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.
“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.”