Dora and I recently participated in the Autumn Waterfall photography workshop hosted by Mountains to Sea Workshops. The workshop was led by professional photographers Alistair Nicol and Tommy White. The photograph featured above is Shoal Creek Falls and was taken at Living Waters.
Although the workshop officially started on Friday afternoon October 9, Dora and I arrived a day early to get the lay of the land and setup camp. Several of us were sharing a campsite at Davidson River Campground in Brevard, NC. Dora and I had just finished pitching our tent when we were joined by fellow photographer Amy Little.
The Milky Way at Graveyard Fields
Once camp was squared away we piled in the car and headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of one last opportunity to photograph the Milky Way this year. Although the Milky Way is generally visible year around, the best time to photograph it is limited to about 6 months out the year. We checked out a number of locations, finally settling on Graveyard Fields. It was a beautiful, clear night and we captured the Milky Way along with some fall color.
Friday morning Dora, Amy, and I headed over to Dry Falls, near Highlands, NC. We had a beautiful day and with rain moving in later that night we decided to photograph this area early. Dry Falls is 65 feet high and so named because there is a path that lets you walk behind the falls. The official name is Upper Cullasaja Falls. This is a drive up location with easy access.
After photographing Dry Falls we headed back to camp. While we were gone fellow photographers Everett Leigh, Thia Beniash, John Page, and Steve Smith had arrived and were setting up camp. Once everyone was set we headed over to the local Hampton Inn to meet up with the rest of our group, Bill Norman, Dawn O’Neil Norman, Ron Starcher, and Dillard Boyland.
Friday evening the group went to Living Waters Retreat. Living Waters is a Christian retreat center that hosts retreats as well as several different children’s camps. The retreat owns land along the North Fork of the French Broad River. Retreat buildings are situated where two rivers meet, forming the French Broad Falls and Shoal Creek Falls. Buildings located where these two falls are formed give the area the look and feel of a time gone by. Although access to the falls is on private property visitors to the falls are permitted. Following the water downriver are two additional waterfalls. The last set of falls at this location is about ¼ mile hike, known as Cathedral Falls
You can’t hike around waterfalls, crawl over obstacles, and balance precariously on rocks to take photos without an incident or two. In this case Everett lost footing and fell in. Although one of his cameras and a lens went with him, he wasn’t hurt and was able to continue the workshop with another camera.
The group finished photographing Living Waters and headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway to try and capture a sunset. Unfortunately clouds were moving in and we arrived too late. We decided on a trip to Pizza Hut for consolation and planning Saturday’s outing. We crawled into our sleeping bags and beds about 11:00 PM. No sooner had I turned off the light when the rain started. The rain would continue all day Saturday.
Dry Falls (again), Secret Falls, and Silver Run Falls
The group was up by 4:30 AM Saturday morning. We had a lot to do and a number of waterfalls to visit. First up was Dry Falls near Highlands. It was still dark when we arrived in the parking lot. We made our way down the trail to the falls with flashlights. Even though it was raining we were able to capture beautiful photos of Dry Falls. Our next stop was Secret Falls followed by Silver Run Falls. Both falls required a small amount of hiking to get to, but very rewarding.
Rain Soaked Camping Gear
As we were headed back to Brevard to spend the afternoon in the classroom portion of the workshop I got a message from Dora. Amy and Thia were sharing a tent. Their tent had become saturated from the rain and everything inside was wet. Alistair, Tommy, and some of the group stopped by the camp to help get everything cleaned up. Once the situation was under control Dora, Amy, and I took sleeping bags and clothes to a laundromat to dry everything. The rest of the group went back to the Hampton for class. We joined the class a little later.
Looking Glass Falls
We finished up Saturday with a photo shoot at Looking Glass Falls. Looking Glass Falls is an easy access drive up located in Brevard near the campground. Due to the rain there was plenty of water coming over the falls. Most of us opted to follow a path down river where we could get out on some rocks for our photographs. Even from the distance we were at you could still feel the force of the waterfall and spray. It was late in the day and already dark by the time we got back to the cars
After a group dinner at Quixote we headed back to camp. Amy’s tent was still soaking wet. She picked up a new one at Walmart. Ron made room for Everett and Thia at the hotel. Steve and John’s tent had stayed dry enough to be usable and our tent was still dry. We helped Amy pitch her new tent, put hand warmers in our camera bags to warm up and dry lenses, and finally turned off the lights for a few hours sleep.
Sunday morning we meet up at 6:00 AM. The rain had moved on during the night. Our first waterfall was Ravens Rock near Lake Toxaway. The hike to this waterfall was the most technical of the workshop. A narrow trail twists along a hillside, passing by one small unnamed waterfall. A little further down the trail you pass under a small waterfall, crossing a bridge made of a couple of tree trunks with the some planks nailed to them. The bridge is aptly named the Bridge of Death. The hike is well worth the effort. The waterfalls at Ravens Rock are spectacular. On the way back we stopped and photographed the falls at the Bridge of Death and the other small waterfall.
The last waterfall to shoot was Hooker Falls in DuPont State Recreation Forest. This is a popular waterfall and easy to access. The parking lots were already filling up by the time we got there. The falls are situated such that even with crowds it is easy to get views without people. My favorite photos from the trip were taken at Hooker Falls.
We wrapped up the workshop at Hooker Falls then headed back to Davidson River to break camp. Rain and all it was an awesome workshop. I always look forward to getting together with old friends as well as meet new friends.
What you will Need
If you are interested in photographing waterfalls you will need a camera capable of taking long exposures, a sturdy tripod, and a cable release. I like to use a wide angle lens such as a 14-24mm, 16-35mm, or some other lens that falls within that range. Bigger lenses are useful for waterfalls you can't get close to but all the waterfalls on this outing were shot with my 14-24 mm or 24-70mm (Looking Glass Falls). If you don't have an appropriate lens and not sure you want to invest in one consider renting a lens for the weekend. This is a good way to test out a lens without an obligation to purchase it.
Waterfalls are frequently shot with a long enough exposure to give the water a silky look and this can't be done handheld. You will also need a polarizer. I don't like to use a polarizer to darken a sky, particularly when shooting wide angle. Polarizers are necessary to reduce glare on water and foliage. You will also need a neutral density filter such as the Lee Little Stopper, Lee Big Stopper, or B+W Black Glass. I find the Lee Little Stopper, which reduces the exposure 6 stops to be sufficient on most waterfall shots to leave the water silky and yet retain some detail. Most filter manufacturers have a suitable neutral density filter. You'll also need a suitable backpack.
Plan on getting wet. Not only did we hike wet, muddy trails to get to the waterfalls but in some instances we got in the water as well. Waterproof hiking boots and an extra pair of socks are a must. In addition, I carried a pair of water shoes and neoprene socks when I wanted to setup in the water for a good angle. Don't forget extra layers, rain gear, first aid kit, snacks, and drinking water. Some trails are technical and you need to take precautions to avoid falling. Though seldom seen, the woods, rivers, and rocks you will visit are home to venomous snakes. Don't go alone. Take a friend or go in a group.