Photographing the Firefall phenomenon at the Yosemite Horsetail Fall lasted only a few minutes, but for me, it represented almost 40 years of planning and hoping the planets would align. The annual February event was something I had dreamed of doing since I was a kid looking at the inspiring work of Galen Rowell displayed in an exhibition at the California Academy of Sciences back in the 1980s. I can’t begin to express how much his work inspired me to pick up a camera and see the beauty of the world both near and far.
But as with all photo subjects that depend so heavily on the weather in California – and my own abilty to find the time – it was a harder task to accomplish than I expected. Recent interest in social media (some would say too much) sparked a lot of tutorials on places to make the pictures and tips for weather preparedness. So with my handful of notes and webpages for guidance, I started checking weather reports in late January to see if the window of opportunity would open between storms that battered the Sierra. Fortunately, the weather looked promising so I packed my gear, my thermals (lots of thermals) and a whole lot of hope that things would stay positive.
The National Park Service decided not to provide parking permits this year, forcing visitors to walk more than a mile from the nearest parking areas in sub-freezing temperatures. We set out and found the cold wasn’t so bad after walking a distance with 40 pounds of gear in my backpack and belt bags. I kept the backup batteries inside my fleece to make sure they would be ready to go when the time was right. I picked a spot and huddled up next to several dozen others, waiting near mounds of snow made by snow plows.
For the next hour we checked settings, looked to the horizon to see if the sun had a clear line to the falls and adjusted our camera framing to make sure everything was ready when the light show began. I opted to do a very tight shot with a 300mm lens to pull out the drama and detail of the falls and rock face, but chose to hedge my bet with a wide camera and lens setup mounted alongside my main camera on the same tripod. Luckily, I brought two remote releases to prevent camera shake when pushing the shutter
buttons and that allowed me to shoot with a high aperture to capture as much detail as possible.
And then it happened. In the blink of an eye the falls began to light up, orange from the light of the setting sun. Shutters began clicking. I made adjustments to make sure my background was dark and the falls would have detail and separation from the surrounding rock face. I was shooting and adjusting for a few minutes. There was a moment of panic as a cloud crossed between the sun and the falls. Seconds later the sun reappeared and the falls once again exploded in color until the sun set. It was done and time for the long, cold walk back.
- Carlos Avila Gonzalez