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Backcountry Photography

The Lure of Falling Water Falling Water

By Tamia Nelson

March 12, 2013

What explains the allure of falling water? Is it simply the display of nature's power at its most elemental? Or is it the constellation of sensory delights — the touch of cool mist on cheek, the roar reverberating between the river's banks, the trembling earth under our feet, the play of light and shadow on pool and drop? Or could it be something else? Some atavistic awe, perhaps, a relict of the time, not so very many centuries ago, when gods were thought to inhabit the earth's still and moving waters, and when mere mortals feared to incur the water spirits' terrible wrath by some disrespectful act, even if the disrespect was unintended. Of course, those vengeful gods are now long gone from our lakes and streams. But human memory is longer.

In any case, and whatever the reason, I've yet to meet a paddler who is not wholly captivated by waterfalls. Creatures of our time that we are, however, we no longer leave offerings of food or wine for the waters' resident spirits. Instead, we take pictures of each falls we encounter, hoping to capture something of its power and majesty in the process. And yet, all too often, our pictures disappoint us. Something — something vital — is missing.

Our ancestors would have had no doubt as to the reason. They would have told us that the river gods, finding no offering at the water's edge when we took our leave, had chosen to withhold their blessing. In other words, our images had been cursed. That would have been that, too. No other explanation would have been needed. But 21st‑century paddlers are unlikely to be happy with this state of affairs. We want something a little more in tune with our times. Something a little more scientific. We want to understand why we failed to coax the images we sought from nature. And we can begin by …

Cultivating an Awareness of Light

First things, first, though. I'm going to assume that you've mastered your camera and its controls — that you can manipulate shutter speed, aperture, sensitivity, and metering without a second thought. I'll also assume that such terms of art as depth of field, exposure, bracketing, and focal length hold some meaning for you. If this isn't the case, I'd suggest you check out my archived Backcountry Photography articles. (I've listed some of the most relevant ones below.) Then, when you've gotten to know your camera a little better, and when photographic jargon no longer seems like a foreign tongue, just come back here and pick up where you left off.

OK. Let's shed some light on our subject. To capture waterfalls at their best, you want uniform, diffuse light and thinly overcast skies. And what's the worst of all possible worlds for the paddling photographer? A falls that is brilliantly illuminated in one part, while sunk in deep shadow in another. In the latter case, no amount of fiddling with exposure will yield good results. The problem is compounded by water's mirror‑like quality. Here's one instance where reflected light washed out much of a shot's fine detail:

Mehr Licht!

I lengthened my exposure to keep the kayaker from being lost to view in the shadowy plunge pool, with the result that the waterfall proper was reduced to a wash of light. But if I'd exposed for the brightly lit face of the falls, I'd have been equally unhappy with the result. The kayaker would then have disappeared into the murk. Such lose‑lose scenarios often confront paddlers hoping to photograph boating action on sunny, cloudless days.

Sometimes, however, you get lucky. Thin cloud can attenuate and diffuse the sun's light, making it easier to find the correct exposure. The next photo is of the same falls that you saw in Photo A, but this shot was taken on a drizzly, overcast day. As you can readily see, little was lost to glare.

Shooting in the Rain

Of course, the sun really isn't your enemy. Without the sun there'd be no light. And no light would mean no photography. (Well, no visible light photography, anyway.) Still, too much of any good thing is often just that: too much. Moreover, low light is not no light. In fact, the fading light and subtle tints near dusk and dawn often make for memorable waterfall shots, as the following sunset photo demonstrates.

Red Sky at Night

That said, you can't always wait around for the sun to go down, and you certainly can't summon clouds when you need them. Luckily, there are three tools available to help you cope with the less than ideal conditions that arise when shadow and sunlight sit side by side, and the first of these is …

The Polarizing Filter.  Think of this as sunglasses for your lens. A polarizer cuts through glare and intensifies colors. It also reduces the amount of light entering the lens. Read "Through the Sunstone" to learn more about employing polarizers to best advantage.

And then there's …

The Neutral Density Filter.  Another take on the "sunglasses for your lens" idea, neutral density filters — and their sophisticated cousins, graduated neutral density filters — are available in a range of optical densities, with the darkest being very dark indeed.

Both types of filter work by reducing the light reaching your lens from the brightly illuminated water, permitting the longer exposures needed to wrest fine detail from the murk. But they also make that murk even murkier, with the result that your "solution" may actually exacerbate the problem. The bottom line? It's hard to get the balance right.

There's another approach, however, even if it's not for the faint of heart:

High Dynamic Range Photography.  On first acquaintance, the technique sounds simple. Just shoot a series of bracketed shots and then meld them in your digital darkroom, producing a composite image that's correctly exposed everywhere. But it's not really simple at all. And the devil's where he usually is — in the details. Since waterfalls are, by their very nature, fluid subjects, never the same from one minute to the next, you may find that combining multiple exposures creates insuperable difficulties. Yet this approach has many devotees, and some of the resulting images can take your breath away. If you have the software (and the time), it's certainly worth giving it a try.


That reference to the fluid nature of waterfalls brings up another important point. Falls are a prime example of water in motion, after all, and when …

Shooting Moving Water …

There's a lot to be taken into account besides the amount (and quality) of the ambient light. Consider shutter speed, for instance. There are two polar extremes: You can freeze time with a fast shutter, or slow things right down and go with the flow. Here's an example. Same place. Same day. Same time of day. (Give or take a few seconds.) But one exposure was nine times longer than the other. See if you can spot the difference:

Speed Trap

It wasn't hard, was it? Especially as I labeled the shots with the shutter speed. The shorter exposure (Photo D) stopped the action, so to speak, while the longer one painted the moving water as a blur of white. And which is better? It's your call. What do you want your photo to show? That is the important question, and it's one each photographer has to answer for herself. In the next shot, I wanted to capture the chaotic, turbulent flow of the water in the drop. So I opted for a comparatively fast shutter (120th of a second, to be exact). And this was the result:

White Horses

A slower shutter speed would have ironed out the tumbling crests and heaving troughs. But the effect, though certainly pleasing, would have been quite different, as a ½‑second exposure of the same drop, taken from a slightly different vantage point and shot with a tripod, illustrates:

Silk Road

And while I like both pictures, there's no denying that they elicit very different responses. A further illustration can be seen in the following two photos. The first …

Free Fall

Was shot on a sunny day, with a shutter speed of 11000th of a second. Now compare it with a second photo of the same drop, made when the sun was filtered through a veil of high cirrus. It was shot at a much slower 130th of a second.


But what if I'd wanted to stop the action in Photo I, just as I did in Photo H? Could I have done so? Yes, but there'd have been a price to be paid. In order to use a fast shutter under low‑light conditions, I'd have had to increase my camera's ISO. And that would have produced color artifacts ("noise") in the resulting image. You might have more luck here than I did, however. My camera doesn't handle high ISOs well. Many digital SLRs do a better job, and yours might be one of them.

Have we learned everything we can from the photos we've seen so far? Not at all. In addition to the range of exposures achieved by varying aperture and shutter speed, notice that the images also exhibit different …

Vantage Points, Perspectives, Angles of View, and Orientations

Each of these variables influences the appearance — and the emotional impact — of a shot. Your vantage point is simply the spot you shoot from, whereas your perspective is determined by the angle of the shot. Are you looking down on your subject? Or up at it? It makes a difference. Angle of view is easy to confuse with perspective, but it's not the same thing at all. It represents your breadth of vision. It can be narrow and tight or broad and inclusive, and to a very large degree it's controlled by your choice of lens, with wide‑angle lenses offering a wider window on the world. Orientation, on the other hand, can be changed at will. Hold your camera level and the resulting image is wider than it is high. This is "landscape" orientation. Turn the camera 90 degrees, however, and you're shooting in "portrait" mode: The image will be tall and narrow. Needless to say, and despite the misleading name, you can also use portrait mode to shoot landscapes.

To see how these variables affect the look and feel of a photo, consider the following shot, made below a falls on The River during low water:

Looking Up

It's the same falls shown in Photos D and E — they're reproduced below to make comparison easy — but the lower vantage point and upward‑looking perspective in Photo J paint a very different picture.

Déjà Vu

Changing orientation also influences how the viewer sees a shot. The next two photos (Photos K and L), were taken from the same location on the same day, and both were then converted to black and white in the digital darkroom. The first was shot in "landscape" orientation, …

Plunge Pool

While the second was taken in "portrait" mode.

Pool and Pothole

Photo K was shot at a focal length of 55 mm. It included little more than the waterfall and plunge pool. Photo L, on the other hand, was shot at 10 mm, yielding an ultra‑wide‑angle field of view, though since I was shooting in portrait mode, it might better be described as an ultra‑tall‑angle field of view. In any case, the photo includes the foreground, even showing the deep natural pothole at my feet. The two photos have the same subject, but the effect on the viewer is quite different.

Having now introduced focal length into the discussion, this is a good time to ask if there's a place for long telephoto lenses when shooting waterfalls. And my answer? Sure there is! Photos H and I (above) were both taken with a long zoom, at around 270 mm. If I'd been restricted to a shorter lens, I couldn't have filled the frame. A telephoto is good for more than bringing a distant falls nearer, of course. It can also be used to compress a long view to good effect, as in the photo below:

Silver Staircase

Here my long lens brings a watery staircase into sharp relief. Compare this "telescoped" view with another of the same scene, taken from a different vantage point while using an ultra‑wide‑angle lens at 10 mm:

Golden 'Chute

The second shot combines a deep depth of field — not surprising when using such a short lens at an aperture of ƒ/16 — with a near panoramic portrait of the falls. It also gives the viewer a much better idea than the preceding long‑lens shot of the sweep of The River around the bend, the season of the year, and even the hour of the day. But the first shot (Photo M) arguably does a better job in conveying The River's raw power.

Let's take a last look at Photo N before moving on. The very span and scope of the scene remind me that the phenomenon of self‑similarity over scale changes can sometimes make it impossible to know whether you're looking at Niagara or Nano Creek. So you might want to include something to impart a measure of scale to your waterfall shots. There are plenty of candidates. Trees, boats, birds… Any or all of these will do the trick. Even your buddies can be pressed into service, as the next photo of a falls shows. The original was shot on film, using a 50 mm "normal" lens, and while my ad hoc slide conversion method leaves much to be desired, it's still easy to see why we chose to carry around this particular drop:

Carried Away

What's the take‑home lesson from all of the foregoing? Simply this: While there's no one best way to photograph a waterfall, there are plenty of ways that the final image can fall short of your expectations — and plenty more ways to get it right. There's no need for me to tell you which outcome is more desirable, is there? That being the case, let me wrap this up with …

A Few Parting Shots

Beginning with the most important tip of all. Do you want to know the secret to getting the shot you want? It's easy. Shoot lots. (Cyclists may be hearing echoes of the advice the laconic Eddy Merckx gave to would‑be champions, back in the golden age of bicycle road‑racing: "Ride lots." It certainly worked for him.) If you take a lot of pictures, and look at everything you shoot with a critical eye, it's almost impossible not to learn something in the process.

Now here are a few more things to keep in mind:

Stay Alive.  Actually, this is probably the most important tip of all, but it shouldn't require much reiteration, should it? After all, you're no good to your nearest and dearest if you're dead. And make no mistake, sheer drops and swift currents can kill. Don't get so engrossed in the business of framing a photo that you tumble into the river. (I've seen it happen!) When scouting a shot, exercise the same care that you would when scouting a river. No picture is worth putting your life on the line for.

Protect Your Gear.  Waterfalls and their immediate environs tend to be wet places. (You're not surprised, are you?) Even the air is full of penetrating mist. So make a raincoat for your camera and use it. Keep a clean, dry cloth handy to wipe down camera and filters when you're done shooting, too. (Read "Snapping in the Rain" for more ideas on coping with wild water.)

Steady On!  Few photos are improved by a shaky stance, and slow shutter speeds always demand rock‑solid support. Use a monopod or tripod when time and terrain permit.

Meter on the Highlights.  It helps to avoid overexposing the water.

Take Test Shots.  Pixels are cheaper than film. And with a digital camera you can preview your shots as you take them. Which makes it easy to check every exposure before you move on. In particular, learn how to display and interpret the histogram for each image.

Bracket Shots.  If time allows, shoot several pictures from the same place, but alter the exposures by as much as 2 EV either way, in 0.5 EV increments. This increases the odds that at least one shot will come out well.

Enjoy Yourself!  As important as technical considerations are, they're not an end in themselves. A flawed photo can still evoke good memories. And that's why you take pictures in the first place, isn't it?


Enough of this. It's time to put your skills to the test. Find a waterfall and shoot it. (Frozen waterfalls make good subjects, too. Can you spot the Old Man of the River in this shot? Maybe the river gods haven't abandoned their former haunts, after all.) Then, when spring returns to Canoe Country and sets the waters running free again, you'll be ready.

In Camera

It sometimes seems that photos of waterfalls adorn every calendar and tourist brochure, and if you're a paddler you've probably taken your share, as well. But as most of us have discovered, compelling photos of falling water don't come easy. If you've been disappointed with the results of your efforts in the past, however, take heart. You, too, can capture a little of the magic of moving water. I've offered some suggestions here. Time and experience will do the rest.



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