Thursday, March 18, 2021

Chasing the Horsetail Fall: Learned Lessons and Tips

Not everyone has time for non-essential reading. Time is money and I do not want to waste yours. :) You are welcome to skip over the paragraphs below to simply read the tips and see many of my favorite images which were taken over several days of photographing the Horsetail Fall in February 2021. If your question wasn't answered in the reading below, please don't ask about specific locations, some of those were left out for a reason. I do not want to share certain spots because things are crowded already and people who care, can do their own scoping adventure-outings. Even in summer! Not everything has to be spoon-fed, though I feel like these tips share enough useful info to set one up for sending the proj. 

The sight of Horsetail Fall glowing in the last rays of the setting sun is a magical moment to witness. With the explosion of proof captured by photographers in recent years, the number of people attempting to see and photograph the rare, beautiful moment has led to increased popularity and a whole army of people attempting to capture their own version of an image similar to the world-famous original. The thin lava-like ribbon of Horsetail Fall was first captured by Galen Rowell, a prolific climber, and photographer. His creative nature led to many first ascents in the Greater Ranges as well as in his home, the Sierra Nevada. As creative in photography as in climbing, he became well-known in the mainstream media through many spectacular images from steep walls and sweeping landscapes which ended up published in National Geographic, and other magazines. 

As I quickly soloed the moderate rock climbs on Manure Pile Buttress, at the base of El Cap's Southeast Face - home of the Horsetail Fall - I pondered about the first time Galen noticed this rare phenomenon. Was he also soloing at Manure Pile at the end of his climbing day? Was he walking along the south shore of Merced River and became a random witness? Did he see something in Ansel Adams' portfolio that tipped him off? Did he do some sort of complicated calculation that helped him figure when the light will line up just right? Not sure. The answer is likely easy to find in one of the popular search engines, only a few clicks away, however, the mystery added to the allure of the event, and I was interested to photograph it over multiple day-trips which I made on my days off. Because I work as a nurse, I usually do about one to two days on and get as many, or more days off. Three 12-hour shifts allow me to be full-time. On a typical trip, I would wake up a 5AM, drink strong coffee, drive to Yosemite, and rope solo (minitrax) 10-16 pitches of hard climbing. If I had more time to kill, I would drive to the Manure Pile for some free soloing on multi-pitch 5.6-5.8s there, or go running, which allowed me a lot of time to think.  

The first time I photographed the Horetail was early February, prior to dates when the 'experts' predicted the waterfall to be "in," as an ice climber would say. For a waterfall to be "in" for an ice climber, it would have to be frozen enough to be climbable and accept "safe" gear placements, whatever that may mean. As much as I find ice climbing safe, the thought of climbing on frozen water is still somewhat ridiculous. So the experts didn't think the photos would be great that early. What does that mean in a beautiful Yosemite landscape? Beauty can be found there even without a glowing waterfall, on a cloudy day, a calming walk in the close to an empty park in winter feels special. Surely is a different experience compared to walking to a busy Emergency Department in Oakland and watching people urinating in front of the Hospital. So in the worst case, I wanted to scope the location for the shot. In fact, I wanted to scope several locations to take photos of Horestail Fall and go to the one I like the most on the day when the internet experts predict the waterfall to be in its best conditions - around February 21st.

To my surprise, I was very happy with the results and the photos from my first attempt were good enough for a local TV channel to feature them in a segment they released promoting the event. The event didn't need much promotion, on the weekend of 21st, I went for a 6.5 mile run around Yosemite after climbing prior and witnessed a crowd of about a thousand people settled in their lawn chairs or in the process of setting up their tripods on the north side of Merced River. As much as I don't like crowded places, I found something beautiful in knowing all these people made long drives, or even international flights to see a free magic show by mother nature, and I was also aware that I am one of the tourons as well, even if I was planning to photograph from an undisclosed location 500 feet above the valley floor. These people I saw could have been in front of their TVs, in the comfort of their home, but they chose to be hundreds of miles away, in a cold place, without any guarantee that the waterfall will actually glow - there were plenty of clouds on the horizon which could have ruined the experience for everyone. I realistically estimated the chances of seeing the glowing waterfall as slim to none.  I was also unsure if getting a photo of this phenomenon was very creative, as so many have done so in the past. Earlier in the day, I ran into Ron Kauk, a living legend in the Yosemite climbing scene, who also was enjoying his time rope soloing. Maybe not as sexy as free soloing the sick gnar, but I feel like it allows us moving meditation without a possibility of death as a consequence. We started to chat and at some point, I brought up my conundrum, "are we simply trying to create a trophy shot, similar to a mountain climber bagging a trophy peak, as the angles of the shot, the timing, the required focal length, and even the aperture and several locations were outlined online? Just like the route of ascent to a trophy 8,000-meter peak is hung with ropes, set by guides, and the adventure of reaching the summit is tainted by an unlimited amount of available information about all the hurdles one may experience." 

As much time as I had to think about the topic and as eight attempts to photograph the waterfall went by, I found an answer which I personally could accept. An individual answer which may be different for each person, or maybe more similar than we may think, as humans are probably more similar than they are different? I don't know, but visiting crowded tourist cities like Paris, Bangkok, Madrid or Barcelona, to see the Louvre, Sagrada Familia, structures designed by Gaudi, or to stand in rain for two hours outside of Versailles to see it for yourself didn't make the experience less special. Special places, trophy peaks, and popular photos are cool because they are worth seeing, pushing yourself for, or going through the process of trying to figure out how to capture them yourself. In the past, such feats were left to professional photographers and climbers, in 2021, normal working people are able to go on their own little adventures that keep us somewhat sane with our busy schedules and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. When I headed up the climb while talking to Ron, earlier that day, he simply said "Don't overgrip." Now that I think about the to-the-point advice, I find it applicable to the conundrum I had. Overthinking things we enjoy for the simple pleasure of focusing on the beauty around us can be as destructive as lactic acid building up in our forearms as we overgrip on small holds of a challenging rock climb. Is that what Ron was trying to say? 

If you want to see what I learned about the actual waterfall, or I feel it is important to share with anyone who wants to take a nice photo of the Horsetail Falls in the future here is a list of things I personally find important:

1) Best times to photograph the glowing Horsetail Fall is from 10th to 25th of February, or so. Every year, the dates will be slightly different but the BIG difference I found from photographing it on the 8th of February, over several other days and on the days conditions were predicted to be the best (21-22nd of February), I noticed the ribbon of water illuminated by the rays of setting sun is THINNER, leading to a more defined lava flowing on the weekend when the waterfall is predicted to be 'the best.' Of course, it makes a lot of sense, the thinner and more defined the flow of the waterfall, the better is the image! Right? The answer depends on your creative interpretation. 

2) If you are shooting with your phone, even if it is an iPhone12, you will not be able to get a nice zoom of the waterfall. So decide for yourself if you are going to witness the event or to capture it well in order to produce a print you can hang in your home. 

3) Shoot with AT LEAST a nice mirrorless camera or a DSLR on a tripod. YES, a tripod! Pair it with a 100-200mm lens. I personally shot with Nikon D810 and a 150-600mm Tamron monster lens. BUT, if you have a nice lens known to be sharp around that 150-300mm range (on a full-frame camera body), you should be set! Some high-end point and shoots that cost a ton of money have nice zooms and can also produce decent images.

4) Get to your location and BE SET UP one hour before the sunset. In my experience, locations on the SOUTH side of Merced River led to better photos. The usual spot where the most people photograph, near Manure Pile parking lot honestly seems a little too close to see the thin ribbon well.

5) The setting, clouds and other things (like flying birds in the mix) can make the image more, or less epic. Individual's desire to take a slightly different angle of the waterfall can also lead to original angles. 

6) Most people photograph with wider angle view before the waterfall becomes the thin ribbon of beauty and then scramble to change the lens and re-focus, find the right settings on the new lens, as the precious seconds of short event tick away. I and other people I watched around me are guilty of it. On my last day, I picked the lens, aperture/zoom/ISO, focused on the waterfall and kept it simple. Unless you have many days to try it, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). I apply KISS to climbing and to everything else in life. Aside from my busy schedule...maybe one day? 

February 8th. Notice the amount of light around the waterfall. On the 21st, only the ribbon of the waterfall was illuminated.

7) For this rare phenomenon to take place A LOT OF STARS HAVE TO ALIGN. It should be clear (not cloudy) on the western horizon, there should be enough precipitation high in the mountains to create a steady snow melt for the waterfall to be fed, and temperatures have to be warm enough for the snow to melt. COLD winter days, cloudy days and low snow years, will likely not allow you to take nice photos. So check the snow pack, check the weather and have a few days off to visit Yosemite in Mid February.

8) Watch for special permits and regulations posted by National Park Service (NPS) on the Yosemite NP web site. At first, I thought some of the rules are ridiculous, but I realized why they were enforced when I saw the army of people the park was dealing with. February 2021 required a special permit which was reserved from and worked for a week. Who knows what 2022 will be like, but I can't imagine it to be less strict.

9) If you can, make your trip on the weekday in order to not fight for parking with a thousand other people and hike up into the woods on the south side of Merced. Maybe up the 4-mile trail or its vicinity. I took a few nice shots there.

10) The best way to focus in the waterfall is to choose the appropriate exposure, shutter speed, and ISO to work with your composition (I personally set the ISO to about 100-200, though I could have kept it at 64, but chose to set it higher to let in more light in order to create more contrast and make the waterfall pop. I shot at F14ish, which is mid-range for my lens and my shutter speed was quick 1/150-200). Then you want to use the digital zoom, and zoom ALL the way in on an object by the waterfall on your screen, and in full manual focus, adjust the focus wheel so that the object is as sharp as it can be. Somewhere close to infinity. Take a few practice shots, zoom in on them and make sure your image is in perfect focus. Another helpful tip is to figure out at which aperture your lens is the sharpest and calibrate your lens for the sharpest focus prior to your trip. Hint: Youtube it.

11) Every time you adjust your zoom or aperture, or touch the ring of the lens, make sure you didn't screw up your focus. 

12) Shoot in RAW, so that you can bring out all the colors in Lightroom or whatever you use to process images.

13) Respect people around you, take your trash out, take any trash you find on the ground that doesn't belong to you, and know your limits when it comes to backcountry travel. Don't get yourself into dangerous situations trying to find a nice spot. Bring a headlamp or a flashlight with fresh batteries to get yourself back down to your car. If you are unfamiliar with the location, bring a GPS. The more trouble we create for rangers, the more regulations there will be. 

14) Have fun and experiment. Have an adventure, as silly as that may sound. :)

PS: Moonbows are rainbows that happen on certain spring days with the full moon providing the source of light to create something people expect only on sunny days.