After I returned to my motel at the end of my second day in the Finger Lakes region, I met up with my friend Ward. We’d photographed in West Virginia on a couple of occasions several years earlier and Ward, who lives in western Pennsylvania, asked me to let him know if I was ever back in his neck of the woods. When I’d finalized plans for this trip a couple of months prior I told him where I’d be and when, not knowing if he’d be able to take the time off to join me. He was able to clear a few days and planned to meet me in the Finger Lakes area, arriving some time late that day. The plan was to photograph together for the following two days.
I’d had time to scout all of the places of interest in Schuyler County and about half of the spots in Tompkins County that I’d wanted to check out. Given the forecast for the next day–clear, all day long–I suggested that we plan to shoot at Hector Falls first thing in the morning. I’d scouted Hector Falls on my first day in the area and felt it was well worth photographing. It was clearly a “work the site” kind of spot. Hector Falls is located on the east side of Seneca Lake, just a few miles northeast of the village of Watkins Glen, where the appropriately named Hector Falls Creek drains into the lake. The waterfall is west-facing, so I knew it would remain in shade for some time after the sun came up.
A busy state highway (SR 414) crosses over the falls via a bridge, but despite the “roadside” nature of Hector Falls, it’s possible to photograph the waterfall from numerous different perspectives. It can be photographed (with care) from the bridge itself, but it’s also possible to climb down to the base of the falls from both the north and south sides of the eastern edge of the bridge.
We arrived at the bridge at first light and, because the water in the creek is quite shallow, I donned my rubber boots and walked right into the creek bed on the south side of the waterway and, after examining the waterfall for a few moments, sauntered all the way over to the northern edge, below the bridge, and set up very close to the bottom tier of the 135-foot section of Hector Falls.
Hector Falls is quite impressive. It’s wide and it has numerous different tiers and cascades associated with it. Given my footwear, I had virtually unfettered access to the waterfall.
I simply wandered around the creek and set up whenever I found a composition that I found pleasing.
When I finished with one tier I climbed up (or down) to another and resumed the search.
In all, we spent the better part of two hours at Hector Falls because there were so many different perspectives to explore.
Ultimately I climbed out of the creek bed and retreated to the bridge, where I pulled out my telephoto lens and checked out a series of entirely different views.
When we wrapped at Hector Falls we made a quick run over to the (relatively) nearby Excelsior Glen. I’d scouted the hard-to-find glen on the first day I’d been in the region We hoped to get a bit of shooting in there before the spot was ruined by sunlit hot spots. We just barely reached the location before the sun made it unshootable, but we only had time to photograph the nearest of the three waterfalls in the glen.
While we were still trying to photograph in Excelsior, the sun crept in. The forecast had been correct; this was to be an unrelentingly blue sky day, so we spent most of the next eight hours or so scouting. I showed Ward some of the other nearby spots I’d found in and around Watkins Glen and Montour Falls over the previous couple of days and then we made the drive over to Ithaca, in Tompkins County, so we could scout Cascadilla Gorge, Ithaca Gorge and several spots north of Ithaca, including Taughannock Falls State Park.
Cascadilla Gorge and Ithaca Gorge cut right through the Cornell University campus, separated on the north-south axis by about a mile. Cascadilla was the one I thought had the most promise and our scouting session–which had us walk the length of the gorge trail, a one-mile long paved sidewalk–verified this. We agreed that this was a must do location and planned to return there first thing the following morning (the forecast was for overcast the next day). Ithaca Gorge was less appealing to us, though we walked that as well. It’s not possible to get into the gorge–the waterfalls must be viewed (and theoretically photographed) from above, but there are all sorts of constraints and impediments. While the subject matter was compelling, access was not so we deemed Ithaca Gorge to be significantly lower than Cascadilla on the priority list.
Taughannock Falls State Park is located on the west side of Cayuga Lake, about 10 miles north of Ithaca, where Taughannock Creek flows into the lake. The highlight of the park is the 215-foot high Taughannock Falls. The falls can be photographed, broadly speaking, from two spots: from creek level, by following an easily traversed trail of about 1.2 miles up the creek, and from an overlook. We checked out the overlook and from that position we could see the creek level trail and observation point. While the clear skies and the accompanying harsh light made the scene not desirable to photograph at that time (we knew that this would be the case), it was evident that we’d want to return under more suitable lighting conditions–the waterfall was that impressive. We then spent some time scouting other waterfall locations in Tompkins County.
It was mid-afternoon when we put a wrap on the Tompkins County scouting session and we had to determine what to do next. The two locations we most wanted to photograph were Watkins Glen State Park and Cascadilla Gorge. We’d originally planned to hit Watkins Glen at first light the following day, but after we’d scouted Cascadilla Gorge in Ithaca, we had second thoughts. The gorge had been really impressive and we figured it would take a full morning to thoroughly photograph it. As I noted earlier, the next day was supposed to be cloudy, so that would be perfect. We decided to head back to Watkins Glen immediately and see if we could get some photography in there this evening. I’d already photographed part of the park the previous morning, and I figured if we went back now we could do a walk through, so Ward could see the place, and then head back in with our cameras about three hours before sunset, when the gorge would gradually fall into full shadow and the crowds would diminish.
So, that’s what we did. After stopping so Ward could pick up some rubber boots–he’d seen how helpful they’d been for me that morning at both Hector Falls and Excelsior Gorge and he knew they’d come in handy the next morning at Cascadilla Gorge–we arrived at the Watkins Glen State Park lower parking area at around 3:30 PM. It was quite crowded and the light was still pretty poor, but we hiked the length of the gorge trail and back, without our gear. I think it was helpful for Ward to see the place before trying to photograph it, as he was able to prioritize some of the better shooting areas. We returned to the parking area between 4:30 and 5 PM and then waited for about 45 minutes to let the sun sink lower and the crowds to thin out a bit. Then, we grabbed our equipment and headed back into the gorge.
It was still fairly crowded when we hit the trail for real, and eventually we just pushed on. While we were in the gorge the crowds grew thinner and thinner and the light got better and better and we simply started shooting. I concentrated, naturally, on the areas I hadn’t already photographed the previous day.
It started to get dark as we pushed toward the back end of the gorge trail. I’d already photographed at the Spiral Gorge and Glen of Pools areas the day before, but I wanted to photograph Rainbow Falls with the stone bridge in the background. I hadn’t been able to shoot that perspective the day before because the bridge–and the area behind it–were exposed to the sun. By the time I reached this part of the trail on this day, the entire area was in shadow. Shutter speeds were long and there was just enough of a breeze to cause some of the foliage in the trees visible in the background from this spot to blow. I spent a lot of time waiting for a lull so that I could render everything (except the flowing water) sharp.
There was a glowing quality, produced by some reflected light, to this scene that’s difficult to describe, because it’s quite dark in the gorge when it’s as late in the day as it was by the time this pair of photographs was made.
We did make it up near the end of the trail–to an area I’d already photographed–but it was so dark by that time, shutter speeds were being measured in seconds, even when the ISO was raised significantly. We walked back to the parking area in the gloom.
There had been more scouting than photographing, by a long shot, on this day, but the next day–my last in the Finger Lakes region–would be much more conducive to shooting and we’d try to make the most of it.