Tilting at Waterfalls

Two budding nature photographers travel the Smokies
and environs in search of the ideal waterfall picture.

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There’s something about shooting a waterfall.

Waterfalls are like sunsets or oceans or storms or the Milky Way—powerful, beautiful. They draw our attention and we pull out our cameras. Fortunately, we have a multitude of waterfalls within an hour or two of Knoxville.

I usually travel with an experienced backwoods hiker and camper, a fact that ensures I won’t get lost on trails but also seems to guarantee plenty of queasy moments. Where I tend to stay far away from the edges of cliffs, he likes to hang right over them. Where I carefully plot out each step from rock to rock when crossing shallow streams, he skips across them with all the confidence of a school girl playing hopscotch. He talks about his top of the line, name-brand hiking and camping gear, whereas I speak of the sublime and my hope that the boots I got from a discount store will keep my feet dry. If I am the prudent, thoughtful one, he is the impetuous risk taker. A few years ago, we both got entry-level DSLRs, and made a resolution to go waterfall shooting as much as possible.

Beginning photographers are well advised to shoot waterfalls. The cool thing is that it’s relatively inexpensive. Any entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera that you can manually adjust and that can be mounted to a tripod will serve. Toss in a medium-to-wide angle lens (the lens you got with your camera kit will work just fine) and you’re set. Generally, the best time to shoot waterfalls is in the morning or evening; the harsh sunlight of mid-day isn’t kind to the photographer, unless you’re lucky enough to catch your waterfall and surroundings in shadow. Overcast days are great, especially if you frame your shots to minimize the amount of boring, slate-gray sky.

Spruce Flats Falls

One of our favorites is Spruce Flats Falls. It’s a about a one-mile hike from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. At times the trail is moderately strenuous: you’ll be doing some scrambling, but it’s not too bad, even for a wheezing geezer like me. You’ll probably encounter a few fellow hikers, but not too many. The last section before the falls is a steep descent. My fearless buddy, of course, slid down the last, roughest section with all the verve of an Olympic bobsledder; I carefully inched my way down. The main plunge of the waterfall is about 30 feet, but then the water tumbles past some large rocks until it cascades further into a pleasant pool. You’ll have to decide whether to focus on the main plunge or to try to capture the cascades as well. Move around the area; try different angles. The sweet thing about digital cameras is that pushing that shutter button is far less expensive than it was during the old film days. After composing your shot, make sure your ISO is on the lowest setting, set your aperture to, say, f8, and if you want to get that silky water effect, set your shutter speed to about half a second.


Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls is very beautiful and very popular. The 5.2-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls from Cades Cove is moderate in difficulty; you should bring good hiking boots and drinking water. During peak season, nearly 1,000 visitors a day use the trail, so it pays to start early to beat the people and the sun to the falls. The hike is at times strenuous; there are places where you will be carefully picking out your steps, particularly if the trail is wet. When you finally arrive at the falls, you’ll find it in front of a large pool enclosed by a sandy beach. Long wide shots from down the stream are possible, as well as closer shots from the edge. You can edge out on fallen trees to get nice angles, too, or so I’ve observed because, of course, my crazy companion scrambled way out over the water, confidently treading across dead wood with his recently purchased, high-end waterproof boots.

Hen Wallow Falls

As usual when we take these excursions, I knocked on my friend’s door in the wee hours of the morning so that we could race the sun to our designated waterfalls. The day of the Hen Wallow shoot was cold and drizzly. Probably we should have called it off–it can be quite frustrating to have to wipe your lens filters every 30 seconds because of rain, but we were gung-ho (which means my shooting partner was gung-ho; I was already envisioning going home, drinking another cup of coffee, and watching a nature documentary.)

My GPS had a hard time getting us to the Gabes Mountain trailhead, which is near the Cosby Campground. After a few wrong turns, a helpful discussion with a shopkeeper got us to the right spot. The trail is strenuous, steep, and narrow at times; especially tricky are the precipitous switchbacks to reach the base of the falls. However, much of the trail is a nice walk through hemlock and rhododendron. The trail is busy. Even on our miserable day, we encountered many people–mothers and fathers with children in tow, fathers and mothers carrying infants in slings, and even an Orthodox cleric in a cassock. When we finally reached the base, we could barely see the top of the falls through the mist. The waterfall has a 90-feet plunge and fans out from a mere two feet at the top to a base of some 20 foot. My restless buddy managed to work his way 10 or 20 feet up the side of the steep falls. On the drive home, he rhapsodized about returning to rappel down the falls.

I dreamed of a hot shower.

Bald River Falls and Baby Falls

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge that there are fine falls outside of the park. Bald River Falls, located near Tellico Plains in Monroe County, is a stone’s throw from the Smokies. It has an impressive 90-foot plunge and, best of all, it’s perfect for the relatively sedentary. You can drive right across a bridge that gives you a perfect shot of the falls; just park once you cross the bridge, haul your tripod and camera a few yards, and you are good to go. Of course, if that is too easy, you can scramble down the very steep and treacherous decline on the right-hand side of the bridge to take a shot from the base of the falls. I know this because, of course, my compatriot immediately flit down the side and I, fearful that he would get a cool shot I didn’t, grudgingly followed, visions of an emergency room visit playing in my head.

When you go to Bald River Falls, you’re really getting a twofer. Just up the road a very short distance is Baby Falls. It’s much smaller, but quite beautiful in its own way. Adventurers like to kayak over it, and fearless souls like to jump off the cliffs next to it into its plunge pool.

Debord  Falls and  Emory Gap Falls

Debord Falls is iconic. It begs to be photographed.

I’m not sure what it is, exactly.

It has a modest 12-foot plunge; during dry months, you’ll get only slim trickles of water. The falls, located at Frozen Head State Park, about 48 miles west of Knoxville in Morgan County, is not the biggest or the widest or the most spectacular of Eastern Tennessee’s many waterfalls, but it has something special, at least when the water is flowing. Recessed among the tall trees, which when coated with rime ice have delicate crystalline fingers, the waterfall is the Platonic ideal, an aesthetically perfect balance: the bright white of the surging water and the darkness of the rocks behind – all framed by the interplay of light and shadow in the deep forest beyond.

Once you shoot this waterfall, you have the option of getting back on the trail for another half mile or so to visit Emory Gap Falls. We found it much more difficult to photograph. The trail takes you to a boulder-strewn creek bed with the falls off in the distance. If you want an unobstructed view, be prepared to do lots of rock hopping and boulder scrambling. Naturally, my compatriot was in his element; I followed far behind, wondering if I should hide behind a boulder and sneak a cigarette. (For all his risk-taking, my friend has no problem pontificating about the dangers of smoking; he’s not much of a fan of irony). At any rate, the falls features an 18-foot plunge. After recent rain or snow, you should see an impressive amount of water falling into its plunge pool.

The adventurous can scramble up the surrounding slopes and walk across the top of the falls, right at the edge. Guess which one of us immediately did that?

Editor’s note

While Trent and I will continue to have a blast photographing waterfalls all over East Tennessee and the Smokies, we recognize that there are few true masters of the craft. One of these is Jimmy Chiarella, whose work in a range of genres from architecture to landscapes to product photography has appeared worldwide and thankfully has graced the pages of this magazine for years. That’s Jimmy’s photo of Mingo Falls you see to the left.

When Trent Eades isn’t bustling about with his camera gear, he can be found curled up with the latest issue of Analog, reading up on science fact and fiction.

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