Planning for Yosemite Natural Fire Falls

February is a magical time of year for Yosemite.  It’s the one time of the year when everything lines up correctly to create the natural fire falls at Horsetail Falls.  The sun sets at just the right angle to illuminate a slice of the northern side of the valley walls right were Horsetail Falls is located.  So, if you’re there on a day when the weather conditions cooperate and there is enough water flowing over the falls, the sun illuminates the falls creating a nature fire fall affect.

And as Michael Frye said on his blog: It’s That Time of The Year Again. Michael has some great information on his blog about when he calculated the window of optimal sunset angle will be this year as well as where the best locations are to photograph from. Also see his article about Photographing Horsetail Falls.

So far this year, I’ve been so busy with the day job and other pressing projects that I haven’t had much time to focus on photography (which has been a personal point of frustration).  Combine that with the fact that I’ve been down sick for five days recently fighting a bug of some sort and I’ve got a serious case of cabin fever and need to get out in the landscape.  So I’m planning a trip next weekend up to Yosemite to try to capture Horsetail Falls.

While planning this trip, I discovered a rather remarkable tool from Stephen Trainor called The Photographer’s Ephemeris.  TPE is a Java Air application that acts as a wrapper around Google Maps and overlays the Sunrise/Sunset and Moonrise/Moonset paths on top of the map for any location at a give date.  So you can figure out when the sun/moon will appear over a specific mountain, what the angel of the Sunset will be, or the optimal day for photographing Horsetail Falls in February. The screen shot below is the paths for Horsetail Falls on February 18th (the day Michael Frye estimated was day of optimal angle).

TPE Screen Shot of Yosemite's Horsetail Falls

TPE Screen Shot of Yosemite's Horsetail Falls

If you’re a landscape or cityscape photographer, TPE is a handy tool to keep in your tool bag to add another dimension of location planning to Google Maps.  (It also appears that Stephen is working on an iPhone version of his app.  If he would add additional details like what Focalware provides, it would be a killer single location scouting tool for the iPhone.)

If you’re going to be up in Yosemite next weekend, drop me a line and let me know.  Perhaps we’ll run into each other…either accidentally or on on purpose!

20100515 Update: Another option for iPad users is the $3.99 app LightTrac.  It integrated with Google Maps and provides similar features as TPE on the iPad.  The current differences is that LightTrac doesn’t currently support showing line of sight angles for moonrise/moonset.  One general limitation is that LightTrac does require a network connection to download map data, so use in the field is limited to the 3G iPad users with access to a cell phone signal.  Thought it appears to to cache the last map that you saved and updates the angle of the sun based on different days without a network connection.  So make sure you pull up the map of your sunrise/sunset photography spot before you enter the field!

LightTrac for iPad Screen Capture

4 Replies to “Planning for Yosemite Natural Fire Falls”

  1. TPE is a great program. I’ve used it for star and moon trail photos in the past and have found it to be very useful.

    Can I trouble you for one bit of info regarding your photographing these falls? What lens (35mm equiv) did you use in your shots? Trying to assess what to bring with me this coming year.

    Thank you kindly!


    latoga Reply:


    When I photographed the falls last year I primarily used a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS + 1.4x Extender. Most of the close up photos were taken at 480mm. If you have access to a 100-400mm lens, that would be ideal and give you the ability to capture a range of images without changing lenses. Super tight on the top of the falls makes for some interesting lines…


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