Sunday, March 23, 2008

Great Falls on the Housatonic, March, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Scouting & Scoping

On Friday I spent most of the day scouting Great Falls on the Housatonic River. I'd been here before, so I knew generally about the site, but I'd never seriously explored what was here. I consciously set my mind on scouting and only scouting the trails and roads around the falls. I went on foot. I'd resolved on scouting only because I didn't want to mix modes and slow myself down too much; it was a big and complicated site. The clearing sky doomed this resolution. Alain Briot recommends scouting with your camera put away. He even suggests making a rectangular viewer for studying composition. I often leave my camera in my backpack, but if I decide to take a shot, it will stay on the end of my tripod as I walk.

I started at the main entrance just above the power station dam and the falls. It is a very exciting place, especially swollen with spring rains. Getting near comes with a sense of danger. That and the thundering roar and motion of all that water rushing by can't help but to fill one with awe. The photographer must put all this aside or at least realize that if the goal of the photo is to convey that thrill of water thundering by, the danger, motion, and sound must be made visual. One changes the mood of movies by changing the sound track; photos are always silent.

I immediately liked the station house and equipment on the other side. I knew a channel was drawn off just by that building, and I could see water splashing from it as it moved toward the power turbines that I knew were in the valley below. I thought about ways to triangulate a composition between the distant station house and other objects near and far. I wondered how or if I could get over there on the catwalks by the station house and what the view might be from there. Yet the broad pool behind the dam that was immediately in front of me seemed so tranquil and flat next to this cacophony of motion. I was being pulled to have the whole experience of the falls in my face; I wanted to see that rushing water coming at me.

As a result, I spent less time here above the dam than I should have, but one can leave parts unexplored for a later visit. The trail begins right where the water spills over the level edge of the dam and snakes through the woods beside the waterfall. I followed it and noted several places where I might catch an unobstructed frontal view of the falls, but I knew that a good observation spot was ahead. I made a mental, scout's note to try these other spots some other time. It was only 10:30 in the morning, and the light was pretty good though it had begun to turn harsh. When I reached the better observation point my resolution failed, and I decided to scope. On my other visit I'd failed here, and I wanted to know if there was anything that worked. To scope it I needed to take out my camera.

The spot had some serious problems. It was a long arm of ledge that projected toward the river. A railing had been installed for safety. Even from the high spot the ugly railing would interfere. The ledge didn't project quite far enough, and scraggly trees blocked the view of the long dam with water spilling over. I moved way to the bottom back corner of the ledge where it projected farthest, but other elements were made worse. Each time I moved I reset my tripod. This is fine on level terrain and where the height of the lens from the ground is not sensitive. Here, scoping with the tripod was foolish!

Scoping requires freedom. In tight, uneven terrain such as this the tripod encumbers imagination. Every little movement left, right, up, down changes the relationship of things. This is the time to take the camera in hand, and try any likely angle. Don't shoot, just scope. With the camera off the tripod I could lean over the railing and see beyond the trees. From there one pine caught the light nicely and I liked the way its scraggly appearance fit the tenuousness of life on the edge of that great falls. I had made a number of exposures already, telling myself I wanted to remember the light, that it would be better later. They were not "real" shots, but the pine nudged me from scoping to shooting.

The light was at least acceptable. The elements of my composition (members of the cast) were clear. The main line of tension was between the tree and the station house with a contrary motion of the water over the dam and down the falls between. I made seventeen exposures once I was seriously shooting. Five were vertical. I experimented with pushing the tree and station up into the corners of my frame by zooming in and thus making the falls larger. I zoomed out letting the station stand clear of the corner and including more of the falls below. In each shot I was careful to catch enough foreground to establish my place. Later, at home, the final choice was between this image and two similar vertical shots. Since this image will be viewed on computer screens, I chose the horizontal. I also liked the way the foreground makes a little hill in the horizontal version.

I let myself move to scoping here because it was early, and I had time for lots of further scouting. By the time I made it back here it was 2 PM and I had scouted the entire opposite bank and made my way to the station house and the power company channel. I'd even stopped a couple of time for prelim "scoping" shots and one other serious shoot. Returning here at 2 PM, I was surprised to find the scraggly little pine that had "made" my earlier shots, no longer looking the same. The branches whose darkness stand out in this shot had become front-lit by 2PM. The shot I'd taken at 10 was the right one. Perhaps the rule should be that when the light is right it's always time to shoot.

My hunch was there would be a gorgeous, golden glow at sunset, but that was three hours away and I'd already been scouting and scoping for 4 hours. Had I been closer to home, I'd have come back later, but the round trip was a bit over an hour. All shoots are driven by weather and light. Pacing and timing are everything.


Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Ted, your words both back up and amplify what is such a powerful and effective shot. Bravo! I love this type of water photo, and appreciate the challenges involved in making it work.

Ted Roth said...

Thanks, Julie. Unfortunately, the challenge now is getting my camera repaired. Today it stopped working. Ugh! Well, it will give me a chance to get back to some images I've wanted to post for a long time.