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Water Seeks Its Own Level

Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Waterfalls hold a special fascination, especially for photographers. Last December, I wrote about water and its many possibilities as a photographic subject or enhancement. While waterfalls can provide background interest and occasionally wonderful effects, a photographer can find it very rewarding to seek them out as a subject in and of themselves. Waterfalls can depict power, tranquility, or ironically—sometimes even both at the same time. With the appropriate photographic technique, the same waterfall can be portrayed to show either. They can enhance the color and texture of the substrate over which they flow. Waterfalls often demonstrate the sheer persistence of nature through years and years of inexorable flow to create canyons and ravines in bedrock.

The same waterfall can be portrayed by the photographer to depict either power or tranquility.

Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Falls can be very large or very small and still hold fascination for the viewer and great fodder for the photographer.

This waterfall is about 18-24 inches wide and about a 3 foot drop - Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Perhaps more than any other subject, waterfalls present opportunities for the creative photographer to use the tools at his disposal for creative effect.

Those who know me or have read this blog know my mantra: “get close” and my fascination with the more intimate view of subjects. Waterfalls are often a great subject to get in close and shoot parts of, to show the effects of the water, and for abstracts of shape and color. I can sit at a waterfall for hours and watch as the water flows and see the while it may look the “same” to the casual observer, the flow of the water is never precisely the same.

Waterfalls are a great subject to get in close and make “intimate” images.

Perspective and context are often an element which is necessary if the photographer wants the viewer to know the size of the falls. It is often difficult, especially with an intimate view, for the viewer to know whether the falls are large or small.

Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Waterfalls are one of the most difficult subjects for a photographer to technically expose properly. There is generally very high contrast between the almost pure white water at its most rapid movement and the shadows often naturally created by the surroundings. Lighting conditions are often difficult. Waterfalls may be photographed on overcast days, and even in the rain, but care must be taken care in selecting any background elements. It is often difficult to properly expose a waterfall on a bright sunny day with blue skies in the background. Blending techniques have allowed us to do more in “digital darkroom” programs more easily that might have been possible with film.

The photographer needs to plan the shooting of a waterfall. This—like most successful nature photography opportunities—means being willing to be up very early and/or out late. An irony to this is that in many great waterfall shots the waterfall is in a difficult to get to place, which requires a hike in and out. By its nature, waterfall means elevation. So plan to hike uphill and down (often the hike can be a rather strenuous climb).

Spending time at a waterfall can be rewarding photographically and for the soul

Of the photographic experiences I remember in recent years, the ones that come back to me as most personally moving, and as a time and place for the contemplation of nature and her majesty, are the times (especially early morning) I have spent around waterfalls. Making the time to plan and arrive at these destinations and then spending some time while there can be a very rewarding experience for the photographer, both for the images and for the soul.

This shot involved a pre-sunrise, 20 minute hike down a very steep mountain trail on a Sunday morning. I'd rather be here than in church any day! Copyright Andy Richards 2008

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2 Responses

  1. I love photographing and being in the presence of moving water: waterfalls, cataracts, cascades. I like the pristine, cleansing, soul-refreshing nature of them. Standing water such as lakes and ponds just doesn’t have the same effect on me.

    The one thing about waterfalls that you never know about until you’re on-site is the presence of large debris from strong storms and floods. Some photographers don’t mind these surprises, others deplore them. Count me in the last group. Also count me in the group that gets irritated with all the people that just have to touch or be in falling water and splash pools, despite the great risk to life and limb they pose. At some of the popular nearby waterfalls I like to shoot I am always amazed by how many people just didn’t take a shower that morning :-). Fortunately, most of that breed of mankind also likes to sleep late too, so I don’t find them ruining my plans too often during the golden hours of photography.

    Nice article on a popular photographic subject, Andy.

    • Thanks, Jim. There are no natural true waterfalls in lower Michigan, so I always have to travel to find them. It would be nice to have some of them in my proverbial “backyard.”

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