Yosemite Firefall

  • Urban Samurai Creative

Tips by Urban Samurai Creative

Between February 16-26, the sun's specific angle of descent causes the seasonally-occurring Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls to become side-lit. The result of numerous conditions all aligning at once is a symphony of events that creates the illusion of a waterfall on fire called “Fire Fall”!

Thousands of photographers visit Yosemite National Park each year in hopes of capturing the famed “Fire Falls.” This natural phenomenon only happens for a few weeks during the middle of February and is best viewed from a few specific locations. The actual waterfall, called Horsetail Falls, is a seasonal waterfall that only flows after rain or as the snow melts above El Capitan. It can be seen from the eastside of El Capitan, from a number of different vantage points.

To capture this natural phenomenon, you need to plan ahead and be patient. Fire falls usually take place around sunset, but you should secure viewing locations as early as possible. The National Park Service now restricts the number of spots where people can see the falls, so there are only two areas left where they can be viewed. If you get there after 2PM, you won't be able to find a good spot to see the falls. However, you will be able to see them.

It is not guaranteed that you will be able to see it. Here are two main factors about Fire Falls: water falling from Horsetail Falls and clear sky on the west. First, water needs to flow on Horsetail Falls. This year, it snowed a lot in January, so the chance is good unless it is too cold that water falls are frozen.  Second, Sunset cannot be blocked. Cloud tends to appear in the afternoon. One year, I stayed in Yosemite for three days to catch Fire Falls.  Another year, I was not able to capture it at all.


Here are some guides to catch Fire Falls.

Plan ahead

Before you visit Yosemite, it's crucial to check the weather forecast and the park's website for information about when the Firefall is expected to occur. It typically starts around mid-February and lasts for about 10 days, but the exact timing can vary from year to year. To make the most of your trip and to ensure that you're there at the right time, it's important to stay informed and keep an eye on the park's website for updates and information about the Firefall.

On 2023, Yosemite National Park put a reservation restriction for weekends February 10–12, February 17–19, and February 24–26, 2023. If you don’t have reservation, you can’t get in Yosemite period.

The best time to see the Firefall is on a clear sunset with no clouds obscuring the sun. The Firefall is caused by the angle of the sun shining on Horsetail Fall, and if clouds obscure the sun, the Firefall will not be visible. So, to get the best chance of seeing the Firefall, it's essential to plan your trip around the weather forecast and to be ready to adjust your plans if necessary.

Keep in mind that the exact timing of the Firefall can vary depending on weather conditions and water flow from Horsetail Fall. Factors such as the amount of snowmelt, the intensity of the sun, and the overall weather conditions can all affect the timing and visibility of the Firefall. So, it's important to stay informed and flexible, and to be ready to adjust your plans if necessary.

It's also important to keep in mind that the Firefall is a natural phenomenon, and that its appearance cannot be guaranteed. Even if you plan your trip perfectly and the weather is clear, there's still a chance that the Firefall may not be visible. However, by keeping informed, staying flexible and being prepared for any scenario, you'll increase your chances of capturing that perfect shot of the Yosemite Firefall.

Get there early

To photograph the Yosemite Firefall, you'll need to be in position well before sunset. You Can only view it from a few locations, so everyone will at those spots at the same time.  This will give you plenty of time to set up your equipment and make any necessary adjustments before the Firefall begins. The ideal location is from El Capitan Meadow, which offers a clear view of Horsetail Fall and El Capitan, but it's important to arrive early if possible to secure a spot and set up your equipment. Keep in mind that the area can get crowded and parking can be difficult to find, so it's important to plan accordingly. Try to arrive at least an hour or two before sunset to give yourself plenty of time to find a good spot and set up your equipment. This will also give you time to explore the area, and to take in the stunning views of Yosemite National Park. Additionally, it will be a great opportunity to take some test shots and get a sense of the light and composition before the actual firefall happens. By arriving early, you'll be able to take your time, and make sure you're in the perfect position to capture the Firefall when it starts. This will give you a better chance to get that perfect shot you've been hoping for.

Be stable

The light in the Yosemite Firefall can be low, especially as the sun sets, so a tripod will be essential to keep your camera steady. A tripod will help you to avoid camera shake and ensure sharp images, even when using slower shutter speeds. If you don't have a tripod, try to find a solid surface to rest your camera on, such as a rock or a tree stump. This will help to keep your camera stable and allow you to make adjustments to your camera settings without worrying about camera shake. Using a tripod will also allow you to experiment with different compositions and angles, giving you more creative freedom to capture the movement of the waterfall and the fiery orange glow that cascades down the granite cliffs of El Capitan. Additionally, by using a tripod you can be sure to use the best settings for your camera like aperture, ISO, and white balance for a perfect shot. A stable tripod will give you the chance to focus on the Firefall and its surroundings, and enjoy the moment while capturing it.

Using different lenses

The Yosemite Firefall sprawls across a large area, so it's important to set your wide-angle lens to capture its full effect. A wide-angle lens will allow you to include the surrounding landscape, creating a sense of scale and context for the waterfall. A focal length of around 16-35mm will work well for capturing the entire scene. This will allow you to take a wide shot of the firefall and the surrounding landscape, giving your audience an idea of the grandeur of the scene.

However, if you want a closer shot of the Firefall itself, we would recommend using a lens with a focal length of somewhere around 70-200mm. This will allow you to zoom in on the waterfall and capture more details of the cascading water. With a longer lens, you can also play with different compositions and angles, and focus on the beauty of the orange glow of the Firefall.

Additionally, using a lens with a longer focal length will allow you to separate the waterfall from the background and create a sense of depth in the image. This can be especially useful if you want to capture the Firefall against a dark background and make it stand out even more.

Experiment with different shutter speeds

Depending on your aperture and ISO you'll need to experiment with shutter speeds to capture the movement of the waterfall while keeping the image relatively sharp. In order to avoid a noisy image, you will want to keep your ISO as low as possible. To compensate for the low ISO, you will want to either open up your aperture or increase your shutter speed. You can also try using a slower shutter speed for a more dramatic effect, or a faster shutter speed for a more frozen look. The longer the shutter speed, you will have an increase in the trail effect of the waterfall.

Be patient

The Yosemite Firefall is not an everyday occurrence, so it's important to be prepared for the wait. The phenomenon only happens for a short period of time each year, usually in February, and is dependent on many factors like the weather, water flow and sun's position. So, be ready to make the most of the time you have, and be patient for the perfect moment to capture that perfect shot. It's important to keep in mind that photography is all about capturing the moment, and sometimes that moment may not come on your first try. It may take a few attempts before you get a shot you're happy with, so don't get discouraged if your first few photos don't turn out how you hoped. Instead, use each attempt as an opportunity to learn and improve, and to make minor adjustments to your camera settings and composition. Remember, the best photographers are the ones who are patient and persistent, and who are always willing to keep trying until they get the shot they want.


Hope you get to capture Fire Falls this year!  Good luck and stay safe!


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