I hope I’m never in a position to fully understand the feeling of walking out of prison after serving time. It’s not on my bucket list, and I won’t use it as analogy.
If I had to describe the general feel of things here in Berlin over the last week, I could do so with that GIF from Con Air. You know the one.
Until a few weeks ago and with very few exceptions, the situation here was still a full lockdown. You could go to the grocery store, a pharmacy, and book stores, but not much else. No gyms, no restaurants, no travel. Add to that the miserable fact that winter kept on wintering until late May. And this had been the situation since November, so for roughly six months it was a pretty boring and repetitive existence.
I’ve done my part at being a good soldier in the Battle Against the Pandemic: I’ve worn the right masks, isolated as much as possible, avoided public transportation, got tested with frequency. But even the toughest soldier breaks down when the battle goes on and on.
I don’t want to say I completely lost my cool, but I was getting edgy. I watched my native land host drive-thru vaccination centers. Anyone could get one to the point where the only problem seemed to be that there were too many doses. Meanwhile Europe floundered, seemingly brought to its knees by bureaucracy and over-planning. Not a few people hypothesized in exasperation that most of us might not feel a needle in this calendar year.
Then, things changed quickly. In May, people began getting vaccines, businesses were reopening (with tests and masks) and limited travel was possible. We started emerging from our living rooms-turned-caves and emerged into the sun and fresh air. So, yeah, many of us now have a greater appreciation for that Nic Cage GIF.
It was around the same time that I became aware that Poland had opened up much of its forests to wild camping. This was especially welcome news as I had been jonesing to go camping (not incidentally) since the government said it was illegal to do so. Contrary to Scandanavia, where there is a natural right to camp on public land, much of continental Europe is more restrictive about where you can pitch a tent and they became much more restrictive during the pandemic.
So when Poland made its announcement, I was ready to roll in a matter of days. I booked my rental car, loaded up my backpack and camera gear, and set off.
Choosing the Equipment
Picking a camera is, without fail, the hardest part of my pre-trip checklist. I have a long and storied legacy of overpacking for almost any trip, and have schlepped around with too many cameras enough times to understand the value of a minimal kit.
But just because a kit is minimal doesn’t mean it’s easier to decide what to bring. In fact, it makes it much harder to pick between cameras. I imagined this time would be easier. I told myself that this year would be the year I get serious mileage with my Pentacon Six. There needs to be a return on the investment as I’ve spent the last year buying accessories and nearly the entire lineup of Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, along with professional servicing for two of them. The benefits of using such a camera are its big 6×6 negatives and all of that awesome glass.
Unfortunately for the Pentacon, a week earlier I had received a small battery cover for my Nikon F4. The poor F4 had been on the Injured Reserve for about two years after it suffered a battery leak 40,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. It took two years for me to finally suck it up and pay what I thought was a crazy amount of money for the small piece of plastic which would again make the camera function. But, as soon as that little piece of plastic arrived and the F4 powered up again, there was no doubt who would be joining me. It was a reunion for the ages.
Weird human-camera emotions aside, the F4 would be especially useful on this particular trip. My destination was the Sudetes Mountains of southwestern Poland, which are peppered with waterfalls (which I wrote about photographing before) and beautiful vistas (which, unsurprisingly, I’ve also covered). I was focusing on the former, and knowing that I’d be encountering challenging metering scenarios, the matrix meter of the F4 offered time savings that the Pentacon couldn’t.
So the F4 went into my camera cube, along with the 24mm f/2.8 AF-D, 35mm f/2 AF-D and the 80-200 f/4.5 AI Nikkor lenses. I also packed my tripod and L bracket from 3 Legged Thing and a shutter release cable.
There was no doubt about the film. Considering that I wanted punchy colors and a slow speed, Kodak Ektar was a no brainer. I also wanted to see how its relatively warm tones would balance out with what I expected to be overwhelmingly cooler toned locations.
In spite of the small AF-D lenses, this kit was heavy. I once nicknamed the F4 “Wristbreaker” with any big lens on it, and the 80-200 certainly qualified. Packed into my backpack along with all the camping gear, I’d be lugging around at least 75 pounds. I had my first flash of doubt that I was in over my head as I threw the backpack over my shoulder and headed for the U-Bahn that would take me to the rental car agency, and then the open road.
Searching for Waterfalls
One of Poland’s few ski regions in the winter, and a hiking paradise year round, the southwestern portion of Lower Silesia is fantastic for outdoors enthusiasts and photographers alike. There are tons of climbable peaks, hundreds of miles of trails and waterfalls galore.
First, a note on waterfalls. I am not a “waterfall guy.” Yes, I know that I have written about them before. Yes, in that article I used up my allotment of TLC references. Yes, nearly all the photos you see in this article are of waterfalls or water shot at slow speed.
But please don’t make me be the waterfall guy.
Look, I like them. I think it’s hard to find a better shooting experience in nature. The worse the overcast sky the better, you get the awesome soundtrack of the rushing water as you’re shooting, the fact that the water is constantly moving and therefore each image is a different waterfall. There’s just something zen about it.
Plus I think they are more difficult to shoot than we give them credit for. You want a long exposure but not “too long,” if you’re shooting without an onboard meter, you have to account for any ND filters mentally, and composition is trickier than you might expect.
On a trip to the U.S. two years ago I took my first swing at it. It was a good start, although I learned the hard way the importance of proper footwear. I was shooting a Nikon D700 then, and could adjust as needed with the luxury of immediately seeing the result. This time, in Poland, I wouldn’t have that safety net.
One of my favorite locations of the whole trip was the one I found almost from the beginning. While driving to a place called “Dead Man’s Curve” I spotted water moving quickly. It would have been easy to miss as it was shrouded by a line of pines, but I turned around, parked on a logging trail and walked in to find it.
What it ended up being was a type of man-made damming of the Kwisa River, which in turn created a small waterfall. There was no official name to the place. No signs on the road, no indication on Google Maps. But it was my favorite spot of the weekend. It was a secluded part of what’s generously called a river, just off the road, but still easy to miss from the road. The only sound being the waterfall and the moving water as it cascaded down and further to the town of Świeradów-Zdrój 15 miles away.
I came back to this spot the next day. It was more overcast, which made it even better for long exposures. I brought my Billy Can and backpacking burner and cooked up some pasta as I watched the water roll past, camera on the tripod only a few feet away. It was a perfect moment, and I even drank water right out of the stream. Anyone who knows me would call you insane if you said I did that.
After eating I spent a few hours lazily looking for compositions, but mostly taking my time and soaking up the peacefulness. Other locations from that weekend were interesting enough, but nothing matched that spot which bookended the whole trip. I never saw another person while I was there, and no one knew where I was. Corona didn’t exist here. Lockdowns didn’t exist here. Work didn’t exist here. Masks didn’t exist. All that existed was me, the camera and the scene. For a few hours it was the whole world, and as a world, it was enough.
The Big Boy: Wodospad Kamieńczyka
In all my research on the area I visited, one waterfall stood out among the rest.
At an elevation of 846 meters (2776 feet,) the Wodospad Kamieńczyka is the highest waterfall in the Polish Sudetes Mountains. Cascading in three levels for 27 meters (88 feet), it pools before falling again through an incredibly narrow gorge and eventually linking up with the nearby Kamienna River.
There’s an old Polish legend that the waterfall contains the tears of seven nymphs, who were mourning another that died in the gorge while searching for the mortal man she had fallen in love with. Against the warnings of the other nymphs, she trusted the man with a bunch of jewels which he then turned around and sold to pay for his mother’s healthcare. (Seriously.) When he didn’t return to the nymph, she went in search of him and, distracted by the waterfall, fell into the abyss.
Say what you will about Central Europe, but there’s no denying they have the best folk tales. (For the record, I didn’t see any nymphs during my visit, and all Poles are covered by health insurance.)
Today, the waterfall is one of the region’s busiest tourist locations. It was the only thing that cost me money to see (10 złoty, or $2.73) On my first day of exploring, I drove past in the afternoon and both parking lots were overflowing. I returned the next morning at 9:30, expecting to have the place to myself as it was a Sunday and Poland often seems more devoutly Catholic than even Vatican City.
I climbed up the mountain in search of nymphs and the falls. The path (no doubt designed by a sadist) was straight up the mountain (no switchbacks here) and was covered in rocks the size of softballs, making it both incredibly uncomfortable and dangerous to anyone without ankle support.
Finally I reached a small booth where (unbeknownst to me) you have to get a hardhat. I quickly understood why, as you walk down a narrow series of metal staircases bolted to the side of the gorge. Being above rushing water, they’re always wet, and surprisingly dangerous. The journey was immediately worth it as the waterfall was spectacular. I set up my tripod, attached the 24mm f/2.8 (which gets more legendary each year) and an ND 0.6 filter, and got to work. I found my composition, getting the maximum amount of the falls, with moss-covered rocks in the foreground and with the absolute minimum amount of sky.
It was a slightly tricky exposure as the sky was very bright and the rocks quite dark. I exposed for the rocks and hoped to reign the sky back later. If memory serves, the final image was shot at f/16 for 2 seconds.
This one shot is where the whole trip paid off. I’m my own toughest critic, but I really enjoy this image. Every decision that went into it improved the final result. Waiting to come back in the morning, choosing Ektar, exposing for the foreground. Some prefer to get more detail in the moving water, but I prefer the longer exposure to make the milkiest, smokiest effect as I can.
I look at this photo and would be satisfied if it’s the last waterfall I ever photograph.
A few misses, and one stupid mistake.
For every great image, there are many duds and a few near misses. Sometimes we risk ruining absolutely everything by making a stupidly basic mistake.
The first is a shot that just didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. After my first attempt to visit Kamieńczyka, I continued on the road and eventually saw a tree that still held orange leaves from the previous autumn. I assume they’re from last fall. I don’t know for sure. The leaves were orange.
I set up the camera and framed the shot. I shot with the 80-200 at 200mm and opened to the widest aperture (I think, more on that next) to get as much separation between the sapling and the big pines in the background. While I like the image enough, there’s still not enough separation for my taste. It feels like an image that’s 80 percent there.
And now, the stupid, basic mistake.
On the back of my F4 is something called the MF-23 Multi Control Data Back. It’s basically a sophisticated data back that opens up the F4 to many cool tricks it otherwise can’t do. It allows for interval-timing, data encoding, exposure delay, long exposures, auto bracketing, and allows for freeze focusing. It can even be used as an alarm clock. It turns the stud F4 into a thoroughbred, and still fetches prices close to three figures today.
I use mine to encode exposure data between frames. That way I can look at the negatives later and have a record of all the settings that went into each frame. I thought that’s what I had it set to when I left Berlin. In fact, I had it set to something else. What exactly I don’t know, but upon getting my scans back I saw red numbers in the bottom right corner of all my images. I laughed out loud, knowing exactly what had happened, even if I didn’t know what the seemingly random numbers meant. I haven’t gotten my negatives back yet but I’m assuming the exposure data won’t be between the frames as I’d planned. (Hence why I won’t know for sure if that sapling was really shot wide open or not.)
This mistake meant that I had to go in and spot heal all the digital numbers out of my scans, and it essentially eliminates the value of printing from the negatives. Luckily I ordered uncompressed TIFs from my lab, and will still be able to make some big prints from the scans.
It just goes to show you that no matter how cool and helpful a piece of tech is, nothing is dingus proof.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about slimming down my camera collection. As part of that, I highlighted the manual focus zoom lenses that would be getting put on the chopping block. This includes the lens I used most on this trip, the AI 80-200 f/4.5. I had originally bought that lens to be used on the F4. But when the F4 sat in the closet, this zoom languished in purgatory. (I honestly can’t stand using these old lenses on modern digital cameras, with the lens profiles, etc.) I decided to give it a go on this trip before listing it for sale and I’m really glad that I did.
Without exaggerating, this lens blew me away. Color rendition was truly outstanding. Sharpness was unbelievable at every aperture except f/4.5. I used this lens for one weekend and it singlehandedly has mellowed my view on the quality of manual zooms. I still think I’d prefer to have one of the f/2.8 modern versions, but I have nothing negative to say about this one. If you can get this lens (which costs less than $50), do it yesterday. It’s that good.
I’ve also learned not to skimp on the accessories. Too many times I had to readjust my tripod, and my filters are nothing to brag about. It feels like it’s time to make a better investment there. It might feel trivial, but those little annoyances add up and life can only get better when they’re removed altogether.
After returning to Berlin, I felt like I had just gotten a shot of motivation mainlined into my arm. While my desire to get out and shoot was at record lows over the last year, this little trip to Poland helped me break out of my funk. It was also great to get out of the doldrums of pandemic city life. The wilderness was slightly overwhelming to this soft city boy, but it finally felt like a page was turning and there would be many more opportunities to travel and photograph new places in the near future.
I only got a few images that I really like. Maybe two or three. It’s not the best ratio for two rolls of film, but the ones I like, I really like. They’ve helped me re-engage and get my focus back. And if one image can do that, it’s worth the others being rubbish.
(Also, remember to always check that your date imprinting is turned off.)
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Thank you so much.