, and the color is as good as the peak time between February 16th through 23rd. The drawback to the mid-February time period is that the cliff behind Horsetail never gets completely shaded. It’s that dark, shaded cliff behind the fall that really sets off the backlit, glowing waterfall, and makes it look like the fall is lit from within. But having said that, I saw a photograph someone took of Horsetail on Saturday, the same night you were there, and it looked great because there was so much water, with the wind blowing the spray and making the fall look even bigger. So even though the top of the cliff behind fall was in the sun, that didn’t really matter because all that spray covered much of the cliff behind, so most of the fall was set against a dark background, and the photo had that glowing-from-within look. So I guess I’ll have to amend my recommendations for the best time to say that if there’s a lot of water in Horsetail it can be good starting on perhaps the 12th.

      Thanks again for your report!

      • Hi Michael,
        Thanks for your reply! I hadn’t noticed the light on the cliff behind the Fall as I’ve never shot it this early before, but now that you mentioned it, I can definitely see light there. But as you mentioned above, in years when the Fall is really flowing well, that mist can really blow up and catch the light, creating the impression of smoke coming off of a fire. While I love Galen Rowell’s original shot, I have always been drawn to that look of the earth splitting open and fire pouring out. I actually went far enough North this year to where I was shooting a bit behind the fall for a while, and again, this was at least 1/2 mile East of the picnic area. You couldn’t see much of the water, but the light was just on the mist seemingly belching right out of the dark cliff behind. I posted a shot this morning on flickr at:

        I am hoping to get back there at least once more before the effect is gone for the year.
        By the way, I just wanted to thank you again for your app and your book on photographing Yosemite. I plugged both of them on a blog article I wrote recently, so I’m hoping that your sales are continuing to do well. They are both such a great resource for photographers!

        • Michael Frye says:

          William, I hand’t realized that you were that far behind the fall. From there, it doesn’t matter whether the cliff behind the fall is in the shade, since you can’t see the cliff at all, so mid-February is fine – if there’s a lot of water, and wind blowing the spray.

          Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad you’ve found the book and app helpful.

  59. This is a picture that I captured on the 27th of February, 2016.

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