On a quiet spring morning you step from the car and are greeted by electric-pink rhododendrons basking in splashes of early sunlight. Your arms prickle at the morning chill, but you wisely decide to leave the sweater behind, closing the door as softly as possible to preserve the peace. At a mostly overgrown gap in the foliage, you part the branches and step onto a dirt track that leads into the forest.
Following the trail a short distance, you realize you’re witnessing a competition for sunlight, each rhododendron spreading and stretching to get its share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. These trees tower above everything, intercepting all but a handful of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons have surrendered.
As the trail descends further, you feel like you’re moving back in time. Ducking a spider web that spans the trail, you privately celebrate that you’re the first to pass this way today. Down here, the sunlight has to work harder to penetrate the canopy so the chill remains, but now its invigorating tingle propels you forward.
Before rounding a hairpin bend you pause, inhale, and listen. Gradually, what seemed like absolute silence reveals itself to be breeze-induced swish from swaying redwood boughs. Shortly after your steps resume, a bird’s cry warns the forest of your approach. You’re dropping faster now, but the tap-tap of your feet is dampened by the trail’s powdery surface.
Soon there’s a new sound, subtle and difficult to separate from the wind in the branches. As the trail’s decline moderates, the rhythm of your footfall slows and the new sound finally separates from wind’s gentle swish: rushing water. The creek is nearby but not yet visible. You follow the trail around fallen redwood that nature has repurposed as a giant fern garden and there it is, springing from the dense understory. With the creek comes more 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 well up, but the morning light is subdued, dusk-like. The creek’s music builds with each step, a soundtrack preparing you for something significant. One more bend and you’re facing your goal, a glistening cataract tumbling thirty vertical feet over mossy logs and rocks, framed by ferns.
You’ve arrived at Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp, green hills east of Mendocino on California’s north coast. Down here it’s easy to imagine a world untouched by humans, and finding this eden empty 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, blends with the surroundings to form the ideal platform from which to imagine 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, 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 this morning I arrived early enough to work the scene for a full two hours before tiny patches of sunlight blighted the forest floor and sent me packing. And work it I did, starting wide and trending tighter as I became more familiar with the scene.
I started by orienting my polarizer, an often overlooked component in a forest water scene like this. Many people think the polarizer’s purpose is to make the sky more blue, but I think its greatest benefit is removing the sheen from foliage and rocks, especially (but not exclusively) when they’re wet. Between the two stops of light lost to the polarizer, and the dense forest dark, achieving a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the water without severely compromising my ISO and f-stop was impossible, so I just went with extreme blur in the water.
The morning air seemed perfectly still, but to guard against an imperceptible breeze nudging the ferns during my exposure, I bumped my ISO to 400. I selected f/11 to ensure front-to-back sharpness, which gave me a one second exposure that created extreme motion blur that I thought made the delicate strands of plummeting water quite nice.
A handful of people came through while I was down there, pausing briefly to savor the scene before continuing on or turning back, but for the most part I had the fall to myself. I photographed until the sun climbed into the treetops, paused a few minutes to bask in the quiet, then started the trudge back to the present.
Keeping the world out
Even when I’m surrounded by people, or signs of human influence, I try to photograph the world as if I’m the only one who has ever been here. It’s not that I don’t like people (I love and need people, as this pandemic has confirmed for me), it’s that I recharge in their absence, and my photography is an extension of that part of me. Whether I’m photographing at a location where I am indeed completely alone, as I was that morning at Russian Gulch Fall, or in the midst of a workshop group, or rubbing elbows with hundreds of gawking tourists (I’m looking at you, Antelope Canyon), I frame my scenes to convey a feeling of solitude.
Many of the images in the gallery below were captured in the presence of others, but the feeling I get from viewing them now is no different than it would be had I been completely alone. While many of my images feature the sky, for this gallery I selected smaller, more intimate scenes that soothe.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.