Wetness: the Essence of Beauty

If you don’t recognize the title, clearly you haven’t seen one of the best movies of all time. Derek Zoolander, posing as a merman, was on to something deeper than you might have at first thought. Without water, of course, Earth wouldn’t be recognizable as the blue and green globe we call home. I’ll skip past the obvious aspects of water, like that we need it to survive, swim, ski, and sail, and highlight some of the influences it has on my photography. Without annual flash floods in Utah and Arizona, the red Navajo Sandstone wouldn’t be carved into such spectacularly twisted passageways. Without snow and ice the ephemeral snow caves I crawled into for my last entry wouldn’t exist, and of course, glaciers wouldn’t have the resources to carve out the rainforest valleys I will explore in this edition. But let’s return to the most obvious wonder of water: its gift of life. Forests, in particular rainforests, truly come alive when they’ve received a healthy sprinkling of rain. The lovely little raindrops usually coalesce or dry up pretty quickly, but the effects of the wetness remain for a little while longer. Browns turn red, greens become even more green, and everything gets a healthy glossy sheen which, when polarized, further enhances the color. And of course if you’ve just had some rain, the blue skies are probably hidden by clouds: nature’s giant diffusers. This gives everything a soft even glow, allowing the camera to capture all the details and subtle tones that disappear in the harsh sunlight on a clear day.


“Temple of Rain” ~ Queets River Rainforest, Olympic National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 24mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 1.6 sec
Processing: These images didn’t require much work, for each I used the channel mixer to adjust color brightness and saturation to match the effect the scene had on me while I was there. Then a little burn/dodge here and there to even out the exposure in some places.

The summer in Olympic National Park is generally known for clear sunny skies. So far my experience has gone accordingly, as I haven’t felt more than a few drops of rain in the past month that I’ve been here. As a result you’ve just had to take my word that there are indeed rainforests here, spectacular ones at that, with more biomass per unit area than tropical rainforests (according to the visitor center’s video). Finally, after a very long wait, I got some clouds and rain. I quickly took advantage by heading to the Queets River Rainforest, this time with both my parents in tow. The park is home to three rainforest river valleys: the Hoh, Quinault, and Queets (there are also other large river valleys – the Bogachiel, and Sol Duc for example, but these aren’t as wet and mossy since they point more northward rather than west to the ocean). The Hoh is the most famous (and touristy), primarily for its trail through the rainforest to the base of Mt. Olympus. As a result I largely avoided this valley, and got my first taste of the Olympics along the Quinault River, which led me to Enchanted Valley. The Queets on the other hand, leads nowhere; the trail simply dead-ends after 3 days of hiking. You could bushwhack through the rainforest up 3,000 feet to finally get some mountain views, but the actual trail simply stops. It also starts with a ford of the Queets river, which at the time of my visit was over 5 feet deep of glacial meltwater – my dad would hardly have been able to poke his head out of the water. For these reasons, not many people come here, except to fish for Salmon and Steelhead in the fall. And not surprisingly, it is (in my opinion) the most spectacularly wild and fresh of the three rainforests. Though the river was un-fordable, there were fortunately a few miles of trail before the ford that I could explore. With fantastic (cloudy) light in the skies, and a recent layer of rain from the previous evening, I spent the entire day exploring the rainforest, crawling under mossy ceilings, getting lost among giant lichen covered Spruces, and admiring the bearded maples.


“Mossy Skies” ~ Queets River Rainforest, Olympic National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 22mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/14, 1.3 sec
Processing: These images didn’t require much work, for each I used the channel mixer to adjust color brightness and saturation to match the effect the scene had on me while I was there. Then a little burn/dodge here and there to even out the exposure in some places.
Notes: The mossy beards hanging from these branches required as fast a shutter speed as I could muster to stop them from swaying in the calm wind.

Photographing the forest is difficult, particularly one so green and lush as this rainforest. Everything acts as foreground, midground and background. You could be standing in the photo you want to take! By contrast, with a mountain view your background is already selected, and you only have to find a foreground of interest – that’s what makes the photo yours. The mountain is always there, and doesn’t change too much from year to year, and the light and skies are out of your control, so it is the foreground where you can let your creativity shine. The forest, on the other hand, is much more intimate. Everything can be your foreground, and the desired lighting is generally cloudy (except if you’re lucky enough to catch some low hanging mist). It is a veritable paradise for creativity, but also a challenge. In order to make sense of the chaotic scene as photograph, you need an anchor, something solid that the eyes can use to orient themselves so the viewer doesn’t get lost and lose interest. With a mountain view, the mountain or even the sky can serve this purpose. Of course, the image can’t be so simple that you’re left with nothing to explore. Including enough complexity, yet organizing it with a solid anchor, is generally accomplished with a wide angle. As you might have noticed I rarely shoot landscapes with anything longer than 28mm. This emphasizes the foreground (usually your anchor), providing perspective, and includes plenty of background for the eyes to wander and ponder through without getting lost in unidentifiable chaos.


“Root of Life” ~ Queets River Rainforest, Olympic National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 26mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/18, 4 sec
Processing: These images didn’t require much work, for each I used the channel mixer to adjust color brightness and saturation to match the effect the scene had on me while I was there. Then a little burn/dodge here and there to even out the exposure in some places.

Those suggestions are really just the beginning to finding a successful scene. To find an interesting and successful scene, you’ll have to apply your creativity. My style is typified by combining abstract collections of lines and curves, with an identifiable and interestingly lit landscape. At least, those are the images that end up being my favorites. This is easily accomplished with the strange and sensual rock and sand formations of the Southwest, or with snow and ice. But finding a scene like that in the forest is a little harder. Having been to Olympic once before, the sight that stuck in my memory most was that of the mossy bearded trees. I figured this would be my best chance at finding an abstract collection of lines and curves among the green trees, and I was not disappointed.


“Tendrils of Life” ~ Queets River Rainforest, Olympic National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 22mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 4 sec
Processing: These images didn’t require much work, for each I used the channel mixer to adjust color brightness and saturation to match the effect the scene had on me while I was there. Then a little burn/dodge here and there to even out the exposure in some places.


“Bowing to the Moss” ~ Queets River Rainforest, Olympic National Park
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 2 sec
Processing: These images didn’t require much work, for each I used the channel mixer to adjust color brightness and saturation to match the effect the scene had on me while I was there. Then a little burn/dodge here and there to even out the exposure in some places.

While water clearly provides a plethora of opportunities for photography, and other joys in life, it can also hamper outside fun. Wetness isn’t exactly desirable when backpacking, and persistent rain makes photography difficult without an entourage of assistants to hold some big umbrellas. Right before the rains start, and after they end, however, the skies can often be particularly exciting, offering a chance for spectacular sunrises or sunsets. In hope of such an event my parents and I headed to the beach before the next onslaught of predicted rain hit. Alas, the clouds came in too quick, and the evening skies were nothing but slate gray. I awoke the following morning to the raindrops singing me happy birthday on my tarp, and we walked out through the drizzle with nothing to show for it but wet backpacks. But the coastal forests were shining with color! If only I’d had a bigger umbrella and more hands to hold it with, then I’d have shared it with you.

So while most summer activities demand a rain check when nature’s shower turns on, next time it starts to sprinkle, go out into the forest and look at the wonderful beauty that wetness reveals. Though we tend to avoid rain, civilization is largely centered about large bodies of water, a habit that has ingrained itself in our very nature. Nearly all trails eventually lead to lakes, waterfalls or beaches, which are all understood to project a sense of peace and serenity: a rejuvenating setting for one to relax and reflect in (pun intended – water’s ability to reflect both you and the distant mountains, as well as the sky, connects it to something deeper, which you can ponder at the next pool you come across). And if you’re still not convinced that wetness is the essence of beauty, consider the fact that countless companies spend millions of dollars to make your hair look wet, even when it’s dry, and to keep your lips moist, glossy and sparkling with wetness all day long.

On that note, I’m leaving Olympic National Park (at least, for a bit – I may return in a few weeks for one last trip or two). I’ll either be chasing, or running away from, the rain and its magical, yet sometimes uncomfortable, properties of wetness. Perhaps I’ll ponder the magic of water in front of Mt. Rainier’s reflection lakes, and hopefully some more remote tarns as well. Or perhaps I’ll leave the crowds altogether for some other mountain. A logical conclusion to this story, as in these images you can only see the green that results from the copious amount of falling water (over 16 feet per year), and now I’m yearning for a large body of reflective water.

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