Roaring Fork Falls

It’s always interesting to me to visit waterfalls at dawn. Not an hour after, not on an overcast day necessarily, but at sunrise. Hiking in the dark and being there at the earliest hour. Some of my favorite waterfall images have come from these types of adventures and, while not always productive, they’re always a good start to the day.

Roaring Fork Falls is a waterfall I’ve visited many times but never been able to get a compelling image of. Whether it was water level, down trees, time of year, whatever. It just never came together. On Monday, my original plan was to shoot the sunrise from somewhere near the Mount Mitchell or Craggy Pinnacle area as the forecast of rain/fog is actually exactly what I like to hear for good light and drama in the skies. But, when I arrived in the area about an hour early (~5:15) I found dense fog with no signs of it letting up. Now, most times I would have waited and seen what would happen at sunrise but on this particular morning, I was tired and slightly frustrated (it was a 1.5 hour drive to get there) so I changed plans and headed to Roaring Fork Falls.

When I got parked and walked the easy 1/2 mile in,  it was about 20 minutes before sunrise so things were light enough to not need a headlamp. The composition was obvious… get in the big pool in front of the falls and shoot the zigzagging lines coming down whilst point the cascade to the bottom left of the frame. As the light got stronger, I noticed a discrepancy between the upper right corner (brighter) and the rest of the scene that wasn’t working out well for my long exposure times I needed. So, I used a 2-stop hard-line graduated neutral density filter to hold that part of the scene back. In post-processing, this decision required a bit of dodging and burning to hide my filter use (pretty typical). What resulted was an interesting exposure and one that has surprising depth for a cascading river scene.

Roaring Fork Falls

Canon 5D Mark II + 17-40 L @ 20mm, 20 seconds at f/14, ISO 200. Circular Polarizer, 2-stop Hard Grad. ND (hand-held).

As always, the best way to keep up with updates is via my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or catch me on Facebook. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or shoot me an email via the form on the right side of the page. If you’d like to share this article via the aforementioned social media websites, that can be done below as well.

- Scott Hotaling


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The Oconaluftee River

At times, I’ve heard the Oconaluftee referred to as the “lifeblood of the Smokies” and as far as the east side of the park goes, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Hundreds of small streams and tributaries drain the airy heights of peaks like Clingmans Dome, all coming together to produce a formidable amount of water by the time the river makes its way to the gateway town of Cherokee, North Carolina.

For the image below, Mountain Cascade, I waited until a late afternoon thunderstorm had recently rolled through the mountains and was beginning to clear. As it did, I changed into swimming trunks and waded into a nearly waist deep pool of water below a cascade I’d visited on many occasions. With fog hanging along the banks of the river and warm, late evening light filtering through the trees, conditions were perfect. I used a 2-stop soft  graduated neutral density to control the overall dynamic range, the filter was  placed at an angle from right to left, following the line between river and surrounding foliage. The subtle curvature of the river, the angling foreground cascade and lush greens of the foliage all came together wonderfully.

Mountain Cascade

Canon 5D + 17-40 L @ 24mm, 6.0 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100. 2-stop Soft Graduated ND Filter + Circular Polarizer.

In the spring and summer, and on rare winter days after a snowfall, the Oconaluftee is one of the most beautiful areas in all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But, with throngs of visitors focusing their time on the western side of the park, it’s also surprisingly quiet for much of the year. This is especially remarkable considering the overall popularity of the park with its nearly 15 million visitors each year. It’s all too easy to ignore the Oconaluftee as you race up Highway 441 to the higher, more dramatic areas of the park.

Oconaluftee Spring

Canon 5D + 17-40 L @ 20mm, 5.0 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100. Circular Polarizer.

Usually, downstream compositions aren’t as compelling as those looking upstream. But, in this particular case, I found the early morning light and bend in the river to be strong enough elements to create a photograph around. When composing this shot, I was care to not crowd the little wisp of a cascade in the bottom right as I feel the line it makes coming into the shot is very important to the photograph’s overall success.

As always, the best way to keep up with updates is via my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or catch me on Facebook. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or shoot me an email via the form on the right side of the page. If you’d like to share this article via the aforementioned social media websites, that can be done below as well.

- Scott Hotaling

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Evolution River

As a landscape photographer, it’s practically inevitable that for a lot of people my work be defined by a single image. That’s just the nature of the beast and frankly, it’s something that I embrace. Knowing that every photograph I take could be the only representation of my craft a person ever sees pushes me to work that much harder to make every image truly special. Or, to put it more bluntly, to never settle for the mundane.

Evolution River is a photograph that has fallen into that role brilliantly. I don’t mind being known for it because it symbolizes everything I’m proud of in my work. The location is remote, the conditions necessary for the image are extremely rare and at the risk of sounding arrogant (which isn’t my intention), it’s one of my best compositions. The photograph has taken on a life of it’s own as a centerpiece in many home art collections, winner of a variety of awards and the most asked about photograph in my collection by a landslide. This “life” of the image is one I’m more than happy to cultivate as it sheds positive light on the rest of what I do as well as the incredible beauty that can be found in the Appalachian mountains.

Evolution River

Canon 5D + Canon 17-40 L @ 17mm, 3.2 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100, 2-stop Soft Grad. ND & Circular Polarizing Filter.

First off, I’ll address an incredibly common question, Evolution River is not a real river. It’s just a name I’ve given this very off-the-beaten path location in the Cullasaja Gorge of western North Carolina. For those unfamiliar with ‘the Gorge’, it’s a wonderfully steep stretch of river located between Franklin and Highlands, North Carolina that parallels Highway 64. Anyways, this spot looks like something out a fairy tale to me. Big waterfalls, cascades, foliage closing in… it’s dramatic in a manner that I’ve very rarely seen in the eastern United States. And, since it’s in a deep canyon, the light falls in incredible ways depending on cloud cover, season, etc. If you can’t already tell, this is an important locale for me and it’s the location that has produced two of my favorite works. This is one of them, the other, Cullasaja Autumn can be seen here.

Photographing mountain waterfalls and streams is already a challenge. But, photographing waterfalls and streams where big waterfalls run like stairs around you is an even more difficult proposition. Every step has to be carefully selected as well as what conditions (weather, water levels, etc) you consider safe to ensure not only perpetuation of the gear in working order but perpetuation of life and limb too. It’s taken me a long time to figure out where to stand, where to cross, where the deep holes are, etc. in this gorge. That knowledge opens up a world of possibilities that weren’t there for me when I first discovered this spot in spring of 2004.

For this particular photograph, a hole in the bedrock swallows a large portion of the river. Seriously. It’s incredible. It’s captivating and I spent a couple of years trying to figure out just how in the world to shoot it and make the visual impact of being there translate to my audience. In order to capture the foreground hole and the distant falls, an incredibly precarious (but safe enough under the right conditions) position must be taken. Whenever I photograph this location, I kneel down or even sit in the water when shooting. Larger contact area on the river bottom and much more comfortable for knees/feet. Just colder, which is fine with me. Early morning light filtering into the canyon gave me the soft distant light I envisioned and a long shutter speed added a dynamic aspect that was very important. I used a 2-stop soft graduated neutral density filter to bring a bit of more balance to the exposure that my eye could see but camera couldn’t. A circular polarizer allowed me to control reflections and increase the wet saturation in the foliage.

As always, the best way to keep up with updates is via my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or catch me on Facebook. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or shoot me an email via the form on the right side of the page. If you’d like to share this article via the aforementioned social media websites, that can be done below as well.

- Scott Hotaling

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