Allen's Blog

Firefall Photo-Ghillie

"Last Light on Horsetail Fall" by Galen Rowell

Yesterday’s NY Times had a great feature about one aspect of outdoor photography that I had never encountered – the phenomenon of “firefall” as it pertains to the effect of the setting sun on Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park. Best thing is to just read the piece, by Malia Wollan with pictures by Times staffer Jim Wilson.

Although photographers since the mid-1800s have been photographing in Yosemite, it was the great photographer Galen Rowell who is credited with being the first to make the image (Last Light on Horsetail Fall). According to the article, Michael Frye’s 2009 book The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite identifies the optimal yearly window as Feb. 16-23.

Anyway, it appears that hundreds of photographers from all over the world stake out the best positions to make the picture (assuming clear weather and enough water to actually create the waterfall. Which brings us to Downton Abbey. And what connection can there possibly be between the PBS series and firefall in Yosemite? Start with a small excerpt from the article: “Some arrived with personal photography tutors, cradling high-end digital camera and huge telephoto lenses worth thousands of dollars.” Now if you saw the last couple of episodes of Downton, set in the Scottish highlands, you saw the gentry hunting for deer, accompanied by “ghillies,” defined as the Scots term for men who accompany hunters or fishermen. More than just accompany, they locate the prey, set up the shooting position, load the guns, and arrange everything so that their “master” has only to pull the trigger and go home with his trophy.

And so how is that different from having your personal photography tutor (ghillie), who gets you to that prime viewing spot at the right time on the right day, helps you choose the correct lens and all the camera settings, so that you can frame your very own trophy and claim the image as your own?  I’ve also read that in earlier days there was a ghillie-weetfit whose job it was to carry his master over streams. Chances are that you could find that person today, if the price is right. Of course a D800 with 400mm/f4 lens, sturdy tripod, and camera bag weigh more than a deer rifle.

Of course, there is another answer – just be there, experience a moment of profound beauty, and if you must, whip out your iPhone and take a quick shot for the kids.