Portland, OR is one of my favorite places to travel. I’m a sucker for mountains, lakes, rocky coasts and waterfalls and Oregon has all of it (and more actually). Well, one of the places I’ve had my eye on photographing out there was Oneonta Gorge (pronounced oh-nee-ANH-tuh). It’s basically a slot canyon with water running through it that starts at a large waterfall. Even though it’s not far from the main road, and incredibly close to one of the most popular falls near Portland (Multnomah Falls), I’ve never had the chance to shoot it. That’s because you don’t just walk up to it along the path to the visitor center. Basically, you have to get wet. Then you have to climb over a very large and slippery log jam, then you have to get really wet. So I’ve either not been prepared with clothing, or I was there during the summer and that’s not a great time to catch the falls with a lot of running water. So the photos end up with a lot of dry rocks in them.
This Was the Trip
Last week I was heading to Portland for a meeting at onOne Software’s offices and decided to leave an extra day to shoot. This was going to be the trip I made it to Oneonta. Timing was pretty good. There’s a lot of water running off the mountains from the melting snow so waterflow would be good, and the weather wasn’t too cold, so getting wet wouldn’t hurt quite as bad as it normally could. So I called my local buddies Rick LePage and Hudson Henry, and they kindly said they’d join me. Actually, I think they were just afraid I would get hurt so they wanted to make sure I was ok 🙂
Planning the Trip
Hudson and Rick have been in Portland a while so the first thing they said when I brought this up was that we’d need waders at the very least, or a wetsuit to be on the safe side. And that the water was flowing pretty high (like over our heads at some points), so we’d need a dry bag for our camera gear. So we headed to a place called Gorge Performance that rents wet suits and sells dry bags. Perfect! With wetsuits and dry bags in hand, we headed to Oneonta.
Packing Up The Gear
We changed in to the wetsuits at the cars on site, and packed up our gear. I traveled as light as I could. I took everything out of my camera bag, and just brought my Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70mm lens and 16-35mm lens. I had my Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod and BH-55 ballhead. I also brought my polarizing filter, my Tiffen 2, 3, and 4 stop neutral density filters, as well as my Lee Little Stopper 6-stop ND filter. Oh, and a bunch of towels and cloths for my lenses, which ended up being the best decision I made that day. And if you saw my post on Monday, about my ankle, you’ll see I definitely made worse decisions that day 😉
Anyway, here’s everything as I was about to pack up. The wetsuit on one side, the drybag and gear on the other. I’m not quite sure who was more afraid about getting wet at this point – me or the Canon 5D III 🙂
Walking In To The Gorge
The walk in to the gorge isn’t that bad. After a couple of little slippery hills, you’re in the water that ranged from ankle to knee deep for about 5 minutes. I also rented the little wet suit booties with thick rubber bottoms so my feet stayed pretty warm, and didn’t get torn up. It turns out the rubber isn’t nearly as thick as you’d like because walking on those rocks was probably the most uncomfortable and painful part about this trip.
Once you make your way up for a few minutes, you hit the first hurdle in this trip – the infamous log jam. It’s wet, it’s slippery, it’s tall and trust me when I say, you don’t want to fall or slip off of it. So we took our time. I had no shame in sitting on my butt at times and just scooting along the logs. I had my bag and tripod on my back, so balance was definitely a little off. But we made it across and even posed for a photo to show were were still alive 🙂
Okay, now shake off the image of 3 guys in wetsuits (because I know it ain’t pretty) and read on….
Once you make it across the log jam, you get off in to waist-ish deep water. That’s really the first point that you’re really happy you’re in a wet suit. From that point on, the water level varies. You go from standing on rocks, to points where the water is over your head. Fortunately, at those points you can hang on to the side of the canyon wall so you don’t have to totally go under water. Good times!
Shooting Along the Gorge
I’d say it’s about a half-mile distance from the start of the gorge to the falls. But there’s plenty to shoot along the way. The mossy green rocks looked like they were glowing at points. At this point I was shooting with my 24-70mm mostly. I also had a circular polarizer on to help bring out the color, as well as cut through the glare on the water and rocks. Because it was pretty dark to start with (very little light overhead), I was able to get long enough shutter speeds without putting an ND filter on.
(Click to see them larger)
Timing and Sunlight
Shooting waterfalls is usually best on overcast days. But this day was totally clear. We started out around 9:30am. By the time we were shooting the falls it was around 11:30am, and we’d managed to avoid the really harsh light. But right around noon, light started to get pretty harsh and within minutes the entire canyon was un-shootable because you just had harsh dappled light everywhere. But here’s some photos I took along the way.
(Click to see them larger)
Getting to the Falls
The end of the line (or the beginning depending on how you look at it) is the falls. Fortunately it was flowing really nicely this time of year. The hardest part about shooting was keeping the front of your lens dry. The spray from the falls made it really difficult. I had two towels with me and the were both soaked by the time I was done. You can see it draped over my back in the photo below. Every time I’d shoot, I’d put the towel over the camera to keep it as dry as possible. Then I had a back-up towel that I kept in the bag, for one final wipe down before I’d shoot again. But as you can see below, the photos were SOOO worth it.
(Click to see them larger)
As you can see, by this point the light was getting pretty harsh because the sun was approaching overhead. I still managed to snap off a good one of the light beams, because the higher the sun and the worse the light, the better the beams got.
I guess you don’t realize how far you’re walking as you’re shooting. But by the time we decided to head back, it took almost a half-hour to walk/wade/swim/climb all the way out. What an adventure though! We made it back safe and sound. All limbs and gear intact.
If I Could Go Back
I thought of including this little “If I Could Go Back” section at the end of the post because there’s a lot of lessons learned and sometimes I’d do things differently. So if I could go back to Oneonta I’d do the following:
• I’d go early in the morning on an overcast day. The sun and bright sky was really causing a lot of glare on the rocks. I’d love to shoot it when you could subdue that a little and see more of the rocky texture in the water, instead of white glare.
• I’d try to go back when the water wasn’t flowing as much. There’s definitely a tradeoff, because you risk having a dry bed of rocks, but I’ve seen some Oneonta photos where you can see straight through the water and they look pretty cool.
• I’d bring a longer lens and shoot some tighter shots of the canyons and really try to capture the texture, color changes and light on the canyon walls.
• I’d also love to go back during the peak of the rainy season. The canyon walls have little mini waterfalls running down them. I should know because I stepped under them many times 🙂 But it’s not really enough water to show up in a photo. But during the rainy season I’ve seen photos where that water coming off the sides of the walls looks amazing and adds a whole new dimension to the photo.
I have to say, it wasn’t nearly as cold or as difficult as I thought it’d be. I remember standing by the car in the morning, seeing the 45 degree temperature and thinking I was already cold and I hadn’t even been in the cold water yet. I’d definitely go back again. I may even start out earlier next time so I had more time to shoot on hopefully an overcast day. I’d even feel okay doing it by myself. This first time, having a buddy or two was well worth it though (and a lot more fun).
Thanks for stopping by today. Have a good one!
Great story Matt.
Could old tennis shoes substitute for booties? I. am going in 3 weeks and plan to rent the wet suit?
But you mentioned the discomfort of walking on rocks.
I don’t see why not. They’ll absorb water and probably be heavier to walk in but not undo-able.
Do you by chance sell any of your prints of Oneonta gorge?
Marlboro wanted to clear out the log jam and film horses running out of the canyon in the stream. Oregon state parks said “no way”!
Nice Shots! I am currently reading your Landscape Photography Workflow and I really like some stuff in there! Based on your experience, which would be the time of the year you would go back? I am planing a road trip to all California and Oregon coast up to Washington than back east to all the canyons in AZ. I heard that Antelope Canyon light beams only happen after March 15th, is that right? What would be your suggestion on when to go for it based on my route?
Hi Ernesto – As for Arizona, yes I believe the light beams happen in late March and April. As for California, any time of year is nice. And for Oneonta Gorge, I think the time of year i went was good. If you go in the summer the water is low and the waterfalls aren’t as heavy flowing as they are in April and May. Have fun.
MATT! WOW! That morning you were headed into Oneonta, I was checking it out with my wife and met you guys! We were wearing the wellington style boots. I had been wanting to photograph the gorge and your group inspired me to run into Portland and grab some wetsuits. I definitely agree with the need to shoot early morning/slightly less flow. Really tough to keep the glass dry in there. We ended up going late afternoon that same day. BTW, that deep pool towards the end is a fun ride when you just let go of that wall!
Nice shots – Nico DeBarmore
Thanks Nico! I remember seeing you guys. Glad it worked out and you got to go in. Awesome placed! 🙂
Thanks so much for writing this blog Matt. Your photos are stunning. I am from Australia and I am doing a road trip from LA to Banff in October spending 3 days in Portland. This gorge was the ONE place that I am dying to see and photograph and this blog post has all the information that someone who has never been there before needs! I will definitely be hiring a wetsuit from that shop that you recommended! Hopefully the water will be flowing but not too high in October and hopefully it will be an overcast day!
Great shots Matt, I always enjoy your work. Could you tell us a little more about the dry pack. Makes me nervous carrying all that gear through a river.
WOW… these are some of the nicest shots I’ve seen. Such dedication to get there and wonderful story.
So great. These would be on canvas on my fenced in deck for years.
Thanks Doc! 🙂 It was definitely a fun trip.
I am going to Oregon next week and my intention was to photograph the coast, but after reading this I’m planning on spending a morning going to the gorge.
Question, I will have waders with me, was the wetsuit really necessary? I can get up to maybe chest level with the waders but it sounds like you had to get up to neck level during the trek. Just wondering if I should rent some gear.
Hey Craig – if you want to make it all the way to the waterfall, you’ll go through an area that’s over your head (it was when I was there, but the water may have slowed down). You can hang on to rocks on the side of the wall to help keep you above water, but there’s always that chance that you’ll slip in. In which case you’d get soaked 🙂
It may be worth the wetsuit just in case. It was pretty cheap I believe – maybe $20-30 for the day.
Thanks for the quick response! Cost is the issue it was just more the hassle of renting and returning, but sounds like it is worth it so that’s what I will do.
Thanks again for the response.
AMAZING!!! Thanks for sharing this great experience with us. I myself
shoot a lot of waterfalls in Canada (102 so far to be exact) and this
location just blew me mind 🙂
I’m curious thought, I’ve encountered that problem before where my lens keep getting soaked, I usually put a jacket over the camera and wipe the lens with a towel, then use lens pens to then get rid of the streaks. I figure I must be scratching the filters when I do that. What would you recommend to wipe the lens of your camera when you have to deal with so much water.
We have gorges in Scotland, but nothing quite like that! Fantastic images, Matt!
Thanks Gordon. I still want to get to Scotland badly though. I’ve seen some amazing photos of places there. Looks beautiful!
I see you how you really suffer for your pics – looks like fun and definitely worth the effort. Beautiful.
Matt, you and Scott taught me that horizon lines should always be straight. Yours isn’t. 🙂 I can’t get over it!
Great story about a wonderful place for amazing photos.
Sounds like a fun trip. I’m jealous. Very nice photos as usual.
Thanks for sharing the back story to the awesome shots!
Great shots Matt, can you talk about your exposures and post processing. Particularly under the harsh lighting you describe. Seems like clipping would be an issue unless addressed in post.
In one of the pictures, I see Matt uses a Tiffen ND filter. Maybe the 4 stop? Using the filter as he did will prevent the clipping.
Wow great shots! I especially love the one of the waterfall!
I have another thing you can add to your “If I Could Go Back” section … call Nicolesy and don’t rely on her husband to spread the word! 😉
I’ll remember that next time 🙂
Hey Nicole, want to join me next week? Besides the gorge I’m shooting all along the coast. Come join me for a day or a few. 🙂 Planning to shoot the gorge on either Thur or Friday morning.
I think I should be able to make the Gorge … send me an email 🙂 firstname.lastname@example.org
Any issues with putting the tripod on the water?
Nope. It’s meant to get wet 🙂
What tripod do you use?
Hi Jay. I listed under “Packing up the gear” in the post. It’s the Really Right Stuff TVC 33. That said, I’d submerge just about any tripod I had. They’re pretty tough.
submerged in freshwater.. saltwater’s a different story right?
Great shots! But a word of advice: ALWAYS take a buddy with you – to carry your body out if nothing else. Seriously – take a buddy!
He’s go two buddies?
Man! I was just there last week but decided it wasn’t a good idea to do that one alone (apparently, a good call!). A definite must do when I go back there some day.
Your images are amazing, and what an adventure! I live in Seattle so not too far from Portland. I just may have to visit there soon!
I would definitely do it Carol.
Thanks for sharing Matt!! In the picture of you and your camera, how did you attach the polarizing filter to ND holder? Is that an adapter of some sort? Thanks!
Yep, I have the Lee system so the polarizer goes over the ND using the rings in their system.
Awesome. Are you using the Lee polarizing filter or using another brand using the Lee adapter ring? Thanks for the help.
I have the Lee 105mm polarizer 🙂
Matt, the greatest lesson here is the joy we see in your eyes! You are in tune with the elements and loving it, clearly. The rest flows from that. This is a beautiful piece with amazing photography, as always. Thank you!!!
An inspiring article of what a beautiful photo is made of – all the dedication behind it =) Awesome pics and nice story!
Loved the images and the story. You continue to inspire.
Your images here continue to prove the maxim that to get beautiful photos you have to go to beautiful places…and put up with whatever you have to to get those images. Splendid work and thanks for sharing this experience!
Great story Matt and simply magnificent images. Thanks for the inspiration.
You’re very welcome Marty! Thanks 🙂