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Magic Light on Horsetail Fall

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 7 March 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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Iconic images involving magic light seem to capture the imagination of most photographers I know. Here in California, we are fortunate to have many magic light scenes, in December/January, Big Sur's Pfeiffer Arch takes center stage; then, in February, the granddaddy of them all, Horsetail Fall, becomes the focus of attention! Photographers from all over the world converge on Yosemite Valley for a two week period during mid-February to hopefully get a glimpse of this magical scene. Personally, I started my chase in 2003 ofter seeing Galen Rowell's 1973 Horsetail image while reading Mountain Light. Living less than a 3-hour drive to the Valley floor, I would monitor the Doppler and if conditions looked right, hop in my car and go.

Finally on February 16, 2008, while assisting my friend/colleague, Gary Hart with his winter Yosemite workshop, the magic light appeared like I had never seen it before! If I had to rank the intensity or richness of the color on a scale from 1-10, I would say this ranks at either 9 or 10 (blood red - like molten lava)! I have actually shown the RAW files to many other photographers to prove this is what it looked like. The red is 100% saturated - no tricks in Photoshop can make it any richer. All I did with this RAW was bump the contrast by setting a white/black point. I also burned down the sky in the upper left just a tad but that was it! This image was also my very first post on Aminus3 back on March 2, 2008.

Amazingly, almost 100 photographers surrounded me on this evening. I was on a small snow island in the middle of the Merced River along Southside Drive and staked my place 2 hours prior to posted sunset. I was with two workshop participants who missed our shoot the previous night, and another friend of mine, Nick Lust, was also with us.

The waiting was boring but we kept each other company and that helped pass the time. At one point I remember saying that we should all rehearse our compositions so if and when the light arrived, we wouldn't go into panic mode. I actually rehearsed turning the camera horizontal as the scene is so tempting to frame vertical. When the light did arrive (roughly 30 seconds past posted sunset time) I, like everyone else, fixated on getting a vertical capture. Finally, my rehearsal kicked in and I released my L-bracket from the vertical position to horizontal. I didn't have to fumble with the composition because I had already pre-determined it. This was the last frame I made with the fall lit top to bottom as the light quickly began to fade after only 3 1/2 minutes of shooting.

This frame quickly became my favorite as I felt it dramatized just how small the fall is (something that always amazes first-time visitors) in relation to the large El Capitan monolith. In fact, I finally prepped a 60" x 40" image for a canvas print and sent it out the other day to hang in my home (it should be here by the time you are reading this). I debated taking out the sky, but in the end, I decided to just burn it down.

The kicker to this story was that when we finished shooting, we turned around to find that many of the photographers had left! OUCH!!! To their credit, a cloud did block the light 17 minutes prior to sunset, but I have seen this magical light appear as late as 10 minutes past posted sunset time.

My advice if you go Horsetail hunting is to stick around until at least 20 minutes past posted sunset time. You made the effort to get there, what's a few more minutes of your time? My other piece of advice is to rehearse your compositions. That way, if the magic light does arrive, you won't be scrambling in a panic mode to find your compostion!

Lastly, for a good read as to how this phenomenon happens, read Michael Frye's Horsetail Fall Article. So many elements have to come together in perfect unison for the light to get this saturated that it may be years before I see it again. I wish you luck on your chase of this iconic scene!

Final Note: There were broken clouds on the evening I captured this image perhaps allowing for scattered light to be redirected towards the fall, which may have helped with the intensity of the color and/or explaining the reason why we saw the light after posted sunset time. Of course these are just my personal non-scientific thoughts.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 4/5 seconds F/11.0 ISO 100 180 mm

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