2019 Winter Waterfall Workshop Recap

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Photo Courtesy of Joe Horne

I’m a few days late getting this recap posted, but with good reason.  I have been a working photographer this weekend with the last of my 2019 workshops taking place on Saturday and then Sunday doing a portrait shoot for a client.  Yeah, I know I have been saying for years that I don’t shoot people.  Looks like that might be changing slowly, but I digress.  Back to the workshop.  This one was a special one for me as it was where workshops all started for me just a little over a year ago.  I had no idea what I was doing that time, and after the loss of my Mother, really wasn’t in the right mental place to be able to do it to the best of my abilities.  Now, after an additional four workshops I am really starting to get the hang of things when it comes to teaching in the field.  I’m actually really starting to enjoy it.

This latest workshop started off a little slow with nobody signing up for it until after my Fall Foliage Workshop was finished up.  I had thoughts that I was going to have to cancel it due to lack of interest but then Ron signed up.  He had just spent the day with me at Stone Mountain on that Fall Workshop and apparently learned enough that he wanted to come back for more.  Hey, I’m a glutton for punishment to, and I do love having repeat clients on the workshops.  It gives me a better opportunity to get to know what they are looking to improve with their photography.  With Ron signed up, the workshop was on, even if it was just going to be the two of us.  I didn’t have to wait long for Steve to sign up, which meant that I had a second participant.  Things were looking up.  With about a week left before the workshop, Bill contacted me and asked if there was room for one more.  Of course there was and that made three.

At the end of the Fall Workshop I had spoken with Joe (two time workshop veteran with me) who was thinking about attending, but had some prior commitments that might prevent him from being able to make it.  The day before the workshop, he let me know that he was going to be able to make it which was great.  We now had four which is really about the best size group for this particular workshop.  The different waterfalls that we go to are in rather tight quarters which physically limits my attendance to no more than six which is pushing it.  This was going to be a great group and I was looking forward to the day.

Leading up to Saturday I had been watching the weather as I always do.  The weather was all over the place from sunny, to partly cloudy in the morning, to cloudy all day long.  It was a gamble as to how to prepare myself for the day, but I was going with thin clouds through most of the day which would be difficult, but workable.  On the morning of the workshop I checked the weather as normal.  The clouds had thinned out quite a bit from what I was expecting, but there were still clouds coming in just before lunch which was the time that I really needed them to hit with the way the shadows work across the park.  I left out just after 6am and headed Hanging Rock.  Just before 7am, I joined a pack of several cars at the gate waiting for it to open up.  I figured that these were my folks, and I recognized Joe’s Jeep up at the lead.  A few minutes early the Ranger came by and opened the gate up and up the hill we went.  When we arrived at the visitor’s center everyone was there but Ron, who showed up just a few minutes after we got parked.  We got the early morning stuff taken care of and then off to Window Falls we went.

I have been to Hanging Rock many times over the years and I have a really good understanding of how the light works here.  I know that on a clear morning, Window Falls is the best bet for a first location as it will benefit from the way the light works early.  I also use this one as a great chance to talk about compositional choices, how to simplify the image, and what is available as isolations.  The cliff drop waterfall is a classic and dramatic waterfall type that is fun to capture in several different ways.  We all spent a good bit of the morning here examining the different angles that could be shot with widely different compositions.  One of the biggest topics that started from this first location was focusing points.  This is something that tends to confuse a lot of photographers from what I’ve learned.  There are many different theories on how to focus out there, and they all apply to different types of subjects.  Working with waterfalls, you will generally have a close foreground and a not terribly distant background.  Very rarely will infinity focusing work in this situation.  We all spend a lot of time discussing hyperfocal focusing and how it related to the aperture chosen for a desired depth of field.

There were opportunities to learn about how the position of the camera has a lot to do with the perspective of the scene.  Depending on the composition, you can really get a great point of view by getting down on the ground like Steve did.  I actually noticed that he tended to prefer the down low compositions for many of the scenes.  I think that some of the more creative  ideas were sparked by him during the day.  He had a knack for seeing compositions at levels different than eye level which is a very valuable tool to have.  In fact, he came up with one of my favorite compositions for the waterfall above Window Falls using a swirl that had developed due to the rains that had fallen recently.  With his vision, everyone took turns shooting that basic composition and I think that everyone got the images that they were after with that scene.  Sadly, I didn’t give it a go.  In fact, the only pictures I shot during the day were with my phone.  When it comes to workshops, I don’t want to cheat anyone out of their images, or time to learn.  This is not the time for me to find my own images, but rather to help others find theirs.  That is how I think a workshop should go.

One of the things that I love about doing these workshops is being able to help somebody who I think is more experienced with the particular subject matter than I am.  That was the case with Bill.  He has been shooting waterfalls for quite some time now, and has visited so many more of them than I have.  I’ve seen his posts on Facebook for at least a couple of years now.  Let’s just say…He gets around.  I have a lot of respect for him as a photographer of waterfalls, and I was honestly a little nervous about having him along because I really felt like there was very little I could teach him that he didn’t already know.  As I am constantly finding out, there are always things that photographers can learn from other photographers.  As it turned out, Bill had been shooting through the viewfinder and hadn’t really ever bothered with the live view function on his camera.  In fact, it wasn’t even activated in the menu.  After fiddling with the camera for a minute or so, we got the live view working and I showed him how to use that for getting fantastic exposures the first time.  I think that this bit of information alone made him happy that he had attended.  It was something relatively simple, but it was going to provide him another tool to really be able to capture the images that he was wanting and imagining.  That is the beauty of these workshops.  I get to help photographers achieve that next level in their art.

Window Falls by William Neagle

As we all got finished up with the various compositions that were being shot of the main waterfall and the one above it, I cleared up a few loose ends with the questions before we headed back up the stairs destined for Hidden Falls.  The hike here wasn’t bad at all, and took maybe 10 minutes.  When we got there, I got really show why I like using this waterfall in the workshops.  When we first got there I had everyone look at it.  All of their faces showed the same look…Blah!  It really isn’t a pretty waterfall from this angle, but I talked about how important it was to find the flow and balance by moving around your subject.  As I brought them around and down to the lower pool, their faces all changed and I could see the film winding in their minds.  Granted, this waterfall is a one trick pony for sure.  There is pretty much one angle to shoot it from with several variations on composition available.  Everyone did find their vantage point and worked out how to best capture this waterfall.

Hidden Falls by William Neagle

We didn’t spend a very long time here at Hidden Falls which was fine.  We had spent longer at the first stop than I had planned, but I do keep the schedule flexible during the day.  I would much rather miss one of the destinations and be able to spend that extra time on a great learning experience.  I really thought that there was some good learning opportunities to be had with Window Falls and I was happy to stick around there and work through the questions completely.  By the time we got to Hidden Falls, the questions were more along the line of focusing once again along with exposure time and the effects that it had on the image.  Ron and I had a fantastic discussion here about some things that he was working through in his own photography.  Ron is another very knowledgeable photographer that does fantastic work.  Familiar with his techniques from the Fall Workshop, I knew there wasn’t much that he really needed, but once again, I was able to put a few things in perspective for him that seemed to open up some new horizons for him.

When it comes to workshops, I rarely have the need to take somebody from beginner on up the ladder.  Most of the time, the photographers who participate in my workshops really aren’t that much different from my experience level.  In many cases, I have photographers that I think are better than me in the group.  However, I have found each and every time, that I have been able to clarify a point with those experienced photographers to help them get to that next level.  That is truly the joy that I have with these workshops.  Of course, I also enjoy teaching the basics for those just starting out which I have done a number of times.  Any time I can make it worth their admission price by filling in the blanks that they may have in photography, makes it worth my while to be out there for a day focused solely on other’s photography and not mine.  This is something that I hold very close to my heart when it comes to workshops.  I am out there for those who are attending, not for my own purposes.  I lugged around 30 pounds worth of gear all day knowing that I wasn’t going to take a shot.  I just wanted it there in case I needed to demo anything or let anyone use the Singh-Ray Filters that I have in my workshop kit.

With everyone happy with what they had at Hidden Falls we hiked back to the parking lot for a quick break and then off to the Upper Cascades which was a short hike on the other side of the parking lot.  This is one of the reasons why I love Hanging Rock so much.  None of the hikes are difficult, and most are a half mile or less.  There are five different waterfalls with another two which are not that well known.  One was the waterfall above Window Falls, and the other was below the waterfall we were currently hiking to.  Since Joe was needing to cut out around 12:30 or so, we were hustling to get this one checked off our list.  We made the scramble down the path that led to the waterfall that I have found to be one of the most beautiful ones in the park.  It was very tight at the waterfall and everyone started to make their own compositions as best they could.  You can see Steve here working one from right beside the rock wall while Joe was down in the tree capturing another composition.  I noticed that Steve was basically holding his camera against the rocks while shooting a 1 second exposure.  Knowing that was going to come out blurry, I went over to check on him.  He wasn’t able to use his tripod because of the leg design which didn’t allow independent adjustment.  We had talked about this earlier and I was going to show him the advantages of using a tripod with independent legs at some point, so I figured why not now.  I made sure he was using an Arca-Swiss head and I just pulled my tripod off of the bag.  This was why I like to have my gear with me.  I extended two of the legs and leaned it up against the rock wall for him.  He was able to mount the camera to the “bipod” and get a steady shot that way.

Photo courtesy of Joe Horne

Meanwhile I went over to spend some time with Joe who was having the time of his life with this waterfall.  He had found a composition that I had not considered before and was making really nice images from that point.  This was where we started to really fine tune his compositional skills.  I have noticed that he has a tendency to put virtual horizons (dividing elements) in the middle of his frame at times and I was seeing that happen here as well.  We talked about that at length and looked at options for his composition which put the emphasis on the areas of the image that he was interested in.  In no time, he was creating images that he was much happier with.  I have really enjoyed working with Joe over three different workshops now.  I have watched him progress as a photographer very quickly and he is enjoying his craft more than ever before now.  As with so many people, he learns by doing, not reading, or seeing.  Workshops are a great option for him as it forces him to actually practice the techniques involved and learn from them.  I can’t tell you how honored I am that he has chosen my workshops as his learning environment.  He has progressed more since I first met him in June on the Blue Ridge Parkway, than I did in the first two years that I was learning photography.  I have had the joy of watching him learn to enjoy photography and feel so much more comfortable with it.  He has also learned that valuable quality of asking questions as we go along.  Joe always comes ready to learn, and for a workshop leader, that makes my job so much easier.

Lower Upper Cascades by William Neagle

With everyone’s feet starting to get wet since most of the compositions originating from shin deep water, we were all sporting wet pant legs and less than dry socks.  We made the scramble back up to the main waterfall and talked about composition for a while since the light was very harsh here.  I wasn’t thinking that we would get any pictures taken, but the light actually got better while we were talking about things.  The cameras started to come out and everyone started making their exposures.  It was kind of a quick process, but we were able to revisit the need of moving the camera left and right, as well as side to side in order to get the composition balanced with all of the elements flowing throughout the frame.  From here, Joe had to break away from the group as he had some other commitments to handle.

The remaining three continued to photograph the Upper Cascades for a while until we were all ready for a break and a little lunch.  We packed up our gear and sloshed back up the trail to the parking area.  It was here that we got some much needed rest and nourishment.  Well, I had crackers and water, but that was good for me.  While everyone was finishing up their lunch, I got the laptop set up for the Lightroom demonstration.  I had originally thought that I would skip this portion since Joe and Ron have seen the demo before, and Bill was well versed in Photoshop by his own statement.  When I posed the question if anyone was interested in doing the presentation now, or waiting until the end in case it was only Steve that was interested, I got a resounding “Now!”  Maybe it was the tired feet talking, but since all three of the remaining participants wanted to see Lightroom, I happily got the laptop out and got it running.

When everyone was done with their lunch we gathered around the pitifully small laptop which I don’t like using, but it is my only option right now.  Much to my surprise, Ron pulled out a notebook.  Keep in mind that he has seen this presentation before, but now he was taking notes.  Was it really that good of a presentation?  I mean it is only about an hour in duration, and I pretty much gloss over the main fundamental functions.  It did make me feel good that he was that interested.  Shortly after I got started with the presentation Bill stopped me and asked for clarification on a point.  Oh wow…they were really listening and wanting the information on this.  At this point, I decided to really go into some detail with the processing.  I kept everyone’s attention and there were great questions along the way.  As I found aspects that they really liked, I went into those a little deeper.  I noticed that Ron was taking notes like there was going to be a test at the end.  Steve and Bill were bead locked on the dim laptop screen, but soaking in everything I was saying and showing.  It all culminated with Bill saying that he hated me.  He then took out a knife and stabbed me.

No he didn’t, he was being funny.  He hated me because he saw the benefit to using Lightroom over Photoshop for so many of the things that he does in post.  He was convinced that Lightroom was how he needed to proceed for his image editing now.  Another small personal victory for my workshops.  Not that I am here to convince you to do things different than you want to, but I do enjoy showing alternatives which may work better for you.  In this situation, I had done that with Bill, and that just cemented the worth of the workshops that I do.

Once the Lightroom demo was over, Ron decided to part ways and head home.  With only one waterfall left, he was done for the day.  With Bill and Steve left, we went to the cars and drove out of the park to get to the Lower Cascades just outside of the park.  The weather was looking pretty good with the clouds coming in just enough to soften the light from the sun.  There were a handful of cars in the parking lot, but when we got down the waterfall there was nobody to be seen.  This was a wonderful thing as there are a lot of different ways to photograph this particular location.  Bill set off to get the lower section of the waterfall which was looking really good while Steve decided to work the upper section.  He was taking in the scene and I was offering some suggestions on ways to shoot it, but I should have known that his mind was already finding the composition he wanted.  He went over to the corner and got down really low which is what he liked to do so often.  He found another wonderful composition that I was a little jealous that I had not seen before.  He threw me a bone and let me help him fine tune his idea a little bit, but he nailed the concept on this one.

Steve is a very interesting guy.  He is pretty quiet and just blends into the crowd.  He doesn’t really interject much, but he is always thinking.  He has the mind of a photographer and he can spot a composition and go right to it.  So many times I would lose track of what he was doing to just turn around and see him focused on the camera dialing in a composition that seemed haphazard at first.  However, when I would go over and look over his shoulder, I would always be impressed with what he had the frame.  I really think that he has so much potential behind the camera and is doing very well at filling in the blanks in his personal education.  One of these days I’ll be able to say that Steve attended one of my workshops, and have the person look at me and say.  “Oh wow, that is really cool that you know him and worked with him.  But, who exactly are you?”

Lower Cascades by William Neagle

Arguably, the Lower Cascades is the most impressive waterfall in Hanging Rock.  it is the one that I first photographed well over 10 years ago.  It is a bit of a homecoming for me every time I come back to this park.  I’m always excited to share this experience with others who are wanting to learn the different techniques of photographing waterfalls.  You get the opportunity to shoot so many different kinds of waterfalls in all different conditions.  The idea is that you will be very well prepared for any waterfall that you might come across in your own travels.  Since they are all so close together, we can really hit all five sites in a day without a problem as opposed to spending the day hiking or driving to see just a couple of waterfalls.  These aren’t fantastic subjects by any stretch, but they are all great learning experiences which I find more valuable to a workshop environment.

Bill decided to cut out from here leaving Steve and me to talk for a bit more.  He actually asked some really good question about my photography and where it is headed.  He also took the opportunity to give me some valuable feedback on the workshop experience which I really appreciated.  He said that he really liked the single day format at the location that I had chosen.  It didn’t cost thousands of dollars, require any major travel, and didn’t have to be lumped in with a family vacation where he would spend the days away from his loved ones at a wonderful destination.  He completely nailed the reasons behind why I have incorporated the format that I have with the workshops.  I don’t want them to be out of reach of those learning photography.  I don’t want it to be a group expedition to some wonderful place hoping that the weather is good so that we are all after the same pictures…included myself.  I love picking places that I have been many times in the past so my goal is not to get pictures for myself.  I can spend my time with the participants without regret and provide an experience for them which makes it worth their time and money.

Steven and I decided to forego Tory’s Falls since the water flow would most likely be a disappointment without very recent rains.  We had managed to shoot all but that one waterfall between 7am and 4pm while doing a bit over an hour worth of Lightroom.  In my book, that is some serious bang for your buck.  I’m much happier with how this workshop went than my previous experience here.  But that is to be expected.  I have now figured out how the workshops should go, and have worked out a pretty good way of conducting it.  I have two of these waterfall workshops scheduled for next year, one in the early Spring, and another in the late Fall.  You can see all of my workshops here.  I have increased the price compared to the 2019 catalog, but that is because I am incorporating the Lightroom tutorial with the workshop as well as having a set of demo filters from Singh-Ray to use, and feel that the experience of the day is well worth the price.  In fact, I have gotten feedback from the participants over the course of the year which have prompted me to set the prices where I have.  I am still all about giving everyone their money’s worth on these workshops, so with the increased price will come a much better experience.  I hope that by reading these previous workshop recaps, you can see how I run things and whether or not these outings are for you.  I truly think that this is a valuable experience for those who are just getting started, or wanting to fine tune their personal style.  I do spend a good bit of time one on one with the participants so there is no need for everyone to be at the same level when we get started.

Consider spending a day with me in 2020 at any number of destinations and taking your photography to the next level.

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