Return to Catawba Falls

· Reading Time: 19 minutes

Friday, March 13, 2020

Gradual Descent“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

It seems that this month is getting away from me rather quickly.  I’ll be honest and let you know that I just haven’t had the time to get out much with the camera over the past week due to some personal issues going on.  Without getting into any details, things have been rather hard on my family since last Friday, but we are on the mend now gradually.  While it has been a sad time, there is also a bit of a silver lining which is helping us keep positive.  Thanks to that silver lining, I have been able to keep my creative energy going and my want to get out and do some photography which I really didn’t expect would be the case.  With most of the tasks done that were able to be addressed at this early stage, I saw the opportunity to get out and play a little with the camera while Sierra was at school and Toni played with roses in the yard.  The question was a simple one; where to go?

My initial thoughts, based on a good cloud cover for the day was to go to Stone Mountain where I could either hike up to the upper trails and capture some grand landscapes, or I could go low and work on the stream coming from Stone Mountain Falls.  Either way, I would have some good hiking to do, and lots of opportunities to capture images.  The only hangup that I had with that plan was that I have been to Stone Mountain so many times through the years that I really don’t think that I can get much in the way of new compositions.  I was wanting to try something that I’ve either never been to, or a place that I haven’t been to much.  As I was contemplating locations I recalled somebody mentioning Catawba Falls a few days ago.  I had been here only once before and the idea immediately excited me.  I checked the weather for Old Fort and determined that it was going to be just about perfect for waterfall photography.  The rain would be leaving the area around 10am and the clouds would remain for the rest of the day.

The plan was for me to head West at about 8am which would get me there just as the rain was ending so I could make the hike up to the waterfall and hopefully have some quality time all alone with it.  I knew from experience and from reading about this waterfall that it tends to attract a lot of visitors since it is just off of the highway.  My last time going had been in the summer on a Sunday, so I was hoping that during the week on a rainy early Spring day that I might get lucky and have the place to myself.  Unfortunately, when I got there, I wasn’t alone, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  There were only a handful of cars in the parking lot and I could deal with that as last time it was pretty full.

Green Carpet Melody“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I was familiar with the hike this time and didn’t try to run out to the waterfall like last time.  I just settled into a regular hiking pace and started to cover the ground needed to get to the waterfall 1.3 miles away.  Not long after starting the hike I crossed bridge that I remembered seeing last time with the remains of an old stone structure at the entrance.  It was an interesting building and it caught my eye.  I didn’t care for the sign at the door that warned of climbing on the historic structures.  There really wasn’t a composition there anyway so I moved on across the bridge.  On the other side, I turned and looked once last time at the building.  I was starting to see a composition coming through here with the bridge leading to the stone walls.  Just under it was a cascading section of the stream that would make a pretty good foreground.  I wasn’t quite convinced how I would go about shooting it though so I opted to continue on with my hike before the crowds showed up and caused me issues with the waterfall.  I did keep this scene in my mind though as I was pretty sure I would shoot it on the way back.

As I continued up the trail, it was much easier than I remembered it being last time and I had no complaints at all.  I paused at different sections to see if there was anything that I might like to shoot along the trail.  The water flow was significantly better than the the last time which I appreciated.  This meant that there were more areas that would attract my attention and I was on the lookout for them.  When I came to the dam I saw the waterfall there was looking really good.  The problem was there was just no good way to get into position to shoot it with a clean composition.  I didn’t spend a lot of time there as I had just passed one hiker and had seen another couple up ahead of me.  I continued on with the hike and just filed the dam in my mind for the return trip.  Just past the dam there was a small water feature that I thought might be worth stopping for, but I didn’t have the time right now.  I had now passed three hikers and I knew that they were headed right where I was going.  I wanted a few minutes to size up the waterfall before having to deal with other hikers in the area.

It seemed much quicker to get to the waterfall this time, and it actually was.  I spent a total of 25 minutes hiking up to the main falls and didn’t feel that it was nearly as steep this time.  Guess this old guy still can carry his own in the back country.  I started to survey the area and look for compositions.  The waterfall was looking really good with about twice the flow that I had seen before.  It wasn’t quite as good as I have seen it in pictures, but this was workable and that was all I was interested in.  I wanted to get an overall shot of the waterfall out of the way since I was going to have company soon enough.  For the moment, I was alone, and that was great!

I found the angle that I was going to want to shoot the waterfall from and set the tripod up.  I then found a rock to place my Lowepro Whistler Bag on before pulling out my camera and mounting the 16-35mm lens.  This is a large waterfall and I wanted to be able to capture it in that impressive size.  I started out with a nice vertical composition using some of the rocks as a foreground anchor but found the composition a little mundane for my tastes.  I was pretty sure that I had captured the scene with just this framing before.  I decided to flip the camera to a landscape orientation with the RRS L-Plate so I could get a little visual tension in the composition.  That seemed to work out quite nice, and all I had to do was watch for the separation between the foreground rock and the bottom of the cascades.

Sloping Spray“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200 f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Things were going well, and I was getting a handful of exposures captured as the other hikers started to join me.  They were very respectful and allowed me to continue with my photography as they enjoyed the sights from the shoreline.  Not wanting to press my luck, I wrapped up my wide angle shooting and started to change my focus to isolations.  I remembered that this was where I got my favorite images the last time due to the decreased water flow.  This time, the water was different, but the local points of interest were still very strong with this waterfall.  I went ahead a fitted my long 70-200mm lens and started to pick out compositions along the path of the waterfall.  I was having some reasonable success with that combination but I wanted to get in even closer.  I went back to my bag and pulled out my 2X extender and started to search out compositions beyond 200mm.  This was actually going quite well and I was liking the compositions in the camera, but strangely enough, when I got them home, none of them really spoke to me.  It was one of the early isolations that I had shot without the extender that really appealed to me.  It was slightly different than the ones that I had shot before because it included the cascade to the left.  Unfortunately, the same log was still perched along the path and provided a bit of a visual stumbling block for my eyes, but I did try to compose the image to where it made sense to the image.

I really didn’t spend much time here at this waterfall, and found that I wasn’t as excited to work it this time as I was the previous time.  It was better than before, but the compositions were still limited to ones that I had shot already and I didn’t really care for that.  Since there were getting to be several groups of people arriving here, and at least one person a bit further up the trail smoking what I am pretty sure was illegal, I decided to pack my gear up and head back down the trail to check out some of the locations that I had passed by earlier.  As I packed and started to walk back down the trail, I was met by several large groups.  I had gotten here just in time to be able to enjoy just a few minutes alone with the waterfall and I was very thankful that I had arrived when I did.  Had I gotten there 15 minutes later things would have been quite different.

I was now passing by the first of the sections that I had wanted to hit on the way back.  There were two different cascading sections here that I found slightly interesting.  One of them was a rock wall that was layered diagonally with the water running over the face showing off the angles.  The other part was just a simple cascade with some interesting rocks around it.  I really didn’t think I would get anything from that second part, but the diagonal rock was calling my name for sure.  I started to look for the best way to get into position, and while I was looking at the area, I could see a small beige snake swimming in the water.  While I am not afraid of snakes, I do respect them and made a prominent mental note to be on the watch for snakes close to the water.

Stone Faced“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, EF 2X Mk3, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I shimmied down to the water and found a fallen tree was blocking my view of the diagonal cascade, but there was just enough room under it to set the camera up.  I started out with my 24-70mm lens, but quickly realized that the compositions that I was wanting would be at 70mm and beyond, so I swapped over to my 70-200mm lens which gave me the reach to get the composition that I was after.  I got the camera mounted to the tripod and started to dial in the composition.  I tried both vertical and horizontal approaches and found that the horizontal ones helped bring the attention to the diagonal layers of the rock.  I didn’t get but just a couple of frames of this since there just weren’t that many options on how to frame it.  Feeling a little let down by this subject, I turned my attention to the other cascade and found that with the angle that I was at, there were some interesting designs taking place.  I swung the camera around to that side and started to work compositions.  There was a fallen tree that was right at the top of the cascade that really ruined the image for me.  I looked for a way to get to the tree and move it, but I really didn’t see a safe way of doing that so I had to adapt my composition.

Looking at the way the water and the rocks interacted, I started to see that the real story of this cascade was a very small section that was pretty much under the rock itself.  My lens didn’t quite have the reach to get that framed the way I wanted, so I pulled out my 2X extender which would give me plenty of reach to isolate that section.  That did the trick and I was able to find two different compositions that I planned on doing as black and white images when I got them home.  The horizontal image had just enough color to warrant staying a color image with the right balance of warm and cool color temperatures.  It was the vertical one that I had the most fun with though.  That one didn’t have the same warm tones to it, but I still couldn’t bring myself to pull the color out of the frame.  I wanted to leave this one in color, but I decided to take an artsy approach to the processing and I desaturated it by a large percentage and cooled the image overall with the color temperature.  I started to see a mood developing here that I had not seen in the field, but it sure captured the monochrome feeling, although without being monochrome.  In my maturity, I am starting to get drawn to images with less saturation and this is one of those images that I think works fantastic with only a hint of color through the entire frame.

Both of these last two photographs are of the same section of the rock, and were shot just minutes apart.  This shows just how important the composition and processing is to an image.  You would be hard pressed to see these as the same location just by looking at them.  I included both of them here in the blog because I really think that they both say something completely different and I wanted them both to be heard.   My favorite of the two is the vertical composition though.  There is just something so raw about that image, and it took very little in post processing to make it work as it does.

After finishing up with these two isolations I moved on down the trail and came up the dam again.  The waterfall flowing over it was very impressive and the flow was just perfect.  I even had a tree with exposed roots near the top of the falls which really looked great.  There was a wonderful rock wall on the opposite side of the waterfall that I wanted to capture just for the textures in it.  All of the elements were there, and I was really wanting to get something great here.  I pulled out the camera and fitted the wide angle lens which I figured would cover any composition that I was wanting to try.  I then set about the business of finding a composition which was much harder than I though it would be.

Cascading Contrasts“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, EF 2X Mk3, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I kept running into problems with the compositions which kept me from liking the images as much as I was hoping.  The perspective was all off, and no matter how I shot it, the picture looked very crooked and awkward to look at.  I could achieve balance in the image or I could achieve a level composition, but I couldn’t do both.  It was rather frustrating, and in the end, I had about a half dozen frames of this waterfall that I seriously doubted would even reach the processing stage.  I hated to admit defeat, but unless I could get down to the base to where I could get a level perspective on it, I was going to be out of luck.  I could see a possible way to get down to the base, but it appeared as though I was going to have to put up with all of the debris at the bottom which would block my view of the pool which was quite important to the composition.  I never tried it out because I had lost interest in this waterfall.  I had one more location that I wanted to visit which I was feeling pretty good about and I was starting to draw a crowd where I was sitting at the dam.  For simplicity, I left the camera mounted to the tripod and continued walking down the trail.

I think it was maybe 10 minutes before I got to the last bridge.  I was still feeling pretty good about this composition, but I now had to worry about hikers on the trail and the bridge.  I knew that I wanted to include the bridge, and that was going to make the trail be included as well.  Looking at the cascades below, I started to see a composition coming together.  In order to make it work though, I was going to need to get down into the stream.  Fortunately, it was a very simple scramble and I was set and ready to start finding my composition.

I’ll admit that this one was a bit difficult.  My first composition started out to the right which put the structure in the upper right third with the cascades making up a strong foreground balanced out with some large rocks to the left.  The bridge made for a great leading line into the frame, but by including this, I had a large expanse of sky in the upper left corner.  I didn’t like that, so I moved my position to the left to eliminate the sky.  The exposure immediately looked better, but the composition was much more static with the building now sitting dead in the middle of the frame.  Plus the bridge was shortened with the opposing trees taking up way more than their share of the frame in order to keep the cascades completely in the frame.

Route to Ruin“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad, Mor Slo 5-stop ND Filter

I gradually worked my way back to the left and found that the composition that I had started out with was the best option.  I just needed to deal with the sky at this point.  I went to my bag of tricks and started to pull out some ND Grads to see if I could get the sky to calm down.  Of course, I still had my Color Combo Polarizer attached which had been on all day long by this point.  I started out with a 3-stop hard edge ND Grad which really took a bit out of the sky.  By canting the Lee Holder to the left, I was able to have the filter affect just the bright area of the sky.  In the LCD, it was looking good, but I knew that I was going to have to massage the exposure of the trees and part of the bridge in post in order to use a grad filter like this.  Using a soft edge filter would have been a better choice, but by doing that, in order to get the bite out of the sky that I was after, I would have to pull the filter down much too far and darken the building and the bridge unnecessarily.  However, the more I looked at things, the more I started to realize that I was going to have to do that since the transition was much too harsh using a 3-stop hard edge.  I swapped that out for a 3-stop soft edge and slid that into place.  It looked much better with a very gradual transition line.  The tradeoff for this was I had to accept everything above the water would darken down.  I could pull the shadow detail back out in post, but I would always rather get it right in the camera.  As a last ditch effort, I pulled out the soft edge filter and added a 2-stop hard edge.  There would be less of a change in exposure this way, and I would still be able to use that hard line to avoid darkening important parts of the scene.  This really did the trick and had the benefits of both of the previous filters that I had used.  My exposure was sitting at just a fraction of a second and that wasn’t quite where I wanted it.  I was looking for 3.2 seconds for the flow of the water.  I was going to need to do something more than stopping the lens down though.

I went back to my bag of tricks and pulled out a Mor Slo 5-Stop ND filter which I added in the Lee Holder to make a total of three filters in front of the lens.  This gave me a six second exposure at f/9 which was perfect for what I was needing.  I now had the right combinations of filters and settings to get this image looking like i wanted it to.  Of course, at this point, everyone and their brother was walking over the bridge and trail.  When I did have a brief moment of solitude, a breeze would come by and cause the trees to blow.  It became a waiting game which I was not enjoying at all.  It is part of the process though since I don’t own the parks.  I have to wait my turn at times, and this was one of those times.  I was lucky enough to get a few frames off when there was nobody in the composition and I thought that the trees were still.

I had shot a bunch of images of this scene and had been sitting here for every bit of 30 minutes waiting on all of the conditions to line up just right.  The image that I ended up selecting was one of the last ones that I shot and it was the one where I had everything line up just right.  The bridge and trail were clear, the wind was calm, and I even got a little sunlight on the stone building which helped to bring more attention to it.  Out of the 90 images that I had shot by this point in the day, this was the one that I was most excited about.  I wasn’t sure how it would come out in processing, but I was pretty sure that if this image turned out well, it would make the entire trip worth it.  I had figured that I was going to be doing a lot of work with this image since it was a special one to me, but I was very surprised to find that it only required very minimal editing because the lighting conditions had been so good at the time of capture.  This image was one of the quickest ones to process out of the whole bunch, and that was saying something since none of them really took that much time to edit.

When I was pretty satisfied with the images that I had shot for the day, I decided to head on back to the truck which was not far at all from this bridge.  I tossed my gear in the back and hopped in the driver’s seat.  I wasn’t quite ready to call it quits though so I took the long way home in search of some more compositions.  Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out the way I would have hoped.  i didn’t find anything else to photograph all the way back into Morganton.  I wasn’t upset because I knew I had at least one image from the day that would be a really good one.  It had been really good to get out for a while with the camera and put some of the stressors of the past week behind me.  I even enjoyed the country drive that I got to take on the back roads.  It was just a really good day and I’m so happy that I get the chance to share it with you.

If you have seen any images here or in my other blogs that you wish to have a print of, please let me know so I can get started with your order.  My images are intended to be viewed and enjoyed in a tangible form, and while seeing them on the computer is very convenient, you really are missing out on all of the great detail that each photograph has to offer.  I love making prints and sharing my visions with others, so it would be my pleasure to help match you up with your favorite print.

Until next time…
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