Water is the Essence of Life. This and a hundred more quotes can be found surrounding the liquid that covers 71% of the earth’s surface. For me, nowhere embodies this feeling more than in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. From the rugged coastline where the mighty Pacific crashes into majestic rocks formed over millions of years to the snow-capped mountains of the Cascades and all of the lakes and rivers and, of course, waterfalls in between.
Sometimes the water is in liquid form, sometimes snow and other times fog that fills the air with an atmosphere that you can both feel and see. I have made a nearly yearly pilgrimage to this region since I first picked up a camera, exploring from the Puget Sound to the north, down through the Redwood forests of northern California and inland to the fertile lands nestled in between the mountains. The Pacific Northwest has wowed me, it has challenged me, but more than anything, it has inspired me.
The Pacific coast has been one of the most rewarding yet challenging places I have ever experienced as a photographer. The winter months may provide the ultimate in both storm wave action opportunities and post-storm sunsets, it can also mean a solid week of rain and overcast skies. As a Texas native, I tend to look towards the Pacific Northwest when the temperatures at home start to climb and I am in need of some cool sea air in the lungs and crashing waves to capture.
Over the years I’ve spent time on the coast as early as May and as late as mid-August. More than seasons, however, it is the tides that dictate my choice of when to visit the coast. This was a lesson that I learned early, the hard way, during my early visits. Since then it has been a key to allowing me to capture locations at their best up and down the coastline.
Low or receding tides are ideal for shooting on the beaches up and down the coast. At high tide, you won’t have much if any reflective wet sand, nor the iconic tide pools that are perfect for reflecting the colors of sunrise or sunset. During my 2016 trip, I hit Cannon Beach about an hour before sunset, on a receding tide, ideal for capturing sunset colors. I was met with mostly cloudy with the typical summer marine layer low clouds on the horizon, doing their best to choke out the sunset and didn’t provide the explosion of color I had returned to Cannon Beach in hopes of. Instead, we were treated to a subtle soft light with hints of purple and pink mixed into the blues of the fading light against the towering landmark that is Haystack Rock.
Making use of the fading evening light further repressed by the cloud layers in addition to a 6-stop ND filter I pulled all the color out of the sky that I could. With that combination, I was able to extend shutter speeds out to 10-15 seconds to achieve a milky effect to the gentle evening wave action without having to resort to a very small aperture setting. Cannon Beach is a classic Oregon coast location, best known for its massive Haystack Rock that dominates the landscape along the sandy beach. However, just a little further down the beach, the Needles should also not be missed.
A similar evening played out during the 2018 trip to the southern Oregon coast at Bandon Beach. Like Cannon Beach to the north, Bandon is another iconic location for photographers of the Pacific Northwest. With an even more varied collection of sea stacks to choose from, including the Wizard’s Hat, Witches Hat, Face Rock and others.
Like 2016’s visit at Cannon, several days of heavy low clouds and fog had dominated my decision making for photography with inland runs or moody seascapes. However on the 3rd night, just as the sun was setting out across the coast a deep rose hue filled the horizon, providing just enough light to silhouette the sea stacks and reflect off the wet sand of the beach.
In my photo titled ‘Witches Fire’, one of my last photos of the evening before the color faded from the sky, the low light conditions paired with an ND filter yielded a full 30-second exposure even at fairly wide apertures and a slight boost to ISO. The long shutter speed was what I was after most in this shot, to erase as much of the wave action just beyond the reflected sea stack and let the reflection melt seamlessly into the sky opposite to aid the minimalistic feel I wanted.
Another shot that was taken earlier that evening, one I call ‘Subdued Fire', features a smaller rock sitting in a tide-pool, leading up and through the frame to a receding series of sea stacks along the horizon. For that photo, to ensure waves didn’t interrupt the composition for a necessary focus stack for foreground and background sharpness, a shorter 2.5sec exposure time was used and a hint of post-process blurring was added to soften a few areas of surf to keep the focus where it was intended.
Inland, away from the crashing waves of the coast, the mighty mountains of the coastal and cascade ranges, along with the blankets of lush forests that surround them, have always been a major draw that brings me back to the Pacific Northwest time and time again. Among the many iconic peaks, it has always been Mt. Hood that I have returned to most often. Not only because of its central location near both Portland and the Columbia River Gorge but also for the nearly endless views and compositions that one can find along its flanks and surrounding valleys.
Even more than the coast, hiking through these old forests in search of a roaring waterfall and walking the shore's cool clear lakes with views of snow-capped mountains brings a sense of peace and wonder that few other places have managed to match. Two of the most visited and photographed of these is Trillium Lake to the south of the mountain and Lost Lake on the north side.
Views of Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake are by far some of the easiest and most accessible to reach. Highway 26 out of Portland takes you right past the base of Mt. Hood through Government Camp where I often stay while shooting in the area. The lake is just a short drive to the south of town, and if the mood strikes you to get more elevation, the road up to Timberline Lodge on the mountain itself is just a turn up the other direction. There is also a small campground at Trillium Lake itself, for those looking to roll directly into or out of bed and behind the camera.
Shooting at Trillium Lake is at its best in the early morning hours right around sunrise in my opinion. You have the best chances for ideal conditions of perfectly smooth reflections across the lake, and if one gets really lucky some fog lifting off the glass-like surface as well. The shot I ultimately decided to include Trillium was from an evening shoot along its shores, but it shows nicely the reflective properties of the lake’s surface and the view that can be found from many spots along the southern shore of the lake. To get the smoothest reflection possible, as well as due to the late blue-hour time the photo was taken, a full 30-second exposure was used to capture the image.
Opposite Trillium lake, positioned nearly perfectly for astrophotography, Lost Lake is nestled into the mountains between Mt. Hood and the Columbia River. My only visit to these shores came well after sunset, arriving in the dark on a whim in hopes of catching an elusive opportunity to photograph the milky way rising up above Lost Lake with Mt. Hood’s peak rising up in parallel to the core.
After carefully making the way down to the lake in the pitch black, being extremely mindful and as respectful to those photographers already shooting as possible, the first frame’s display across the back of my camera proved that the hour-long drive around the mountain had indeed been worth it.
The reflection of both the mountain and the milky way itself was captured completely in-camera, no photoshop trickery here. To achieve similar results, I would recommend a very fast lens in the 24-35mm range, I was shooting at the time with a 28mm f/1.8, which has more coma and astigmatism than I care for (I have since switched to a 24mm f/1.4 by Samyang), but the focal length was ideal for capturing both portrait and landscape-oriented shots of the scene.
Just north of Mt. Hood is a place known far and wide by just about anyone who has an interest in shooting waterfalls. The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most waterfall rich regions I know of, with over a hundred to choose from between the Oregon and Washington sides of the river. I’ve visited many of the easily accessible falls on the Oregon side and shooting Multnomah Falls and Latourell Falls are always on my list for any visit to the gorge. There were a number of falls deep within the Eagle Creek area that had always eluded my schedule.
Sadly, in late 2017 a major fire swept through huge areas of the Oregon side of the gorge and has done severe damage to the forest as well as trail system. It is unknown how many decades it will be before those falls return to their pre-fire condition, some may never be the same due to increased erosion transforming the hills. Thankfully, through the efforts of huge numbers of firefighters, not all was lost and a return visit to the gorge remains on my wish list for the years ahead.
While it is the Oregon falls that get the most tourist traffic and are the most well known, one falls in particular on the northern side of the gorge truly took my breath away and quickly proved it had no ‘bad side’. Panther Creek Falls is only a short drive up into the mountains from Cascade Locks Oregon but has stayed somewhat in the shadow of some of its southern cousins. To my wonder, I was able to shoot these falls under ideal light, soft overcast skies during the mid-morning hours providing the best combination of soft shadows across the U-shaped amphitheatre which the falls cascade into.
From shooting the many small cascades along narrow branches of the creek up above the main falls to the white knuckle descent along nearly sheer rock to get down to its base, every facet of this location provided stunning compositions to capture. Adventurous photographers have captured shots from further down the creek, wading into the chilly waters or shimmying out across a fallen log to capture the lower falls in addition to the main drop, however, I was extremely satisfied with the compositions I was able to find while remaining with my feet on firm ground.
For your own visit, I recommend locking on the widest wide-angle lens you have in your kit and getting up close to any interesting foreground elements you can use for leading lines up into the frame. I used my 16-35 f/4L here exclusively, mainly as it is the widest lens I have that fit my Breakthrough X4 ND filters - the 3 or 6-stop variety being of particular usefulness for any Pacific Northwest waterfall location.
For many, the sight of dense fog outside their hotel room door might make one’s heart sink, but with the right location, it can unlock a magical sight that defies description and that no single photograph can adequately capture. While foggy shots of a harbor pier or sea stacks on the coast make for an interesting shot, and a little misty fog on the surface of a lake at dawn is always an added bonus - until you step into a grove of mighty Redwoods in the fog, the power of the ghostly stillness cannot be fully appreciated. That realization struck me only moments after finding Del Norte Coastal Redwoods State Park just south of Crescent City in Northern California.
Unlike some of the groves of Redwoods further inland, Del Norte sits much closer to the ocean and, as mentioned earlier, also brings coastal fog with the summer temps. I had driven through and shot some Redwoods the previous day, but until the mix of cool damp fog was mixed into the equation the recipe just hadn’t been right. The towering tree’s scale gets lost easily, and the spacing between trees made finding compositions the day before difficult without too many distracting background elements.
With the addition of the fog, all those background distractions quickly melted into the mist, mere shapes if anything at all, greatly enhancing both the sense of depth but also the mystery and mood of the entire scene. No matter how road-weary I had been the night before, with every single step, with every single shutter click, the hike through those trees wrapped in fog refreshed my spirit, unlike anything I had previously, nor since, experienced.
If you find yourself with the opportunity to shoot in any grove of Redwoods, with or without the magic of a foggy morning, my best advice is to take it all - your camera kit that is. I have compositions ranging in focal length from 16mm to 200mm and many in between. The compression of a short telephoto is great for ensuring the size and scale of the Redwoods don’t get lost, but you’ll need to find a perspective that allows the trees to be stacked up in the compressed view.
Single trees, from a reasonable distance, can be framed up with focal lengths of the 35-85mm range, providing enough compression to bring the background elements into play with a bit of compression effect. On the wide end of the range, as with any situation shooting an ultra-wide lens, your composition will rely on a strong foreground element and hopefully some sort of a leading line or two. Ferns, fallen trees trunks, of even the hiking trail itself are likely to be the most common options to work with, just ensure that the standing Redwoods themselves don’t end up looking like a twig in the background of an ultra-wide composition.
Water, in the Pacific Northwest at least, is as central of an element to photography as light, and land. It has also been a key element to what brings both joy and fulfilment to my time shooting there. One day I will find a way to get on the coast during a winter storm and get to take in the mighty crashing waves at Ecola State Park, or gather up enough winter weather gear for my thin Texas blood to survive deep snows around Mt. Hood, and maybe one day I’ll wade yet deeper into the chilly glacier waters flowing below the waterfalls of the Gorge, it is keeping a few items in the ‘yet to be fulfilled’ column that keeps me coming back, and like mighty Columbia River itself, every time I do return, the flow of new ideas, new photos and locations I want to see next time around just keep flowing forth.
Discovering photography was the final step in reconnecting with the natural world that I had grown up in but disconnected with after a skin cancer scare in my early 20s. Since then it has not only taught me to view the world deeply and take it in completely but inspired me to travel to places which would never have seen otherwise. Shooting now since early 2012, I focus primarily on landscape photography with additional interests in astrophotography, macro and even the occasional city shoot when the conditions are right. In that time I have been lucky enough to travel to locations such as New Zealand and the Lake District of the UK but still enjoy finding hidden pockets of beauty much closer to home. Ultimately, my goal with my work is to inspire others to seek out the beauty of the natural world for themselves, so it may bring them the same joy it does me.