Ah…October. That wonderful month when you throw the first log on the fire, watch a college football game, feel a chill in the air, notice the geese flying South, and rake the leaves in the yard, all of which are now changing.
Unless, of course, you happen to live in Southern California. It was 105 degrees outside yesterday and the only thing that I can see changing color right now is my lawn. (Hint: It’s not green.) Here in Orange County, we don’t really have “seasons.” We have what might generously be described as “blech.” Most of us aren’t quite sure what “rain” is as we have only had fleeting glimpses of it lately, and we haul out the big winter coats once the temperatures dip way down into the lower 60’s.
So…yes. I’ve been starving for seasons. And of all the seasons that we don’t get here in Southern California, I think I miss autumn the most. It was with this in mind that I set off for West Virginia two years ago in hopes of shooting the Grist Mill at Babcock State Park.
I had made arrangements to stay with some good friends of mine who live in Loudoun County, Virginia and I was planning to meet up with Michael Besant, who is a photography buddy of mine from West Virginia. I had seen a photo the previous Fall from Babcock and I decided then and there that I had to make a trip out to West Virginia during October to shoot this incredible Grist Mill while the leaves were changing.
Babcock State Park is located in just about the dead center of nowhere, not too far from the New River Gorge somewhere between routes 41 and 60 in the Southern end of West Virginia. There are walking trails that wind around the park in several directions, but the main attraction is the Grist Mill.
I honestly can’t remember how I came across the first photo of this remarkable mill. It may have been on 500px or flickr, or I may have simply been searching google for shots of autumn, leaves, mills, etc. Regardless of how I came across that first photo, this particular mill, during the month of October, has become one of the most iconic spots to shoot the changing leaves in the country. In spite of its popularity, Mike and I were almost alone as we arrived late on a Friday evening on October 10 (2103). This may have had something to do with the fact that it had been raining for 5 days straight and more rain was in the forecast for the weekend.
The light was indeed drab as we began shooting and we soon gave up after it grew too dark. We stayed overnight in Fayetteville, which was back across the river. We were pretty famished, so we filled up at a local Dairy Queen. The next morning, we were up before Dawn. We had set up and were shooting for a while when suddenly the rest of the world showed up. The sun made a brief appearance and we shot for quite awhile, but we were mindful of the fact that we were going to have to clone out several of the people who kept walking out in front of us to take selfies. In spite of the crowds that arrived on Saturday morning, we had a great time shooting before we moved on to shoot the area around New River Gorge later that afternoon. We were a bit disappointed with the water level of the creek as this location can be much more impressive with water cascading over all of the rocks that are layered in front of the mill, but we were still pleased with what we were able to come away with.
My original plan for the week had included shooting the changing leaves around Virginia and DC, but my efforts seemed doomed from the minute I stepped off the plane. DC and the surrounding national parks and monuments were all closed due to an insane government shut down, the leaves in Northern Virginia hadn’t changed yet, and it literally rained non stop for four days in a row. Refusing to admit defeat, I vowed to keep driving North until I found the sun and some leaves. I finally drove into the sunshine just as I arrived at the shores of Lake Eerie. So when the sun finally came out on that Saturday morning, I was very grateful indeed. I had a great time shooting with Mike and Fred and I am looking forward to another October, hopefully in the not-too-distant future when I’ll be able to make another attempt at shooting this wonderful location.
If you do end up making a trip to Babcock during the autumn months, here are a few suggestions:
A. Get there early. Earlier is definitely better if you want to avoid the crowds, and there will probably be crowds, especially during the last 3 weeks of October. We were soon surrounded by tripods on all sides as photographers from up and down the East Coast had made the trip in hopes of catching the leaves behind the mill. I struck up a conversation with the guy to my right who turned out to be a photographer for the Smithsonian.
B. Be sure to shoot on both sides of the creek. Even if you are pressed for time, be sure to cross the bridge and walk down as scenery surrounding the mill open up a bit more on the opposite side.
C. Don’t be afraid to keep shooting if it is cloudy or growing dark. Lower light will allow you to keep your shutter open longer giving you the opportunity to blur the creek and cascades in the foreground.
D. Bring an ND filter and a circular polarizer. The water flow was exceptionally low when we were there, but in good years, you’ll want to use slower shutter speeds to blur the cascades in the foreground of the mill. If the sun does manage to come out, a polarizing filter can help make those colors pop while cutting down on the glare.
E. Don’t spend the entire day in front of the mill. If you do end up making a trip to Babcock, keep in mind that there are several incredible photographic opportunities surrounding the park on all sides as it is located near the New River Gorge. Mike and I were lucky enough to spend some time with Fred Wolfe, who is a local photographer in the area who knew every backroad to every creek and waterfall in the gorge. We would follow him for a while and suddenly his car would plunge off a ravine in front of us. Horrified, we would creep up in our car only to find a small, sketchy, goat path of a road winding down into the gorge where we would have sworn there were only trees. In addition to the New Gorge Area, Blackwater Falls to the North of Babcock by about an hour is an incredible location to shoot in the Fall, as well as Dolly Sodds to the Northeast. On our way down from Winchester, Mike and I drove mile after mile on small country lanes that passed churches, graveyards, barns advertising tobacco, and covered bridges. We only had two days to shoot, but we could have easily spent two weeks or more. Here’s a shot from Blackwater Falls which is just about an hour North:
Future posts will feature more info on Blackwater Falls and the New River Gorge, but I wanted one of my first posts to this blog to center on Babcock as it truly is an Autumn destination in and of itself.
Post Processing: All of these photos were bracketed, some of which were combined via the “Merge to 32-bit HDR” plugin in Lightroom. Other levels were adjusted using Adobe Camera Raw and Nik Color Efex Pro.
If you are looking for inspirational shots of Virginia and West Virginia (Babcock, Blackwater Falls, Dolly Sodds, Bear’s Den, Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park) , be sure to check out the work of some of my East Coast photography buddies:
BABCOCK STATE PARK INFO: