A Day at South Mountains

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Waterfall Walk

The weather has really not worked with me for the past month or so.  Every weekend it has been raining, except for that one where the sun was blazing all day long.  I’ve kind of gotten used to the routine of hiking in the rain and leaving my gear opened up drying over night.  When I saw the forecast for this weekend, I was prepared for that same chain of events.  There was clouds and rain for the vast majority of the day on Saturday, and more of the same on Sunday.

I figured that this would be another opportunity to get some waterfalls done, and what better time to try and find some new ones.  I know there are some other cascades at South Mountains which I have not found yet.  I also wanted to try and photograph the main waterfall, High Shoals Falls.  It has been probably 10 years or more since the last time I have ventured up the stairs to shoot it.  Arguably though, it is not all that photogenic of a waterfall.  To make matters worse, the boardwalk really gets in the way despite giving you a very close view of the waterfall.

Soothe the Soul

My day started as any other photography day…Early.  I woke up with Toni at 4am and worked on getting on the road at 5 so I could be at the park when the gates opened.  The most current forecast called for some light showers at 8am and cloudy until sometime in the afternoon when the clouds would start to break up.  I wanted to give myself the most time under the clouds.  As I was heading down the road, I could tell that there were very little clouds in the sky.  I kind of expected that as there was only supposed to be intermittent cloud cover for the first part of the day.  The closer I got, the less clouds I was seeing though.

This was really starting to be an annoying pattern for this park.  It seems that every time I come out here expecting clouds, I get bright blue skies and difficult lighting.  I was starting to think that I was going to spend four hours on the road for less than ideal lighting once again.  I didn’t have a plan B in mind, and knew that much of the park was in the shadows early in the morning.  At least I had that working in my favor.  I was looking around as I approached the park to see if there was something that I could get with the existing lighting.

I did see an old tractor by a shed that I had seen the last couple of times out, and had always wanted to photograph.  The lighting wasn’t quite right, and I wasn’t sure I could get it from the road.  I filed it away in my memory for later as I had done many times before.

Blue Sky Reflections

When I got to the park, the sky was blue overhead.  I could see some light clouds in the distance, but they were moving away.  I could see that the creek adjacent to the parking lot was in the full shadow of the mountain.  I hadn’t really worked this area before since there were usually fishermen in the water.  This time, it was all empty so I decided to go and check it out.  I found a nice set of cascades next to an overlook, so I decided to maneuver my way down to the water.

Looking at things, I figured that doing isolations would be the best bet.  For that, I decided to use my 70-200mm lens with a Color Combo Polarizer attached.  I started working on compositions and found that my exposure time due to the lighting was between 13-30 seconds.  That was plenty for a nice abstract flow of the water.  The trick was picking areas of the cascades that made sense and had a cohesive flow to them.

One of the neat ones that came from this section is the picture directly above.  Since the sky was blue, the water was reflecting a nice blue hue just before dropping over the rocks. The rocks had some warm tones on them which balanced out the overall cool shade of the water.  It made for a very interesting composition with the color pallet.

Uneven Flow

There is just something about cascades that really hypnotizes me when I see them.  I could just look at the moving water for hours.  The patterns of the rocks is what makes it all so interesting.  This section of the creek really illustrated this quality for me.  The rocks were strewn about with total randomness, yet everything just fit together so well.  It is the wonder of nature, and I was so happy that I was able to photograph it.

Not wanting to spend all my time with this section of the creek, I decided to move on down the trail.  My ultimate goal was to get to High Shoals Falls and go beyond it to complete the loop trail.  I told myself that I wasn’t going to bother with scenes that I had photographed before unless they were noticeably better than previous times I had visited.  That concept was put to the test at the fork in the creek.

When I got there, I could see that the water was moving rather nicely, and was possibly a little more voluminous than previous attempts.  However, there wasn’t anything in the way of compositions that held a candle to my recent Autumn shots from this area.  I quickly decided to move on down the trail.

Taking a Bow

My second test came just a few steps down the trail when I arrived at my favorite yawning tree.  I looked and found that the water was looking better than my last time here.  The lighting was definitely better as well.  I decided to stop here and give it a few shots.  I opted to use my 24-70mm lens with the same Singh Ray filter on the end.  I got in position on one of the rocks that gave me the best view of the little waterfall as it plunged between the rocks.

I was missing the Autumn colors this time, but I was thinking that the overall image was a good bit stronger than what I had several months ago.  The anchor of the image was the waterfall, and the tree that I love so much worked the midground.  From this angle it really looked like the tree was taking an overly dramatic bow…so of course, that became the title of the piece.

Kinetic Energy

I still wanted more of the tree, and decided to flip the camera on its side to compose a portrait shot of the scene.  This allowed me to emphasize the tree a little bit more.  The only problem with the tree was that there were a couple of fallen branches that were poking over the rock that I had initially seen as a distraction for an up close shot of the tree.  However, upon looking at it once again, I decided that the tree looked like a skier getting ready to jump off of the rock, while the fallen branches looked like the skis.  I know, I read too much into a scene, but you have to admit…you can’t help but see it too.  With the arms sticking straight up, the body leaning forward, and the skis about to clear the rock, there is a lot of implied energy here.  Add to it the motion of the water, and this image is full of motion.  It is one of my favorites from this location because of that.

From here, it wasn’t too long before I got to my favorite section of secondary cascades.  The first one had a lot more flow to it than normal, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to try shooting it just yet.  I moved to the other side where I have always had good luck.  Ironically, there was too much water on this side.  I just wasn’t feeling very good about making good pictures with the current flow.  I opted instead, to go back to the other side, and climb over the railing.  Once on the ground, I was seeing some pretty good compositions from this section.  One of which is the opening image to this entry.  It is also the first time I have used the boardwalk in a composition.  Considering I always try to eliminate the man made aspects in my waterfall pictures, I actually really like this shot.

A Sacred Splash

With the waterfall being rather narrow and tall, I thought that I would do pretty well using my 16-35mm lens with the polarizer.  It worked out rather well, and allowed me to include foreground interest, as well as getting in close to the lowest cascade to emphasize it in the composition.  I forget how much fun the wide angle lens can be at times.  I enjoyed playing with it on this section that normally I would have used my middle lens on.

Moment in Time

I spent a pretty good amount of time here moving around an inch here, and an inch there.  It was all about how the different cascades lined up, and how they related to the other elements in the scene.  With the perspective of the super wide angle lens, I was constantly reminded that position is everything.  I had to be aware of every aspect of the composition, knowing that I was constructing every element as they related to one another.  No point and click here, that’s for sure!

Eventually, I determined that I had everything that I wanted to get, and I packed the camera back up.  I gave the next section a second look, but I was positive that there was just too much water for the images I was wanting to make.  It was time to start climbing the stairs at this point.  Normally, I would just turn around since I am just not a fan of High Shoals Falls.  Today, I had promised myself another shot at it though.  I bit my lip and climbed the hundred and some steps to the overlook.

High Shoals Falls

As you can see, this is pretty much just a steep water slide.  There is not much in the way of details in the water.  If I were to have used a long shutter speed, it would have just been featureless white streaks down the rock.  That wasn’t what I was going for at all.  Looking at the scene, I decided that my 24-70mm lens would be the best tool for the job, along with the Color Combo Polarizer.  There were several issues that I was going to need to address before being able to shoot though.

First, there was a nice overlook that got you right up to the waterfall.  This same overlook appears in so many pictures of the waterfall because you just about can’t avoid it.  My solution was to set the tripod up on two legs, and swing the third over the railing for stability.  This was where having independent legs is a must for a landscape photographer.  With the ballhead positioned just inside of the railing, I was able to compose an image that didn’t include the railing.

Second, since I was so close to the waterfall, I was getting a lot of spray which was going right on my front element.  There was no way to block it and still have a field of view.  My solution was to work very quickly and minimize the time in the spray.

Third, the wooden surface that I was set up on was less than solid.  When I moved, the camera would move.  That meant that when I was ready to release the shutter, I had to remain rock steady and even hold my breath as the timer went though the 2 second countdown and released the shutter for a fraction of a second.


With all of this, it is a wonder why I even tried to photograph this waterfall.  The images still aren’t knocking on the door to my all time favorite waterfall images, but it was nice to shoot it again after so long avoiding it.  I did manage to get an intimate picture that is a little bit thought provoking…at least for me.  I had never noticed that one of the rocks near the bottom looked like head.  For what ever reason, today I saw it as just that.  The large branch was situated as if to help the person being overtaken by the water.  It could also be the object holding the person under the water.  Sadly, when I look at this picture, I see Toni dealing with her struggles with Bipolar Disorder.  The medications which are supposed to help seem to cause so many other issues, and I can see her desperation as the days go on.  I’ve always wanted to do a photography project to illustrate Bipolar Disorder.  I think that maybe this one could be part of that project.

Cascade Waves

Back to happy thoughts…

After about four times here, I finally decided to continue down (or rather, up) the trail.  There were more steps leading to the top of the waterfall.  I’m thinking about 200 more steps give or take.  I wasn’t sure what was beyond High Shoals Falls, but I was sure I was going to find out today.  It actually didn’t take too long to get to the top.  When I did, I found a couple of small cascades along the rocky surface.  They weren’t much, but I was here, I might as well get the camera out.

I would have loved to have gotten down to the water level, but I saw plenty of signs saying not to cross the fence.  These signs were a little different than the others I’ve seen at waterfalls.  These actually had the General Statute number on them.  That make it a little more serious, and I opted to follow the direction of the signs and stay on my side of the fence.  Because of that, I was going to need the reach of my 70-200mm lens.

Spilling Over

I needed to get as close to the water as I could to get the angles I was after.  In order to do that, I did something very similar with the tripod as I had done at the waterfall a few minutes prior.  This allowed me to get much closer to the railing than I would have been able to otherwise.  I started to hunt compositions, and I fired off several frames as I attempted to capture what I saw.  It all came down to the angles, and incorporating the elements that found important in a way that made sense.

Liquid Fingers

Because of where I was having to shoot from, isolations turned out to be a great compositional solution.  I was able to pick out the bits of cascades that I found most interesting.  I also found out that the water was reflecting the colors of the rocks as well as the trees on the shore.  This gave some interesting color tones to the image.  Of course, it was the textures of the water that I was most interested in.

When I was satisfied that I had all I needed from this location, I continued down the trail.  I didn’t know what else I was going to run into, but was hoping that there were more pictures to be had.  Well, there really weren’t.  The clouds which had barely stayed in the sky were now pretty much gone.  The lighting was not great at this point, and I found myself concentrating on where I was stepping since I was hiking steadily down a steep hill at this point.  There would have been a few interesting things in the fog, but for the present conditions, it was just a nice hike with no reason to take the camera out.

I thought about going down another trail, but the sky wasn’t really looking all that great, so I decided that I would go and see about maybe photographing that tractor I had seen on the way in.  I loaded everything up in the truck and started back out of the park.  The tractor wasn’t far from the entrance, so I started looking once I got out of the park.  When I saw it, there was a guy working on a truck right beside of it.  Could it be that easy?  I pulled into the driveway and introduced myself to him.  I explained why I was there, and found that he was very willing to let me photograph the tractor.  Jackpot!

Just Tired

As it turns out, I picked a great day to be here.  After seeing it in front of the shed for some time now, I was being informed that there was a buyer coming to pick the tractor up later this afternoon.  With only hours to spare, I had gained permission to get up close and personal with the tractor.  I noticed that there was a good bit of clutter on the ground, but I thought that it helped to tell the story of “redneck living.”   That was how the owner put it when he asked if I just liked photographing “redneck living.”  I had to laugh, because in all honesty, I guess I do.  Regardless of how you label the scene though, it all worked together so well.  The siding on the shed matched the oxidized paint on the tractor, and both objects had a similar accent color of red.  The balance here was perfect, and quite frankly, it looked staged for the purpose of photography.

I was very lucky that for the time that I was working the tractor, the clouds had covered the sun just enough to give me that all important even lighting.  I can’t express how lucky I was for this scene to work out when it did.  Had I passed it by once again, I would have never seen it again.  The conditions couldn’t have been any better which made it an even sweeter victory.  And the icing on the cake…an old house being held up by a tree.

Delicate Balance

Off to the side of his property was an old house that was barely standing.  In fact, it was two trees that kept it from collapsing it looked like.  I had seen this house from the road, but never thought it worthy enough to stop and shoot.  Now that I was out with the camera, and had access to the field, I really had not reason not to photograph the old house.  I’ll admit, it was not the easiest of compositions.  I couldn’t get it from the front because the fallen covered porch ruined the flow of a composition.  The tree nearly blocking the window made it difficult to get from the side, and shooting from the rear corner was an odd composition.  It was my only choice though, and that was just what I did.  I shot one singe frame after attempting about a dozen compositions.  I figured if this wouldn’t work, nothing was going to.

After this, I packed the camera up and thanked the property owner before heading back down the road.  I spent the next hour looking for other subjects.  I saw a few potential compositions, but the light was just too harsh at this point.  I will just have to come back on another day to try to get some more rural scenes in Connelly Springs, NC.

The day was actually rather successful with 100 frames saved in the camera.  Of those, I found 15 that were worth keeping.  I really have no complaints at all from the day.  The weather was good when I needed it to be, and I had great conditions with the waterfalls.  It was a great day, and it was sure nice to get out and go for a nice long hike.  I needed the recharge!