South Mountains and Waterfalls

· Reading Time: 13 minutes

Sunday, December 30, 2018

If you will recall on my trek yesterday, I was also considering shooting some waterfalls at South Mountains State Park.  The weather first thing in the morning would have been great for waterfalls, but it faded quick enough.  It did leave me wanting to do some waterfall photography with all of the rain that we have been having so you can imagine how happy I was to see that the weather for Sunday was looking even better for waterfalls with mostly cloudy skies all day long.  Since I had been wanting to go back to South Mountains, that was a natural choice for me.  It would mean waking up early in order to get to the park before the people and to beat the sun if it should happen to peek out.  I was on the road by 6:30 headed West under a cloudy sky.  There was even lots of water on the road from the early morning rains that had come through the area.  This was going to be a good day!

Stone Stacks, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I remember thinking to myself as I was driving down I-40 that it seems like every time I go to South Mountains the weather does strange things for me.  It is actually very normal for the weather to show clouds and on the way to the park the sky clears up and I can see the stars long before the sun comes up.  I was so excited that I could see clouds in the sky and they looked really thick which was a good thing.  I was thinking about all the possibilities that awaited me after the rains that the mountains have gotten.  Who knows, I might get some more really cool colors in the water like I had at Styers Mill Falls a week ago.  I was going to have a great day, that was all I knew.

As the sun was coming up I could see a little slit in the clouds in my rear view mirror which I thought was really pretty.  Had I been somewhere a bit more picturesque than on the highway through Statesville, I would have shot that sky.  There was really no color in the sky as the sun came up with was a very good thing for me since that meant that the clouds were really thick.  They did have some awesome textures though.  I was picturing how they would look over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I was driving.  I was really in the mode of being a photographer at this point.  Life was great and I was well on my way to having a full day of waterfall photography.

But wait….

I cleared my mind for a minute and came back to the here and now.  The sky was still looking pretty, but there was color up there now.  I could even see blue in places.  What in the world?  The clouds were clearing.  My luck with South Mountains looked to be holding with the weather never following the forecast.  I was committed at this point, so I plowed on to the park.  There were some clouds in the sky, and I was hoping that they were moving into the area for at least a little while.  Fortunately, I knew that I would have a couple of hours while the park was in the shade of the mountains before the sun would really pose a problem for me.  I was back to my normal crossing of the fingers going through the back roads headed to the park.

When the Curtain Falls, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I got to the parking lot the sky was looking cloudy once again.  I wasn’t sure how long it would last, but I was going to take advantage of it while I could.  I grabbed my gear and mounted the tripod to the bag so that I could move with a quickness through the trails.  I actually passed by several places that I would normally stop and photograph, but I didn’t want to waste the light that I had knowing that I was here for the water that was flowing in the lower cascades of High Shoals Falls.  As an interesting side note, I had no intention of visiting the main drop of the waterfall because I find it less than worth the climb of the 300 or so steps that lead to the observation platform.  For my money and time, the lower parts of this waterfall are much better for photography.

I reached the boardwalk where the lower cascades were and started to size up my options.  I was really happy with the flow of water.  In fact, there was so much water that I was a little concerned about being able to get into position below the boardwalk.  I did the normal climb and shuffle to get down to the ground level where I knew the better compositions were found.  Since I was in very close, and I wanted to emphasize the foreground interests that were there I mounted my 16-35mm lens and added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  This would be the perfect setup for this section of the waterfall.

Pelo Blanco, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Something that I immediately noticed was I was right in the middle of an onslaught of spray from the waterfalls.  You see, right in this section there are basically thee different waterfall sections and I was about 12 feet from each of them.  My gear was getting soaked with the spray, as was I.  My main concern was the filter which was getting some spray on it.  I was a little worried that it would ruin the photos with the water drops, so I was constantly wiping it off.  Sadly though, there were a handful of images that I brought home that had water spots from this spray.  Such is the life of a waterfall photographer though.  That is why I shoot multiple images many time with waterfalls.

One of the sections that I was really happy with was the one pictured directly above.  I have shot this balanced rock before and really liked the composition, but the water flow was minimal which I was looking to change this time.  I fought for a good composition with the water flowing the way it was.  I tried both vertical and horizontal compositions and knew that I would be cropping once I got home to process it.  I was having a real hard time getting a good visual flow since I was unable to stand where I had before due to the higher water.  What I ended up doing was creating a square crop which had a nice balance for the scene.  When I looked at the picture, all I could see was a woman with long white hair.  I thought about naming the image White Hair, but that was just so boring and not fitting of the image that I was seeing.  I figured I could spice it up a bit by translating it into Spanish.  Now it has that little touch of spice that I was after which was befitting of the image.

Sifting For Gold, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I had gotten a bunch of images from these set of cascades but I was starting to repeat my compositions and I was getting wetter by the minute.  It was time to work my way back to the boardwalk and go to the other side of the rock that I just shot to get a fourth cascade that I wanted to capture.  I left the camera set up the exact same way as I was going to be down on the ground once again shooting the images.  Hmmm, getting down on this side was a bit more difficult than the other section.  Normally, I could just rock hop to get up into position, but there was too much water flowing today.  I ended up setting the camera down on a fully extended tripod and was barely able to reach the ground with it.  I then went back to the beginning of the boardwalk and started to hug the railing as I walked on the outside.  Wet, mossy wood is very slick, and I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I was here and committed at this point.  I made it over the deep parts of the water and rejoined my camera sitting patiently by the boardwalk.  I had to get this section because it was just a trickle the last time I shot it.  This time the water was nice and swollen.

One of the things that I really liked about this section was the small pebbles that had washed up in a pile where I was shooting from.  They were a great golden color, and added some great texture to the shot.  I tried to use these as a foreground with several different compositions which really worked well.  One composition that I had used here before that turned out really good was a wide shot that included the boardwalk.  I decided to give that a try and actually shot two of them that worked well.  The opening image for this entry was one of those and highlighted a cairn that had been made out of the stones.  It was a sweeping view of the scene that was cropped to a 16:9 ratio to really give it the feel I thought it deserved.  You can see the cairn as well as much of the boardwalk which gives this a great sense of scale when you look at the waterfall on the right.  There is a lot going on with this picture, but it seemed to be relatively well organized.

Going Up, Coming Down, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The other version is a bit simpler and one that I think I like slightly better, but it says something completely different which is why I kept both of the images.  I zoomed in a bit more for this second one and only had a hint of the boardwalk at the point where it starts to climb.  I really like the diagonal that this introduces and kept my position low to cause the level part of the boardwalk to give another diagonal element for a bit of drama.  The star here is the waterfall which is how it should be.  There is a nice boulder situated in the foreground that anchors the entire image.  There was just so much character with this cascade that I actually kept three images just from here.  The more complex section only yielded two images, although there were an additional two that I processed that were slightly different that I liked, just not better than the two posted here.  There would have been a third image added  that included two of the three falls, but the two images that I shot of that were plagued with water spots that were causing lens flare thanks to the sun wanting to poke through the clouds.

I was pretty sure that I had everything that I wanted from this section and I still had one more section to visit on the way back to the truck.  The sun was starting to become problematic, but so far I was able to time the shots for when the clouds covered it.  My exposures were getting shorter, and I was having to stop down the lens a bit more as I was going.  I just knew that I wanted to get my yawning tree which I typically shoot, only I have not seen this much flow before and I knew I would be getting something much different from I had captured before.

Jacob’s Jump, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The hike wasn’t far and before I knew it, I was rock hopping to get into position.  I was really happy to see the water looking like it did.  The last time I had tried this composition, it was a trickle at best and I had just one little cascade.  Today, I was looking at a dynamic mountain stream.  My main goal was to capture the yawning tree that has been there since forever.  It adds so much to the composition I think, and it is in just the right spot to really work well with many different compositions.  Knowing what I wanted to include, I really didn’t need my wide angle lens which would have caused the tree to shrink a bit in the images, so I fitted my 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  I had to do some pretty good cleaning of it first though since it was really smeared from my last section of falls.  I was up and running in a matter of minutes, but the sun was starting to crest the mountains and it was getting brighter by the second.

I started working my way across the rock that I was standing on trying to get the best composition.  It was not quite as easy as it would appear since the water was flowing so much.  I found myself much further out in the path of the water than I had needed to go previously.  I was rewarded with some really great compositions.  I just had to wait until the sun was hidden before I snapped the shots.  It was a slower process than before having to wait between exposures, but I was already seeing that I was getting images better than I expected just in the LCD.  I was really excited about this location, and my tree which continues to look like somebody about to go off of a ski jump.

Leap of Faith, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

While still wanting to frame the shot around the tree, I could see so much potential around shooting this image as a horizontal composition.  The flow of water was just that kind of impressive to me.  I framed up a similar shot, but one that included much more of the water, and the overall mountain stream aspects of this scene.  The way the water builds up to the right compliments the tree to the left for a great sense of balance for the image.  There are multiple elements that are pointing to the tree as well which really make this image work.  I’m a huge fan of both of these images and I can’t really decide which is more effective.  The vertical one is a bit more deliberate with more visual impact, but the horizontal one is much more relaxing to look at and visually explore.  I can see uses for both of these images very easily, and that is why I kept them both.  Now which one will go into the gallery, that is the real question!

When I was wrapping up here and getting ready to go downstream to shoot some isolation/abstracts, I saw that I was walking into my shadow.  The sun was now over the mountains and was shining down into the stream area.  Waterfall photography seems to follow similar rules to Groundhog Day.  If I see my shadow, it is time to stop shooting moving water and go on to something else.  That is what I did, even though occasionally a cloud would cover the sun and kill the shadow.  The light was just too bright at this point for what I wanted to capture.  Truth be told, I wasn’t really looking forward to shooting the abstracts today, so it was no big loss that I had lost the light.

My plan was to go and search out some rural scenes or maybe some rusty cars after leaving the park.  I had forgotten that I was about out of gas when I parked the truck, and that became a problem.  My first plan was to find a gas station, which I somehow managed to miss all the way to the highway.  I ended up stopping in Hickory for gas.  I did find a great location for some old cars, and saw some fantastic rural scenes which I will eventually be back for with some different weather conditions.  It was just getting too sunny for me at this point. I was happy with the 70 images that I had captured in the 2.5 hours I was at the park.  Of those, I decided to keep seven images as my favorites from the morning.  I have an additional four that I liked, but decided to hold onto them for another time if I ever wanted to come back to them again.

This is the first time in a very long time I have gone on two treks in a weekend.  It was a lot of fun, and I shot a lot of different types of things which always is a fun way to do photography.  This will wrap up my 2018 as I am back to work for the last day of the year.  It is time to start looking forward to what is to come in 2019!  Happy New Year!