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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Essential for Waterfall Photography

Garwin Falls Veil

I’m getting things together for my Spring Waterfall Workshop, coming up this weekend.  I have been scouting many of my favorite regional waterfalls, and although I know that some of the more ephemeral falls can dry up quickly, so far, the flows are looking good.  Still I am praying for a little more rain this week. 

The workshop begins Friday night with a meet and great at the house We will plan our rough itinerary for Saturday and I will have a chance to review some of the essential elements of waterfall photography.  So here is a review  are a few essentials for capturing falling water.

1 ) Being There

It should be obvious, but the first step is to get out to the falls when there is a vigorous flow of water.  The spring run-off can be a reliable source, but later, the results are usually best following a significant rain storm.

Polarizer & Graduated ND Filter
Arethusa Falls, Livermore NH

As always, the right conditions are critical. Overcast or rainy weather is often best. Bright sunlight produces brilliant reflections and hot spots that can make exposure impossible without heavy application of HDR techniques. Soft diffuse light allows all of the detail in the rocks and water to shine through and the lower illumination makes it much easier to use long exposures that create the soft look that is so popular. In brilliant sunshine, even your smallest aperture and slowest ISO will not be enough to adequately slow the shutter speed. A fully applied polarizing filter can take away a couple of stops, but when more light reduction is needed a neutral density filter may be needed to extend the shutter duration to render that magical, cotton candy, effect.

2) Getting Steady

It seems silly to have to say this, but waterfall photography requires a sturdy tripod. My only advice about tripods is spend the money to get a good one. If you buy a cheap tripod, you will be replacing it every few years and all you will ever have is a CHEAP tripod. An expensive tripod will be the only one you will ever need. It will save money in the long run and you will always have a GREAT tripod.

3) Filters

The one essential photographic filter is the polarizer, and this is

especially true for waterfall photography. The polarizer performs the magic of blunting the reflection on rocks and water allowing the native colors to shine through, but the maximum effect is not always the best. Some reflection may be helpful to add definition to the flowing water. Experimentation is the best way to


find the right amount, but at times the optimal polarization for the rocks may be too much for the water. Here is where the fun of stacked images and masking can come in, but, seriously, you can drive yourself crazy with this stuff. Most of the time a comfortable compromise is available. Finally, as I mentioned above, the polarizer blocks one or two stops of light making it easier to capture the  long exposure required to "velvetize" (my word, feel free to steal it) the water.


4) Shutter Speed

I am often ask about the correct shutter speed for waterfall photography, and I have struggled to find a simple rule that can be generally applied.

Forty Foot Falls Cascade

  A few years ago, I tried to apply some scientific rigor to the problem.  I spent a couple of hours at one of my favorite local collection of falls and cascades, Forty Foot Falls, along Merriman Brook in Surry New Hampshire. These falls, include drops of varying heights and can be easily approached from different distances. I took multiple images from various locations with shutter speeds in increments from 1/30th  to 4 seconds. The weather was perfect, a dark overcast shortly following a significant rain storm. After careful analysis, the results of this non- randomized, single blinded study were conclusive and a failure.  

Forty Foot Falls Test

The best shutter for any waterfall is dependent on too many factors to surrender to a simple formula.  The most important confounding factor, of course, is individual taste.  We all have our own preferences for the degree of "velvetization".  My overall goal for waterfalls is a shutter speed which is long enough to provide the velvety look without being so long as to render the water without any texture and interest.  On average I find this to range between 0.25 and 1 second, but the best result is dependent on a number of factors, including the speed of the water, the depth, interruptions to flow and the distance from the falls. I love the soft look, but a fast shutter can work to freeze the random calamity of a boiling cascade

The Speed of the flow depends on the height and steepness of the falls and the degree to which the water falls unobstructed.  Faster flows are best captured with faster shutter speeds to preserve a sense of texture. 

Deep falls obscure the underlining rocks and depend on the water detail for visual interest, making faster shutter speeds necessary.

Obstructions such as rocks and ledges slow the flow, diverting and fanning the water into streams that can be captured at longer shutters before detail is lost. 

Pond Brook Falls in Time

Moss Glen Falls

All of these effects are blunted by greater distance from the subject.  My more distant image from Moss Glen Falls in Granville, Vermont was taken with full polarization and a 10 second exposure, but from this distant the interest came from the streaming and fanning of the water and was not weaken by the loss of surface texture.

5 ) Exposure

It can be challenging to achieve good exposure for both the bright

Gentle HDR : Catsbane Brook

falling water and the surrounding dark rocks.  Multi-image HDR techniques can work well, but capturing the full dynamic range in a single image is more difficult.  The best compromise is one that results in an image that allows the salvaging of both the highlights and shadows.  In this  situation, “exposing to the right” (ETTR) can be critical.  Increasing the exposure as far as possible, without blowing out the highlights, will allow for better detail in the shadows as the image is processed.  It is important to avoid blowing out the highlights.  Even a small area of pure white, without detail, can shine out awkwardly and no amount of processing can retrieve detail where none exists

To allow for long shutter speeds, the f stops are typically quite high.  I usually try to avoid the diffraction caused by extremely small apertures, but waterfall photography often forces me to accept f stops in the 18-22 range.  

6) Safety (This should really be number one)

Steep banks below
the Ashuelot Arch Bridge
Special attention to safety is seldom more critical than when standing precariously on slippery rocks, inches from a precipitous drop to raging water, or while sliding down a steep bank to reach a roaring brook.  The basic rules are the same.

First: Most of the best shots are seen from difficult to reach locations, where your life may be in danger.  More importantly, your equipment will be at risk of loss or damage.  Start by assuming the worst WILL happen.

Second: A few simple precautions, faithfully followed, can substantially reduce the risk of disaster. The key is to slow down and focus on your gear and your feet. Generally, the beautiful stuff will still be there once everything is secure.

Slow Down

Scary spot over Lower Purgatory Falls

Think before you move and never assume that your foot will hold on the leaves and wet rocks.  Have a back-up, a tree, a hiking pole or just your other foot.  When adjusting your equipment try to keep at least two points of control, two hands, a hand and a neck strap or hands and the tripod.  

Never fully trust the tripod.  Whenever my camera and tripod are over water, I always keep my neck strap on.  At times it can be awkward, all it takes is a gust of wind or a slipping leg for your camera to end up in the brook.  A few years ago, I was shooting by a stream in Harrisville.  I turned away for a second to grab something from my bag and my tripod toppled over dunking my camera in the icy water. It was a costly way to learn an important lesson.


Painful experience has also taught me to keep the holder under my filter as I unscrew.  The filter always seems to come off as you re-grip.


Changing lenses can be especially scary.  When I am in a vulnerable position, I try to avoid switching, but, if absolutely necessary, I stop, put everything down and try not to juggle more than one thing at a time. I secure one lens before taking another out, and position myself to screen everything from the mist.

Waterfall photography provides many exciting opportunities and challenges.  Hopefully these suggestions will help encourage you to get out there and enjoy one of this season’s greatest attractions.

Jeff Newcomer


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