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Unframed 002: Photographing Thor's Well

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

From along the Amazing Oregon coastline


Part blog, part zine, my new Unframed series will take you behind the scenes of many of my favorite photos. I hope you enjoy this more personal look into my experiences while out in the field, and what went into the making of the photos. This series will generally go well beyond what I share on social media.


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And with all that out of the way, let's get to this edition's photos...

 

Fleeting Light on Thor's Well

Oregon Coast | 2021


Thor's Well on the Oregon coast at sunset
Unexpected light and drama over Thor's Well

It's hard to believe that it's been almost two years since my friend Jon and I made the (very) long drive from Texas to Oregon, galivanting around several different parts of the Beaver State over the course of a week. On our last day together (Jon stayed out on his own for a few days more while I had to start heading back home) we swung by the well-known location of Thor's Well.


Now, I'll be honest... when I first saw it, my reaction was similar to when I saw Stonehenge back in 2008: That's it?!


Nearly all the photos of Thor's Well that you see online follow the same compositional formula of getting up close and using a wide-angle lens to really make the well the star of the show. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it did result in a bit of cognitive dissonance when I was standing above the shoreline looking down at it. It's actually quite small:


Thor's Well along the Oregon coast
That's all there is?! (look for the little splash of white water near the rocky shore)

I ended up shooting just about everything but Thor's Well, I was so underwhelmed by it. In fact, over the 90 minutes or so prior to taking the shot that became Fleeting Light on Thor's Well, I fired off over 1,300 frames, mostly of random wave action (a bit more on that further below).


My apathy over the scene wasn't helped by rather mundane conditions. As you can see in the phone snap above, we arrived to harsh sunlight and faint signs of clouds out west over the Pacific Ocean. As I stood along the upper part of the pathway leading down to the well, I was mostly thinking I would walk away with perhaps a few wave shots that I could play with to create some dramatic black and white images in Lightroom.


It also appeared the distant clouds were just going to create an impenetrable wall on the horizon, dashing any hopes of dramatic light at sunset.


Then, suddenly, as I continued to fire off bursts of frames of waves from the pathway above, the sun started to set the water aglow with brilliant fire. I started feeling the familiar rush of anticipation - tinged with a bit of anxiety as I was worried I was going to miss the best light - and decided that I was, frankly, being stupid for not at least going down and seeing the well up close for myself.


It is an entirely different experience up close! I was kicking myself for nearly foregoing the opportunity, and standing next to Thor's Well as the waves crashed over and into it - and occasionally exploded above it - remains one of my favorite photography-related experiences to date.


Not surprisingly, there was a gaggle of photographers already in place (including Jon), so I wandered off to the right a bit and started looking for a composition. Fortunately, there was enough wave action to keep everyone else back from the well a bit (wisely, as it can be quite dangerous, both to humans and camera gear), which meant I was able to find an angle without anyone else in the way.


For a few brief moments the sun was blazing through a gap in the clouds, brushing my foreground with just a hint of directional light while also filtering up and through the heavier clouds that had rolled in overhead (four minutes later that filtered light in the clouds was gone).


Without that filtered light I don't believe this photo would have worked as the strong sunlight in the gap would have overpowered the scene (in the sky, certainly). Even so, it took me quite a while to come to terms with the power of that light even with the better balance I was able to capture throughout the frame.



The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R | Lens: Tamron SP 15-30mm

Focal Length: 15mm| ISO: 50 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 0.8 seconds

Processed in Lightroom Classic



Exposure & Processing Notes


Due to the extremely strong light coming through the gap in the clouds, I exposed for the highlights as much as I could to avoid losing data (AKA detail) in the clouds around the gap. I was also trying to balance that with dragging out the exposure time sufficiently to capture the right amount of movement in the water. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry too much about blowing the strongest highlights completely as they were constrained to the clear sky in the gap: I just needed to worry about those cloud edges.


This approach resulted in a very dark frame overall, with shadows on the edge of being too dark, but my experience with the Canon EOS R told me that I could push close to limit - replying upon the camera's histogram to keep me within the safe margins - and still recover the foreground details in Lightroom. Here's a comparison of the raw file out of the camera and the final image:


A comparison of a raw file of Thor's Well and the final edit in Lightroom Classic
The raw file vs. the final edit


This is one of the more complicated edits I've done over the past couple of years, as you can see below in the list of all the masks I used to process the file in Lightroom. A lot of the work went into creating better balance of light and shadow in some parts of the frame, while also tweaking some of the color hues to provide balance in that space, as well.


Ideally, as the viewer you aren't looking at any single part of the frame and identifying how it may have been edited. I like to call my approach to editing - especially in something more demanding such as this file - "complex subtlety." A lot of work may have gone into producing the final image, but the impact of any single adjustment should not be obvious.


Masking panel for an edit in Lightroom Classic
Complex Subtly as represented by 16 masks

Relevant Links/Additional Content



 

Dance of Light

Oregon Coast | 2021


Backlit waves along the Oregon coast
When the ocean caught fire

I mentioned that, given my initial apathy towards Thor's Well when viewing it from the overlook above, I spent quite a while taking burst shots of waves along the nearby coastline. I also mentioned that I captured over 1,300 frames thinking I'd snag at least a few that I could turn into dramatic black and white images in post.


That did not come to be. Fortunately, things still worked out.


So far (I won't be so bold as to say there aren't further hidden gems in the copious files), I've only processed two photos, and both were taken during the aforementioned period when the sun blew through the gap in the clouds that had rolled in, setting the waves aglow with warm light. Accordingly, both are anything but black and white!


While 1,300 photos in such a short period time may seem excessive, it's not just a matter of mashing the shutter button and hoping for the best (well, there's some of that...). A lot of it is experimentation with different shutter speeds, focal lengths, and trying to anticipate where and when something of interest will happen, and then trying to time your bursts of shots to capture the action at the right moment.


Wash, rinse, adjust, review, repeat... a lot!



The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R | Lens: Tamron 100-400mm

Focal Length: 400mm| ISO: 50 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 1/6th of a second

Processed in Lightroom Classic


 

Conjuring Light

Oregon Coast | 2021


Waves dancing in sunlight on the Oregon coast
Fun with creative shutter speeds

I came for Thor's Well, I left with a bunch of shots of waves that could have been taking just about anywhere along the coast. Such is the irony of nature photography at times.


Regardless, Conjuring Light may be my favorite photo from the day.



The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R | Lens: Tamron 100-400mm

Focal Length: 400mm| ISO: 50 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 1 second

Processed in Lightroom Classic



Relevant Links/Additional Content



 

Cacophony at Thor's Well

Oregon Coast | 2021


Black and white photo of Thor's Well in Oregon
Chaos of movement and textures at Thor's Well

As the sun began to drift below the gap and the clouds grew a bit heavier and darker, we remained hopeful for a surprise as the hour neared sunset. Unfortunately, the light simply faded slowly away and the setting of Thor's Well grew somber in mood.


While several of the other photographers packed up and left, Jon and I stuck around. The tide was coming in, so we had to be conscious of our surroundings, and I repositioned myself a bit to get closer - safely - to the well.


As the light began to fail, I played around with longer and longer exposure times, which was tricky as the chance to catch the right moment becomes more difficult when you're waiting multiple seconds to expose a single frame. I found that the 2-3 second exposure range was about as far as I wanted to push it to retain texture and detail in the waves, although I am still sitting on some potential candidates for processing where I used 8 second exposures.



The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R | Lens: Tamron SP 15-30mm

Focal Length: 30mm | ISO: 320 | Aperture: f/13

Exposure Time: 2 seconds

Processed in Lightroom Classic


 

The Spirits of Thor's Well

Oregon Coast | 2021


Long exposure photo of Thor's Well in Oregon
Getting ghostly with longer exposures

There's a general rule in photography that states you shouldn't include similar images in your portfolio. Like most rules, it has a time and a place... I feel these three takes on Thor's Well vary enough, and hold enough interest individually, to warrant inclusion.



The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R | Lens: Tamron SP 15-30mm

Focal Length: 30mm | ISO: 320 | Aperture: f/13

Exposure Time: 3.2 seconds

Processed in Lightroom Classic



Relevant Links/Additional Content



 

Behind the Scene Bonuses

Thor's Well, Oregon Coast | 2021


The Spouting Horn


Apparently, there's a Fight Club-esque rule about Thor's Well: Do not talk about the Spouting Horn. One of the things that entertained me while I was being a bit of a grump about Thor's Well was this nearby feature. A smaller hole along a short channel to the left of the main attraction, Spouting Horn puts on a show as waves roll into the channel with enough force to blow water up and out of the hole.


I did try photographing the feature, but so far, I'm not satisfied with any of the shots I took.


Now, how about a look at Thor's Well in action?


Thor's Well


This clip does little to convey the awesome experience of standing next to Thor's Well, but it does provide a good look at how the incoming waves interact with the collapsed sea cave as they come ashore.


And last - but certainly not least! - enjoy this action shot of Jon and two unnamed photographers down by Thor's Well while I was playing with my 100-400mm lens from the pathway above:


Photographers at Thor's Well in Oregon
Photographers in the wild
 

I took a different approach with this second edition of Unframed: instead of including the photos I shared via social media over the prior week, I focused on a single experience at a single location. I feel it helped make for a more cohesive story, and I hope you agree.


Which do you prefer: the mix of locations and stories, or this more singular focus?


Share your thoughts!


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