Falls in the Clouds

August 2, 2014

For those of you who have been following me for the last few months will remember that I have been wanting to get out to Roaring Fork Falls for some time now.  I've actually tried a half dozen times or more, I think.  Since this is located a full three hours from home you can imagine how frustrating it has become.  I've run into sunny days where I didn't even try after driving up there, rainy days with the same result, and once I got there and there was no room to park.  This has become a very difficult waterfall to visit for me.  At least in the trips where my goal was Roaring Fork Falls, I have been able to photograph both Dugger's Creek Falls, and Crabtree Falls.  I still wanted to get back to Roaring Fork though, and after looking at the weather, I decided that I would give it a try this morning.

Things were looking pretty good with heavy cloud cover forecasted until well after lunch.  A side benefit was that the ceiling was going to be pretty low so that meant I might have the opportunity to grab a landscape shot or two.  Since I was foiled on my last trip to Roaring Fork by a parking lot full of sightseers, I decided to get an early start and try to make it there before 8am.  That meant that I was going to try and leave before 5, which is awful early for a Saturday!

The day started out as I had planned, but I left a little later than I intended.  It wasn't that big of a deal, I didn't expect other visitors to arrive until after 9 or so.  There was a light mist in the air, and the clouds were low.  This was going to prove to be pretty good conditions for waterfall photography.  I wasn't exactly jumping for joy though since I have had a lot on my mind lately.  This trek was more an excuse to get away and think than anything else.  I did a lot of thinking in the hours it took to reach the area of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Little Switzerland.

From Behind the Wall
From Behind the Wall in B&W
As I was making my way South along the Parkway, I couldn't help but notice that the clouds would break up every now and again, showing a clean blue sky above.  Interestingly enough, all the low clouds that I had been driving under on the ride up were well below me now, down in the valley.  This could possibly mean that Roaring Fork Falls was going to be in the sunlight when I arrived which wasn't a good thing.  On the other hand, it meant that I had some interesting picture opportunities right in front of me.  At the risk of loosing the ability to photograph the falls, I opted to find the first place I could to grab a few shots.

As luck would have it, I was having a very hard time finding a place that would work for pictures.  The sky was amazing, and the distant mountains were great, but there was nothing to really tie it all together.  I could see that things were changing quickly, so I ducked into the first overlook I could find.  I surveyed things quickly and decided that there wasn't much there for foreground interest.  The problem was, if I didn't capture what I was seeing right then, I would lose it forever.  I decided to pull the camera out and I picked a section of the stone wall to use for my foreground interest.  Since it was not set up in a way I could use it as a leading line, I decided to make it a shallow diagonal line to show drama, and lead the eyes to the distant mountain that would then draw the attention to the low clouds in the valley.

I framed the shot quickly and found that the sky was way overexposed, more so than I was expecting.  I went back to my bag and grabbed the Lee filter holder and a 3-Stop ND Grad to help control the exposure.  That was the ticket for this image, and the sky was now properly exposed in relation to the foreground.  I was noticing that there were a lot of different textures in place here, and also noted that there was a broad range of tones from light to dark.  I actually created this image with a monochrome conversion in mind.  I'm happy to say that I like this one equally as well in color and in black and white.

The Eye in the Sky
With the initial shot out of the way, I started to move around and try to find other potential compositions.  One thing that I'm not usually wild about doing is shooting a distant composition without anything prominent in the foreground.  That's all well and good when I have time to plan a shot, but this wasn't going to be a planned picture at all.  I wanted to capture the distant, cloud encased mountain and the sky above it.  The best way to do this was to flip the camera and use the crisp trees below the overlook as the foreground.  It works in this situation because the green is a complimenting color to the blue above, and the fact that there is no visual softening due to clouds.  This allows the eyes a chance to fixate on trees, which gives a sense of scale and distance.  The mountain was positioned to emulate an eye in the distance.  All of these aspects were determined in a matter of seconds as I was setting the shot up and framing it just so.  Within two minutes after this one was exposed, the clouds completely covered the mountain up, and the sky became washed in white.

The Roaring Fork Falls
It was time to move on down the road and see if the Roaring Fork Falls was in the shadows of the clouds, or in the bright sun that was peeping through from time to time.  When I arrived, all of my questions were answered.  I had great cloud cover, and there were no other cars in the parking lot.  It was shortly after 8am.  I figured that I had maybe an hour or so to work, so I grabbed my equipment and started on the short half mile hike that puts you at the base of the waterfall.

What I love about this waterfall is that it is a very long one, and it snakes its way through a fairly dense section of forest.  The pool at the bottom is accessible and usually not so deep as to keep you from standing in it.  I've shot this waterfall several times in the past, and kind of knew what I needed for the first shot.  I went ahead and swapped in my 16-35mm wide angle lens, and added a polarizer and ND filter.  I finally found my spot in the pool that captured as much of the waterfall as possible. I dialed in the exposure and bracketed several different shutter speeds.  While I really like a very slow shutter speed for waterfalls, this one is not one to go too long on because you end up loosing all of the detail in the rapids.

After I was satisfied at the effect that I had recorded with my camera, I decided it was time to try something a little different from the norm (for me at least).  I swapped out my wide angle lens and mounted my 70-200mm telephoto with only a polarizer which would allow me to pick this waterfall apart.  This one really does lend itself to intimate captures of its bits and pieces, and I intended to do just that.

Smoothed Out
The first section I picked apart was the lower portion.  At 70mm, I was able to highlight the final drop of this waterfall.  What drew my eye to this section was the slippery smooth rock to the left which has been smoothed by countless gallons of water spilling over the surface.  There was also a lump of a rock which stood out in stark contrast to the feathery water rushing by.  For a bit of visual balance, there is a small bit of runoff to the upper left which keeps everything in balance.  I wasn't sure how I would like this shot, but after doing the final edit on it, I can safely say that it turned out pretty well.

Symphonic Drop
The intimate shot that I was really looking forward to was the section near the top.  I had done this one a long time ago with marginal results.  I really wanted to try it again, and This was the perfect time to do it.  I zoomed the long lens to about 135mm and flipped the camera on its side.  Now it was all about how to frame the picture.  I was torn about how much of the foreground to include, but finally opted to just give a small diagonal sliver with a bit of greenery.  In order to do this, I had to elevate the tripod all the way for every inch of clearance over the rock.  I dialed in my exposure and started to take a few test shots.  I was looking for a very specific water effect, and finally found the right exposure.

As I was tweaking the composition for a final round of shutter releases, a large group arrived.  Actually, they kind of snuck up on me as I was fully engrossed in what I was doing.  I got the sensation that I was being watched and looked over to the right and saw about 10 different people standing there.  Oh well, they wouldn't bother me standing there so I went back to what I was doing.  When I finally got everything set up, I started a 20 second exposure and in that time, I kept seeing several flashes go off....yep, they were snapping pictures.  Far be it for me to gripe that somebody wants a picture of a beautiful waterfall, but the flashes were going off in front of my lens and causing some serious flare to happen.  This wasn't good at all.

I would speak to the one snapping the picture and request that they hold off for 20 seconds while I grab the shot and they would agree.  Then, without fail, while they were standing down, and my shutter was open, another one would fire off a flash.  After three times of this routine, I had to stop and make an announcement for everyone to chill with the flash for a minute and let me get the last shot of the waterfall.  They agreed, and I fired off one last 20 second exposure with no lens flare.  I finally had the image I was working on!

As I was packing up, I was talking with the guide for the group.  They had come from a ranch about five miles away.  He said that he brings a group out here about twice a week to see the waterfall.  I can't say that I blame him.  The hike is but a simple nature walk and isn't but a mile round trip.  This is a great waterfall to visit if you don't want to spend an entire day hiking over rough terrain.

The Hurt Locker
While Making the walk back to the truck, I passed the old bunkers that used to hold the explosives for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I have made a few exposures of these buildings in the past, but thought that the darker of the two was asking to be photographed again.  I pulled the camera back out and mounted my 24-70mm lens which would give me the focal length I was after for this shot.  It took some doing to find the proper composition which flowed logically.  I wanted to emphasize the concrete construction and the open door more than anything else.  I liked that the doorway was nothing but shadows.  What is inside is totally up to the viewer.  I tried to give this a sense of remoteness that was not actually the case.  The trail is maybe 15 feet from the doorway.  I'm still not convinced that the picture captures what I was wanting, but it does strike an emotional chord with me, and I wanted to showcase it here at least.

After I was done with Roaring Fork Falls, I decided to hop back on the Parkway and see if anything else caught my eye.  I started my way back North and in about 30 miles I found myself at Linville Falls.  Since it was still very cloudy, and I wasn't having any luck with landscapes, I decided to pop in and see about working the upper falls.  When I got to the parking lot, it was jam packed!  I decided I wasn't ready to fight crowds for a few more waterfall pictures.  There would be plenty of time to come back and work Linville Falls when the crowds weren't as dense.

I did try to set up a few compositions on the lower sections of Dugger's Creek Falls which is just off of the parking lot.  As is usually the case, nobody bothered to stop by and look at this little gem.  While the water level was great, and I was able to get several interesting points in the lower section, I just couldn't get a composition that I liked.  After about 15 minutes of trying, I decided to pack the camera up, and eat a little lunch before continuing my Northbound journey.

After getting a little food in me, I started driving through some pretty dense fog, clouds, and the occasional shower.  Yeah, this was a typical NC mountain kind of day for sure.  My hopes for more landscape opportunities were dwindling quickly.  I did find it interesting to see no less than an dozen or so cyclists braving the conditions to ride on the Parkway.  I've put over 190 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway behind bicycle tires over the years, but I don't think I would have wanted to ride in these conditions today.  My hat is off to each of them!

Hillside View
As it turned out, as I got close to the Hwy 421 junction, I started to see that there was some interest in the sky to the West.  My attention started to focus to the landscape to the West in hopes of finding something to put under the sky.  I managed to find just such a place after about 20 minutes of driving.  As with every landscape shot I had tried today, time was of the essence.  The sky was changing very quickly and I wanted to capture what I was seeing.  I pulled off the road very quickly and parked on what was essentially a ramp for the MST trail.  I grabbed my gear and decided to leave the 24-70mm on to save time, and I thought that it was probably what I was going to need anyway.  I went ahead and screwed on the Lee Filter mount and grabbed a 3-Stop ND Grad before finding a location to shoot from.

What had drawn my eye to this particular location was the strong diagonal elements in the field ultimately leading up to the mountains in the rear.  I found a composition that worked to highlight that element that used a tree line as the foreground, also in a diagonal form.  There was a large tree to the left which I used as a visual block to keep the viewer's eyes in the frame, and jump them to the next diagonal.  This next diagonal stopped at yet another large tree on the right which forced the viewer to continue along the horizon line.  That same large tree to the left stops the eyes and they then move into the clouds.  Overall, I am very happy about the composition on this one!

Hillside View in B&W
Unlike the one from the beginning of the day, I wasn't thinking about monochrome with this image, but when I was looking at it while editing, I started to see some potential.  I did the conversion, applying a strong red filter in the process.  The sky immediately jumped to life, and there was a lot more separation of tones than I was expecting along the landscape.  The end result was very pleasing, and one that I was very happy with.

All in all, it was a very good day in the mountains.  I was able to get a lot of thinking done, and come up with several very good images in the process.  Now comes the hard part.  Which of these images makes it into the gallery rooms?  I think that a few will find their way into the White Water Room, one might make it into the Landscapes Room, and I think its a safe bet that one will end up in the Monochrome Room.

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