Waterfall Fun Before Work

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It seems that I have been spending a good amount of time driving to get to the locations that I have been shooting.  That has been the case with many trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway over the Summer, but I have also been doing a lot of things close to home.  This morning was one of those times that I only went about 30 miles away to Hanging Rock State Park before I went in to work.  I forgot how nice it was to go out with a camera on a weekday.  There are generally no crowds, and everything is just so much more low key.

Having woke up to get Sierra out the door for school, and not needing to be at work until 11am, I decided to take the several hours and use it to my advantage.  Looking at the weather, I was expecting patchy clouds for the most part with some scattered showers.  That actually made for a pretty good landscape forecast, but I wasn't going to be able to get to a good vantage point in the time that I had to work with.  I was hoping that the clouds would do me enough favors to make a quick morning of photographing a waterfall.

It has been quite a while since I have been to Hanging Rock, and even longer since I have been to the Lower Cascades.  I don't know why, but for some reason, I started thinking about this waterfall last night and wanted to go.  To put this in perspective, this was the first waterfall I ever photographed some 11 years ago.  Since that point, I have photographed it many times over.  It is a pretty waterfall, and one that is easy to get to.  Unfortunately, that means that many people have photographed it, and have done all of the obvious compositions.  My last time out, I did get lucky and find a downed tree that I could use as an interesting foreground.  

My goal for this Trek was to shoot something completely different than I had done before.  Sounds easy enough, but when you actually look at how things are laid out, that becomes a pretty tall order.  Fortunately though, when I arrived the lighting was pretty good overall.  The tree was gone, but there was another one which was knocked over by the rocky wall.  That actually became my first effort of the morning.

Floating Tree
I went ahead and fitted my 24-70mm lens and added an intensifying polarizer.  I tried to compose an image that captured not only the tree in the water, but the rocky wall and the greenery that was growing from it.  Since it was still pretty early in the morning it was pretty dark on this side of the pool.  So dark in fact, I was able to set a 25 second shutter speed.  This smoothed out the water quite nicely.  I was able to get some really good reflections from the wall and the tree.

As I was working this composition, I quickly realized that one of the things that really draws me to this wall is the size of it, and how it towers over pretty much everything.  I have yet to really capture that aspect of it, so I thought that this might be just the right time.  I mean, I wasn't photographing the waterfall, so the wall would become my focal point for the first time.  I flipped the camera on its end and used the same fallen tree as a visual anchor for the image.

Chiseled Wall
As I was fine tuning the composition, I started to see that there was an "S"
curve starting to form.  I moved my position ever so slightly and raised the camera up as far as it would go in order to emphasize the log as the lower section of the curve.  It then fed into the greenery that brought it back to the shadows of the wall.  That completed my visual design.  I kept the exposure where it was for the other composition giving me 25 seconds to smooth the water.  On my first exposure, I checked the LCD image review and found that everything was blurry.  It wasn't the wind because the rocks were blurry.  I hadn't bumped the tripod, so I had to investigate further.  What I found was the tripod leg had slipped ever so slightly during the exposure.  It wasn't enough to see, but it was enough to affect the sharpness of the image.  I'm so glad that I check the LCD after each shot because had I not caught that mistake, I would have missed this shot for sure.  

After I made a second long exposure for the rocky wall I started to look for other compositions.  I wasn't finding any, but that was fine as I was here to photograph the waterfall primarily anyway.  I started to look for a composition that I had not used before as was my goal for the day.  That proved to be rather difficult though since I have probably been here at least a dozen times, if not more.  I really wanted to get the rocky wall and the tree with the waterfall, but in order to do that, I was going to have to include the sky.  There was actually some interesting clouds in the sky, so I wasn't completely against the idea.  But I did know that there was a huge difference in exposure between the shadows of the wall and the bright white of the clouds.  I framed up the image anyway through the viewfinder.  I found a very nice composition at 24mm which captured everything that I wanted to.

Serenity Pool
When I switched on my live view to dial in the focus and exposure I saw a huge problem.  In order to expose for the sky, I was going to have to let the ground go dark.  If I got a reasonably decent (although dark) ground interest, the sky would go completely white.  With the design of the landscape (a scoop in the upper right corner), an ND Grad was going to be a poor choice.  I was unable to get a single exposure that captured enough information so I could pull detail out of the edges of the histogram.  My only option, short of abandoning the composition was to shoot this in HDR.

I've done a number of HDR images, but never one that already has a long exposure technique built in.  Oh well, it was digital and cost me nothing to give it a try.  I found three different exposures which covered the sky, the waterfall, and the shadow elements in the scene.  There were about seven stops total latitude covered with the three exposures.  When I got home after work, I blended them together in Lightroom and went to tweaking the tonal elements in the scene.  There was a moment early on in the processing that I knew I had captured what I was after.  I continued to work on the different areas until I had the exact image that I was looking at when I was moved to capture the picture.  I finally had an all new image of the Lower Cascades which included elements I have never been able to capture before now.  The tree in the water was just icing on the cake providing a nice foreground interest to the scene.  At this point, I would have been satisfied with the Trek and could have left.  But, I still had about an hour before I needed to leave for work.

Rocks and Roots
Since I was pretty happy with what I had found thus far, I decided to go to a "normal" composition just cause I was there.  I moved over to the other side of the waterfall and crossed over to the far side of the pool.  From here, I was able to capture the root system of the tree that was just to the side of the waterfall.  I decided to position myself in such a way that I got the rocky wall that I love so much, and the intricate root system.  The waterfall was almost a supporting player in this composition.  I like how this one turned out, but it is one that I've seen too many times and doesn't really hold that special quality that I was after on this Trek.  But, it did turn out pretty good if I do say so myself.

From Behind Cover
I still had my 24-70mm lens attached which has always been my go to lens for this waterfall.  I worked my way up the rocks until I was pretty close to the waterfall.  From this point, I had a good bit of the jagged rocks in the way of the waterfall.  This was not accidental in the least.  I was planning on getting a deeply shaded foreground with lots of texture giving way to the waterfall, which had a background of a different textured wall which was in the sunlight.  Textures and contrasts were the name of this game.  I carefully framed up the shot so that the waterfall made sense behind the shadowed wall.  I placed the greenery beside the waterfall in the upper left intersection giving a visual balance to the apex of the shadowed area.  This turned into a very interesting photograph by the time it was all said and done.

I milled around for a bit until I decided that I was pretty much done with this waterfall.  It was getting about time to think about heading back, and I was very satisfied with what I had shot so far.  After I got back to level ground, I started to break the camera down and swap back the 70-200mm lens that the camera is stored with.  Then I thought to myself..."Self, since you have the long lens on, why not shoot a couple of isolations with it?"  I made a good point, so I fitted a polarizer on the end of the barrel and started to hunt some intimate views of this waterfall.

Cradle the Cascades
What I found was that the part that really drew me in was the way the rocks appeared at the bottom of the waterfall.  I started to work out compositions that included that element.  What worked the best was a vertical shot that really showed the textures of the water, rocks, and the smooth pool in the foreground.  I played with different exposures and found that a wide depth of field and a slower shutter speed worked well for this even though I had previsualized it with a short shutter speed.  I was back at getting shots of this waterfall that I had not done before and I started to get excited all over again.  I went back over to my fallen tree and tried some other compositions with the longer lens.  Sadly, nothing even came close to the success I had at the wide end of the spectrum.

Just before I was ready to put things away, I realized that I had the opportunity to shoot a panorama here just in case the HDR attempt didn't pan out.  In order to keep the perspective from looking strange I like shooting panoramas with my 70-200mm lens on its side.  I found the place that I wanted to set up that included everything from the tree to the waterfall.  I set up the tripod to be perfectly level, and then worked on the focal length to capture everything that I wanted to.  After setting the focus point, I made a dry sweep of the scene to make sure that I had everything in the proper place.

I started shooting from left to right, moving the camera just a tad each time.  When it was all finished, I had shot seven frames in portrait orientation.  I knew from experience that would give me a good aspect ratio for a photograph, and plenty of data to make a huge print.  After I shot the panorama, I packed the camera up and started the short hike back to the car.  As I was walking up the stairs it started to rain.  Yep, I had picked the right time to leave, that is for sure.

I had shot 70 images over the course of about an hour and a half.  After going through the editing process, I decided to keep seven of them.  The amazing thing is one of the images represents seven frames all by itself, and there is another one that accounts for three of them.  I'm still doing quite well with my hit rate these days, but more importantly, I am having a blast with the camera.  I'm starting to create completely different images from areas I've been countess times before.  That is how I know I am progressing as a photographer.  I was so excited about these images that I came home from my evening meeting at work and started to process the pictures and get them online.

I'm not sure what is coming next, but Fall is knocking on our door.  I saw a few trees that were already starting to change at Hanging Rock.  This is a good sign that Fall will come early this year, and very possibly be quite vibrant!

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