A few years ago I hiked the short distance down to Gheerulla Falls in Mapleton National Park for a sunrise photo session. These aren’t particularly wide or high falls – in winter they are often reduced to a trickle – but through summer the flow is usually strong and occasionally thunderous. Set amid a landscape of steep, wooded slopes, tall rainforest trees and giant boulders, the location makes a worthy subject for landscape photographers.
Although I’d visited briefly before, this was the first time I’d come with the aim of exploring the photographic potential of the falls. So I spent some time scrambling around the edge of the plunge pool, framing the falls between tree trunks and using lichen-covered boulders as foreground interest. Time passes quickly when you’re caught up in the moment like this, and the pre-dawn gloom soon began to lift to give me a better view of the surroundings.
Having captured some of the more obvious scenes from immediately below the falls, I made my way around to the far side of the plunge pool, over and between the huge boulders that were gradually being polished smooth by year after year of water flow. An accumulation of sand and silt beside the base of the falls had allowed trees and mat-rush to take root, so I looked for compositions that included these features.
After a little searching, I found the scene in the accompanying photograph and set about positioning my tripod to capture it. It took some fine-tuning to get the angle and height right so the little log and leaves filled the foreground nicely with the falls still in clear view. One leg of my tripod extended down into the water, and to see the viewfinder, I had to stand with one foot on the bank and the other on a slippery submerged rock.
But everything looked good, so with a polarising filter in place to bring out the colours of the forest, I took three bracketed exposures. The +1.3EV exposure of 30 seconds was just right for the dark foreground, but I ended up having to blend in parts of the two darker exposures later in Photoshop to avoid burn-out in the brighter background. All in all, I was happy with the result – this image captured the atmosphere of the location much better than any of the others from the morning.
So the next time I visited Gheerulla Falls some months later, one of my aims was to try to repeat and improve on this image. My thinking was that I’d discovered a unique perspective on the falls and maybe it would look even better in different light. At the very least, I had a sure-thing photograph to kick off the morning session.
As I walked down the track by torchlight, I was mentally positioning my tripod as before and hoping the water was at the same level so I could still stand on the submerged rock. At the end of the track, I bypassed the front of the falls and headed straight for my position on the far side.
And there before me lay the message that prompted me to write this article. There was no sure-thing photograph waiting for me – even by torchlight I could see that nothing lined up quite the same as before. The water level was slightly lower, the log had moved only a little but was looking ragged and rotten, the lichen-crusted rock with the coloured leaves on it was now covered in scraggly bits of debris and looked unappealing, and the mat-rush and other foliage no longer created a neat frame for the falls. There was no image here.
The two or three times I’ve been to Gheerulla Falls since have been the same – I always manage to bring home some new images, but none from this particular spot with this particular composition. I’ve had the same experience at other locations when I’ve revisited the scene of past images – different lighting highlights different features of the landscape, plants grow and change shape, clouds and sky vary from minute to minute. You can go back, but things are never the same. And that is a good thing.
It is always best to approach each new photo session with an open mind, and treat each return visit to a favourite spot as though it’s the first time you’ve been there. You need to be ready to react to whatever takes your eye on a particular day and not try to force the matter by letting preconceptions stifle your ability to see what is in front of you. It is certainly worth returning to a favourite location again and again to get to know its nuances, and it is sometimes possible to improve on a past image, but each occasion is a new adventure. It is far more exciting, refreshing and productive to treat it that way than to try and repeat past successes.