(Not) a Beautiful Photograph...

Look carefully at this photograph, because it is not beautiful.

I know of only two places in the United States where you can find rocks that are that brilliantly orange surrounded by pools of baby blue, turquoise, and teal water. One of them is Havasu Falls, which is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The other is Douglas Falls outside the small town of Thomas, West Virginia. 

The vivid orange rocks and rainbow colored waters entice a swim.

Surely a landscape this beautiful carries some sort of mythical healing powers. Certainly this has to be one of the most tranquil places east of the Mississippi River?

There are few places on earth where these sorts of colors are "natural" -- I used a polarizing filter, some neutral density filters, and my Nikon D850 to capture the turquoise water and orange rocks.

Certainly not.

Douglas falls is beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Unlike Havasu Falls, where the beauty is natural, the beauty of Douglas Falls is not... the brilliant colors and tranquil scene are the result of pollution from coal mining. 

In the late 1890s, Thomas, West Virginia was home to the Davis Coal & Coke Company. In those days, there were over 500 beehive coke ovens burning in the town, which was setup entirely to support the mining operations. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal mines in the surrounding area produced over 4,000 tons of coal daily. The explosion of mining in Thomas was short-lived; by the outbreak of the first World War, advancements in refining methods meant that coke production in the beehive ovens had ceased, and by the 1950s, underground mining in the area ceased all together. The population of Thomas diminished, and the city today is a shell of it's former mining glory. 

Douglas Falls, as seen from the side. The rocks radiated a yellowish-orange that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

In just a few decades, the landscape was permanently altered. The harsh acid from the coke ovens has turned the rocks orange. A hundred years after much of the mining ceased, the waters of the river are still plagued by harsh acid. In the 1990s, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection established a reclamation effort to clean up exposed mining waste. The project created new drainage systems, restored destroyed wetlands, reseeded grasses, and re-countoured the hillsides around the river.  They hope this project will eventually return this habitat to it's natural state... but nearly thirty years after the cleanup project, the acids continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. 

The contrast of the brilliant orange with the turquoise blue and green waters was a spectacular sight to behold...for all the wrong reasons.

Some ferns grow out of the ground around the falls, where acids from the coal mining that occurred nearly a century ago has stained these rocks. Acids continue to leech into the landscape, despite a cleanup project in the 1990s.

As much as I love photographing beautiful scenes like this one, I would much prefer to photograph a landscape for it's natural beauty. While I love these photographs, there will always be a cringe associated with seeing them because I know their beauty came at a great cost.

Quick Shot: Elakala Falls

About a month ago I took a trip to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia with the goal of photographing waterfalls and getting some abstract shots of moving water. I've posted some photographs of Elakala Falls (Colorfall #1 and Colorfall #2), but those shots haven't given you a full appreciation for the falls. 

There isn't a trail to the base of this falls; in fact there is a bridge immediately over the falls. After climbing down the side of a mountain to get this position, I had to make sure my composition didn't include the distracting bridge, but still got the entire falls, which was a bigger challenge than it might have seemed.

I wanted a slow shutter speed so that I could capture the soft movement of the water and would recreate, at least to some extent, the bright colors I captured with the close-up "Colorfall" series. To get a shutter speed of 8 seconds, I used a solid neutral density filter and dropped my ISO to 100. I also used an aperture of f/22 to ensure a nice depth of field that would afford me the slow shutter speed.

The final image has minor editing to remove dust spots and some minor tweaks, but the colors are almost exactly as I saw them. The overcast sky and slow drizzle of rain helped make the green foliage more vibrant and muddy water gives the river the rainbow of colors seen here. 

Shot with the Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm lens. A Gitzo tripod was used to get the shot perfectly sharp. 


Quick Shot: Colorfall #2

On Sunday I unveiled "Colorfall #1" as a Quick Shot post... if you missed that story be sure to read it here

Like "Colorfall #1", the second print was taken at Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. Sitting at the base of Elakala Falls, I marveled at the opportunities before me. The lighting was perfect. The colors were bright. The water was muddy. Everything was ideal to get a series of abstract shots.... so I did!

I got a few questions about the bright colors and how I managed to get them. It required a significant amount of experimentation to get the shot exactly like I wanted. The water was very muddy and was pretty drab, unless I composed water moving at a variety of different speeds!

To get this shot, I positioned myself so that I had one current moving very fast in front of my camera sidewise (giving the white colored water) and with slower moving water behind. The result was water that differed in color just because of the speed and direction it was traveling.  

Just like I did with "Colorfall #1", this was shot with the Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70mm lens with a neutral density filter. This image was around a 6 second exposure. 


Quick Shot: Colorfall #1

I've been very busy the past few days working on getting some new work together and I'm pleased to be showing off the first of this latest work in today's Quick Shot blog. 

A few months ago, I saw some photos taken of Blackwater Falls Park in West Virginia. It's a three hour drive from my house and it wasn't something to photograph on a whim, so I saved the location and would visit when I had a day to dedicate to the project. 

On Friday, I packed my bag and embarked on the drive to Blackwater Falls. The weather forecast called for rain most of the day, which was a blessing and a curse. Bad weather tends to make for great photos, but any rain meant I'd be leaving the large format film camera at home and just shooting digital. 

Blackwater Falls Park is relatively small - you could drive from one end to the other in just 15 minutes. The park surrounds a canyon and has a river flowing down the middle of it, which is the perfect recipe for a variety of waterfalls. The most popular waterfall is Blackwater Falls, but I scouted a few other smaller falls during the day. 

I arrived at the trail head for Elakala Falls and decided to switch into my knee high rain boots and rain gear before hitting the trail - good thing because no sooner do I set off then a large rain cloud comes to dump on me. The walk to the top of falls was relatively short, but I knew I needed to get down to the bottom. The park doesn't maintain a trail to the base of the falls and the heavy rain made the footing challenging as I did my best mountain goat impression to get down the side of the cliff.

Once at the bottom, I knew I'd hit the photographers pay dirt. The clouds were giving a soft light to the river and making the muddy water more colorful and bright. I wanted to shoot a series of long exposure shots to get some abstract water effects and this was the perfect site! I could have made hundreds of exposures, but found one that I really liked. The rock was covered in a variety of bright algae, giving the flowing water some magnificent colors (hence the name, "colorfall")

To get all the colors you see here, I experimented with a variety of shutter speeds and camera angles. This image was a 4 second exposure using a neutral density filter.

Photoshop CS6 and Nik HDR Efex were used in post production to highlight the colors and remove some sensor spots. Shot with the Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70mm, ND 8 filter, Gitzo tripod.  

PS- stay tuned for Colorfall #2!