In mid-February, hundreds of photographers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley to photograph the phenomenon known as Horsetail Fall.
Horsetail Fall is a long, slender seasonal waterfall that cascades down the steep, granite cliffs just to the east of El Capitan on the north rim of the valley.
For most of the year, this waterfall is dry and does not get much attention, but for two weeks in February, this obscure waterfall has the look of molten lava at sunset. The angle of the late-winter sun is just right to turn the flow of water into dazzling shades of red and orange.
Capturing this photographic event is a bit of a gamble, as four things need to happen at once:
First, you need to be in Yosemite Valley when the angle of the setting sun is just right. This year the best dates are between Saturday and Feb. 23, with the best days for the full effect on Wednesday and Thursday.
Second, there has to be sufficient water cascading down the falls.
Third, clouds cannot obstruct the setting sun.
And fourth, you need to be in position and ready to photograph at sunset, which will be just a little after 5:30 p.m.
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.
Be forewarned: You will need to arrive at the area you select to photograph at least three hours before sunset to find parking and a clear, unobstructed view of the falls.
The late renowned landscape photographer Galen Rowell first captured Horsetail Fall in color in 1973. Now, 40 years later, photographing Horsetail Fall has turned into a social event and, in my opinion, a bit of a circus as well as a photo opportunity.
Four years ago, I attempted to make the Horsetail Fall image for the first time and was in the company of just a handful of other photographers. Unfortunately, I was in the park a few days before the peak light. The image was nice, but not quite as spectacular as it could have been.
The next year, I attempted Horsetail again, and conditions were just right, but I was in the company of many more photographers than the year before. I was there at the peak for the sun angle. It had been a wet year and the falls were really cranking, and it was a clear day -- that is, until just before the sunset.
Just as the show of color was beginning, a large cloud bank appeared out of nowhere on the western horizon and in a heartbeat the color, and my chance of a great image, disappeared.
The third year it seemed as if the entire month of February was stormy, and I never made it out of Merced. Last year, I led a two-day workshop for the event. We were greeted by hundreds of photographers with every type of camera known to man all trained on the falls. It was a crazy, noisy scene.
Many of the photographers had been at the location for hours, and to amuse themselves and pass the time had imbibed a bit of alcohol. It was not a pleasant scene.
The light conditions last year were good, but unfortunately it was a very dry year and there was little in the way of water, which made for a disappointing image.
If you want to attempt this image, this might be a good year, as the weather forecast for the next few days looks favorable, and there should be sufficient water coming down the falls.
You will need a DSLR camera, a good tripod, a lens of at least 200mm, patience and a good sense of humor. Also, keep in mind that even though this can be a very nice image, it won't be a unique image, as hundreds of other photographers will have the same thing.
Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts group workshops and teaches photography at Merced College.