SILVER FALLS : FINAL VERSION
Welcome to Waterfall Wednesday! If you are at all acquainted with Instagram, you'll recognize that sobriquey from your feed, for every Wednesday brings forth another gusher (downfall?) of waterfall shots from around the world. Human beings can't seem to get enough of falling water, which seems to be the goal of most every hike in a lot of parks and natural areas of all kinds. This is a total victory for aesthetics, as waterfalls don't seem to serve any useful purpose other than to gaze at with an awe that goes beyond the simple appreciation of a cliff face. Since I live in Oregon, you can't even swim in the pond beneath the waterfall without a wet suit most of the time, so tropical visions of skinny-dipping at the end of a hike are even more of a fantasy than in most places. In fact, the coldest water I have ever felt in my life was not off the Maine coast, but in the pool at Proxy Falls in Central Oregon. This waterfall, off Highway 22 on a side road available only in the summer, emerges as glacial run-off on a cliff face from an unknown source, and then disappears just as mysteriously from the pool below the falls. I think the water temperature has been measured at 32 degrees; it doesn't freeze only because it's always moving.
The other thing about living in Oregon is that our waterfalls are so ubiquitous and beautiful that they mostly ruin other waterfalls around the world for us, even while we take ours for granted. Today I'd like to discuss this most common type of woodland photograph, with an eye for showing you how you can move beyond just documentation, even when it's sometimes hard to even get the shot at all. The first photo above is of one of the waterfalls at Silver Falls State Park on the edge of the Cascades between Portland and Salem. I don' remember which one of the falls this is, but consider that there are ten falls on one trail. If you look closely half way down you will see that the trail even goes behind this particular waterfall.
SILVER FALLS : ORIGINAL
Here you can see several of the problems with waterfall shots. These include framing, exposure, and aspect ratio. Framing a waterfall shot is frequently hard, because it is a waterfall after all, which implies height. Thus either you use a wide angle lens, which tends to make your subject too small in that wide view, or you have to make a decision on which part of an impressive waterfall to exclude. I've found that the most difficult of images are the ones that only cover a portion of the waterfall, especially when you just miss getting the whole thing in the frame. Now in this example I did just manage to get the whole thing in, but I would love to have a little more space, especially at the top. The larger problem seems to be that good quarter of the right side of the image doesn't seem to add much, and the bright pool at the lower right draws your eye away from the subject. This is why I prefer the final cropped version I showed at the beginning, taken a few feet to the right to get rid of the green slope on the left and the bright pool on the right; I still know that I've got the bottom even though I've lost most of the splash. You might also notice I've cloned out those pesky hikers behind the falls, but that's me just being anal. I have also lowered the exposure a bit, which brings up the other problem of waterfall shots - how to deal with the tremendous differences between the usually dark forest and the much brighter waterfall. Straight-up shots usually lose a lot of detail in the fall itself, as it is very easy to clip the highlights in the effort to lighten up the surrounding shadows. Post-processing, which most people don't attempt, is usually the only way to deal with this, especially if you are so silly (!) as to hike on a nice sunny day.
GORGE WATERFALL : FINAL VERSION
The other source for Oregon waterfall shots is of course the Columbia River Gorge, so close to Portland that it is probably the only excuse to live in our Eastern suburb Gresham, which cuts the trip to almost nothing. This is a partial shot of what I think was Latourelle Falls, one of the first of probably half a dozen falls on the original tourist highway to the biggest waterfall, Multnomah Falls. I have come to some degree of certainty of its identity by matching my photo to one of a collection of literally every waterfall in the Gorge that I found on the Google. In any case I feel that it conveys the power of the falls even without including the entire affair. Oh, by the way, it's hard to get a vertical waterfall on a square photo coaster without rendering the waterfall so small as to hardly make it worthwhile.
GORGE WATERFALL : ORIGINAL
Here I think you can see that the original framing out of camera is not convincing, since I have not managed to include much more of the waterfall at all.
GORGE WATERFALL : BLACK & WHITE
Here is the monochrome version; of course its a matter of taste. I like it better because the parameters of monochrome processing allow me to show more detail in the water at the loss of lichen definition on the rocks. But what do you do if you want the whole waterfall?
WATERFALL PANORAMA #1 : FINAL VERSION
The answer is to try to create a panorama. Remember, no one said that panoramas has to be horizontal! Treat waterfalls like natural skyscrapers, and take a collection of shots, overlapping about a third to include all of the waterfall from top to bottom. Just reverse the usual rules for stitching panoramas - take a series of horizontal shots to include enough of the the surroundings lost to the vertical crop. Remember to scan the scene before, deciding on one focus point and one exposure before setting those values to manual so the software can create the pano without obvious seams. And appreciate the mystery of not knowing how well you've done until the computer has delivered its magic - while realizing that the water is moving, which only increases the complications of stitching multiple images together. The image above is at a 4:1 ratio, which is about the limit before you make your viewers dizzy; 3:1 or 2:1 is more like it, but it is a waterfall, so you have to live with its dimensions.
WATERFALL PANORAMA #2 : ORIGINAL
Here we have a more comfortable 3:1 ratio, and I actually like the dark exposure, which creates a bit of mystery and controls the bright sky. But the white balance is all wrong, because we get used to the cool light in the woods. It is frequently necessary to play with the light balance even if you have gotten comfortable with the scene - water is just not that blue.
WATERFALL PANORAMA #2 : FINAL VERSION
Not as dramatic, but certainly that water is a lot more convincing. In opening up the shadows I've revealed a lot more rock detail.
WATERFALL PANORAMA #3 : MONOCHROME
Of course another down-and-dirty cure for white balance problems is to convert to black and white. I've moved slightly further away to include more top and bottom. Black and white allows for more realistic exposure control for the bright sky and foreground tree, which was in sunlight. The white waterfall is still the star, and unless you're a bright green lichen fan, the light grey patch on the rocks will probably do.
WATERFALL AND ROCK : FINAL VERSION
Sometimes you can concentrate on the foreground if you find it interesting enough to forego the top of the waterfall. I was intrigued by the idea that that rock once fell down the waterfall. Again the "correct" white balance was a lot warmer, but I made it cooler because this looked more realistic to me. It's your photograph!
This scene was sunnier and warmer as I included more rocks; the patch of green shows that scene is correctly color graded.
WATERFALL MIST : FINAL B & W VERSION
This is one of my favorites, since I think you can get wet by just viewing the image. Those rocks under the waterfall have created another series of cascades on their own, and the overall flow seems almost misty instead of plummeting water. By the way, the scene was so dark that monochrome only substituted very dark shades of grey for near-black shades of green. This image highlights another decision for a lot of waterfall shots - the shutter speed will strongly affect the appearance of the water, ranging from stopping the motion to creating a silky otherworldly effect of a very long exposure. I've found that as usual the Goldilocks compromise of somewhere in between makes for the most realistic rendering of moving water.
ISLAND IN THE STREAM : FINAL VERSION
Here is an illustration varying water speeds in one image, which can be very effective. The water is certainly moving at a rapid rate, but the foreground rapid has a lot more detail than the background swirls, and the crisp vegetation on what looks like a totally submerged island heightens the feeling of water movement. And yes these are mere rapids, reminiscent of what English photographers label waterfalls.
IRA'S FOUNTAIN : ORIGINAL
Finally, let's look at this artist's interpretation of another artist's vision of a waterfall. This is a pretty standard overall view of Ira's Fountain in Downtown Portland. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin conceived of this Portland one-block park as a Gorge Waterfall in the city, with tons of water collecting in pools and plummeting below to create an oasis of humidity and sound that would provide a respite from urbanity and highlight intermission drinks for the opera fans across the street. He succeeded in creating a monument while scaring every parent in Portland whose children loved to cavort in the pools, appearing to risk certain death on hot days. Halprin subsequently had to create a nearby "safer" fountain which proved a lot more capable of causing skinned knees etc. In fact the upper pools are pretty deep, and you almost have to try fall down these cliffs. The waterfall successfully negotiated the more than one-story grade differential between opposite ends of the park. The Fountain was later named, in the usual informal Portland fashion, "Ira's Fountain" after Ira Kellar, its most important cheerleader during its long design gestation.
IRA'S FOUNTAIN : VERTICAL
We're getting closer to my interpretation of this park. As usual, I'm concentrating on what is important to me while conceding that the ordinary viewer might not get my abstract interpretation.
IRA'S FOUNTAIN : ORIGINAL SQUARE CROP
Coaster mongers require square images, so we are further on the way towards abstraction. the only remaining problem is that brown concrete, forced on Halprin due to municipal budgets. If you want to see the original Basalt conception, go to Washington, D.C.'s FDR Memorial, which is really four Ira's Fountains, one for each presidential term. Only Portlanders and landscape architects know the long story of a Portland Park arising from the design ruins of a national monument, which then was finally built decades after Ira's Fountain was built. Federal budgets allowed for the original Basalt to replace the "original" concrete.
IRA'S FOUNTAIN : FINAL VERSION
In converting to monochrome, I replaced the ugly brown concrete with cool grey stone concrete; black and white completes the circle to total abstraction. My Portland customers can delight in their "in-the-know" knowledge this is a favorite park, not a waterfall, while the tourists can posthumously validate Halprin's original idea by asking me which Gorge Waterfall is depicted in my detailed view. The "idea" of a waterfall delights humans where ever they happen to find it, even in their misconceptions.