This is the second in a pair of articles for weekend photographers on how to get professional images with the use of a polarizer filter, tripod… and wet feet! In this article, we travel to iconic Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek, one of the many national park-worthy jewels along the Mount Hood loop, and a scene known around the world through posters, art photography and advertising images.
Punch Bowl Falls has been a popular hiking destination since the completion of the Eagle Creek Trail in 1919, a three-year construction effort of epic stature. The trail is a marvel of engineering and audacity, blasted into sheer cliffs and behind waterfalls as it traverses up the Eagle Creek canyon. A short spur trail drops to Punch Bowl Falls, where wading is required to view the falls in winter and spring.
Punch Bowl Falls has long been a favorite subject for photography, including pioneering Oregon photographers Ray Atkeson and Al Monner, who visited the falls as early as the 1930s and 40s. Today, you can find Punch Bowl falls in dozens of mass-produced calendars, books and art prints, yet it’s always a thrill to capture your own image of the famous falls.
In the late 1990s, “the log” appeared in front of Punch Bowl Falls, frustrating photographers for a decade until it was swept away in the winter of 2008-09. Today, the falls once again presents itself in magnificent form, just as it has appeared to visitors for nearly a century.
Photographing Punch Bowl Falls
Punch Bowl Falls always looks beautiful, but capturing the beauty with your camera requires some skill. Anyone can capture a professional-looking, slow-shutter photograph of Punch Bowl Falls by following these basic steps:
Step 1: Pick an overcast day. For slow-shutter photography, bright sun is your enemy. Even with a polarizer filter (see previous article), direct sun will blow out your highlights, produce uneven, high-contrast lighting and reduce the vivid colors that long exposures usually capture.
The following photo pair of images from Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek shows the difference. Both exposures were taken from the same spot and at the same shutter speed on a day when the sun was coming and going behind fairly heavy clouds:
The “sun” sample could be even worse: had the sun been shining directly on the bright white of the waterfall, it would have completely blown out any detail.
Another advantage of going on a grey, wet day is that you’ll be less likely to have crowds at the falls. Most people flock to the waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge when the sun is out, which also happens to be the worst time to photograph them! Ideally, pick an overcast, mid-week day for this trip and there’s a good chance that you’ll have the place to yourself for at least awhile. On a recent, somewhat misty Wednesday afternoon, I was the only person photographing the falls for a period of nearly 2 hours!
Step 2: Pack the “four essentials”. Photographing Punch Bowl Falls from stream-level usually requires wading into Eagle Creek. So in addition to the standard (1) tripod and (2) polarizer filter needed for slow-shutter photography, you’ll also want (3) a pair of wading shoes or sandals so that you won’t be squishing back to your car in a pair of soggy boots and (4) a hiking pole to help keep you upright as you negotiate the stream.
While it’s possible to wade barefoot, or even wear a pair of flip-flops, the bottom of the creek is uneven, slippery and has enough sharp rocks to make something more substantial on your feet a better solution. Remember, you’ll be standing in the creek for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how many photos you take… and how long your feet can tolerate the 45 degree water!
Step 3: Timing and finding the right spot. If you haven’t been to Punch Bowl Falls before, it’s easy to find. Follow the Portland Hikers guide to Eagle Creek, and after crossing Sorenson Creek on a series of large, round concrete stepping stones, watch for a sign at a sharp bend in the trail pointing to “Lower Punchbowl”.
This spur trail drops one-quarter mile to the banks of Eagle Creek, where you will pass directly above 15-foot Lower Punch Bowl Falls on a somewhat slippery bedrock shelf (watch your step!). From here, head directly across a broad, cobbled beach toward the mossy opening where Eagle Creek seems to emerge from the cliffs. Punch Bowl Falls is set into a huge cavern in these cliffs.
During heavy runoff in spring, much of the rocky beach is underwater, and it’s not possible to safely wade out to the view of Punch Bowl Falls. As a rule of thumb, you should never venture above your knees in fast moving water, or you risk getting swept into the stream… and in this case, over the lower falls!
If you reach the bedrock section above Lower Punch Bowl Falls and water levels force you to duck and dodge among the logs and brush above the beach, then you should simply save the Punch Bowl Falls view for a better day, when water levels are lower. You’ll still have a beautiful view of the lower falls and the gorgeous grotto that surrounds this section of Eagle Creek, with plenty to photograph. After all, there is no such thing as a bad day to be at Eagle Creek, and it’s always best to err on the safe side when it comes to fording streams.
If water levels are low enough, you’ll likely see a little “jetty” of rocks piled in the creek by photographers and hikers who have preceded you, and you might be able to get a photo of the falls without having to wade. Later in summer, you can usually get to the falls view without leaving dry land at all. But for optimum water levels and the most vibrant foliage, it’s best to go from mid-May through mid-June, when you’ll almost certainly be wading for your photos of Punch Bowl Falls.
Assuming water levels are safe, it’s time to put on your water shoes, put your camera on your tripod, extend your tripod’s legs, grab your hiking pole and head out into the stream. Look across the creek for a large, rounded hollow in the opposite cliff (see photo, above) and aim for this part of the stream. When the falls comes into view, simply pick the spot that looks best to your eye.
Step 4: Setting up your shot. Once you’ve picked your spot in the stream, it’s time to set up your tripod and get started! If you’ve got a DSLR camera, you’ll want to have a lens somewhere in the 11-42 mm range for this scene. Any point-and-shoot will cover enough range, as well — provided you have threads for a polarizer filter (see previous article).
The classic falls view shown below is the conventional straight-on look into the huge cavern that holds Punch Bowl Falls, but you can vary your composition, of course. Once you’ve framed your image, adjust the polarizer to reduce glare and set the focus.
Next, using your DSLR or point-and-shoot on manual mode, you’ll want to set the shutter speed for 1/2 second to start with. Longer exposures will create a more smoothed shape for the falls, but are usually too long to shoot without adding a light-reducing filter. Exposures shorter than 1/4 second can result in lumpy details on the falls, but there’s no harm in experimenting with different exposures.
Finally, instead of pressing the shutter button on your camera, try using the timer, instead. Most cameras have 2-second and 10-second settings. Using the 2-second timer allows the camera to stop vibrating from your finger pressing the shutter, creating a super-sharp image.
For a less traditional shot, try setting your lens to a very wide field of view and placing the falls off-center — or, try a vertical shot that captures some of the tall trees behind the falls. The only limits are your creativity… and the degree of numbness in your feet!
After you’ve captured your classic images of Punch Bowl Falls, be sure to spend some time photographing the magnificent scenes below the falls, including Lower Punch Bowl Falls. You can also stop by the short spur to the Metlako Falls viewpoint on the way back to the trailhead for another classic photo opportunity. Eagle Creek is a truly remarkable place with world-class scenery, and it’s easy to spend hours here capturing the beauty in images.
Once you’re back home and downloading your images, you’ll discover that following the steps in this article will deliver terrific images right out of the camera, with little need for photo editing.
All you need to do now is pick the one that you’re going to print and frame!