Waterfalls are one of the most exquisite natural features to be found in New Hampshire. Everything about them seems to speak to something deep and essential within. For some of us, waterfalls conjure up childhood memories of cooling off at a New Hampshire State Park on a hot summer’s day. For the deep-thinking individual, waterfalls provide unmistakable philosophical undercurrents. In some ways, falling waters can convey a sense of calm and tranquility, and in other ways they create pure awe. They are a veritable treasure trove of evidence and intimations for the naturalist and waterfalls are among the most fascinating arteries in the New Hampshire organism to the outdoor artist; principally because of their lines, their shapes, and their movement.
Tranquility at Cloudland Falls, Franconia Range
If you’ve ever seen a waterfall that just takes your breath away, perhaps you’ve also felt the urge to compose a memorable and graceful photo to remember it by. I’m not much of a collector of anything really, but I most certainly do collect waterfalls in this way. One of the great questions that I get about my collection is something along the lines of, “how did you do that”? So perhaps you do want to know how to make your own amazing waterfall images. While I can’t share absolutely everything, I can share some aspects of my technique. So to that end, I offer you my rudimentary tutorial on shooting waterfalls here in New Hampshire (and beyond).
1. START with the equipment
This is perhaps the most important step in photographing anything, waterfalls included. You don’t need to have the latest and greatest, but you do need to have the right stuff to get the job done. Let me explain with an example; all of us have a “shake speed”, or a shutter speed setting at which our natural handshakes are detectable by a degradation/blur in the quality of the photo. For me, I can’t shoot anything handheld at a speed slower than 1/60th of a second without it somehow affecting the quality of my image. Since most waterfall photos are shot at a speed of 1/5 of a second or slower in order to get that silky effect, I know I can’t personally do it without a tripod. Most people can’t. At that speed, you simply can’t get a quality waterfall image without a sturdy tripod; it’s an essential piece of gear. Other essentials include a polarizing filter, which is a filter that blocks out light with a particular “direction”. It also reduces glare on surfaces such as wet rocks and water, and thereby helps to saturate those parts of the image. The right lenses are fairly important, too, and you also want to make sure your camera has a shutter delay (or get a remote trigger). Everything beyond these items are nice, but they’re not essential.
2. Do Your Research and Pick Your Spot
New Hampshire boasts over 70 waterfalls and each one has a different size, shape, and style; in essence, their personalities differ and some will speak to you more than others. Consider honing in on your own personal favorite waterfall type, whether it’s plunges, horsetails, cascades or another. Do some research online, find an inspiring place to immerse yourself in, break out your map and plan your trip!
3. Try to Time it Right
Easier said than done, yes. But you should really try to make friends with the weather gods and occasionally ask for a nice overcast day (clouds are giant light diffusers). You can also time your shoots so that you’re not dealing with any direct sunlight hitting the falls. This planning is rather essential because of a problem we call clipping, which is just a fancy way of saying that something in the image is “too white”. Those nice, picturesque, evenly-lit shots come from shooting when there is no direct sunlight hitting the waterfall, and most often they were done on overcast days. An even and diffused light is best when shooting New Hampshire’s falls. Other timing considerations have to do with the seasons here in New Hampshire. For example, you must try to be patient as the trees’ leaves begin to bud in the spring. If you go too early, you’ll notice an absence of spring greenery and an abundance of sticks and even the potential for snow patches. As in the image below taken at Bridal Veil Falls in Franconia, New Hampshire, images can suffer if the shot is taken too early in the year.
Sticks, Snow & Too Much Water at Bridal Veil
4. Compose Your Image in the Viewfinder
Basically you’re on your own here. You’ve got to really feel the scene, track the water, and taste the light. On a more objective note, I recommend getting the water to flow through the image. This is a traditionally accepted compositional notion that allows the viewer’s eye to travel through the image and follow the calming path of the water.
5. Adjust the Polarizer
Before you dial in any of your other settings, decide how much poliarization you want to harness in the shot. Not sure what I mean? Do this: Hold your polarizer up in between your eyes and your computer monitor (go ahead, you can do this right now…nobody is watching). Twist the filter all the way around slowly and watch as the world seen through the filter begins to darken. That point where it’s at its darkest before it all goes back to normal again is what I’d refer to as Max CP (maximum circular poliarization). Now you must take note that the amount of polarization you use is a matter of artistic choice. However, you should also know that the closer you get to max CP, the more “glare” you remove, the less light you’re letting in to the camera, and the longer you’ll need to keep your shutter open for (or the higher you’ll need to dial your camera’s ISO setting). Fully polarized water shots look great, but every now and then it’s nice to take it down a notch or two.
6. Dial in your Setttings:
It is fairly critical that you use your camera’s manual mode. By doing this, you can take full control of the camera and its capabilities rather than allowing the camera to make any decisions (which don’t tend to be right). Remember that waterfalls like to be shot at slower than 1/5 of a second and that usually means that you’ll need to squeeze your aperture (f/16 is a good place to start). Make sure to adjust your ISO accordingly and never take for granted that your camera’s automatic white balance is correct.
Next, press the button and see what happens! If you don’t like something about the results, make some adjustments. Some trial and error applies in shooting waterfalls, so don’t be discouraged if your first shot isn’t a winner. Your histogram and your clipping indicator are good in-camera tools, but make sure that you like your composition, too.
New Hampshire’s landscapes are unique and worth admiring. As far as its waterscapes go, they’re also challenging in some ways to both the adventurer and the photographer. Some are hard to reach, others show their best appeal only at particular times of year, and others are completely wild with blowdowns, brush, and moss. Overall they’re worth seeing, and a lot of fun to capture. Remember to respect the lands as you travel and shoot, though. Preservation isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a way of living.
The Human Element & Favorable Light at Arethusa Falls
Thank you for stopping by my New Hampshire landscape photography blog once again. Come back soon for more about New Hampshire’s collection of waterfalls! Until then, happy trails!