The 2020 Fall Waterfall Workshop Recap

· Reading Time: 18 minutes

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Well this is a special day indeed.  It has been a year, almost to the day since my last workshop which happened to be the 2019 Winter Waterfall Workshop at Hanging Rock.  Since that time I had scheduled eight workshops for the 2020 calendar year.  The only one that I was able to do before COVID was a classroom workshop on the Introduction to the Art of Photography which honestly didn’t go as well as I had thought that it would.  After that, I was gearing up for my Spring Waterfall Workshop to kick off the field work for the year, but that one fell victim to both a partial closing of Hanging Rock due to a controlled burn within the park, and then the increasing lockdown guidance from the State.  That workshop was ultimately cancelled as was the following workshops one at a time through the rest of the year.  With COVID restrictions lifting, I started to have hopes for the last three workshops of the year starting with the Fall Foliage Workshop at Stone Mountain.  There was very little interest in that one and nobody signed up for it.  A couple of weeks after that I had a Decay Workshop scheduled that followed the same path and left me an empty dance card.  I understood though as folks are a little apprehensive about doing things things right now, and I’m a little hesitant to offer them with the threat of having to cancel them being a very real possibility.

My track record for the year doing workshops was starting to look like a complete bust and I was just going to have to take with stride as things were completely out of my control.  I had one ace in the hole though as I had an early sign-up for my last workshop of the year which was ironically the same workshop that I had last done in 2019, and the first one to get cancelled in 2020.  It was also the first workshop that I ever offered in 2018.  With one participant in the books I knew that baring any lockdowns in the state, or park closures I would be able to do the workshop.  Yes, I have no problem doing a workshop for only one person, although the more the merrier as they say.

As the time got closer, I had one other participant sign up to join in and that gave me hopes for a few more possibly.  Unfortunately, that was going to be it.  Clarke and Robert were going to be the group.  It was the smallest workshop that I have done to date, but it was a chance to get out and share my passion for photography in the field and hopefully help others to reach their own goals behind the camera.  I was still very nervous about what would happen as December 5th approached.  After early November the COVID news was starting to really increase and it was seeming like another shut down was going to be implemented.  If that was to happen, all I could hope for was that there would be some sort of loophole where I could still conduct the workshop under the umbrella of social distancing and being outside in nature.  It was a long shot, but I wasn’t wanting to have to cancel this if at all possible.

There was another fold that caused me concern as we got closer to the date.  I was checking with the Hanging Rock website to see what the news was around the park functions.  I was surprised to see that the visitor’s center was closed since early October for a remodel.  This doesn’t seem like a big issue, but the restrooms were housed in that building which works out well considering that the workshop is based out of that parking lot.  Secondly, I use the covered area of the back porch for the Lightroom tutorial portion of the workshop to avoid the glare of the sky on the screen.  I was hoping that the exterior of the building was going to be accessible, but I just wasn’t sure.  Fortunately though, I had been working with one of workshop regulars on Lightroom distance learning using Google Meets.  With what I learned through those sessions I was convinced that my Lightroom demo which I normally do on the workshops would work better in this fashion and would allow more time during the day for actual photography.

Ripples in the Rock Pools“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

It seemed like everything was falling into place the closer that we got to the workshop and the chance of closures became less and less.  It was the weather that bothered me the most.  About a week out, the weather seemed promising, but rainy in the morning.  Rain and waterfalls make for a pretty good combination, but not so much of a fun experience for the photographer.  I would take it though as there were supposed to be clouds during the afternoon.  A few more days passed and I checked the weather again to see that the rain was now ending early in the morning before we would be getting started with partial clearing through the day.  That was great as long as the clouds were nice to us.  By Friday though, the weather had cleared out to have sunny skies pretty much all day long.  This is death for waterfall photography in many cases as the highlights are just too difficult to really deal with.  But…the show must go on, and I there are tricks that can be used in the bright sunlight to counter the effect.

When I had originally set this workshop up, it was a very logical choice for me since the park was only about 45 minutes from home.  The fact that there are seven waterfalls in the park makes this a great location for the workshop as well.  I didn’t have any idea that Toni and I would be moving to Purlear in the Summer though, and when it came time to figure out when I was going to need to wake up, I was a little upset at the hour and forty minute commute that I was looking at.  What used to be my closest workshop had just become the furthest one that I have traveled for.  Oh well, its all in a day’s work and I was just happy to finally get back out on the workshop circuit after a full year of waiting.

At 7am when the gates were opening up I pulled up to find Robert was already there at the gate.  As we said a quick hello and started to move through the newly opened gate, a third car showed up.  Sure enough, that was Clarke right on time with the rest of us.  We all pulled into the parking lot together, made introductions and got our gear ready.  I think that this was the smoothest start to the day that I have ever had on a workshop and that was a very good thing because time was of the essence here with the sun looming in the sky.  I knew that the first two locations would be well in the shadows, but after that, it was going to be difficult in bright sunlight to say the least.

Having done this workshop a number of times already I had the timing and the order of events pretty well worked out.  We made our way down to the Window Falls to get started with the day.  It was all downhill which was a great thing until you remember that you have to go back up the hill when finished.  When we got down the falls, I started doing my initial covering of composition and things to consider before even taking out the camera.  Going on Joe’s suggestion from his experience in several of my workshops, I did a demonstration of my workflow and what my thought process was.  Of course, with social distancing, they weren’t able to see what was in my viewfinder as I was hoping to be able to show.  I did walk them through the process of lens selection and picking out the elements that I liked and those that I didn’t.  We talked about the compromises when there are elements that have to be included that you might not like and I ultimately shot this opening image of Window Falls.  The waterflow was much better here than I have seen it in quite some time so I wasn’t upset about taking time to get my own image from here.  It is still not my goal for workshops to have the participants watch me, but there is a certain logic seeing the workflow from beginning to end.

With my one image captured, I didn’t do my normal fine tuning and moving around.  I just broke it all down and got out of the way while Clarke and Robert got their rigs built.  For the next hour or so, they worked the compositions that spoke to them and I bounced back and forth to help them with some tips and tricks along the way.  It was so nice to be back in the role of an instructor.  I enjoy seeing fresh eyes on scenes that I am very used to seeing.  Both had compositions which I had not thought of previously and I thought that they worked rather well.  I tried not to change their ideas at all, rather just pointed out how to improve on them.  My job as the instructor here will never be to teach others how to see like me, but teach them how to convey their own views to others in the most effective way possible.

Here you see Clarke and Robert at the Hidden Falls which was our next stop.  I do this on purpose as that return trip up the trail is quite literally…UP the trail.  To keep from just completely wearing out the participants, I like to use this as a nice stopping point along the way.  It is also a great exercise in perspective on a composition.  When you first come up to it, you see this very awkward waterfall that has no logic or flow to it.  It get to discuss how difficult it is to make sense of the elements from this view.  It is at that point that I will take them down to the other side where the waterfall looks completely different.  It all of a sudden makes sense and all of the elements within the scene come together.

Another benefit from this scene is that focal length becomes a huge tool for the photographer with the scaling of the elements within the scene.  Unlike Window Falls, this waterfall forces you to get up and move around to get the best composition.  It also makes you very aware of how your focal length affects the relationship between the foreground and background.  Both guys did a great job here with slightly different compositions that capitalized on their own personal views of the falls.

By this point, we were well ahead of schedule with only two participants.  They had also opted to pass on the small waterfall above the Window Falls which knocked off another 30 minutes to an hour.  I probably could have grabbed a shot of this waterfall because of that, but knowing that the sun was not going to be forgiving, I didn’t want to put the lighting in jeopardy for the rest of the day, so I didn’t bother with getting a shot here although the waterflow and lighting were quite good here and I would have liked to have gotten one.  Oh well, I’m not out here for my purposes, so there was no loss there at all.

We made our way back to the parking lot and took a quick break before heading out to the Upper Cascades which is one that I like to include because it is a deceptively complex composition and is an awkward exposure with parts of it in the shadows of a rocky embankment.  When we got there, the lighting was already very harsh at the top of the waterfall.  There were also several folks down at the falls enjoying it.  To stay out of their way, I took the opportunity to stay up on the overlook and discuss some of the finer points of this waterfall.  When the folks were done looking at the falls, we started to make our way down, but Clarke had seen a composition that he liked from that overlook.  This is the benefit of doing waterfalls in the late Fall and Winter, you can see them much easier with the leaves gone.

Robert made his way down to see what compositions he would come up with while I stayed up with Clarke to help him with his ideas.  I stayed with him for a bit and saw that Robert was working on some compositions so I went down the stairs to check on him.  We worked out a few things and I returned to Clarke once more.  I had the feeling that he was in good shape and was reading the difficult lighting quite well so I went back down to Robert who was now facing away from the waterfall.

I couldn’t resist and tapped him on the shoulder and gently informed him that the waterfall was behind him.  He was shocked as he had not realized that.  Actually, he was doing exactly what he should be doing.  He was reading the light and had determined that the light on the waterfall was no good at this point, but the light on the opposite side of the pool was quite good and highlighting the root system of a tree growing out of the side of the rock.  Rule number one of a workshop, if one of the participants wants to capture something that speaks to them even though it is not part of the “curriculum” I am all for it.  Robert saw an opportunity to capture something that he liked and I was excited for him.

We worked on how best to capture that composition, and then as luck would have it, there were several opportunities to go over a couple of different filter uses.  By the time we were done with this scene, we had stacked filters, used them both to create his longest exposure to date.  This was my favorite moment of the whole day.  There is just something about seeing the face on a photographer when they unlock a creative tool that they had not considered before.  I can remember when I learned some of these techniques and how they opened my eyes to just what was possible with a camera, and I love being able to share that knowledge with others.

The Mystic’s Dream“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When everyone was happy with what they had at the Upper Cascades we packed up and considered the small waterfall below this one.  Since it was rather wet and it was a scramble path to get to it, they opted to pass on this one.  I can’t say that was a bad decision as I know the water us usually above the ankle to get into position for a picture and often the best compositions are standing up to about your calf.  There was more water flowing here than I had seen before, and neither Robert or Clarke had boots that would keep them dry.  I do try to make sure that my participants don’t get swamp foot or pneumonia while they are out with me, it is the least I can do.

We were headed back to the parking lot for a lunch break at this point.  The sun was out really strong by this point and I was really worried about how the last half of the day would go.  I knew that we only had two more waterfalls to go to, and the Lower Cascades was my favorite of the two, and the most impressive of the park.  I also knew that the sun was going to make it difficult to get a good photo of.  I still wanted them to give it a try as there were some compositional considerations that we could talk about with that waterfall.  It was only a short drive to get to that parking lot and then another short hike to get to the falls.

When we got there, there were three guys swimming in the water.  Now, it is still officially Fall, but the overnight temperatures have been in the 30’s already and it was barely 50 degrees at this point.  More power to them as my heart couldn’t take it.  We worked our way down the stairs to the base of the falls to fine that the water was roaring with two secondary cascades pouring over the rocks from the pool.  The light was kissing the top of the falls creating some really bad highlights, but the lower cascades were all in nice and even shade.  That is the part that we talked about to get started with.  This was a lesson in reading the light more than anything else.  While the main interest was the waterfall, the light was just not good on it.  However there were isolations that could be shot that took advantage of the shadows and even lighting.  I tried to explain what I was seeing and when I said that a 70-200mm lens was probably the best choice I was met with some questioning looks.  I tried to further explain how I was seeing the composition and got them going on their own.

As I started going back and forth between them looking at their interpretations of the scene I realized that they didn’t fully grasp what I had been saying.  Their compositions included too many clues of location which overly complicated the scene.  I decided that instead of trying to work them through my ideas individually, I would just pull my rig out and give it a try.  Using my telephoto lens, I was able to pull in some abstract sections of water in the area of runoff that is normally dry as a bone.  There was a lot of visual interest here to work with and I had a lot of fun working the abstract angles.  When I had several to show, I let them see what I had been seeing.  From here, they both got the concept much better and they continued on with their own compositions with some different creative tools in their pockets.

As the lighting continued to change the opportunities opened up for photographing the main falls.  Robert was the first to give that a try and then Clarke joined in.  The lighting still wasn’t fantastic, but it was better than it had been.  I still had my camera built with the long lens on it and I saw a section of the waterfall which captured my attention right at the base.  It was a composition that I had shot before, but the waterflow was much better for it this time.  I figured I could grab a shot of it really quick without taking away from the workshop experience.  I zoomed right in to 200mm at the base of the falls concentrating on the geometric shape of the bit of embankment that jutted out in front of the falling water.  I used a much quicker shutter speed than I normally would have as the water was really flowing fast and anything longer than a second would just muddy the whole image.  I was wanting to keep the textures in place behind the water, and also I wanted to see the spray.

Breaking the Silence“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I only got a couple of shots of this at some different shutter speeds before I decided to get my gear out of the way.  I wasn’t sure if any of my shots would turn out from the day and it really didn’t matter that much to me either.  I had demonstrated my workflow a couple of times and that was main reason for bringing out the camera during the day.  When I got home, I only had 18 frames from the day, but those were actually better than I expected.  Strangely enough, the 5DS R has a different look when it comes to waterfalls than the 5D Mk3 which I had been using.  I can’t really describe the difference, but there is a lot more detail in places, but I don’t see it as a product of the resolution so much as it really works well with the lenses.  Either way, it does have a different look compared to what I have been used to.  In the end, I ended up with three images that I deemed as keepers.  Nothing really spectacular, but I was happy with how they turned out and I figured they would help tell the story here.

Robert decided to cut out around 3pm since he had a three hour drive to get home which left Clarke and I working on just a few final things on the shore of the Lower Cascades.  We had been discussing going to Tory’s Falls which was just a short drive down the road, but with the light getting so harsh at this point in the day that was looking less and less promising.  We ultimately decided to pass on that last waterfall which was probably the right choice.  I’m sure that the waterflow was excellent for a change, but there really is only one composition to shoot there, and only from one spot which makes it not much of a learning tool in the grand scheme of things.

We got everything packed up and headed back to the parking lot.  On the way, I saw a doll laying on the ground, but nobody was near by.  I grabbed it and walked with it in my hands hoping to run into a family that was missing it.  We passed a few groups that didn’t lay claim to it, and the last group that we passed asked what the deal was with the doll. It was at that point I realized just how creepy this actually looked with two grown men coming out of the woods with one carrying a doll with dried leaves in her hair.  OK, so it would have been a good horror or thriller movie clip that we were in.  To keep with that theme, I actually set the doll on the post by the sign so that if the family were to return to look for it, they would see it there before walking down the trail.  Whether or not it found its way back home I will never know.

The last part of the workshop came at the cars as Clarke was putting his bag in the trunk.  He had asked me more questions about my filter system and how the holder worked.  I went ahead and pulled out my filters and took a bit of time to show how it all went together and how it was easily transitioned between lenses.  Of course there are positives and negatives to the way I use my filters, but overall it works very well.  With that bit of a demo finished, it was time to head home.  It had been a long day and my voice was all but gone after trying to constantly talk above the din of the rushing water.

I would like to thank my two intrepid participants who braved COVID and the bright sun to get in a day of waterfall photography with me.  I hope that they benefited from the information that I shared with them.  I would also like to thank Singh-Ray for always supporting my workshops and for providing a filter kit that I bring along to allow my participants the chance to use some of the filters that I have found useful in the field.  I didn’t have to go into that pack much for this workshop, but I did get the opportunity to demonstrate the use of an ND Grad in one situation that we were shooting in which came in great.

It was a great day, and I was so thrilled to finally get back out with a workshop group.  I can only hope that next year sees more than one workshop, but time will tell.  I’ll be getting my workshop schedule put together in the coming weeks.  I already have a couple of early events going on that should be very interesting.  I hope to see some of you at these events.

Until next time….
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