A Little More Waterfall Action

December 5, 2013

Well, I've been working my way back into the world of photography for about two weeks at this point.  I've experimented with several different landscape styles over the course of several Treks and have felt myself getting more and more comfortable with the camera.  The first full work week in December I took off from work for a quick vacation and planned on getting out and doing some more longer term Treks.  The problem was....it was raining.  Like every day!!!!  I was having a problem picking a day to head out and do much.  I saw that there was going to be a window of just mostly cloudy conditions with some passing drizzle and I figured that would be my chance to get out.  With that kind of forecast and the recent rains, I decided that the best destination would be Stone Mountain so that I could photograph Widows Creek Falls again.

I have been here a number of times in the past and have always found this a fun waterfall to shoot.  The terrain behind the water resembles something very similar to a skull, and there is a little cave off to the side of the falls which has always intrigued me.  The general location is also very nice and picturesque.  The only problem there is that most of the terrain is slick rock on a slight incline.  Moving around near the waterfall is not the easiest thing to do when you are carrying lots of equipment as one misstep could cause a fall, followed by a slide into a cold pond.  This was just not my idea of fun at all.

Fortunately, I had some new boots with me today (thanks Toni!) which were taller than my previous boots and afforded me a higher level of Gortex protection for standing in the water.  I was hoping not to have to put these to the test, but figured that I would more than likely find myself standing in water at some point in the morning.  This is a waterfall after all, and the best compositions are normally found from the water itself.

I made the quick hike from the parking area to the waterfall...maybe 75 yards from the truck.  I found some very nice water flow which excited me.  I also found that all the rock surfaces were still very much wet from the rain, and morning fog.  This was good for photography, but bad for grip.  I found out very quickly that the new boots were not yet ready for slick surfaces and tended to want to slip a little bit more than I was used to.  This should work itself out with breaking them in though.  I took the safest path up to the head of the waterfall where I knew the best compositions were.  To my disappointment I found several downed trees stretching across the streams from the waterfall.  While not terrible, I knew that this would reduce my options for compositions both from my ability to stand there and being able to include that section of water in my images.

I started on the left side, standing square in the water trying to get a good composition, but wasn't really happy with what I was seeing.  It was OK, but I felt that there was a better composition on the other side.  This is usually a fairly easy crossing to make, but the high water level, and slick rocks made it a bit tricky this time.  I inched across, taking every possible effort to stay upright.  I finally made it to the other side with much relief.  I started searching for that composition which I knew to be there.  I was working with my 16-35mm f/2.8L lens which gave me a lot of flexibility as to what I could include in the final image.  I had the standard polarizer and variable ND filter attached to keep the shutter speed nice and slow.

Widows Creek Falls
 I worked closer and closer to the waterfall itself.  I was isolating the interesting parts from everything else.  I finally found a nice deep patch of water to stand in (I now know where the tops of these boots are) which allowed me to capture not only the waterfall, but the drop to the lower level pond for some added visual interest.  I was able to cut out some clutter to my left that I was unable to avoid in any other composition.  This simplified image really grabbed what I love about this waterfall.  Everything was there, and I knew that I had the image right.  I played with some exposure settings to make sure that I rendered the water the way I wanted to.  It was a delicate balance.  On one hand, I wanted to smooth out the runoff in the foreground which was moving rather slow.  At the same time, I wanted to keep some measure of detail in the actual waterfall in the background.  To fast, and I lost the milky quality in the very prominent foreground, too slow, and I lost the detail in the actual waterfall.  Neither was an option I wanted to entertain.

After I was satisfied that I had the exposure and the composition that I wanted, I figured it was time to move on.  I packed up my gear and slowly worked to the other side and back down to the truck.  Since I had some more time to kill, I thought I would go for a walk and see what I could find along Bullhead Creek.  There were some more potential areas that I could have photographed, but for some reason none of them grabbed my attention.  Instead, I found a trail to the right that I had seen, but never gone down before.  I decided to give it a try and see what I could find.  I had no idea where this would lead, but according to my map of the park, I figured out that this was the trail to the backpacker's campgrounds.  Oh well, it was worth a walk in the woods to see what I could see.

The clouds kept getting thicker and thicker, and I could hear light rain in the trees above me, but I could feel nothing hitting me.  While I am not a fan of getting rained on, my equipment is weather sealed and protected from anything short of a serious rain.  It was also safely in my Tamrac backpack which added to the weather protection.  I plowed on through the soggy trail, passing through foggy sections every 100 yards or so.  I was not having much luck finding anything to photograph, but the lighting was nearly perfect, and I was having fun hiking so I continued.

Funny thing happened after about 15-20 minutes on the trail.  I started to smell what I could only categorize as a camp fire.  it was not strong, but was unmistakable as I was walking through the woods.  I figured that I was getting close to the camp grounds and that I would probably run into some poor soggy soul making lunch.  I thought nothing much of it.  Shortly though, the smell became very intense and I reasoned that I had arrived at the camps.  I saw a small path just to the left and my nose told me that was where the smell was coming from.  I turned, and started up the path, but saw a sign that said "No Camping".  Hmmmm, this can't be right.  Just beyond the sign, I saw an old rocky foundation with a stone chimney just beyond it.  As soon as I saw the chimney, the smell went away....it was gone.  Nothing left but the smell of the wet woodland surrounding me.

Freaky was the feeling that I was experiencing after that.  The chimney was cool, but I didn't see a composition right away.  Figuring that the smell had brought me there for a reason, I stuck around for a bit longer to make sure I wasn't missing anything.  Then it hit me...there was a patch of moss that lead up to the front of the fireplace.  There was my foreground interest.  It was on the best possible side for the chimney....this was my picture!  I had a very bright sky above to worry about though.  I knew that I would not be able to capture the whole chimney, but that was ok.  It was the base of the chimney that was able to tell the story...the story was in the fireplace.

Hearthside Comfort
For this shot, I swapped my lens over to the 24-70mm f/2.8L II which would allow me to compress the scene a little bit more.  The hope was to avoid the sky all together.  It was actually starting to rain at this point, so I used the lens hood to keep the front element dry.  The rain was also causing everything to show a hard glare which necessitated a polarizer to remove that glare.  I had everything put together, so it was time to work on the composition.  In order to keep the lens dry, and the cut the sky out, I was forced to work in an elevated position.  This actually worked out well keeping the moss correctly positioned in relation to the chimney.  I cranked off a dozen or so frames with slightly different exposures, and compositions to ensure that I had what I was looking for.  With that finished, the rain was getting a bit harder, so I packed up and moved back to the trail.

I decided to keep pushing deeper into the woods as I was now on the MST (Mountain to Sea Trail) and thought that I might find something else interesting along the way.  Strangely though, I never smelled the fire again.  I really think that the chimney was calling out to me in some strange way.  I hiked on for another half mile or so and came upon the camp sites.  There was no sign of campers anywhere, and no smoldering fires to be found.  I did find something else that I did not expect to find, however.

Alter Ego
After many years of reading about waterfalls in NC and hunting them out, I was looking at one which had been in my own back yard and I knew nothing about it at all.  I don't think that this waterfall has a name, but it is significant enough to be called a waterfall, and was significant enough to justify a few exposures.  I quickly added the variable ND filter to the polarizer which was already on the camera.  I set things up and started the process for finding a composition.  Again, I ended up in some water that was dangerously close to the tops of my boots.  My feet were already wet so I wasn't worried about it to much.  I tried angles from the left and from the right.  I even moved to the center. Nothing was working.  As I have found with waterfalls that have two distinct sides with different characteristics its is very hard to find a pleasing composition that will include both of them.  There was a small moss covered rock near where I was shooting from which I thought could possibly be used as a bit of foreground interest.  To include it meant having much to wide a frame, and I was including some other, less than picturesque elements to the right of the rock.

I found the solution by flipping the camera on its side and going for a portrait orientation.  This method seems to suit many waterfalls as it follows the natural vertical perspective of the scenes.  This actually ended up working very well.  I was able to accentuate the mossy rock, showing detail in the smaller rocks beneath the surface and minimizing the strange relationship between the two waterfalls I was looking at.  Exposure again was rather tricky with this shot.  Not only was one waterfall in the shaded area, the two were also flowing at different speeds.  Two completely different waterfalls, but they were having to share a common exposure.  I had to balance the exposure in order to achieve all of my goals as closely as I could.

I worked this waterfall for probably a good 30 minutes before I came about this image.  I think that overall, it really works.  When I was looking at the images from this location, I was rather disappointed in them, and I think it was because I was thinking more about how difficult the scene was to work.  After deciding that this one was the best (with the help of my daughter Sierra) of the bunch, I deleted the others.  Now, when I look at this image with the day's events long behind me, I see it as a simple, effective composition that does a really good job at capturing what I saw with that waterfall.

The day was great, and I enjoyed finding a path less traveled (at least by me).  Part of what I really want to do with this new photographic adventure is to try different things, and really grow as a photographer.  I don't want to stay in the same rut that I started to find myself in nearly three years ago.  Doing things like what I have done here is a great start to that.  I no longer know what I will find behind the door, but the thrill of the hunt is back in full force!

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