Dangerous Waters

Although the weather forecast on New Year’s Day called for cloudy skies, the sun seemed to be making a game effort in the mid-morning so I thought I would celebrate the first day of 2017 photographing Great Falls National Park. I was thinking about a waterfall image with a nice feathery look, using a slower shutter speed on the water. An example of the concept is shown below, taken a week earlier.


Great Falls of the Potomac (December 25th, 2016)

(Nikon D810 on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 150mm and ND filter; exp @ 1.6 secs, ISO 50)

The park is named for the Great Falls of the Potomac River, about 15 miles north of Washington, DC . It is a spectacular location for landscape photography but also is one of the most dangerous whitewater locations in the eastern U.S.  Since 1975, about 30 people have died there and only expert boaters should contemplate putting into this section of the river.


Kayak portage across the”Flake”

Just as I arrived, I noticed several kayakers lugging their boats over the rocky island known as the Flake towards a put-in point for a run over the falls.  I sprinted for Overlook #1 which provides a decent view of all three routes over the falls.  For those who are not familiar with the level of these rapids, here are some excerpts from American Whitewater:

“Great Falls of the Potomac River is a major set of rapids located about 15 miles upstream of Washington, DC. The main Falls lines drop fifty feet in one-tenth of a mile, creating a Class V+ set of waterfalls.” (Note: Class VI is the most dangerous; anything more dangerous is considered unrunnable).

More scary information about the dangers of this kayak run can be found here: Scroll down to the several listings for Great Falls.

As I watched the boaters pick their way across the Flake, I surveyed the river trying to guess from the flow of the water which route they would choose.  The level is precisely measured by a hydrology station upriver and an online site provides current information which should dictate the choice.   A difference of 6 inches can make a big difference.

It looked to me as if two of the lines, the one closest to the Virginia shore (the Spout) and the one closest the Maryland shore (Maryland Lines) were  OK but the center line seemed too low to be safe. Two other boaters were already in the water near the put-in on the Maryland side so I concentrated on them.


Approaching the final rapid on the Maryland Line


A few seconds later, so far, so good


Almost through

These two made the run nicely and paddled over to the base of the Flake and began the tricky portage back upstream.  It was then that I noticed two other boaters who seemed to be aiming for a run down the centerline, also known as “The Fingers” because there are five 25-foot vertical chutes to choose from.  The Fingers can be seen in the photo at the start of the post; it was taken from Outlook #3.


Approaching the “Fingers”

The problem is that the wrong choice can be fatal.  I made an online check on the water level which showed it was about 1 inch below the level considered safe for that route. So the pair were pushing their luck just a bit.  Anyway, they made it OK, although I couldn’t see the finish from my vantage point. (See photo below)


Running the Middle Finger (the correct choice)

No sooner has they completed their descents when four more kayakers moved into position for a run down the Virginia line.  This run finishes with “The Spout,” a spectacular 25-foot drop right in front of my position. Now I was getting really excited.


In position for the Virginia Line, about 100 meters (and 3 rapids) from the Spout


Through the 3 rapids and assessing the Spout


Perfect Position!

All four made the run without encountering trouble and the small crowd with me at the overlook cheered loudly after each one resurfaced above the foam.  And the boaters themselves were proud of their accomplishment, judging from the energetic fist pumps made at the conclusion of their descents.

Of all the times I have been to the park and have been lucky enough to see kayakers, I have never seen runs made on all three of the major routes on the same day.  It was truly a special way to start the new year.

New Year, New Gear!

Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter.  For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography.  As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR  telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender.  When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm.  That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.

Weight is also a consideration.  The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs.   And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.

But how does it perform?  The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made.  In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment.  So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.


Pileated Woodpecker  (male)

(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod;  1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)

The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing.  Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.


Pileated Woodpecker (female)

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod;  1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

Adding the extender brought the subject really close.  But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender.  Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations.  As before, this is an uncropped image.  A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO.  This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.


Avian Food Fight #1

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)


Avian Food Fight #2

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller.  But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.

Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight.  I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park.  I will spare you samples of the results.  They turned out fine, but buzzards??

We need something more impressive.  Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.

Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter.  It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there.  More information about it can be found here.

So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic.   Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well.  But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.


In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards).  Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.


But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances?  We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car)  Here are two examples of the results.


Bald Eagle in Flight

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)


Bald Eagle with Fish

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld;  1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)

In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January.  Updates will be included in future posts.  In the meantime…


Keep Shooting……

Summer Pursuits

If you are a photographer based near the city of Washington,  July provides many photo ops beyond the well-known fireworks extravaganza that happens on the 4th.

For example, there is the fairly well-known field of sunflowers in Maryland’s McKee-Besher’s Wildlife Management Area (Maryland DNR website).  Since the weather forecast for the fireworks was iffy, I decided to zip over to that field on the 4th to see if they had been planted this year and, if so, how long it would be before they were ready to be photographed.  It was a good thing I did.

Sunflowers 03

Approaching Storm, Sunflowers (July 4, 2014)

The plants were so vigorous this year that one needed a ladder in some spots just to get a clear view of the entire field.  I had neglected to take a ladder on the scouting trip so I returned with one the next day for another go.

Sunflowers 01

Morning Fog, Sunflowers (July 5, 2015)

Sunflowers 02

Soft Light, Sunflowers (July 5, 2015)

The morning light with the fog provided a completely different mood than the previous afternoon.  While a ladder is helpful, to get higher one needs a camera-equipped drone or, in my case, a friend with such a device.

Drone 01

Drone, Awaiting Orders

This was purely an experiment and requires a skill set I do not possess, one completely different from still photography.  The owner was in charge of where it went and what it did.

View from above

The image above is a still photograph taken by the drone’s camera.  One can get an idea of its potential, however, by checking out this link to an unedited clip of one of the flights.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Washington, DC, the lotus blossoms were at peak in Kenilworth Gardens, according to a fellow photographer who was there on July 3rd.  Here is an image from a previous visit.

Lotus 01

Lotus, Kenilworth Gardens, Washington, DC

But Kenilworth will have to wait until next year, a kayak race over Great Falls was scheduled for July 11, and I wanted to check out the practice runs on the two days before the actual event.   The advantage of the practice runs is that the race day crowds are absent.  The downside is that you don’t know exactly when the boats will be coming down.

Kayak 01

Navigating the Fish Ladder, Great Falls National Park, Maryland

The Fish Ladder is a tricky course as can be seen from a 35-second video taken shortly after this run.  Listen for the thuimp when the lead boat collides with the wall.  The race course was on the Maryland side this year because the water level was too high for the classic run through the center line, known as the Fingers, shown below.

Kayak 02

Navigating the Fingers, Great Falls of the Potomac (July 2014)

Whether running the Fish Ladder or the Center Lines, this event is an extremely dangerous undertaking.  A competitor died in 2013 during a practice run over the falls.  The event organizers go to great lengths to ensure the safety of the kayakers, but the power of the river is impossible to tame completely.


Sunflower Alert!

As many area photographers (and painters) know, this is the time of year that several fields of sunflowers located near Poolesville, Maryland come into bloom. They are located in McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area and are accessible to the public. I was out there yesterday to check on their status and the flowers need a little more time. Three people who were also inspecting the blooms advised me that it would be about a week before prime time.

Sunflowers Kent Blog 01Sunflowers at Early Light

The above photo was taken last year on July 16 in the field that is easiest to find (the one I checked yesterday) which will give a sense of the scene to those not familiar with this spot.  Further information can be found at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  The page contains links to two maps showing the locations of the fields.