Jeff Smallwood Photography
Don't Get Frustrated, Get Creative
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Sep 2, 2012

This Is Going To Be Impossible

Elekala Falls #3
Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis, West Virginia.

I was on the verge of thinking this shot was impossible, that I'd have to seriously risk real bodily harm (or possible death) in order to get it. If you've ever gone waterfall hunting, or spent any time at a creek in the woods, you know how deceptively slippery rocks like this can be. Even rocks that look dry can be almost as slick as ice. Navigating terrain like this requires extreme caution. I can't stress that enough. Anyone who ventures into environments like this needs to think safety first, second, and third. The shot comes in fourth place.

From the parking lot at the lodge, Elekala Falls #3 is about 400' of rough, vertical terrain down the mountain. It's not easy to get to. There is no trail and you have to squeeze in and out of a lot of narrow passageways to find the spot. When I got there I was able to safely navigate to the top of the rock on the upper right, standing just off the frame at the top. The water level is very low. I looked down and imagined the composition in my head....the small pool and waterfall at the bottom, looking up through the large rocks to the wall of moss and water in the background. I wanted that shot, I had to have that shot. But there was no way to get myself and the camera there safely. The rock at the bottom of the photo dropped off about 8 ft to more jagged rocks below, then it continued down even further. If I tried to climb down and stand in front of this scene then:

  1. I'd have about two feet of room to stand, none of it flat and all of it slippery. The drop below would have meant at minimum serious injury...or worse.
  2. I'd most definitely slip trying to climb down to this spot in the first place (about 6 ft drop from the rock at the top right of the shot)
  3. If I got there, the rock was so slippery and full of moss that the moss would just peel away under my feet.

I stood there a good 10 minutes contemplating how this could be done. The only way I could get the shot would be to stand in a place that was asking for serious trouble. Without ropes or other safety equipment that just wasn't something I was willing to do. There are more important things in life than a photograph...although that list of things is getting shorter and shorter the longer I work in photography :)

But yet, there's the shot. I got almost exactly what I wanted and didn't have to risk life and limb. All I had to risk was looking a little silly. How?


A New Perspective

After giving up and realizing it was too dangerous to climb down, I looked across to the other side of the gorge and thought maybe I could come at it from the bottom. The sun hadn't yet come up over the trees to spoil the good light, but it would soon. It was a race against time.

I spent about 15 minutes navigating back up and across to the other side, went down below this spot and came at it from the bottom. I ducked under the ledge of a rock that is off the frame to the bottom left and came face to face with the bottom of the moss covered rock (the one at the bottom of the frame). There was no way I could climb up on that mossy spot. Whether coming at it from top or the bottom, the same 3 reasons I'd probably slip and fall still applied.

I was about to climb away and give up when it hit me.

I had a light-bulb moment...

Yes, I wouldn't have been surprised to look up and see an actual light-bulb above my head. I secured my left foot between two logs, stretched my right foot across and straddled the water below me to get purchase beneath the mossy rock. My arms were just long enough that I could lift the entire tripod, fully extended, onto the moss covered rock at my head. I dug a hole into the moss and anchored one leg of the tripod into the moss, the other leg sat on the top of the rock, and the third leg extended down where I could pin it against the rock with my shoulder to hold it still. I held on to a rock with my left hand and with the cable release attached I could reach up with my right hand and trigger the shutter. I set the shutter to a 2 sec delay so I had enough time to press the shutter release, then hold the third tripod leg still before the shot went off.

Sounds ridiculous, I know.

Of course, lifting the camera that high over my head meant I had no idea how the shot was composed...I couldn't see it. After each shot I'd pull the tripod down, look at the shot, adjust the tripod and camera angle slightly, then try again. Unfortunately, each time the tripod was lifted it would end up in a slightly different position because the moss kept giving way to the weight of the camera (further proof that I made the right decision not to stand on it myself). Some shots were angled too far down, some too high, some crooked. It took 37 trial and error photos before I got what I wanted.

Standing there like that, lifting the tripod up and down over and over....well, it was probably the most awkward and ridiculous position I've ever stood in to take a photo. Thank goodness no one else was around to see me, I'm sure I looked like an idiot. Here's a diagram of how I looked getting the shot.

Ridiculous position I stood in to get this shot...
but it was worth it.


Lesson Learned

The phrase "When life give you lemons, make lemonade" is such a cliché, but there's a reason it is over used....it's still true. When presented with an impossible to get shot, keep looking. Don't let Nature or the situation easily dictate what you can and can't do. Fight back. Try coming at it from different angles, both figuratively and literally. You just might find a way to capture what you have in mind.

Be persistent, be thorough, and most of all, get creative.

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