Roaring Fork in the Fog

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Roaring Fork
A couple of weeks ago, I set out to photograph two waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Well, the weather turned out to be way too sunny and forced me to abandon the second waterfall of the day.  I got some great pictures at Crabtree Falls, but I was kind of sad that I didn't get the chance to work Roaring Fork Falls, and decided that the next time that the conditions were promising, I would head back that way.

The latter part of the week had seen some rains left over from Hurricane Harvey moving through the mountains of NC.  Saturday was looking like mostly cloudy until about lunch time when the clouds would break.  The increased water flow and the cloud cover made for excellent conditions.  With Toni's blessing, I set out early(ish) at about 5:30am.  I knew that the sunrise possibilities would be slim at best so I wasn't worried about getting up there before the sunrise.  It was nice to sleep in, but I needed to get there before the clouds broke, and before the crowds started to arrive.  I did sacrifice about 30 minutes of travel time to go the long way down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Boone just in case I came across any great landscape shots along the way.

The drive up was uneventful, but by the time I got to the Parkway, the clouds pretty much enveloped everything.  There was very little visibility, and I had to move at a snail's pace as I made my way to Little Switzerland.  Needless to say, I didn't pass any points of interest...well any that I could see.  I did notice that the sun came up because things went from black to gray outside of the truck.  There was absolutely no color or drama to the sunrise at all.  At least I pegged that right and wasn't regretting leaving a little later than normal.  Honestly, I was starting to wonder about the conditions for the waterfall.  If the clouds and fog stayed this thick, I would have a really hard time photographing Roaring Fork Falls with any success.

At about 8:45 I arrived at the parking area at the trail head.  There was already one car there, but I can deal with a couple of people if I need to.  The good news was the fog had cleared, leaving only a light mist in the air.  I grabbed the camera and tripod and started down the half mile trail which is an old DOT service road.  Along the way, I spotted the two explosives bunkers that were used to store the dynamite for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I had a fleeting idea to stop and try to photograph them, but quickly decided that I needed to get to the waterfall while the weather was passable, and before the people showed up.

Woodland Cascade
It didn't take but about ten minutes to get to the waterfall, and I was pleasantly surprised that the owner of the car was nowhere to be seen.  The conditions were perfect, and I was going to make the best of this good fortune.  I scrambled down to the base of the waterfall and got my camera built with the 24-70mm lens and a B+W Polarizer.  I didn't go to my normal position to photograph the lower part of the waterfall this time.  I set up a little to the right, between two boulders and had the tripod stretched between them.  This gave me a less head on vantage point, and one that I thought really suited the flow that I was seeing.

I worked several compositions from that area, and then moved up about 50 ft so that I could get the upper section.  I started that with the 24-70mm but found that I didn't quite have the reach from where I was needing to stand for safety.  I got a little creative in switching lenses on the side of a sloping rock, and before long I had my 70-200mm attached with my Singh Ray Intensifying Polarizer.  This gave me the range that I needed to not only shoot the entire length of the upper section, but also to pick out some isolations within it.

A Summer Ballad
Roaring Fork Falls is one of those waterfalls that actually looks better if you take it apart and focus on sections instead of trying to get the whole thing in one shot.  It can be done, and I've done that plenty, but the actual waterfall turns into a thin snake of water through a field of green.  It lacks the visual impact that I think that this waterfall deserves.  As an added bonus, you get a lot of bang for your buck with lots of potential compositions that are visually quite different.  I would rather shoot a waterfall like this than one that fits a standard mold of a photograph, and that is pretty much all you have to work with.

With the lighting that I was working with, I had a lot of different options to shoot.  All too often, there is a lot of shade on the sides which takes away the greenery that surrounds the waterfall.  Today, the clouds were so thick I was able avoid that problem.  In fact, it was almost too dark as my shutter speeds were reaching eight seconds in some cases with just a Polarizer attached.  For the first time, I almost had to boost the ISO on the camera just to keep the water from going completely milky, but I managed to avoid that by paying careful attention to the aperture.  The water was flowing slowly, so my 3-8 second exposures were perfect for the conditions.

Silken Cascades
This is one of those waterfalls that has so many different personalities, and it seems that each section can be shot as either a portrait or landscape.  In fact, the only tricky part is working around the terrain.  Everything was still very wet from the rains, and from the fog that moved through earlier.  Add to that this is a very popular waterfall, and you can imagine how slick things were.  It took a lot of time and energy to move around to the different areas that I was shooting from to keep from slipping.  While not the most hazardous conditions I've shot in, this one had some pucker moments as I moved around, especially toward the upper section.  I was perched on a tree root, and a loose rock while the tripod was stretched out on a 25 degree slope braced on a single notch on the surface.  Every manipulation of the camera had to be done carefully to avoid knocking it enough to dislodge it from the groove it was sitting in.  I had no problems, but it did make me nervous.  The pictures that I was getting made it entirely worth it though.

Simplistic Complexity
After only an hour at the waterfall, I decided that I had shot everything that I was wanting to with this waterfall.  I was still all alone and very happy, but I could see that the sun was starting to shine through the trees.  That was going to spell the end of my luck with exposure.  I left the camera built up as I was going to try for some woodland shots on the way back to the truck.  The fog was pretty much all gone, and the woods along the trail were not very orderly at all, and had too much visual distraction to make a good image.  There were the two bunkers though...

Woodland Bunker
The first one that I came to was the white one set in the trees.  The sun was kissing it ever so slightly, and I thought that the contrast against the leaves was pleasing.   I went ahead and started to compose the shot.  I left my 70-200mm lens attached along with the polarizer.  Even with the sun coming through, my shutter speed was still a couple of seconds in duration.  With the breeze making the branches move, that was not going to suffice.  I had no choice but to boost the ISO to 320 in order to get the shutter speed to about a half second.  Then it was a matter of waiting for the wind to die down a bit.  I only made a few exposures of this bunker, and then another five or so of the other before calling it quits for the location.  I still hadn't seen anyone, which was odd for a Saturday.

As I was arriving at the parking lot, there were three cars that came in right behind each other.  I was no longer alone, but that was OK as I was leaving anyway.  As I was putting the camera up, there were another three cars that came in.  Talk about perfect timing.  In a matter of five minutes, about 12 people showed, and they were all very energetic and loud.  Yeah, it was time to get scarce.

I started back to the Parkway, but first I stopped at an old Ford I have seen parked beside a building for a long time.  It was the right era, but the condition was a little too good for me.  The background was also a little cluttered, so I decided that it was better to let this one go once again.  One day, things will be right for me to photograph it, but for now, I wanted to get back to the Parkway to take advantage of the bits of blue sky I was seeing.

The Unknown
Blue skies?  Yeah, that didn't last long.  When I got back on the Parkway, the low clouds returned as did the fog.  There would be no scenics done today, but woodland shots were a definite possibility.  That was what I was hunting for...when I could see past the hood that is.  It seemed that every time I found something with promise the rain would start back up.  That didn't bother me because I knew that I had about 45 frames of great shots from the waterfall.  I was quite content with that, and was actually just taking the long way home in case I found something good to shoot.

That something good didn't show up until about a half hour or so of driving.  There was a pull off on the side that caught my eye, and I could see a couple of interesting shaped trees in the fog.  I decided to pull over and give it a closer look.  The mood was pretty much perfect so I decided to pull the camera out and give it a try.  I put the 24-70mm lens back on with the Singh Ray Polarizer to bring some extra umph to the greens.  I set the first shot up as a wide angle view that included the Blue Ridge Parkway going off into the fog.  It was an interesting composition, and not one that I would normally do...which made it worth doing.  I actually liked the end result as it had the mood that I wanted to capture.

Outstretched in the Fog
The tree that kept catching my attention was one that was shaped like a "Y".  It was one of the smallest trees, yet the shape made it stand out.  I decided to compose an image that put the spotlight on that one tree.  When I used the 24-70mm lens, the tree shrank into nothingness in the background so I moved up to the 70-200mm in order to compress the background a little bit.  I kept the polarizer attached to remove the glare from the leaves.  The composition was not the easiest to put together, but it was one that showed repeating lines with the "Y" tree breaking the mold.  The depth of the image came from shooting it on an angle to the tree line and using a medium sized tree as the foreground on the right edge of the frame.  The grass/natural area division created a leading line to the tree as well.  The fog really makes the image as it sets the mood for the whole scene, which was the point of the picture.

Clouds and Mist
When I got done with that section of woodland, I loaded everything back up and proceeded down the road to my composition, or US 421, whichever came first.  I was getting tired, and had already stayed longer than I was planning on.  The rain was picking up, and I was pretty sure that I was done for the day.  In fact, I was about three miles from the highway when I spotted a fence (my weakness) with a full tree standing out in the fog.  Yeah, this one was going to need to be photographed.  I got turned around and pulled back off of the road.  I pulled out the camera and left the 70-200mm lens on.  This time it was not so much for compositional concerns as it was I needed the deep hood to keep the rain off of the front element.  Also, since my polarizer is bigger than the lens diameter on my long lens, I wasn't able to use that for this set of pictures.  Sometimes, it is better to have a little glare than to have to deal with water spots on the glass.

Honestly though, I don't think I missed the polarizer at all.  The compositions came easy, and the fog seemed to be cooperating leaving the tree with enough detail to work and obscuring the background to keep it isolated in the frame.  The fence was just awesome with some nice kicker posts that I used as a strong visual anchor.  There was even a small (bonsai?) tree that I used to help balance out the scene.  I really couldn't have asked for any more than what I was getting.

Between the Trees
As it turned out, I even saw a nice composition off to the right side that included the Parkway.  I just had to move a little closer and flip the camera on its side.  I used one large tree as a frame on the right, while the Parkway snaked around another tree to the left.  The fence was used as a leading line to the tree.  The fog set the mood, and the wet grass was a perfect foreground for the shot.  The road was nearly the perfect "S" curve to bring the viewer through the image.

When it was all said and done, I had shot 80 frames over the course of like four hours in the mountains.  I had been in the rain and fog all day long and could not be happier.  For me, the bad weather makes for great pictures.  I would take this over blue skies any day.  It was another successful day in the mountains, and I'm really happy that I had the opportunity to go.


  1. What a wonderful feeling to sit down and look at these stunning pictures. I am so lucky to know you and your camera.

    1. Awwwww, thank you Myke! That made my day.

    2. Awwwww, thank you Myke! That made my day.