education, instructional, photography, travel

Photographing // Waterfalls

Creating stunning waterfall and river shots is not always as simple as finding a compelling composition and just pointing your camera. There are some basic, and even advanced techniques that you need to consider.

I just returned from a three week road trip through Washington state, Oregon, and Northern California; one of the regions of the world with the most abundant waterfalls and cascades, thanks to the very high annual rainfall of the area.

Punchbowl Falls

Toketee Falls

Wahkeena Falls

The scenic Ohanapecosh River

I’ve shot waterfalls from Arizona to Scotland and beyond over the years, but none compared to the concentration and variety I visited recently… I was just blown away by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  The forests are lush with vegetation and the rivers run crystal clear and some even take on a deep blue hue.

The scenic Ohanapecosh River

The first concept you want to think about when photographing moving water is whether you want the water to blur or whether you want to stop the action. 9 times out of 10, your image will be more compelling and interesting with blurred water, so that means you will want a shutter speed of at least 1/2 a sec.  I prefer around 2.5 to 10 seconds to achieve the look I like.

But if you have an element of action in your image that needs to be stopped, you will want a faster shutter speed. Consider the image below. Although I would’ve liked the water cascade to be blurred and smooth, I knew it was more important that I stop the action of the cliff jumper… so I made a split second decision to change to a 1/125 sec shutter speed.

Cliff jumping at Punchbowl Falls

So, you might be asking, “What if it’s the middle of the day? How can you achieve such a slow shutter speed?” Well, that’s a great question.  I would refer you to an earlier post on neutral density filters.  But if you don’t have a solid or variable ND, you can often get close enough to the speed you need with your circular polarizer… Which brings me the next consideration to make; to polarize or not.

Proxy Falls

This series of images, shot at Proxy, Toketee, and Punchbowl Falls in Oregon are good examples how of using a circular polarizer can enhance your waterfall photographs. First, the polarizer will give you at least 2-3 extra stops, allowing you to utilize slower shutter speeds. But it will also cut the glare from the water, allowing the colorful water to take shape in your image. But perhaps my favorite reason for using the polarizer is because it will also cut the glare from the surrounding vegetation and make the greens pop like never before.

Proxy Falls

Toketee Falls

Punchbowl Falls

Two men wade to get a closer look at Punchbowl Falls

Lit Nemo Equipment tent on the Ohanapecosh River

The next thing to consider, as I’m sure you’ve butted heads against already, is camera stabilization.  All these long shutter speeds do not work unless you have a very sturdy tripod. I have three tripods that I cycle between that are all great for different reasons and applications.  The best for waterfalls, is my Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Aluminium 3-Section Tripod with 410 Junior Geared Tripod Head. It is heavy duty though, and if I’m flying to a location or backpacking in, I use my lighter Gitzo GT2340L Series 2 Aluminum 4 Section Tripod, with the same sturdy, geared head.

A good tripod will save you from many headaches in the field and heartaches when you get your images on your computer (or get your film back) and see that none or very few are even sharp.

Proxy Falls

Proxy Falls

But even with a hefty tripod, you will need one more piece of equipment… a remote shutter release. Canon makes two different kinds; the Canon RS-80N3  & the Canon TC-80N3.  I have both and like them, but they are pricey for what they are.

I recently stumbled upon the Polaroid Wireless Camera Shutter Remote.  It is wireless, which is fantastic for so many reasons (including the fact that I can shoot star pictures without leaving the comfort of my tent!), it is an intervalometer (so I can time-lapse, and shoot really long exposures with precision), and the price is right.

There is one way around the shutter release, but you have to set your timer delay every time you want to do a long exposure.  I would recommend investing the money in a decent shutter release, and I would even go with the wireless, intervalometer.

Having a good tripod and shutter release, whether wired or wireless, will ensure no camera shake, giving you the sharpest images possible.

Toketee Falls

The trail to Wahclella Falls follow the beautiful and serene Tanner Creek

The trail to Wahclella Falls follow the beautiful and serene Tanner Creek

Now that we’re done with the technical side of things, I’d like mention something more on the subjective/ artistic side.

Only in recent years have I begun to add people to my landscape images.  And it’s become a bit addicting. It’s a whole different mindset in many ways. But in practice, I simply compose the landscape image I want first, and then I look for the perfect (and most interesting) location within the composition to place the human element.

People admiring the majesty of Wahclella Falls

You may be like me and vehemently resistant to such an idea initially, but I would encourage you to round out your portfolio with interesting “people in nature” images. Unless you exclusively make your living from fine art print sales, you stand to make some decent coin from shots like this.  Both advertisers and editorial producers alike love this type of image.

A man is drawrfed by Elowah Falls

Another prime example of why I would go with the Polaroid Wireless Camera Shutter Remote… Sometimes you will be the only person available to place in your image. The wireless remote makes being your own model a real breeze.  Trust me, I have to do it all the time :)

The scenic Ohanapecosh River

Man hiking Proxy Falls

The scenic Ohanapecosh River

People admiring the majesty of Wahclella Falls

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

One of the trickiest things about photographing waterfalls is the spray. Powerful waterfalls will produce a spray or mist within a certain distance, and sometimes the shot you want is going to fall within that wet perimeter.  It is very difficult to keep your lens dry.  So what I found is you have to stand in front of the lens until the very last moment, wait for the wind to die down or shift, and then wipe the lens with your lens cloth, all the while jumping out of the way as you press the shutter on your wireless shutter release.  Needless to say, It’s not easy.

A man admiring Wahkeena Falls

So sometimes, you just have to roll with it.  The image above is after I got one good frame, I gave up trying to keep the mist from the front element of my lens, and a very impressionistic image was the result.  I ended up really liking the look and feel. I’m glad I experimented with a non-traditional shot.

Ferns and vegetation detail near Wahclella Falls in Tanner Creek

Along these lines, the last thing I think is important to mention (and this applies to any nature photography you might be in to); don’t forget see the beautiful details.  They are easy to miss sometimes, but when we are able to slow down, tune in to them, and notice the quiet shots, we are rewarded with unique images.

— andrew

Take your photography to the next level… check out my exciting, NEW workshop dates:
Big Bend NP // Night/ Landscape // 2016
Isle of Skye // S C O T L A N D // 2016
Highlands // S C O T L A N D // 2016
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Tandem Stills + Motion // andrew r. slaton
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film, film making, music, photography, random thought, travel, writing

january fan, july flame

note:  i’m really excited about this post for a few reasons:  first, because i’ve been trying to finish it for a month, so it will be nice to have it done.  second, i am anxious to share mine and elle’s experience because it was so amazing.  and third, because i hope it is the first of many posts that will be full multimedia extravaganzas!  i have incorporated writing, photography, video (both hd and iphone quality), and music to capture a mood and create an enjoyable viewer experience.  i hope it works!

so this year, my Christmas present to elle (and myself for that matter), was a trip to seattle and portland to see laura veirs.  if you haven’t heard of her, do yourself a favor… seriously.

laura was kicking off her july flame tour in her city of residence, portland, oregon.  july flame is her brand new album, and i can say that it is by far, one of the best albums of the last few years.

elle originally turned me on to laura by strategically placing some of her tracks on the various mix cds she made for me over the years.  but i didn’t really start getting into her until recently.  laura quickly latched on to the audio pleasure centers of my brain, and i am now a life-long fan.  you know those artists that you can tell immediately that they have the talent, relevance, and longevity to remain in your collection forever?  well, she is one of those…

for your listening pleasure, laura’s title track from her newest masterwork.  enjoy!

okay, enough gushing about laura… on to our “january fan” adventure!

we landed in seattle late thursday night.  we walked about downtown and found a great little italian joint, il bistro, that served food late.

waking up early friday to a typical seattle winter morning was surprisingly refreshing…

we sampled local beers and seafood at lunch in the market, and talked of quintessential seattle matters, like kurt cobain.  ha ha ha.

we left seattle after lunch and began our thousand mile journey up the columbia river gorge, down the oregon coast, over to portland, and finally back up to the olympic peninsula.

our first stop was in seaside, oregon, friday night to catch some sleep.

we awoke saturday morning to the kind of weather locals dream of this time of year; 50 degrees and clear skies.

i got coffee, elle got tea, we walked out to the ocean.  it was breathtakingly exciting and serene at the same time.

my heart leaps in my chest when i think of the look on her face that morning.  i think it had been quite a while since elle had seen the ocean… i was so glad to share that with her.

after seaside, we snaked our way down the 101 to ecola state park.  famous views of cannon beach awaited us… a real treat.

a track from another great album of laura’s, slatbreakers, also turns my mind to this fantasy we lived for a few short days…

the light was fantastic as it danced across the surf, illuminating rocks and waves without discrimination.  it’s amazing how nature seems to have such an appreciation for aesthetics.  i guess God too is a connoisseur of beauty…

correction:  the creator and purveyor of beauty.

cat power’s the greatest was our soundtrack as we inched along the ancient forests of the pacific coast.  oh that life could be this sweet always… but then i guess times like these would hold less weight…

we then parked and explored cannon beach for a while by foot.

probably mine and elle’s favorite tune from july flame

oh laura, you’re a freakin’ genius!

elle finally took her shoes off to feel the sand in between her toes and let the cool tide wash over her feet.

we finally made it to portland around dinner time.  it was the famed night for our show, the july flame tour kick-off!  we didn’t know what to expect.

and oh what a pleasant surprise it was… the artistery, the venue, was a home-turned-into-an-artist-studio on the east side of the city.  we walked in to find a young man on a laptop checking names.  he stamped our hands as we bantered a bit, letting him know that we had come from nearly two-thousand miles away.

we cautiously walked down the narrow stairs past post-modern paintings and sketches, and followed the sweet sound of portland folk.

on the stage was justin power, a portland local.  he was fantastic.

we made weird he-man self portraits in the bathroom…

we met justin in between acts and gave him our appreciation… he went to his van and gave us an album with him and the portland cello project.  if you can find a way to get your hands on it, i highly recommend his music as well!

led to sea came on next, a one woman performer, songwriter, violist and multi-instrumentalist, l. alex guy.  she too was fantastic, but elle and i lost our spots in the crowded basement, so i didn’t get pictures of her until later when she played with laura.  watch out for alex as well… she is a very talented songwriter…

then along came laura…

she had been sitting in the back at a table where people could purchase merchandise.  elle and i kept contemplating going over to talk to her, and we easily could have, but we didn’t want to be one of “those people”, gushing about how much we love her music.

“she looks pregnant,” elle said.

“don’t be rude,” i quickly returned.

well, she got up and strapped an acoustic guitar around her bulging belly and cracked a joke about how she was leaving monday to start the european leg of the tour, being 6 months pregnant.

i looked at elle and smiled.  i’ll never doubt your prego radar again, i thought.

laura rocked it in her mostly-quiet way.  the lyrics dripped from her lips and fell like honey into our ears.  us and the fifty or so others that stood silent in the artistery.  it was truly magical.  a time that i know elle and i will never forget, judging by all of the glances we gave to one another as laura played on…

the next morning we woke to a lazy portland sunday.  we saw mount hood for the first time.  a rare site from the city in winter.  a lenticular cloud hovered over.

then the rain started again.  we headed north on the 5 toward the olympic peninsula.

giant trees and ferns guided us through this primeval landscape.

we camped within earshot of the sea outside kalaloch, just off the queets river.  it was raining so hard that we stayed all night in the car.  we played gin for hours, laughing in the dim glow of an ipod.

as we rounded the northern end of the olympic, lake crescent came into clear view.  the light was less than ideal, but the view still made us gasp.

it’s funny, we took this trip on a whim not knowing where the road would take us.  and up until this adventure we found ourselves constantly asking one another, “can i call you mine?”

it’s really fitting that this question is repeated over and over in the chorus to july flame, a song that we never knew until this trip.  because as we drove and listened and saw everything we experienced on that long weekend, we both gained a confidence in each other and ourselves that has given us an answer to our question.

if you enjoyed any of the music on this post, please support a fantastic independent artist…  here is a link to her label, and all her music.  thanks so much!

all images © andrew r. slaton | photographer 2010