Horsetail Fall Questions

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Low water, but ideal light on Horsetail Fall, February 20th, 2012

It’s almost February, so naturally I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Horsetail 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 that.

This window was confirmed by my observations in 2012. There wasn’t much water in the fall last year, but we had a string of clear days, which allowed me to closely watch the light, and I think that February 16th to 23rd window is about right. You can, of course, take good photographs before or after that window; I’m talking about ideal light.

That ideal light requires clear skies to the west at sunset, something no one can predict at this point. And for good photographs the waterfall has to be flowing. Overall we’ve had a lot more rain and snow than last year, and Horsetail is flowing now. January, however, has been pretty dry, and there’s no precipitation in the forecast until at least next Wednesday. I think Horsetail will have more water this year than last, regardless of what happens over the next couple of weeks, but it would be nice to get some more snow on top of El Capitan soon to help feed Horsetail.

There are two main viewpoints for Horsetail Fall: east of the El Capitan picnic area along Northside Drive, and along Southside Drive about nine-tenths of a mile past the Cathedral Beach picnic area. I describe both locations in The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite book and iPhone app.

If you try to photograph Horsetail Fall be prepared for large crowds. There was a lot of publicity about Horsetail last year, so there are bound to be even more people this year. Plan on getting to your chosen location at least two or three hours before sunset to find a parking space and a viewpoint. Carpooling might be a good idea. You won’t be alone, so think of it as a social event where you can meet other people who share the same passion for photography.

Good luck!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, RevisedQuick Horsetail UpdateFalling Fire

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 eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. 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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43 Responses to “Horsetail Fall Questions”

  1. Michael-

    Thanks for the update, the time is near! Like you, I think I’ve shot HTF enough times to satisfy myself, but of course, there could always be better conditions than what I’ve experienced. I think this year, I would like to shoot a reflection shot of the falls, most likely using the Merced as my mirror. I’ve got a few spots in mind that might work, but of course the viewing windows between the trees is limited. Have you ever shot a reflection of the falls?


    • Michael Frye says:

      Steve, I’ve never tried to photograph a reflection of Horsetail Fall. As you say, the viewing places are limited. There’s also a big, dark gap in the middle of the frame between the reflection and the actual waterfall, though framing just the reflection might work.

  2. Count me as another person who is not so likely to shoot Horsetail any more – unless I happen to be up there and the conditions turn out to be truly remarkable. Or if I happen to be there with someone who has not seen the event before. Oh, wait, I will be there with such a person during this window of time. Hmmm… ;-)


  3. David Wolfe says:

    where were you standing when you made this picture? You look to be a lot higher than the parking lot where most of the photographers I have seen in the past. lat year I was on the other side of the river, in a field, with about 10 other guys. It was OK, but I feel I must get farther east for the best effect. Are you familiar with the area I am talking about?
    david w.

    • Michael Frye says:

      David, I’ve been asked that question about photographs taken from that area by many people, so there’s obviously something about the perspective that makes it seem like it’s taken from high up, but I assure you it’s not. This image was made from the Southside Drive spot, right on the valley floor. I think the illusion is created by the combination of a long lens and the lack of any orientation, since you don’t see the sky or the bottom of the cliff.

      • I’m pretty sure the illusion is created by the curved edge (canyon wall?) on the right side of the photo, which reads as a canyon rim at first glance. If that were a canyon rim, you would be looking down on the falls rather than up, so it feels like you’re shooting from very high.

        • Michael Frye says:

          Perhaps you’re right Doug. The orientation always seems clear to me, but then I’ve been there. :)

          • Kentucky Jim says:

            So the view is from about location no. 10, in your book, “The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite”? Both David and Doug see something in the photo that caught my attention when I first saw it. I thought you had climbed up somewhere well above the crowds, and that you probably had special permission from the park rangers to go to that spot… :-)

  4. Joolz says:

    thanks for the update, Michael!

  5. [...] This window was confirmed by my observations in 2012. There wasn’t much water in the fall last year, but we had a string of clear days, which allowed me to closely watch the light, and I think that February 16th to 23rd window is about right. -Michael Frye [...]

  6. Faith Rumm says:

    I just want to see it!! Thanks for the post.

  7. Vivienne says:

    I got to see it 4 years ago, and it was pretty crowded then! I’d hate to see the crowds now, but I wouldn’t mind seeing that glow again.

  8. Aram Langhans says:

    Maybe this year, we will make the trek south to see it. Do you think there are less people during the mid week? And what lens would you suggest on a full frame?


  9. Cathy Kozak says:

    Thanks for the info Michael. Do you have any predictions for a moonbow in May?


  10. Rodney Ninow says:

    Great writing as usual Michael! I’ll be camping in Camp 4 most of next week and to be honest am kinda glad I’ll miss the main window. I suspect the CG will be crowded during the window and I already have a pleasing image of Horsetail’s firefall.

  11. Chuck Cagara says:

    I’ll be there for intermittently for several of the prime days. I’ve shot many times over the years with differing results ranging from dismal to spectacular.

    I’ll enjoy the comraderie of whatever group assembles. Perhaps I’ll see you there, Michael.

    A hint for neophytes: DON’T pack up the tripod too early!!

    Sometimes the very best ruby red wavelengths of light appear several minutes after official sunset when the sun is actually below the horizon. I’ve been there when that “Holy Grail” light appeared for a few seconds and photogs who were in the process of walking away came running back frantically trying to set up and squeeze off a shot.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Good advice Chuck! Though, on second thought, it’s well-known that there’s a correlation between the act of a photographer packing up his or her gear and walking away, and the sudden appearance of spectacular light. And the more photographers who pack up, the greater the likelihood of killer light. So maybe we should just let ‘em leave. :)

    • Sylvia says:

      Chuck, thank you for this tip for newbies. I’m one; I’ll be there next week.

  12. Chuck Maranhas says:

    Heading out your way next week from Maine with fingers crossed for good light and manageable crowds, it will be my first trip to the area. The postings here along with your book have been very helpful, thanks to everyone.
    Any must try locations for sunrise shots this time of year? I’ve bookmarked all the suggestions in the book.
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  13. Alan says:

    Michael – thanks for posting this. I shot from the Southside location yesterday (Saturday). I got there at 3:30 and virtually any unobstructed view was taken, but people were nice trying to squeeze more photogs in. And the NPS shutting down the right lane to let people park was also excellent. The firefall itself was stunning. I was basically able to reproduce what you did above.

    I am thinking of going back to do some wide angles. You don’t see alot of them posted anywhere. But I am thinking the best place to do that would be from the water? Or else from way low, which means getting there about 1 (even on a weekday?)

    • Rodney Ninow says:

      Alan, how many people were there? I am just trying to picture getting there at 3:30 and almost not finding a spot. I was on the north side on Thurs and got there about 5 pm, parked and easily found a spot. Now, of course, that was a weekday and the falls wasn’t flowing strongly. I can’t imagine you would need to be in place 5 and a half hours before the event, just seems crazy.

      • Alan says:

        Amazingly, parking was easy. Part of the issue I think is that there were at least 2 photo groups there, one with two vans. I would guess 400+ people, not all photogs, though if they were with one they took up photography real estate. . Another issue is that the space is somewhat limited by trees. If you wanted a shot focusing on the rock and the firefall, it was still pretty easy. But if you wanted to show El Capitan and have no overhanging trees, those locations were limited. For about 30 seconds the very top face of El Cap also had a red glow (not as strong) , but I will have to photoshop out leaf fronds to get the picture I want.

        • Rodney Ninow says:

          400 people? Oh my gosh that is really crazy!

          • Michael Frye says:

            Alan, I’m glad you were able to see and photograph Horsetail Fall. You don’t see a lot of wide-angle shots of Horsetail Fall because they don’t work very well. :) Part of the reason is all the trees you mention that get in the the way, and part of it is just that fundamental rule of composition that says that you should keep things simple and fill up the frame with the most interesting stuff — which in this case means Horsetail Fall.

            Rodney, I wasn’t there Saturday night, but drove by the Southside Drive spot at about 4:15 today (Sunday), and there might have been a hundred cars parked in the area. As Alan says, the park service closed one lane for parking, which is a good idea, but they’re not likely to cut down trees for better viewing!

  14. […] We’ve seen a few showers since then, and the forecast calls for more precipitation this week – nothing major, but we’ll take it. There’s probably a foot of snow on top of El Capitan now, so prospects for Horsetail Fall later this month look better, though another foot or two of snow would be very helpful. The window for the best light on Horsetail Fall is around February 16-23, so there’s still some time. (For more about the light and conditions for photographing Horsetail Fall, go here and here.) […]

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

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