Ever since 1973, when Gaylen Rowell popularized Yosemite Valley’s Horsetail falls, photographers have sought first to duplicate his shot and then improve upon it. More than patience, a tripod, and the right lens are required.
El Capitan’s summit must receive sufficient snow to melt and feed the ephemeral waterfall. If there is enough water to feed Horsetail Falls (otherwise invisible during the day), the sun’s oblique ray rays will transform it into a stream of burning lava shaped like a horsetail during the last ten days in February.
So great was the desire of photographers to record a scene not seen in its full glory since 2010 that between Wednesday February 17 and 21, 2016 thousands of amateur and professional photographers flood into the valley. On Saturday, (Ansel Adam’s birthday) and Sunday it took more than two hours before all of the automobiles and busses finally cleared out.
Some photographers behaved disgracefully. I watched in horror as a man with a plastic camera and big fur coat arrived at the last moment, planted himself I front of a family of elderly Asians who had been waiting for most of the day, and completely blocked their view.
Photographers left grumbling not only at the bad behavior of late comers and busloads of Chinese teenagers who blocked views established by photographers waiting all day to get their shots but also because a low, thin cloud layer only parted long enough on one day, February 17, illuminate Horsetail falls in all of its glory.
After striking out on the first five days, I consulted reports of current conditions at www.michaelfrye.com/landscape-photography-blog and bet that by returning at 7 am on Wednesday, February 24, two days before the end of the optimum photographic period, I might make a good photograph.
Determined not to duplicate the image that Rowell made looking skyward from the El Capitan picnic area, I evaluated two lesser-known spots. Along Four Mile Trail one spot tempted with a perspective that included the face of El Capitan. Another below the trail included tree tops in the composition.
Eventually I staked out a position on the edge of the Merced River, just off Southside Drive. Unlike the Rowell spot, this perspective included El Capitan’s snow-covered slope. Setting up two tripods and keeping them low enough for late arrivals to shoot over my head, I deployed two cameras: a Canon 5D Mark II with a Tamron 150-600 mm lens and Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 80-200 lens, both mounted on Webley heads, with camera bags hanging from each tripod column for added stability.
Waiting all day, I watched three long ques of photographers line up behind me. Michael Fry arrived with waders, slogged to a spot in the middle of the Merced River, planted his tripod, then left it there as he detached a lens, scrambled up the steep embankment and returned with a different lens, much to the chagrin of other photographers, who feared a log floating downstream would take out the tripod and expensive camera before Fry returned.
Around 5:15 the sky to the west cleared and a long thin, glowing line appeared and extended down slope into a misty tuft (the horsetail) that lasted for ten minutes. Then, complete silence, broken only by the click of shutters and the whir of those still shooting film reloading their cameras. When the light went off the falls, we applauded and sang happy birthday to Ansel Adams.
Bracketed HDR composite merged in Photomatix. Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 150-600 mm lens at 225 mm, ISO 200, f.8, 1/60 second.]
Richard Steven Street is finishing a 30-year photo essay and first-person exploration: “Knife Fight City: Life, Labor, and Community in a Giant Farm Labor Exploitation Camp on the West Side of California's San Joaquin Valley” (70 color images, 100 pages of text, narrative captions). University of Oklahoma Press
Richard Steven Street
15 Hillcrest Ct.
San Anselmo, CA 94960