Nov 122014
waterfall on the South Fork Alsea River

Alsea Falls, Coast Range Mountains, Oregon.

Shortly after moving to Oregon a number of years ago, I visited Alsea Falls, a pretty little cascading waterfall on BLM land in the Coast Range mountains. I made a photo on that trip that just didn’t quite make it – an okay image but lacking a certain je ne c’est quois. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to return for a better photo, particularly in autumn, when it’s likely the fall color will enhance the scene.

I finally made that return trip, only to find that that fall color had already peaked. Not only that, but a large log was wedged in the lower cascades of the river, rather spoiling the otherwise very photogenic flow. I worked the scene for quite some time, trying to find a composition that would encompass the cascading waterfall and the fall color of the bigleaf maple trees hanging over the tiered falls. Took off my boots and zipped the legs off my convertible hiking pants (yes geeky and not very attractive, but oh so practical for photo trekking), and waded across the rapids trying to find a better angle. Man that water was cold! After gingerly picking my way over slimy slippery algae-covered rocks and logs for a good amount of time, I finally found a composition that sort of worked. Not my pre-visualized shot as I was driving out the to the falls, but a decent rendition of Alsea Falls, and much better than my previous photo.

Back on the river bank, while putting socks and boots back on my numb feet, I noticed a single bigleaf maple leaf caught on the rocks in a shallow part of the river. The flowing water reflected a combination of bright yellow from a bigleaf maple across the stream and the bright blue of the sky above. Cold blue and warm yellow make a striking combination, and the graphic of the mottled leaf really caught my eye.

maple tree leaf in fall color on wet rocks

Bigleaf maple tree leaf at Alsea Falls, Oregon.

It was a joy to work this little scene, refining the composition, getting the right combination of shutter speed to blur the water and aperture to keep all of the leaf in sharp focus. Is the angle better from a little higher, or a little lower? A little to the left, or more to the right? Where do I need to position my auto-focus point for the proper hyperfocal distance? Watch carefully while rotating the polarizer so as to cut glare on the leaf but not kill to reflection on the water. Sometimes it’s amazing to think of all the little decisions we make in the process of making a photograph.  What is your process like when you’re out doing nature photography? Do you have a sort of mental checklist that you follow?


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  4 Responses to “Went looking for a waterfall, found a leaf.”

  1. Thanks for sharing Greg. As I think about it, I think I have a mental checklist, but it is more instinctual. I have often thought that I need to be more conscious of my checklist, because often, I get excited about the scene and forget the craft. Somehow I muddle through, though occasionally, I bring home a photo that looked great on the little screen on the back of the camera but when put on the big computer screen is poor due to some preventable fault of bad focus or wrong focus point, etc. I find it hardest to follow my checklist in adverse conditions (such as last Tuesday when I was up a Chinook Pass after dark with a temperature of 9 degrees with a 30-40 mph wind). I continue to learn from my mistakes, and truly realize the need to better follow my checklist.

    • Hi Joe,

      I think for many of us that have been doing photography for a number of years, the process does become mostly instinct. I hadn’t really thought about that much until I started working with clients on photo workshops and helping them progress from point-and-shoot photography to analyzing a scene/subject, refining composition and fine-tuning the tech part. I’ve probably benefitted as much as my clients, as I’m much more conscious now of my own process, and consequently more likely to get things dialed in correctly. Which in turn leads to better photos – both technically and aesthetically.

  2. I try to think how can I screw this up but still make it nice. Works most of the time, but often I just screw it up.

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