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Waterfall Chasing- Hemlock Falls
Field Notes ed XXV: Photographing Moccasin Creek and Hemlock Falls in the North Georgia mountains
Welcome to Field Notes! Here’s what we have today-
A look at Moccasin Creek in the North Georgia Mountains
Photos I took on a day trip there on October 13, 2023
A premier of a short film I made of this trip
In past issues of Field Notes I have made the included photos clickable links to my portfolio gallery where you can view them amongst my other photography. Today I’m leaving the pictures as is, so that (I hope) you can just click on them here to enlarge them. Keep this in mind as you proceed and let me know in the comments what you prefer.
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Tucked in the mountains in the far northeast corner of Georgia lies Lake Burton. This lake was created by Georgia Power Company in 1920 with the creation of the first of a series of dams along the Tallulah River. It was named after the small town of Burton (population 200) that was bought out and flooded in the lake’s creation. Its 62 miles of shoreline are now lined with affluent second homes and elaborate boat houses, but before the 1970’s this area was unreachable by vehicle.
Moccasin Creek feeds into Lake Burton in a cove on its western side, at the tiny Moccasin Creek State Park. Hemlock Falls is a waterfall along Moccasin Creek that came highly recommended by a friend as a location for me to photograph. The easy 1 mile trail lies outside of the state park in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest and follows the creek to the falls.
Longer hours of darkness along with the falling of leaves saturate October with nostalgia. Over the years I have had the greatest of adventures in this month and brought my 2 kids along for many of them. I look back at snapshots and see how dramatically they have grown from year to year, before a variety of wilderness panoramas I had been determined to introduce them to. My son just received his college acceptance. My daughter will cross that line in just a few more years. How many more adventures will we have together before our trails diverge?
In recent years the kids’ interests have shifted, with school and other activities binding up our time. October is always a chaotic month for schedules and the days flip by like dry leaves in the wind. It is Fall Break and already the middle of the month. My son has a rare free day and drops a hint, asking what I had planned. I had nothing planned, but seized the opportunity. It would be a day trip to Hemlock Falls!
The day was cool and overcast. This autumn has suffered from a mild drought, but it rained a little bit recently and there was a chance for more in the afternoon. These are the best conditions for photographing waterfalls!
The whitewater in streams can be problematic. Longer exposures smooth out the moving water, leaving the luxuriant silky texture. Neutral density filters darken the lens to help achieve these longer exposures. However, with clear skies and sunlight, the contrast of the whites with the surroundings can be very harsh and hard to overcome. Even when blending different exposures of the water and the surroundings, so often shadows cast across the cascades are a glaring distraction and cannot be eliminated. Overcast skies circumvent many of these issues.
Sunny sky or not, wet conditions create shine on the leaves and other wet surfaces. This is where a circular polarizer filter creates magic. It works best when the camera is pointed in a direction at an angle to the sun, but the CPL filters the light wavelengths in a way that cuts through the glare.
In these photos the effects of the CPL can be seen in the water where the areas other than whitewater appear very clear and dark. They also help the leaves and moss jump out with a brilliant vibrancy.
The key with the CPL is to rotate the filter to achieve optimal effects. This has to be done every time the camera is changed from landscape to portrait orientation. I rotate it on virtually every shot, just to see where the best position is. This can be done by looking at the scene through the viewfinder or the polarizing effects can be seen on the histogram as a peaking and shift of the histogram to the left.
The above photograph is of the destination, Hemlock Falls. By my friend’s account and that of another visitor there at the time, the water level was very low. I still found this waterfall to be stunning!
The pool in front of the falls was strewn with fallen leaves that were slowly drifting in a circular pattern. For this image I used both my circular polarizer and a 10 stop neutral density filter to achieve a very long shutter speed to create trails from the motion of the leaves in the water. I experimented with shots ranging from 20 seconds to 3 minutes. The base image that looked the best was at 90 seconds, but I exposure blended it in Photoshop with a 20 second exposure of the waterfall itself.
The trail goes beyond Hemlock Falls to a destination on the map marked as Upper Moccasin Creek Falls. We head out to find it, but the trail becomes a risky scramble through soft damp earth and rhododendrons. The above photograph is of a little cascade is somewhere beyond Hemlock Falls. Cloud cover remained, but at this time the sun was high and I later had to tone down the exposure of the rocks in post processing.
As I photographed the scene I noticed my kids sitting with downcast eyes, in silent patience for me. I knew it was time to turn back. Upper Moccasin Creek Falls would have to wait for another day, maybe when the water levels are higher. Maybe the kids will come back with me.
With my new (to me) GoPro camera it is very easy to catch B roll footage as I’m hiking, occasionally film myself, or set it up for a time lapse. I’m getting more proficient at assembling the footage into viewable short films of these trips and I’m excited to present them to you here. This one is shorter, at 4 1/2 minutes. I hope you take the time to watch it, and I’d love to hear what you think!
I want to give you all the best experience that I can in Field Notes. Should my photos be links to my portfolio or as is? Let me know!
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