How (& why) I Took...

...the Black Waterfall

  Grendel awaits within (Canon 5DMkIV, 24-70mm lens @ 70mm, 62 seconds @ f4.5, ISO 100

Grendel awaits within (Canon 5DMkIV, 24-70mm lens @ 70mm, 62 seconds @ f4.5, ISO 100

The first glimpse I got of the waterfall was from the car, as we drove to Mont Mézenc, about 50km from our house. The stream runs through a pasture until the water suddenly disappears into a narrow gorge, little more than a crack in the field. We could only see the very top of the fall from the road, a narrow silver streak in the verdant green field, but it looked like it could be quite a drop and, therefore, maybe a good candidate for some long-exposure practice.

As it turned out, it was several weeks before I made it back that way; dragging the dog and the kids along for a recce of the site. France being a strange country, the bairns don't have school on Wednesdays and, in order to avoid having them spend their "day-off" stuck in front of electric screens, I make a point of taking them somewhere for a good morning walk. Today was the waterfall; amidst the usual complaints and grumblings, of course.

So, we found the right country lanes to throw the car down (really all you can do with a Niva) and parked up at the base of the gorge into which the waterfall ran.

  Monty (the dog) leads the way as we head up the path towards the waterfall (just visible top-centre)

Monty (the dog) leads the way as we head up the path towards the waterfall (just visible top-centre)

The path follows the stream and, along it, there are several spots that might make for an attractive photo but, after only about a kilometre, you reach the waterfall proper. The fall is in two parts with the lower part being narrow and hugged by green vegetation.

In and of itself, this makes for a nice setting and we parked our bums there first for a drink of water.

  Ethan & Romain clambering on rocks

Ethan & Romain clambering on rocks

After a respite, we continued up the path to the top part of the fall which, being wider and more exposed, I guessed would be more amenable to a photograph or two.

  The top fall

The top fall

Sure enough, as soon as we reached the small pool at the base of the top fall, I knew this would be worth a return visit. The water fell across dark, black rock, itself covered in small lush-green algae and mosses.

But, after taking a few sketch-shots, it was actually the features at the bottom of the wall that really caught my eye. The three rocky protrusions, just visible near the bottom of the left part of the image above, struck me as particularly photogenic as they conspired to divert the water about them. I resolved to return with my tripod and ND filter as soon as possible.

As soon a possible turned out to be just a week later as I persuaded the family to return with a picnic that they could enjoy whilst I obsessed on the black rock. I managed to get some nice shots, with the three rocks isolated but, as we had arrived quite late in the morning (the perils of a family picnic) the sun was creeping into my shots, causing a distraction that I didn't really want. 

  The sun begins to invade the frame (top right corner) making the image unattainable for that day

The sun begins to invade the frame (top right corner) making the image unattainable for that day

The rest of the morning was spent enjoying the picnic (and apologising to hikers for Monty's over-zealous pack-protection plan) before returning home, where I could check through the images. Whilst processing, I realised that, with a horizontal image, the main subjects (the three rocky protrusions) were not as well isolated as they needed to be and I began to re-formulate the composition in my head, favouring, I was sure, a vertical shot, quite closely cropped around the rocks. 

I set out a few days later for an evening session at the falls, desperately trying to out-run a massive thunderstorm that was coming in from the north but, after half an hour on-site sitting in the car, the rain pounding on the roof and the lightning spooking the dog, I gave up and returned home. I knew I wouldn't be back for another week or so as we were off to Paris the next day (see the previous three posts). 

However, persistence is the mother of photography (not sure that actually makes sense) and two weeks later, I was back. This time, I was going for an early morning bid to beat the sun and we (Monty and I) arrived at the falls at around 07:00. The light was great and we made straight for the top falls to set up. Having recomposed the shot in my head to be a vertical image, centred on the three rocks, I decided to set the tripod up in the pool itself, in order to get as close to the rock face as possible without risking the lens getting water on it.

This did mean standing in the water for long periods (by the time we left, my feet were like blocks of ice, making the trek back down the path more treacherous than normal) but I had anticipated this and so brought an extra pair of shoes for the drive home. Not wanting to get caught out again by the rising sun, I quickly composed the shot, made sure auto-focus was off and the image stabiliser disengaged, and placed the ND filter on the lens. I was still trying to find the right exposure time and so, with the ISO locked at 100, I spent the next half-an-hour trying various combinations of shutter speed and aperture, finally settling on f11 at 205 seconds. While all this was going on, Monty was becoming increasingly bored... 

... and, possibly disturbed by the constant noise of the waterfall, took to guarding the site and my equipment from the hordes of marauding cows that he, no doubt, imagined making their way up the path towards us.

At one point, I began to notice that the images I was getting seemed, for want of a better word, misty. At first, I took this to be a result of too long an exposure turning the spray in the air into a fine mist which, over time, became dominant in the image. 

  The entire image has taken on a very soft look caused, I thought, by having too-long an exposure

The entire image has taken on a very soft look caused, I thought, by having too-long an exposure

However, when I removed the ND filter, in order to recompose, I saw the real reason; the circular polariser (attached directly to the lens) had misted up. I reasoned that the problem must be caused by being too close to the waterfall where the air was extra humid. I moved the tripod back from the pool and tried a few more shots; the misting did not return. As you can see, photography is a continual process of learning and adapting and that is, I think, why I enjoy it so much.

Anyway, time had crept up on us and, with this new lesson under my belt, I conceded defeat for the day and, much to Monty's relief, packed up to leave. 

  The view from the waterfall, as we made our way back down

The view from the waterfall, as we made our way back down

Processing the images back at home, I didn't feel that I had quite captured the image I wanted; in my head was a dark, almost foreboding image of ethereal water running over black rock, parted by the dominant formations of the face; maybe a watery doorway to Grendel's lair? The pictures I had from the last trip were close but not quite there. Maybe, I thought, my exposures were actually too long, causing the water to become too ethereal, lost to the detail of the rock. 

So, a week later, I packed the gear and the dog back into the car and headed off once more to the fall. As the previous early morning session had found me, once again, fighting the rising light, this time we made for an evening session, reasoning that the fading light would help me reduce the exposure time without losing the overall dark effect I was after. 

Arriving at around 20:00 (about 1.5 hours before sunset) we again made our way up to the top fall and, remembering not to place the tripod too close to the waterfall, I set up once again. Conscious of the need to keep the exposure time relatively short, I first took some shots without the ND filter which, in the fading light, allowed for shutter times of less than 30 seconds.

With just a 1 second shutter time, the water looked good but there was far too much light and detail in the rock. I wanted the rock face to almost disappear in an inky blackness, creating a stark contrast with the bright water and conjuring, in my head anyway, the entrance to Grendel's dark lair. So, keeping the aperture wide open, at about f4.5, I made sure the composition was good and the focus was sharp, and screwed the ND filter back-on. 

Eventually, with a shutter time of 62 seconds, and with some selective dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) in the electronic darkroom (Lightroom, perversely) I had something close enough to my imagined image to call it a final shot (the first image in this post);  though, of course, I may still go back for one more try ;-).

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