By Patrick Kelly
I have to think I’m not alone. Last fall, after six months of COVID-19 isolation, I found my finger sliding down my bucket list to try to find a destination that didn’t require getting on an airplane. Or driving for three days. Here’s one, the Great Smoky Mountains. Never been there, never done it. I hear they have waterfalls, and I love waterfalls. I think everyone does. They are universally fascinating, conveying both sublime power and at the same time, a sense of peace and serenity. I’ve tried for years to photograph them but my efforts have never been very satisfactory. I had never found the secret to conveying in my images what I was experiencing. It was time to try harder. So, in late October, Jeanne Marie and I headed east from St. Louis. My primary objective was to find and photograph as many waterfalls as I comfortably could, but the fall color would be reaching its peak and there’s a lot of wildlife in the Smokies, so who knew what else would jump in front of my camera?
There are wonderful waterfalls all up and down the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania down to Georgia, but I do think the highest concentration is found on the eastern slopes in North Carolina. I’m pretty obsessive about advance scouting, but I’ve also found that, even after the internet has been scoured for every loose scrap of information, there will still be plenty of surprises on a trip. I really hit the mother lode for this trip when I found Kevin Adams’ website on North Carolina waterfalls. It is geared for photography and contains a massive amount of information on more than 100 falls worth photographing. Kevin is a well-known nature photographer and fellow NANPA member who is heavily committed to preserving these natural wonders. His website also gives excellent guidance on leaving the smallest possible footprint on the environment as you photograph.
I also found the website HD Carolina helpful. It adds to Adams’ description of some of the falls and lists some he doesn’t. Both have very good instructions on finding these little gems out in the woods.
We arrived the first night in Linville, northeast of Asheville, just about 7 minutes or 5 miles from an entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where some of the best falls are located. Linville Falls and Crabtree Falls are highly recommended. The main entrance to Linville Falls is off the Blue Ridge Parkway but, when the Parkway closes in the winter, the falls can be accessed from NC Highway 105. It was easily the most crowded falls we visited but that was at 10 a.m., as we were leaving. I went twice at dawn and I was the only one there. Duggers Creek Falls, which is just off the parking lot at Linville Falls is also worth your time, and it’s fully canopied so you can shoot at midday. Likewise, Crabtree Falls is accessed from the Parkway, south towards Asheville. To reach it you will descend about 800 feet on an improved trail, so the climb back up is strenuous.
After a couple of days exploring, we took the Parkway southwest around Asheville, with lots of stops to photograph the scenery and just soak it all in. We stayed in Brevard, which gave us quick access to several roads that would take us up into the mountains and the waterfalls. Lots of them. This area has so many that you can see and photograph several in one day without eating up lots of your time driving. So okay, I guess you want to know which ones.
The ones I’ll go back to: Duggers Creek, Log Hollow, Slick Rock, White Owl, DEW, Mill Shoal Falls, Bird Rock, Linville, Upper Sols Creek, Key Inn, Looking Glass, High Falls (at Dupont Forest), Whitewater, and Rainbow.
The ones I’ll skip next time: Second Falls, Elk River, and Skinny Dip. I would include Turtleback but it’s just a short walk from Rainbow so I might look at it again.So how did the shooting go? Well, it’s for others to judge how I did but I cannot deny that I came home feeling like I’ve improved. I also learned something about my own vision and style. The big powerful falls, like Whitewater, Rainbow and Linville, attract a lot of visitors and get a lot of attention from photographers. But I was much more energized when I was shooting the intimate little falls like White Owl or DEW and I wasn’t why. One reason might be that the big powerful falls don’t do the silky water look which I favor. I think they best reveal their power with a faster shutter speed, say 1/125 sec, to freeze the water. But I think the real reason I don’t favor the big boys is that they will frequently offer just a few vantage points to shoot from. So you wind up with the same picture everyone else has. The smaller ones though allow you to move around and find multiple vantages. I brought my Wellington boots and usually got in the water so I could get close and control the composition. The images of White Owl and DEW Falls would not have been possible without wading in. There’s a safety aspect too. The one time I went down and got wet up to my waist, (saved the camera), I was rock hopping trying to keep my feet dry. I didn’t do that again.
A few other things that helped me or I wish I’d known:
Always use a polarizer: it’s absolutely essential. Not only does it knock the glare off the wet rocks and vegetation but it lets you see into the water. This alone can enhance your foreground. Check out the with and without pictures of White Owl Falls.
Always use a tripod. Even if you have five f-stops of built-in image stabilization. I recommend using live view to compose. You will want your mirror locked up anyway, if your camera has that capability. It’s worth trying several different shutter speeds and seeing which one(s) work best for a given waterfall. Mine ranged from ¼ to 1/15 sec on the smaller waterfalls, and having the camera on a tripod simplified the process of setting up and making a shot.
I benefitted from learning and using focus stacking. You want interesting foregrounds and they must be in focus. I seldom shoot with aperture smaller than f/8 and never smaller than f/11 to avoid diffraction so I often need to focus stack. This is another reason to just get used to using a tripod.
Another trivial little tip but you’ll thank me for mentioning it: Put a plastic bag in your pocket and pop it over your camera anytime you are not actually shooting. You will be amazed at how much invisible spray is floating around. Leaving your gear uncovered for five minutes to scout a composition may require a wipe down. Because you’re shooting waterfalls, you should be prepared to do frequent wipe downs anyway. I use the disposal paper lens wipes, as I find them more absorbent than the microfiber ones.
I don’t shoot on sunny days unless the waterfall is completely canopied. The white water and black rocks provide all the contrast you can handle. Cloudy days, or better yet, rainy drizzling days give the best light. Otherwise stick to early morning and late evening.
‘Tis the season
We went in October for the obvious reason of getting the fall color. That’s a great time if there’s good water flow. It can also be pretty dry by then and many of the falls are on small watersheds. But any tropical storms that hit land along the southern Atlantic coast or the Gulf coast will dump a lot of moisture on the Appalachians. That was the case for our trip and the falls had plenty of water.
The next best time to go is early May. These hills are a riot of rhododendron. It’s big and it’s everywhere! The Smokeys are well known for springtime wildflowers, too, so springtime typically offers a lot of color. Many of these falls attract bathers in the hot, summer months. So going in October or May would minimize that problem.
I came home with my affinity for waterfalls intact. Or maybe enhanced. I think perhaps we are all fascinated by them because they are a little self contained metaphor for our attraction to the natural world itself. They encapsulate the perfect beauty of nature. They exist only for themselves or possibly, at the pleasure of another. They preexist us and are not here to please us. Some of these waterfalls have been running for millions of years. They are not turned off when the last tourist leaves or the government shuts down. We connect more intimately with nature in their presence. And like sand through an hourglass the cascading water reminds us that this moment will never come again. Enjoy it right here, right now.
Patrick Kelly is an avid landscape and wildlife photographer living in St. Louis whose work has been exhibited in several galleries in Missouri. He has been pursuing his craft for many years but really got serious about it 10 years ago. “In pursuing photography,” he says, “we discover as much about ourselves as we do our subjects. I’ve learned that my interest is held by some kind of action. This is obvious with the wildlife but landscapes are also very dynamic with the ever changing weather and light. I think recognizing these things is essential to unlocking the mystery of our creativity.”
See more of Patrick Kelly’s work at his website: pkkelly.zenfolio.com