9 Tips for Photographing Yosemite’s Fire Fall

The famed Yosemite Fire Fall – To Purchase a Copy Click HERE!

EDITOR’S NOTE – This year (2018) Yosemite has instituted a parking permit requirement for those who wish to park closer to the prime viewing areas. For more information, visit https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/news/yosemite-national-park-announces-pilot-program-for-horsetail-fall-event-february-12-26-2018.htm.

Every February, if the conditions align just right, a phenomenon known as “Fire Fall” occurs in Yosemite National Park when the sun sets at the perfect angle on a seasonal waterfall called Horsetail Falls near El Capitan, illuminating the water and surrounding granite walls to create the effect of flowing lava. Photographers line up from day break to stake their claim to what they believe to be the prime real estate for photographing this event. Last year, because of some simple planning I was able to capture a great photo of the Fire Fall without having to spend all day lined up. Here are 9 tips to help you come away with a nice shot of the fire fall:

  1. Pick your location before you go. Below is a map of Yosemite Valley showing where Horsetail Falls – the waterfall that is to be transformed into the Fire Fall – is located , and where the major viewing areas are.  Try to have a general idea of the area you’d like to shoot from. If you get to the park early enough, you can do a few laps to see the different angles before picking your spot. All of my images were taken from the location by the El Capitan picnic area that is closest to El Capitan. For the brave, venture out and find your own spot somewhere higher across the valley along the rim.
  2. Check the weather conditions. Make sure and check the weather conditions before going. If the weather is cloudy, chances are you won’t be very successful. Ideally, you need to have little to no clouds to ensure that the sun is not blocked from hitting the falls and illuminating it. Some clouds may provide a great scene above the waterfall, but too many or untimely placed clouds could ruin the photograph. With my shot, there are clouds that give off an appearance of smoke rising from a volcano – this was pure luck, which is all you need sometimes. The irony is that everyone around was hoping for a completely clear sky, but I preferred it with a little clouds to add some texture and detail to the image.
  3. Use a telephoto/zoom lens. Even from the closest areas, you’ll likely need at least a 70mm lens to frame the falls nicely. Try to have a lens that’s at least in the 70-200 range. For further shots, such as from across the valley at the further viewing points, you’ll want to get above 200mm or as close to it as possible.
  4. Use a tripod & remote shuttle.  Be sure to use a tripod and remote shutter to ensure maximum sharpness. You will be losing light as the sun sets, so if you don’t use a tripod you’ll have to compensate another way to ensure your image is still sharp, such as bumping the ISO or using a lower f-stop, both of which can reduce image quality in this instance.
  5. Arrive early. You may not have to be in your spot all day, but you should definitely get into the park at an earlier time. There will be tons of people, all of whom are trying to catch a glimpse of the famed Fire Fall. There will be traffic arriving, and then as soon as its done, tons of traffic from everyone leaving. Last year, the National Park Service closed one of the two lanes in the valley so it could be used strictly for parking. If you are worried about getting a choice spot, then you should plan on being in your spot as early as possible, but likely no later than 2:00pm – the sun sets at approximately 5:30pm this time of year. As an aside, when I went last year there were people already lined up at 7:30am. I passed on this and went hiking instead. The coverage does not seem as crazy this year, so it’s likely there may not be as many people as last year’s crowd.
  6. Try a neutral density filter and/or circular polarizer. Some people say it’s not necessary, but I used one to capture my images. By using a neutral density filter to have a longer exposure, you’ll be able to create a more smooth waterfall effect – in turn, this helps give you more of a “lava” fall. By darkening the image you also get a more orange glow, too. As far as polarizers are concerned, some people will also likely say this is a bad idea because by their nature, polarizers cut reflections and glare, something that is an integral part of photographing the Fire Fall. While certainly true, with a circular polarizer you can rotate it to adjust just how much you want the effect applied to your image. Certain angles may produce more desired results, such as a more isolated stream of lava by cutting the surround reflections around the stream – this is the effect I went for with my images. Also, by cutting some of the glare you may capture a lot more of the details that lie below/behind the Fire Fall and the surround granite rock. I have seen many Fire Fall images where most of the face of the mountain is illuminated, but I wanted something that was more isolated and representative of actual lava flowing down. Also, because of the way the sky and clouds were set-up, the polarizer gave the sky is cool effect. To each his own in this category, and this is the beauty of photography – there is no right way, just a way you never tried!
  7. Have a good working knowledge of your camera. By this, I mean you should be shooting in manual mode. This is important because as the event is not something you can predict to the T, meaning you never know which way the wind will blow, how the water will flow when sunset actually comes, how the light will fill in, how the reflections will be, etc., having a greater command over your camera, knowing how to use it in manual mode, being able to quick change your f-stop, aperture and iso settings on the go are huge. If you have to fiddle with your camera to dial in your settings, you could fiddle right past the peak glow. Take some time to familiarize yourself with your camera control and settings, it’ll pay off in dividends.
  8. Be ready to shoot when sunset approaches. This one cannot be stressed enough. Hours and even months of planning for some can turn into a make or break 30 seconds, literally. Be prepared to shoot, be prepared to use your filters, be prepared with your compositions, be prepared to work with your surrounds. Once the shadows from the setting sun start to close in on the falls, start shooting your compositions and do not stop until it is clear the effect is gone (the large crowd will let out collective groans that will signal the end). Do no wait for the perfect time, do not wait to see when other people start to shoot, don’t listen to the crowd noise discussing whether the conditions are right or not – just shoot. This will give you the ability to capture a variety of shots. Remember, your here for one thing and if you lose track of that, you will miss your chance. In the famous words of Eminem, you only get one shot, do not miss your chance.
  9. Enjoy the moment and meet your neighbors. This sounds cliche, but enjoy it. I’ve gone to a lot of national parks and seen a lot of great things, but there is something special when you have thousands of people in one place to witness a natural phenomenon. You will likely be shoulder to shoulder with other photographers and everyday tourists. Be friendly with them. Why? Because you may need them to move over just a few inches to get your shot. Or you may need to run away to the restroom, and want them to watch your gear. Last year I showed up late and was lucky enough to wedge myself into my preferred spot with just enough room to set-up. Unfortunately, there was a family of 5 in front of me and while they had ever right in the world to be where they were, some simple pleasantries later and they were more than helpful in doing me the favor and ducking/making sure their kids did not jump into the frame so I could capture it when the effect was going off. In return, I sent them some of my images and they were eternally grateful. A win-win for everyone!

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at devon@heyguystudios.com and tag me on Instagram (@heyguystudios) so I can check out your shots!! Happy Fire Fall hunting! 

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