The small crowd of photographers on Thursday evening, waiting to capture the Firefall at Horsetail Falls in Yosemite Valley. Mother Nature cooperated and we successfully captured a once-in-a-lifetime photograph. The total number of photographers was less than 50, compared to Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening when this location had over 300 photographers trying to capture the Firefall, with little success.


Our Yosemite in Winter workshop this past February was already going to be special before it even occurred. With a forecasted El Nino winter possibly leading to excellent conditions for the fabled ‘Firefall’ at Horsetail Falls, we were looking at a shot of getting this elusive photographic opportunity that has not seen peak conditions in almost a decade.

But we were also aware and planning for a separate photo opportunity during the workshop … an event that occurs several decades apart! On Saturday evening, the near (95%) full moon would rise just before sunset, following the left edge of Half Dome for close to 20 minutes, seen strategically from only one place in the valley. And we had scouted it out and had quietly put it on the workshop itinerary.

If we were able to get both the Firefall and Moonrise against Half Dome, it would be two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for everyone. And we nailed it!


The workshop began Thursday morning and it was immediately addressed to the students that the weather was cooperating and we would be attempting to capture the Firefall photo that evening from one of the two locations that both instructors, Michael Mariant and Aaron Lambert, felt was the better location for the waterfall conditions. In addition to the great weather conditions forecasted for Thursday evening, both instructors were hoping to ‘bag’ the Firefall shot right away as to be able to focus on other sunset opportunities in Yosemite Valley, and not have to battle the huge weekend crowds that would appear at the two Firefall shooting locations. Of big concern was being able to get the Moonrise shot on Saturday night.

The classic Firefall photo, ©Andrew McDonald

The classic Firefall photo, ©Andrew McDonald

The viral Firefall photo, ©Andrew McDonald

The viral Firefall photo, ©Andrew McDonald

The workshop group arrived at the shooting location a couple hours early and secured their spots in the small crowd. Now it was a waiting game until the final moments when the sun set.

As the time grew nearer, the shadow cast by El Capitan slowly crept closer to Horsetail Fall, until it reached the edge of the waterfall and the setting sunlight glowed orange (photo at left). The classic Firefall was about to start! The excited chatter among the handful of photographers assembled turned into hushed murmurs as shutters clicked. But then … the unusual happened.

The wet face of the granite wall was warmed by the setting sun, causing the water to evaporate into backlit blowing mists and steam away from the rock face (photo at right). The moment was brief, maybe less than 20 seconds, but was unique and turned the ordinary — if you can call the classic Firefall ordinary — into one of spectacular opportunity. A true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Both Michael and Aaron (the instructors for the workshop course), who have witnessed countless failed and traditional Firefall scenes, were in awe. For the first time, both instructors wished they could take a photo of the scene before them. (HSW policy prohibits instructors from taking personal photos during workshops.) But the exposure for the Firefall is tricky and capturing the light just right — and in this case the floating mist — was the highest priority for both instructors to communicate with the students.

And it paid off.

The workshop group retired for the evening, knowing they had captured a rare Firefall event and were free to focus on the other sunset opportunities in Yosemite Valley for the remaining three nights.

The moon had just cleared the top of Half Dome as the setting sun's colors turned pink, ©Andrew McDonald

The moon had just cleared the top of Half Dome as the setting sun’s colors turned pink, ©Andrew McDonald

Friday evening was a bust as storm clouds blew in and obscured the sunset. But the concern was for Saturday evening, and the weather forecast was holding at clouds during the day with clearing right at sunset.

With Horsetail Fall an afterthought, the group navigated the huge crowds that had filled the valley hoping to get their Firefall photo that evening. A storm was to blow in Sunday and end any more chances for the year, so Saturday night was it for most photographers. Except the HSW group … we headed to the pre-scouted location to capture the moonrise over Half Dome.

Upon arrival, clouds were obscuring the horizon, as forecast, but were thinning out quickly. After some brief clarification of exactly where the moon would rise from this position coupled with composition considerations, everyone got ready. And once again, Mother Nature did not dissapoint.

The moon began its rise behind the clouds, then quickly cleared the clouds as it rose adjacent to Half Dome as the setting sun turned the face of Half Dome into a glowing spectacle. Shutters clicking, lens being changed as everyone explored the photographic potential this truly rare scene provided.

As the moon continued to rise, the light became more golden. As the moon reached its apex with the setting sun, just nearing the top corner of Half Dome (photo at right), the colors changed from golden to a more pinkish hue, and the moment was over. Another once-in-a-lifetime successful photo opportunity!

(Incidentally, while it was clear skies on Saturday evening for our moonrise photo, the scene over at the Firefall locations was not so celebratory, as just in the course of two days the volume of water in the waterfall had diminished so much, there was just a glowing reflection from the wet smear of water on the rock face. No waterfall to be seen, and no Firefall.)

We knew months earlier that this Yosemite in Winter workshop had the potential to be special, but we underestimated truly how unique it would turn out to be. We have never had two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like this happen in the same workshop. What we didn’t expect was what would happen after we shared Andrew McDonald‘s photo of the Firefall on the HSW Instagram account.


It was only the next day that we posted Andrew’s Firefall photo on our Instagram page and pretty quickly the likes and comments started flooding in to the feed. The Instagram post got picked up and shared on a couple photo and science websites as well. Then the email came in from the New York Times Science Desk. They were working on a story about Horsetail Falls and wanted to showcase Andrew’s photo in the online story. I answered some questions for the reporter about the Firefall event and how unique this year’s event was compared to those in the past, and then sent them on to Andrew for the photo use.

GST-SAT-27022016-F002-C-GTA-01The very next day, the story ran in the online edition of the New York Times. From there, the NYT story was picked up by other online media publications, including Science Alert and in the U.K.  But once it was on the NYT website, other media outlets were contacting us wanting to use Andrew’s photo in their online stories.

Then CBS News called and ran a piece on the Firefall, followed by the Globe & Mail, the Canadian national newspaper in Toronto, wishing to use the photo in their print edition (seen at left), followed by the Daily Mail in London.

Once it appeared online in the major news publications as well as in print in the three publications, the photo took off in true viral form, appearing on countless websites and forums, all joining in on the media frenzy about this year’s spectacular firefall.

The BBC television crew interviews HSW's Michael Mariant.

The BBC television crew interviews HSW’s Michael Mariant.

Just when it seemed to die down, the email came in early April that trumped all the others. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) wanted to do an episode for their Natural History Unit on the Firefall phenomenon. Could they use Andrew’s photo? Was there any video of this year’s Firefall? (Yes! HSW’s David Mack captured video of the Firefall during the workshop!) Could they come out and interview for this episode?

Early June saw the BBC crew roll into town, spending about four hours interviewing HSW intructor Michael Mariant (photo at right), discussing the uniqueness of the Firefall event and how it even happens in the first place.

Michael explained the history of the event, tracing back to Galen Rowell’s first photograph in 1973, followed by the increased interest in capturing this annual phenomenon. Michael reviewed how there needed to be a perfect trifecta of conditions: only occurring in mid- to late-February, clear skies, and enough water to make it a waterfall in the first place. On the photographic side, Michael shared what the scene is like at the shooting location — with hundreds of photographers vying for the same shot — along with the variety in compositions from the many photographers, as well as the need to have the correct exposure to get the perfect shot.

The BBC episode showcasing the Firefall will premiere on their “Nature’s Weirdest Events” series in November in the U.K., and will be available in the U.S. early next year. We’ll let you know how to watch the episode when it becomes available.

Our Yosemite in Winter Workshop Course next year is Thursday, Feb. 16 – Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. This workshop typically sells out well in advance, and we caution folks to make their hotel reservation first, as space is very limited for both the workshop and lodging. But planning this far out will guarantee a space for both!

And, yes, we will be back at Horsetail Fall next February, capturing the Firefall phenomenon. Who knows? It could be even better than this year!