About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer had 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 blog about photography in New England.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Photographing the Magic of Velvet Water

Doanes Falls Royalston, Mass. 5 Seconds

 The leaves are gone and we are thoroughly trapped in the November Stick season. For New England photographers this
Senter Falls, Lyndeborough, NH, 1.3 Seconds
mostly means waiting anxiously for the first snows to to cover up and decorate the scars of another brilliant autumn. While we wait, the photographic opportunities can seem limited, but not totally absent. If you are fortunate to live near the coast, the recent late autumn storms, provided spectacular crashing waves. The fallen leaves and bare branches always produce some interesting patterns and whatever the subject, the late sunrises make catching the warm morning light much more civilized. Perhaps the best late autumn opportunities come from the falling water. Stick season can be a great time to capture waterfalls. Late autumn rains seem to bounce off the hardening earth directly into the streams and brooks, quickly engorging our waterfalls. Falls which are screened by summer foliage become more visible with the leaves on the ground and those colorful leaves often make a lovely border for the tumbling water. 

My wife Susan is not a waterfall fan. When I show her a picture of a spectacular cascade with the water rendered, by long exposure, to a fairyland of tumbling, velvety folds, her reaction is always, "Yup, another waterfall". I am not discourage, but the question is, how to capture the experience of such a relentlessly kinetic phenomena into a static image. Short exposures can freeze interesting patterns in the tumbling water, but I love the soft mysterious waves that are revealed with longer exposures.

Beaver Brook Falls, Colebrook, New Hampshire

So what are the essentials of capturing waterfall magic.

Being There

Arethusa Falls, 1/20 Second
As always the right weather is 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 lower illumination makes it much easier to use long exposures. In brilliant sunshine, even your smallest aperture and slowest ISO will not be enough to adequately slow the shutter speed. My bright sunlight image of Arethusa Falls in Livermore, New Hampshire required a polarizer and heavy application of my variable neutral density filter to soften the cascades.

Get 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.


The essential photographic filter is the polarizer, and this is
Gleason Falls Bridge, Hillsborough, NH,  1 Second
especially true for waterfall photography. The polarizer performs the magic of blunting 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 we're 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 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.

"Proper" Shutter Speed

I have often struggled to find a simple rule governing the correct exposure for flowing water and it was a desire to resolve this issue
Forty Foot Falls, Surry, NH, 1.3 Seconds
that triggered the preparation for this article.  I tried to apply some scientific rigor to the problem. Last week 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.  

Garwin Falls, Wilton, NH, 1.3 Seconds
The best shutter for any waterfall is dependant 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.


The Speed of the flow depends on the height and steepness of the
Chesterfield, NH,  0.6 Seconds is Too Slow
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. Here the water was fast and deep making 0.6 seconds too slow to record the water detail.

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. 

Forty Foot FallsTest
One of my series of images from a small segment of Forty Foot Falls illustrates a number of these factors.  On the left the water is falling in a smoother sheet.  It is all a matter of taste, but I find that above 0.4 seconds the water begins to loose detail and is less interesting, but the velvet appearance remains pleasing up to 4 seconds on the right where the water is obstructed and fanned by the visible underlying ledge.

Moss Glenn Falls 10 Seconds

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.


Agonizing over all of these technical factors can be helpful, but they can also distract from the central fact, that waterfalls are actually pretty!  So, use them to get a rough feeling for the shutter and then judge your results by zooming into the LCD to make necessary adjustments.  When the LCD view is not enough, a little shutter bracketing can provide a little Velvet insurance in the digital darkroom.

Waterfalls remain one of my favorite natural subjects.  Following a few simple guideline can assure spectacular results.  With any luck, applying what I have learned, I may, someday, move Susan from "Yup, another waterfall" to her highest level of artistic enthusiasm, "Nice".

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