Horsetail Fall by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail Fall by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Horsetail 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 the 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, and Winter 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.