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While the northeastern Unites States isn’t a wealth of dramatic vistas ripe for the landscape photographer’s choosing, one thing we do have plenty of here are waterfalls. The list is endless- from Niagara Falls in northwestern New York, to the plethora of waterfalls that can be found in the Catskills and Adirondacks, to Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey. These provide ample opportunity to photograph them, as many run year-round.
I always carry a few things when photographing waterfalls. I like to get that milky look to the water, and for that of course you need a long exposure and for that you need a tripod to hold the camera steady. Next, I carry a polarizing filter. This allows me to control reflections, whether they be from shiny rocks glistening with water on them, or to control reflections on the water in the landing pool. I also keep a chamois in my bag to keep the lens dry. Depending on how hard the falls are flowing, and how big the cascade, mist can be a problem. Finally, I keep a set of neutral density filters handy. As I mentioned, I like a nice, milky look to the water, and if there’s too much light, I won’t be able to slow the shutter down enough to get that look unless I use the filters. I generally keep 3, 4 and 5 stop ND filters with me.
When photographing waterfalls, the first thing to consider, as with all subjects, is the light. I find photographing waterfalls in flat, even light, such as on an overcast day, to be ideal. Ultimately, you don’t want the waterfall in direct sunlight. Direct sunlight on a waterfall has a tendency to create such a high contrast scene that either your highlights are blown out, or your shadows are blocked up. Flat, even lighting allows you capture the full range of detail in the scene without losing detail in the highlights or shadows.
Next, you need to consider the look of the water you want. While I prefer that milky, fantasy-like look, you may prefer more detail. Try a variety of shutter speeds to see what works best for you. I find 1 second to 30 seconds works well, but much will also depend on how much water is flowing over the falls. More water rushing faster will not require as slow a shutter speed as less water flowing at a slower pace will.
Waterfalls change with the seasons. In the spring, when snow is melting, waterfalls will be fuller and faster flowing. Some waterfalls only flow at this time. Others run year round, but the amount of flow changes. And in the winter, depending on the climate, some falls can freeze into columns of ice that create an entirely different spectacle. It pays to revisit these falls at different times of year, to take advantage of all of the opportunities a particular waterfall presents.
One last thought: While many of the waterfalls I’ve photographed are easily accessible, many others require some arduous hiking. Try to get as much information as possible on a new location before going there, and be prepared for anything.