Land before time

Before Time, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino Redwoods, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
2.5 seconds
ISO 400

Near the top of the canyon, on late-spring mornings electric-pink rhododendrons bask in splashes of early sunlight. Follow the trail a short distance and it seems that you’re witnessing a competition for light, the rhododendrons spreading and stretching to get their share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. The redwood here tower over everything, intercepting all but a few of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons are gone.

At some point down the trail you stop. You hear nothing but a breeze-induced swishing from the trees and maybe a bird warning the forest of your approach. Further down the trail there’s a new sound, at first subtle and difficult to disconnect from the wind in the branches—you’re dropping fast now; as the breeze abates the new sound separates into rushing water. Soon the trail levels and a creek appears at your feet. With the creek are ferns and few flying insects, and a smell that’s pleasantly, paradoxically musty and fresh.

Your path parallels the creek now, spongy beneath your feet. You know the sun is out, but the light is subdued, dusk-like. The water’s music builds with each step, the way a movie soundtrack prepares you for what’s in store. One more bend and there it is, a glistening cataract tumbling over mossy logs and rocks and framed with ferns.

You’ve found Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp redwoods east of Mendocino. For someone like me, who likes to imagine a world untouched by the hand of man, this is heaven. The staircase down to the fall is carved into the hillside and almost invisible; the weathered redwood bridge crossing the creek just downstream makes a perfect platform from which observe and descend without conscious thought into a prehistoric reality. Even if you’re not so inclined, it’s difficult to be down here without lapsing into something akin to meditation.

About this image

I’ve been to Russian Gulch Fall a number of times now, alone and with other photographers. I try to make it to the fall before midmorning, before the sun rises high enough to penetrate the dense redwood canopy and create too much contrast for my camera to capture.

On my latest visit I stayed until the sun climbed into the treetops. Most of my time there was spent with my telephoto lens, isolating aspects of the scene (like this). But shortly before leaving I put on a wide lens and framed the entire scene. Rather than compose the sun out (as I usually would), I added it to the top of my frame, using the trees to block all but a small sliver of the brilliant disk and dialing in a small aperture (f16) to create a sunburst. A polarizer eliminated subtle but pervasive glare on the rocks, water, and foliage, allowing the rich green to stand out. There was absolutely no wind, so I was comfortable with a 2 1/2 second exposure (but still verified the sharpness by magnifying the image on my LCD).

8 Comments on “Land before time

  1. I think of being in the redwoods as something close to a religious experience. I suppose meditation is just another way of describing the sensation. There’s just that kind of magic there. Your image comes about as close as one can get to capturing that magical quality.

  2. Beautiful image Gary. Glad you changed lenses and include that little bit of sun. Hope all is well with your and your family!

  3. Gary, I notice you use pretty small apertures a lot. Do you worry about diffraction setting in and is it really such a noticeable loss of resolution when it does?

    • I try to avoid using an aperture smaller than necessary. My default f-stop is f11 because that’s where my lenses tend to be sharpest and diffraction isn’t a problem there, but since I very aggressively try to include foreground and background subjects when I can, many of my images are at f16 for more DOF. So if you see one of my images at f16 that doesn’t require a lot of DOF, it’s a mistake (I wish I could say I never make mistakes, but sometimes I forget to switch back to f11 after shooting at f16). Fortunately, I have not noticed much of a diffraction problem at f16 (which doesn’t mean it’s something to be careful about).

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