Photographer Captures Rare Moment When Yosemite Waterfall Transforms Into a Stream of Fire

Horsetail Firefall 2022

In 1872, a hotel located near Glacier Point in Yosemite spilled hot embers from the top of the lookout, creating what looked like a lava waterfall. Called the Firefall, this summer event became a major tourist attraction that lasted until it was banned by the National Parks Service almost 100 years later. However, Yosemite does have its own naturally occurring Firefall and it attracts admirers each winter. This year those admirers included photographer Dan Zafra of Capture the Atlas.

In contrast to the 19th-century Firefall, which was manmade, nature is the sole actor in this event. The location is Horsetail Fall, an ephemeral waterfall that flows in the winter until early spring. If the stars align just right, for a few weeks in February, the setting Sun actually makes the water appear a fiery orange color. The result is breathtaking. As the water shoots down the granite slabs, it truly looks like lava.

To see the Firefall well, the skies need to be crystal clear. And even with that, it typically only lasts for about 10 minutes. As the waterfall is fueled by melting snow, there also needs to be sufficient snowmelt to create a significant amount of water. In fact, the event isn't visible every year. But Zafra got quite lucky and was able to observe the incredible phenomenon for himself.

Photographers Gathered at Yosemite Firefall 2022

“The most inspiring part of the experience, beyond any photograph, was seeing a natural show like this with my own eyes,” he tells My Modern Met. “Either with the naked eye or looking through my telephoto lens, it was simply magical to see how the colors of the waterfall slightly changed until I could see how it looked like real lava falling off the mountain.”

Of course, Zafra was not alone. Many photographers gathered in the area in the hopes of photographing this natural wonder. In fact, one of Zafra's favorite parts of the experience was the positive interaction and overall festive mood on site. With so many people around taking pictures, it can be hard to ensure that what one captures is unique. But for Zafra, that's all part of the game.

“It's certainly challenging to stand out creatively in an event like this, which has been photographed for years by thousands of photographers and where the light conditions and viewing points are very specific. However, there's always room to make the images your own, either by the camera gear choice or your post-processing style. Apart from the standard Firefall images, I also focused on creating something different. One way was taking a super long focal length to center the viewer's eye just in the small details of the upper section of the falls.”

To get those small details, Zafra used a very high-resolution camera, a 600mm lens, and an X1.4 lens extender. This also helped him get creative in photographing abstract images created by the colorful reflections on the granite. “I found it fascinating how the colors in the wall kept changing with every passing second.”

Horsetail Fall at Yosemite transforms into a stream of fire when the sunset hits the water just right.

Yosemite Firefall 2022

It's an incredible natural event called the Firefall.

Yosemite Firefall 2022

When it happens, troves of photographers gather to take in the event.

Photographers Gathered at Yosemite Firefall 2022

Photographer Dan Zafra was on hand to document the 2022 Yosemite Firefall.

Yosemite Firefall 2022

Horsetail Firefall 2022

Capture the Atlas: Website | Facebook | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Dan Zafra.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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