The PNW Chronicles: Waterfalls (Part II)

In PNW, Travel, Trip Reports by jfischerLeave a Comment

In the last post, Waterfalls Part I, I centered the conversation around the challenges that come with photographing the unique beauty of waterfalls.  In this part I will go into more detail on the specific waterfalls I visited during my 2014 trip to the Pacific Northwest, why I chose those falls, and information on those specific locations.  While my trip started out in Seattle, the majority of my time was spent in Oregon and that is where all the waterfalls I visited are located.  While Washington has its own share of beautiful cascades, those will have to wait to a later date in time to be explored.

Drift Creek Falls – from Drift Creek Falls Trail 1378, Near Lincoln City, Oregon

Drift Creek Falls
A mid-day photography nightmare, Drift Creek Falls.

Timing and weather was both against me at this first waterfall of the trip.  Drift Creek Falls was a mid-afternoon stop on my travels from Portland to Newport.  The morning hours had been spent at Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, and was due in Newport by evening.  So it was an afternoon hike to the falls or nothing at all.  The drive to the trailhead is pleasant, depending on the direction you’re coming from expect plenty of gravel.  The hike is about a mile and half each way.  It’s a comfortable easy hike, and a number of good photographic opportunities exist along the way.  For me the real highlight of the entire trip was the 240 foot long rope suspension bridge at the end of the hike to the falls.

Shooting here will either be a dream or a nightmare.  If it’s the middle of the day, with a dozen people around, many of them standing directly under the falls, then you’ll be very much limited in your compositions.  Even running long exposures isn’t going to do much to blur people out if they are standing in the water.  Then again, if you bring these people with you, then maybe some creative shots can be taken.  The waterfall faces East, so a very late afternoon shoot would work well, softer light on the face of the falls and in the sky above.

Umbrella Falls – Southeast Flank of Mt. Hood near Mount Hill Meadows

Umbrella Falls
Fighting more bright sun and harsh shadows at Umbrella Falls.

After being extremely pleased with the virtually cloud free skies over Mt. Hood during the previous evening while shooting the mountain from Trillium Lake and the stars from the side of the mountain, it was less favorable as I turned my attention back to waterfalls.  Umbrella Falls is a short and beautiful hike along the lower slopes of the mountain, passing through both forested areas and open meadows.

The falls is a long flowing cascade with lots of area to work.  Early in the morning or during cloud cover you can take photos of the entire length, but if the sun is out you may want to limit your shots to only sections with similar lighting.  The photo above is of the upper half, from the lower edge of the photo the falls deviate to the left of frame and into deep shadow.  There are also paths up along the edge of the falls most of the way up so detail shots are also possible. Feeling adventurous? Carefully slide yourself out on the logs for shots that feel like you’re ‘in the middle of the falls’.

Latourell Falls – Guy W. Talbot State Park, Columbia River Gorge

Latourell Falls
Endless possibilities – Latourell Falls.

I’m going to start the falls of the Columbia River Gorge with my favorite.  That way if you get tired of reading after this, you’ll at least know where I suggest you don’t miss.  I actually made two stops at these falls, wanting to get shots at various times of day, and hoping that the second day’s overcast would make for better shooting opportunities.  Start with shooting the entire falls from the viewing platform.  From there move down below for wide shots like the above, including the stream flowing away from the falls.  On the walk down from the viewing platform, stop to take some detail shots of the lower sections of the falls as it crashes against the rocks.  I even climbed under on of the small wooden bridges to get a different perspective as seen in the header photo of this article.  When you get tired of shooting up towards the sky, or if the sky is working against you, there is also a trail that goes upwards from the viewing platform as well.  Views of the falls are fairly limited, but the hike up is both a good work out and beautiful in its own way.

Bridal Veil Falls – Columbia River Gorge

Bridal Veil Falls
A worth while walk – Bridal Veil Falls.

The walk down to Bridal Veil Falls was a pleasant short walk from the parking lot along the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway.  Once again lighting wasn’t perfect, I’d opted to spend my early morning hours at other falls (see above and below), but thankfully there was plenty of shade to work with so there was still compositions to be had.  Most of my favorite shots were from below the viewing platform down at the base of the pool.  There are a few very large boulders to get around, but not impossible with a camera bag on your back.  Don’t ignore the stream flowing away from the falls either, plenty of water flowing over rocks creating plenty of detail photo opportunities.  Another photographer was doing exactly this the entire time I was there and probably quite a bit longer after I had left.

Horsetail Falls – Columbia River Gorge

Bridal Veil Falls
So close it has to be seen – Horsetail Falls.

This one is just steps off the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, so there are very few excuses not to stop and photograph this 175 foot high plunging horsetail style falls.  Try a few different locations around the top of the wall to get overall views before moving down below to get right up next to the pool to get some of the rocks along the edge of the pool in the foreground with an ultra-wide angle lens.  The shot above was one of the very long exposure shots I took with the help of a 10-stop ND filter.  Wide angles worked best here, 36mm or wider on a full frame as I couldn’t find any detail views of the falls that I really cared for.  There wasn’t enough interest along the length of the falls to make a partial view worth it.  Latourell had boulders at its base, Multnomah Falls has the beautiful white bridge, but here, the falls are all that you’ve got to work with.  The most interesting part of the falls is the top third, cutting off below that just doesn’t work all that great in my experience.

Wahkeena Falls – Name translates as “most beautiful”, and you’ll see why when you visit

Multnomah Falls
Upper Sections of Wahkeena Falls.

This is another location that has lots of photographic opportunity, and one of the best opportunities to get your gear wet.  From the highway, the upper sections of the falls are barely visible between the trees, while the lower areas of rushing water tumble over an endless array of rocks as it tries to find the most direct way down slope.  I will admit that most of the photos I took from the lower area either didn’t come out to my liking or are still sitting on my hard drive waiting for my attention.  Taking a short walk up the trail to the vantage point seen above gives much better views of the tier type falls.  Be warned, this is where you’re going to encounter a lot of spray and mist so keep a microfiber cloth handy for wiping down your lens.  The up side to all this mist is that the mosses should be plentiful on either side of the falls, giving some great contrast to the rocks.  The above composition was probably the best I found, as was a location just a little further to the left of this frame.

Multnomah Falls – “The” Columbia River Gorge Waterfall

Multnomah Falls
Focusing in on the details – Multnomah Falls Bridge.

Plunging a total of 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the most well-known of the falls throughout the Columbia River Gorge, and probably all of the Pacific Northwest.  No visit to the gorge would be complete without viewing these falls, and if time allows, the short walk up to the bridge to view the pool under the upper section.  Good news is that the falls are right off the highway with quite a bit of parking, the bad news is, the falls are right off the highway and everyone wants to see it.  As with all of the falls on the Oregon side of the gorge, the falls face more or less due north, but in this case there isn’t a lot of shelter from invading sunlight on either side so high contrast situations can and do exist for a good part of the day when the sun is out.  Dawn is the best time to shoot here, not only have the crowds not shown up yet – you’ll only be fighting other dedicated photographers for shooting positions, but also the best light is during those first few hours (read-minutes) of sunlight.  There are a number of good locations along the lower viewing platform to shoot from, try a few different compositions to find the one most pleasing to your eye.  I found including some of the green foliage directly in front of the viewing platform hand rail looked best instead of zooming in to get just the pool in the extreme foreground (see Part I for both examples).

One thing I don’t recommend is forgetting to bring your short telephoto zoom with you when shooting these falls.  Even a 24mm will be sufficient to get most if not the entire height of the falls from the lower viewing platform, and you’re going to want a slightly longer focal length for closer in views of the bridge as seen above.  This was a tip I picked up in the “Photographing Oregon: A Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Oregon” by Greg Vaughn and one well worth passing on to you.  The above shot was taken at 45mm focal length on my full frame 6D, portrait oriented shots of the bridge were taken at closer to 60mm focal lengths.

Tumwater Falls Park – Flowing water in the middle of the city

Middle Tumwater Falls.

At the end of what was an amazing yet exhausting trip, I found time for one more location filled with flowing water which with to practice photographing waterfalls.  Tumwater Falls Park is in the heart of Olympia, WA.  While it could easily be overlooked for other sights within the Olympia area, I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon here.  There are several sections of waterfalls through the park boundaries, the more commonly photographed location is more out in the open at the center of the park, but this more secluded stretch of water was more enjoyable for me to photograph.  More shade allowed for more control over shutter speeds, and less wind to blur the gentle ferns and other greenery along the edges of the photo.  If you find yourself in Olympia with some time to kill, do consider making the drive over and exploring this location for yourself.

There are countless more waterfalls that I was not able to visit during my trip, and more than a few of those are most certainly on my ‘must visit’ list for the next time my travels take me to the Pacific Northwest.  This trip was all about seeing as many of the ‘must see’ spots that Oregon and Washington had to offer in the time I had.  It’s not difficult to see a huge variety of breath-taking sights in this region of the United States and hope this and the other parts of my Pacific Northwest series have inspired you to go in search of a few of them yourself.

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