Blue Ridge Weekend: Catawba Falls

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Catawba Falls

So, here I was on my last day in the mountains.  The weather was cloudy and rainy.  There had been some rain moving across the area over the last couple of days.  That could only mean one thing…..it was time for waterfalls!

To catch you up, I found myself on an unplanned trip to the mountains that was pretty much centered around the fact that I wanted to visit Catawba Falls on the suggestion of Michael Surratt.  Looking ahead late last week the conditions were looking favorable for this waterfall on Sunday, and those conditions remained in tact.  I stayed at the hotel long enough to grab some breakfast before checking out and heading towards old Fort, NC, where the falls were located.  Along the way, I found a possible location for some old car photography along Hwy 221, and then again on Main St a few miles South of that.  It was foggy and rainy, so I opted not to waste time scoping these locations out as it was too early to be knocking on doors to ask permission to be on the properties.

I arrived at the falls about 8:30am and grabbed my gear and started out on the hike.  I was a little surprised to see about a half dozen cars in the lot already, even though Michael had said to get there early to avoid the crowds.  Regardless, I was here and I had time to work this waterfall before going home.  The hike was a little longer than I expected as I hadn’t really researched the distance.  After about 30 minutes of hiking what seemed like constantly up a hill, I stopped and checked for internet connection on my phone.  I was able to pull up the hiking information for the waterfall and found that it was about a mile and a half.  based on my normal pace, that meant that I should be just about there.  I continued on with the hike and started to climb some rocks.  Just around the corner I found the waterfall.  Had I waited about two minutes, I wouldn’t have had to stop to check the phone.

I was really happy to see that there was nobody at the base of the falls, so I was totally alone with it for the time being.  I got the camera set up for an overall shot in case somebody decided to join me.  For this, I started out with the 16-35mm lens along with my ever present Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  This filter would stay attached throughout the day regardless of lens choice.

My first shot used one of the rocks as a foreground interest to introduce the scene.  The waterfall was rather impressive in sheer size, but there wasn’t a ton of water running down the drops.  What was there was really interesting and I was here for the isolations anyway.  I had been more excited about that potential since the beginning.

Water Cairn

One of the features that I found early on that I really liked was a cairn situated near the base of the falls.  It was surrounded by some really nice cascades and that made for an interesting picture in my mind.  For this, I was going to need a little more reach so I swapped lenses for my 70-200mm and started making compositions.  I tried both landscape and portrait, but found that the tight portrait orientation seemed to work a little more effectively.

Marking the Falls

That is not to say that the horizontal composition was lacking.  It stood on its own right, but the cairn lost some of the visual importance.  I was able to capture another cairn to the left that I had not been able to see when scoping out the falls at the scene.  I actually only saw it when I was starting the editing process of the pictures.  That is the benefit of a nice long lens, you can see details that are hidden from view many times.  I really liked the way the rocks framed the single cascade in this composition, along with the moss on the rocks.

Forest Drops

While shooting isolations on this waterfall, I wanted to get some compositions up near the top.  For that, I was going to need a bit extra reach.  I grabbed my extender and mounted it between the lens and camera.  That gave me the ability to reach out to 400mm to capture some of the smaller sections near the top of the falls.  I liked this section a lot because of the two colors of moss on the rocks.  The cascades were also quite interesting in their patterns.  If you look closely, you can even see a number of small streams coming off of a ledge that links everything up at the base.

Saturated Moss

It was the moss that really made the compositions for me.  I loved the shades of green and burnt orange.  It was almost like Autumn colors at the end of Summer.  I found a few areas that had interesting cascades, or like this picture, just a runoff from the ledge.  It really is amazing to me how the terrain works with these waterfalls and in the mountains in general.  Always so rugged and inhospitable, yet so beautiful and full of life.

Catawba Cascades

I was really having a lot of fun with the reach of the extender and kept finding more and more compositions.  This turned out to be a really good thing because while I was shooting up at the top of the falls there were several groups of hikers that showed up and wanted to experience the waterfall.  For many of these isolations, I was actually shooting over the heads of other hikers.  They were all very respectful and made sure it was OK to enter into the scene.  I don’t think they quite understood what I was trying to capture as I could tell they were feeling awkward standing in front of the guy with the camera while actively making exposures.

Berries by the Water

I really took this time to experiment with compositions.  I found a lot of nice elements to include near the cascades like these berries to the upper left.  They added another dimension in color as well as texture to the images.  It was still the moss that captivated me for this section.  I loved the browning tones and it gave a richness to the image that is lost with solid green moss.

Collection Point

As I had a break in hikers, I decided to try something a little different.  I swapped lenses once again to my 24-70mm so I could get some midrange compositions of the cascades.  I again turned my attention to the cairn that I had shot earlier.  This time, I made it the base of the photograph with the larger cascade drawing your eye to it.  The smaller cascades provided visual interest and patterns through the rest of the image.  I was able to include the different color mosses as well which was a great bonus.

Catawba Falls is an interesting waterfall to photograph.  It is hard to have it make complete sense in the overall view.  The isolations are very interesting, but have a certain careless quality about them.  Finding patterns and lines is a difficult task.  I see that as a plus as it probably means that each photographer will pick out their personal favorite sections which will probably be different from the next one.  I haven’t seen a lot of pictures from this waterfall before, but I can say that it is a really nice one with a lot of potential.

Staccato Drops

One technique I found that works well with this waterfall is focusing on a single side of it.  By including both exit points, you start to lose the top and mid sections.  What I did here was eliminated the left exit, and chose to focus my attention on the dominant exit to the right.  That allowed me to crop in closer to the rest of the waterfall and show more of its true character.  I think I like this view better than my original opening image, although I do miss the rock as the foreground interest.

Foot of the Falls

While I was working on that half composition I decided that the exit of the waterfall deserved a little bit of attention on its own.  I got in close with the 24-70mm lens and isolated what looked like a foot at the end of the waterfall.  I was surprised that this hadn’t spoken to me earlier.  It photographed very well I thought and was one of the more simple scenes within the entire waterfall.

At this point, more and more people were starting to join me.  Considering I had used every lens in my inventory with the exception of the 14mm prime, I figured I was pretty well spent for compositions.  I went ahead and packed up shop to begin the hike back to the truck.  I left about a half dozen people at the base of the falls, and passed another 20-30 on the way out.  Michael was right, even in a light rain, early on a Sunday morning, this park is packed out.

My impromptu weekend was now over and it was time to make the drive home.  In all, I had 330 frames shot with several HDR compositions and a panoramic composition.  I ended up with 32 images that I felt were worth keeping.  I have now completed the processing on them, and will work on getting a few of them in the gallery here before too long.

Friday:  The start to my journey
Saturday:  A full day driving in the mountains
Sunday:  You are here