Autumn in the Columbia River Gorge

This past autumn, I spent some time photographing close to home, in the Columbia River Gorge. Despite the region not being thought of as an autumn color destination, I find that autumn is one of my favorite times to photograph there. Yes, springtime is fantastic – the fresh, vibrant greens of the rainforest are truly incredible, but when colors begin to change in the autumn, many common scenes seem to take on a new life as they burst out into shades of gold, orange, and copper. The vibrant palate of colors, in combination with the already photogenic nature of the area, make for truly wonderful autumn photographs.

Starvation Creek Falls, Oregon
Nikon D800 camera, Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens set to 14mm, 0.8sec at f/16, ISO 200, Polarizer

Photographing autumn foliage was not easy in the Northwest this year, to say the least. A heavy early-season snowfall made things difficult in the high country and alpine areas of the Cascades, while a prolonged drought led to rather lackluster foliage in the lowlands, Columbia River Gorge, and along the coast. Despite these inconveniences, I still managed to find some pockets of nice color in the eastern reaches of the Gorge, and tried to make the most of them during my visits.

Autumn Spirit, Columbia River Gorge, Washington
Nikon D800 camera, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Autofocus Lens set to 32mm, manually blended exp. of 1.6 and 0.8 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Polarizer

Spirit Falls, a favorite location of mine, puts on an excellent display of autumn foliage. The water is naturally blue due to glacial deposits in the water, very similar to many of the photos from Iceland that have been posted here by others. For this image, I was attracted to the colorful curves in the stream, and the way they seem to be framed by mossy rocks. Freezing motion in the stream to capture the dynamic nature of the scene was a must. So, after making my first exposure, I took a second exposure with a shorter shutter speed, and manually blended it into the first exposure using layer masks in Photoshop CS6.

If this is what a poor year for autumn foliage in the Gorge was like, then I can’t imagine how nice a good year must be. I hope that I can work things out so that I am around when conditions are a bit more ideal!

About Alex Mody (7 Posts)

An emerging talent in nature photography, Alex Mody—winner of the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International 2009 Youth Photographer of the Year Award—specializes in landscape photography. Alex, based in Olympia, Washington, is a full-time college student and professional photographer. His nature images have been featured in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Nature’s Best Photography Magazine, Elan Magazine, N-Photo Magazine, as well as on a number of websites including Discovery and Additionally, Alex offers both private and full-group workshops near his home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.


  • Great shots – I have been looking forward to a post from you! The Spirit Falls I am most familiar with is in the Umpqua NF, but you made this one look way more photogenic

    When you blend shots as you describe for the last photo (in which you took the longer exposure for the main falls), do you set your focus differently for each shot? For example, when exposing for the foreground, do you try to get something close tack-sharp and then when exposing for the back/mid-ground do you re-focus to get that portion sharp?

    It’s not exactly focus stacking I guess, but it always seemed to me like this should be the strategy, though I’ve never done it.

    Thanks again for the post

    • Thanks, John. I have never visited Spirit Falls in the Umpqua, but maybe I will one day.

      When I blended the two frames for that last photo, I did not change my focus in between brackets. The water was moving very rapidly, and I wanted to use that motion to my advantage, allowing the water to blur slightly. Because of that blur, even if I had focused perfectly on the foreground water, I do not feel like my results would be any different. In a different situation (i.e. wildflowers or grasses blowing in the wind), I would definitely consider focus bracketing. However, I find that when an image I’m composing lends itself well to focus bracketing, I don’t end up liking the end result very much. I don’t feel like there are very many different photographs someone can take when they are just a few inches away from their foreground subject. That said, sometimes I think it is still worth considering.

  • Beautiful images from a good place to call home! Nice work.

  • Love both shots but the top one really shows off the fall palette. It’s one of my favorite places to shoot in autumn too, & I live so close! But I never seem to be home at this season. For some reason it’s a time to travel when the weather turns cooler. Not to warmer places necessarily, fall is just a time when I get restless. You’re right on having to expose with higher ISO/larger aperture for water in those dim conditions, which is somewhat unusual. Normally you need to lower ISO/shut aperture to get a long enough exposure for the water. I have to remind myself the option is there I’m so lazy about going into PS. Good old PNW; hardly ever need an ND or CPL to lengthen exposure there, Mother Nature takes care of it! Keep up the good work.

  • Fantastic colors and compositions. I spent several days in the gorge this summer surrounded by green. It’s nice to see some other colors. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you for sharing God’s masterpieces through you. Awesome!!! My eyes are delighted and my soul inspired of the beauty you have shared for the world to see.