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The Picture Show
3:50 pm
Tue February 21, 2012

From Waterfall To Lavafall: Yosemite's Fleeting Phenomenon

If you head to Yosemite National Park this time of year and stop by Horsetail Fall at just the right time, you might see something spectacular: As the sun sinks low in the sky, the waterfall glows with streaks of gold and yellow — and it looks just like molten lava.

Photographers like Michael Frye flock to the park every February to try to capture the phenomenon. Frye, author of The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite, describes the sight to NPR's Audie Cornish.

"It's this narrow ribbon of water falling from this high cliff, the eastern buttress of [the El Capitan rock formation]," he says. "Just that narrow little ribbon of water is lit and everything else around it is dark. And with the right light, that water can turn orange or even red."

According to Frye, what makes Horsetail Fall so unique is its topography: The waterfall is perched high on an open cliff where it can catch light from the sunset — but not just any sunset.

"It's this brief window of light around the third week of February where the sun sets at just the right angle to light Horsetail Fall just as it's sinking," Frye says.

That said, the right conditions for photographing the phenomenon can be hard to come by. According to Frye, who teaches workshops on shooting the falls, there has to be enough water coming down the waterfall and a clear sunset to the west.

"You probably would also want to use a telephoto lens, because it's a pretty distant view of the fall and you have to watch your exposure," he says. "It's very easy to overexpose the waterfall because the surrounding area — the cliffs around it — [is] completely dark."

After years of shooting the phenomenon, Frye knows all the tricks — from the best parking spots to the best place to set up your tripod. But he says it isn't the resulting prints so much as the experience that he's come to cherish.

"The photographs of Horsetail Fall are spectacular, but actually witnessing this event in person is much more amazing."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. If you head to Yosemite National Park this time of year and stop by Horsetail Fall at just the right time, you might see something spectacular. As the sun sinks low in the sky, the waterfall glows with streaks of gold and yellow. It looks like lava. Photographers flock to Horsetail Fall in February to capture this phenomenon. Michael Frye is one of them and he's the author of "The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite."

Welcome to the program, Michael.

MICHAEL FRYE: Thank you. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: So to start, tell me, what does the Horsetail Fall look like when you catch that narrow window of this phenomenon?

FRYE: Well, it's really an amazing phenomenon. It's this narrow ribbon of water falling from this high cliff, the eastern buttress of El Capitan, and just that narrow, little ribbon of water is lit and everything else around it is dark and, with the right light, that water can turn orange or even red.

CORNISH: When does this usually happen and what is the cause of the fire fall?

FRYE: Well, it happens for only a brief period of time, right at sunset for perhaps about a week in late February. The sun, very low on the horizon, you know, just before sunset, lights this one little strip of water and the waterfall is backlit, so the sun is shining through it from behind. You know, it's an ephemeral fall, not much water in it, but what makes it unique is, you know, that lighting effect that, as far as I know, no other waterfall in the world gets because the topography of Horsetail Fall is so unique, perched high on this open cliff where it can catch that sunset light.

CORNISH: Do you get tired of taking pictures of it or is it sort of an adventure each year to try and capture it?

FRYE: You know, I think, for a while, I thought I had made some good photographs of it and I was satisfied with those, so I didn't really feel the need to photograph it anymore, I guess, but you know, the more I watch it, the more I just enjoy the experience of being out there observing it. You know, the photographs of Horsetail Fall are spectacular, but actually witnessing this event in person is much more amazing.

CORNISH: Michael, you were out taking pictures of it recently. Describe what it's like going out there to capture it.

FRYE: Largely, it's a lot of waiting and hoping. You have to get there early because there's only a few good viewpoints for Horsetail Fall and then you hope that the light cooperates. It could be perfectly clear and look very promising and then the light gets snuffed out at the last minute because of an unseen bank of clouds somewhere to the west.

Or, like it was last night, it could be overcast and yet, somehow, at the last minute, the sun finds a hole underneath the clouds and comes through and lights it up.

CORNISH: Michael, thank you so much for talking with us.

FRYE: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That was professional photographer Michael Frye. He was talking about the unusual light that can be seen each February on Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park. And you can see it in some spectacular photos at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.