I’m just a few steps into the creek when I know without a doubt that I’m wearing the wrong footwear. The swift current and algae-covered rocks are conspiring to nullify the meager grip of my smooth-bottomed shoes. I quickly lose my balance and make the situation worse by trying to regain it. Before I know it, the levee breaks and I’m on a collision course.
Adrenaline makes my fall feel longer than it is – long enough to remember that three women from Atlanta once warned me about chasing waterfalls. They advised me to stick to the rivers and the lakes I was used to. They knew I had to have it my way or no way at all. But they didn’t tell me about wearing the correct footwear were I to ignore their warnings.
The ’90s R&B playing in my head is instantly superseded by the sound of my face slapping into rocks with the full weight of my body behind it. My legs are covered in mud under the rushing water, my wrist feels strained, my face is so numb that I’m sure I’ve lost teeth but can’t feel it to confirm. My whole body is like a pool noodle after an hour with an over-sugared twelve-year-old.
I had been in this same creek in western Pennsylvania just a day earlier where I was photographing waterfalls for the first time in my life, a thing I had wanted to do for a very long time. Later, while admiring the final image I’d made that first trip to the falls, I noticed with shame a large, plastic piece of trash mocking me in the foreground, ruining my photo (and the natural world). So back I went to the waterfal. And my impending doom.
I ended up in this predicament for a simple reason – I like photos of waterfalls and wanted to take my own. For me, there’s something calming about these images, with the silky water flowing off the cliffs.
Pennsylvania is home to hundreds of unique and interesting waterfalls, something I never took advantage of when I lived there. But on my recent trip home, I decided to dedicate some time to photographing waterfalls myself. In visits to two separate locations called Buttermilk Falls, I tried out what I’d learned and became familiar with the best and worst practices.
Here are a few of the things I learned.
Finally buy that tripod
It shouldn’t take a waterfall to convince you to buy a tripod. It’s a necessary tool for every photographer. But if you don’t already have a tripod, now is the time to buy one, because it’s especially critical for slow-shutter waterfall photography.
Since you’ll be aiming for exposures slower than 1/125th of a second, a tripod is an absolute must. Shooting handheld with slower shutter speeds will result in camera shake and blurred images. Tripods will not only keep the camera steady, but also keep it away from the rushing water in which you’ll likely be standing. This is definitely not the environment to try and place your camera on a rock to avoid carrying a tripod.
A tripod is a must-own item for any photographer so this shouldn’t be revelatory information. But it’s critical for anyone photographing waterfalls. Last year James had good things to say about a tripod from K&F Concept. I’ve been using a tripod from British 3 Legged Thing and have been incredibly satisfied.
Complement tripod with an L-mount bracket
One tripod accessory that I’ve learned the value of is an L-mount bracket. This is an L-shaped device that attaches to the camera and replaces the quick-release plate on a tripod. It makes switching from horizontal to vertical compositions much easier. It also eliminates the frustration of using the quick-release plate on a ball-head tripod in the vertical position, where the weight of the camera and lens will often slowly move the plate. After a few sessions shooting waterfalls, an L-mount bracket is at the top of my gear shopping lists.
Shoot both film and digital
Most of the images you see in this article are digital photos, a rarity on this website. If there’s something I do appreciate with digital imaging, it’s the role it plays in bringing down the costs of learning. Since I was making long exposures in difficult lighting, and using filters, I wanted the flexibility and immediate feedback the D700 would provide. After I became more comfortable, I got out the Nikon F4 and snapped some shots on Kodak’s Ektachrome. I ended up liking the Ektachrome photos more than the digital shots, but was happy to save the processing costs by learning on the D700.
Maximize exposure by minimising settings
As I said before, you’ll need a long exposure to blur your waterfall and the creek or river it spills into. First, you’ll want to shoot a slow speed film, or if you’re using a digital camera, use its lowest native ISO setting. Not only does this give the best chances for slow shutter speeds, it also means you won’t have the grain and noise you would with higher-speed films or ISO settings.
Secondly, a smaller aperture is preferable to a larger one. Not only will stopping down let in less light, but it will keep more of the scene in focus than an image shot wide open. But beware, even though your lens may stop down to f/22, that setting may also produce images with soft corners. Try and stay near the lens’ sweet spot, usually somewhere near f/11 or f/16.
Neutral density and polarizing filters
Sometimes the elements and the settings on the camera aren’t enough to get to a seconds-long exposure. That’s where filters come in handy. A neutral density filter will absorb additional light but won’t change the color of the scene. These filters come in different strengths, with larger numbers letting in less light. Both 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters are enough to bring down shutter speeds effectively.
Polarizing filters are more useful for improving image clarity than they are for exposure manipulation. By blocking scattered light, polarizing filters cut down haze, increase color saturation and cut reflections off of wet objects.
Take your time with composition
One of the things I love most about waterfalls is that, with water constantly moving over it, no two photos are the same. But that doesn’t mean you need to shoot a whole roll of film or fill up an entire memory card. Before you even get your camera out of the bag, walk around and try to find the best one or two compositions you want to capture. Maybe there’s one great landscape image and one really great vertical shot. Focus on making those two images well exposed and interesting. The waterfall isn’t going anywhere and you can always return another day to find a different angle.
My recent excursion was my first time trying this type of photography. Having spent a bit of time preparing and learning, I was eager to come back with dozens of excellent images. When it came time to sit on the computer and edit, I was unsatisfied with all but three or four images. Those that I liked were the ones that I put more thought and effort into. My absolute favourite was the one that I traveled back to the location to shoot a second time. In the future, I’ll be more patient and focus on my composition more.
After all that, the process is relatively simple; set up your tripod, attach your camera, compose, enter your exposure and shoot. A shutter release device, whether its the camera’s self-timer or a dedicated cable, is highly recommended to reduce shake. I used the self-timer on my D700 and a cable on my F4 and preferred the control provided by the cable.
Like many things in life, the hard work of photographing waterfalls happens before you push the shutter button. Also like with many other things, practice makes perfect. You might not get the best results your first time out. I sure didn’t.
In fact, most of my images were pretty bad. Especially those taken in high noon sunlight, something that should be avoided at all costs. I’ve even included some of the worst offenders here in this article (they’re marked in the captions), showing how my desperation resulted in some remarkably boring photos.
That’s not to say the effort was a failure. In fact, I consider it a huge success. I wanted to do something I’d never done before, did the research and came with the gear for the job. I came away with a few decent images, the experience of seeing a project through to completion and a desire to get out and shoot more waterfalls.
I also came away with a sore jaw, busted face, sprained wrist and bruised ego. So there’s one more bit of advice that I should probably add –
Wear the right shoes for the job
I could have easily avoided my encounter with the boulders of Buttermilk Falls by wearing boots instead of shoes. Ironically the trash that I was going to remove when I fell wasn’t even noticeable in my composition. Even more strange was that (after determining I still had all of my teeth and probably didn’t have a concussion) I pulled out my phone and snapped a selfie. I was doing what I loved and suffered wounds in search of it. TLC said to stick with lakes and rivers, but from now on it will be waterfalls for me.
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