RBA's Astrophotography

Moonlit Firefalls @ Yosemite

Posted: May 10th, 2017

[Signed, Limited Edition]
Select Size/Media


This is the famous and elusive Horsetail "Firefall" Fall in Yosemite, but unlike every other image you may have seen - always taken near sunset around February - the fire effect in this image is caused by moonlight. That's the only possible way one could see the firefall and stars at the same time!

How does the firefall effect happen in the first place?

Before we dive into the moonlit firefall, let me quickly explain how the more popular firefall event works. That is, the one driven by direct sunlight during sunset.

It's basically a rare event that happens in specific dates when the sun is about to set (so you get the typical "golden hour" colors) and its rays only hit in the thin area on the El Capitan walls right behind Horsetail Fall, reflecting it right against the waterfall, causing the effect that the water is indeed red or golden color, almost lava-like. Several things must come together for a firefall to form, though.

First, the sun must be in the right place at sunset, something it only happens for a couple of weeks in February (also in October but the fall always dries up much earlier than that). Skies must also be clear, especially the western horizons so sunlight isn't blocked. It must have also snowed enough that winter to build a decent snow pack, which is what triggers and feeds this waterfall, and it must not be too cold so the snow would melt. When all this comes together, you'll still need to find a decent vantage point among hundreds of other photographers! It really is a popular event that draws large crowds!! As for the effect itself and its game of light and shadows, the following illustration should be self-explanatory. Please note that the outlines - both red and yellow - are only approximate.

Now, if the Horsetail Firefall that happen around February is famous for being elusive, try moonlight!

What does it take to capture the Moonlit Firefall?

As with the firefall effect caused by the sun in February, the moonlit firefall only happens a handful of times a year - sometimes not at all - and it has to be precisely timed, but other than that, the effect is exactly the same: same reasons, same logic and nearly same experience as far as the firefall goes. Of course, the experience of witnessing it under a starry sky is wildly different than at sunset.

So, what does it take to capture the Moonlit Firefalls? You need to find a night when the moon is in the right place near moonset and it's also bright enough - more on that later. As I mentioned, there's only a handful of such events per year, maybe 1-2 nights only, some years may even have none....Also, the fall must still be pouring water, of course. Since the fall usually dries mid-late spring or early summer at best, anytime after June is probably wishful thinking, regardless. June itself is a stretch.

Of course, the sky needs to be clear near the west, so the moonlight isn't blocked by clouds. It's good if it's also clear on the northwest, unless you're okay with the sky being cloudy (you'd miss the starry skies).

Last, it may sound trivial but it's not: you must be able to take the trip. For me, as you shall see, it was a killer doing it mid-week: an 8 hours round-trip, at odd hours, tired... Nevertheless, it was so worth it!

How I captured these two images

This, much more elusive firefall driven by moonlight is not completely unknown, but not many people know about it and there certainly aren't many shots of it. In this case, I had already been mulling about the idea, not being too sure it could be done, but certainly interested in finding out (What do you expect an astrophotographer to do?) and then, TunÁ Tezel, a photographer from Turkey, brought it up on a Facebook post of one of  my (sunset-driven) firefall shots:

"You should consider shooting a moonlit version at bronze hour, too."

TunÁ and I continued the topic offline, figuring out the dates. That's when TunÁ pointed the dates of May 8 and 9 as possible candidates this year, which I confirmed. TunÁ continued his calculations, predicting a bad "Moonlit Firefall" year for 2018 and 2019, probably not improving until 2022. This is not to say it will be impossible to capture another moonlit Firefall until 2022, but that conditions will not be "perfect", just "good enough".

I had been waiting for these two dates, May 8/9th since February when TunÁ and I talked. By May 5th, I was watching the forecast taking away any chances, as the weather models were predicting mostly cloudy skies for both nights. May 8th was clearly the better night as far as the position and timing of the Moon. In fact, May 9th wasn't really ideal, especially since moonset was happening nearly at twilight. Sadly, a cloudy forecast kept me home the night of the 8th. However, the forecast suddenly changed for the 9th to mostly clear skies and that's all I needed to know that I'd be heading to Yosemite next evening!

Moonset that night was between 4:30am and 5am, so I headed to Yosemite around 9:30pm. It's a 3:30 hours drive under fluid road conditions, and that's what it took me. The skies were clear when I arrived, and the big, bright Moon was up high. I looked at it, thinking "Are you the one who's going to put up a show tonight?"

I took a couple of strolls with the car around the valley - always amazing under the moonlight! - and also (re)scouted the two classic vantage points for the firefall, trying to decide which one to use. In the end, the point by Southside Dr. won the bet, as I could do both, close-up and widefield shots.

As I arrived at the spot, I was ready to perhaps see a couple of cars. What I found instead was... not a single soul. No complains there, though I admit I mumbled a "Oh, that's interesting" as I noticed I'd likely be all by myself. I later found out the "action" that night was at the lower Yosemite Falls with several folks trying to capture a moonbow.

The whole place was actually a swamp, and the area where a few months earlier about 100 photographers gathered to do the sun-driven firefall was entirely covered in water! If you've been there, you know the area where you can get a clear view of the firefall is rather narrow. This unexpected flood actually limited my options even more than in February with the crowds! I did eventually  manage to find a dry spot that, although didn't give me a complete open sky view, was really the best I could find. It was around 3am and I was supposed to be tired (up since 6:30am the day before, 4 hours driving and what not) but this is when adrenaline kicks in. Don't ask me how that works, it just does :-)

Still one long hour to go and suddenly, thin high clouds took over most of the sky. You could still see stars through the thin clouds, but I wasn't thrilled. The Moon also contributed to a "whiter" sky, as the moonlight illuminated the thin, high clouds. The good news was that the clouds were happening right above El Capitan, not low in the west, meaning, the firefall effect would still happen (as mentioned earlier, if you get clouds in the low western horizon, the firefall won't happen at all).

I patiently waited while I enjoyed the solitude and the spectacle that only Yosemite Valley can offer. One thing the pictures don't show is how the area being hit by the light starts to slowly narrow until only the firefall is illuminated, and shortly after that, it vanishes completely. When the area was getting pretty narrow and the firefall effect was about to happen, I got into position, then framed and focused the two cameras I had brought with me, a Canon 5D Mk2 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, and a Sony a7S with a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. I started shooting as I dialed the settings, trying different things with the exposure and ISO.  I took the "close up" image with the Canon, and the image with the wider FOV, the river and such came out of the a7S.

132 shots later, around 4:45am, twilight started to kick in, brightening the sky, and I stopped. Slowly packed my gear and headed back home. Phew!

Update June 6, 2017

On June 5th, 2017 I headed once again to Yosemite, as this was the second and last time the moonlit firefall could happen this year and, although I repeated location (for a number of reasons), I'd like to share the results. The fall was just a trickle, but that was actually pretty remarkable this late in the season.

I know that saying "rare" at this point might feel like an odd thing to say, given this would be the third moonlit firefall shot I share in just a month, but trust me, the moonlit firefall really is rare and proof is the handful of shots that have been taken so far of it. Catching it in June is even more unusual, but who cares, the point is that it really is an awesome spectacle no matter when!!

In spite of the limited space for a decent vantage point (the whole area was flooded and the only line of sight to the firefall was already taken by some folks), I managed to locate a waterfront view, enough to get the firefall in sight, with some trees still illuminated by moonlight and a nice reflection on the Merced river. Hope you like it!

For prints, if you don't see an "Add to cart" button, please contact us.

You can follow my work on Facebook and Instagram.

Post a comment
Your name:
Email: (we don't share this!)
Your web site:  (if you have one)

(you have 1000 characters left)