At face value, it’s probably not hard to understand it when I say that I absolutely love photographing waterfalls. After all, waterfalls can be gigantic and convey a sense of relentless power. They’re truly something to experience in person and they make for some of the most interesting photography subjects. But, it goes beyond the fact that waterfalls make for cool photos.
I believe that, as photographers, it’s our responsibility to identify whatever it is in this world—and in life—that draws out our curiosity and to explore that thing with depth and tenacity so as to truly understand it and to convey that understanding to other viewers. In my case, I believe that thing is water, specifically the movement of water, and even more so, the rushing movement of water as it falls over all sorts of edges and down streams.
And so, I’d like to share four reasons why I love to photograph waterfalls while also including some of my photos to further convey these points.
1. Waterfalls don’t talk back
I’d like to consider myself somewhat of a social animal. I have friends and family whom I enjoy spending time together with. I enjoy going out to restaurants with small groups of people or heading out for a pint to catch up. In other words, I don’t consider myself to be a recluse. That all changes, though, when my goal is to head out into nature with my camera and tripod. When that happens, I go to great lengths to avoid other people.
I’ve always seen my genre of photography, namely nature and landscape, to be a single player sport. It’s me vs the scenery in front of me. It’s a very intimate and solitary experience. The only person who I need to contend with is myself. I don’t have to worry about carrying on a conversation with a waterfall because waterfalls don’t talk back. I never have to worry about a waterfall breaking my concentration because of something it says or does. It says nothing and, aside from it being a waterfall, it does nothing. In other words, in those moments when it’s just me, my camera, and the waterfall, all of my focus can be placed finding that next composition.
2. There are many ways to photograph waterfalls
It’s understandable if your knee jerk reaction to seeing a waterfall would be to use the widest focal length you have available at the time. After all, how could you not want to capture the entirety of a giant waterfall in a single frame? I’ve done it countless times and with good reason. By fitting a waterfall from top to bottom in a single frame, you can show your viewers the sheer size of it even if it’s not necessarily conveying an accurate sense of scale. But, I’ve learned that there it is equally as important to look closer and appreciate the nuances of a waterfall.
There is one waterfall in particular, Panther Creek Falls in Washington, that has served as the best teacher for me when it comes to this particular lesson. When you first approach Panther Creek Falls, it is absolutely impossible not to be mesmerized by its intricacy and size. It truly is massive in height, width, and scale. It also has a dizzying amount of little water tendrils that splinter off in a variety of ways, making for a beautiful sight.
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to photograph this waterfall many times and with each subsequent visit, I became less interested in the entirety of the waterfall and began seeing it for all of its intricacies. Whereas initially, I just saw one gigantic waterfall, I was now seeing dozens of unique components and each was greater than the sum of its parts. It allowed me to create a robust collection of unique photos, all from the same gigantic waterfall.
3. Not all waterfalls are alike
While all waterfalls share the common trait of falling water, that’s about where the similarities end. In truth, there are so many ways to find the unique character of individual waterfalls. Waterfalls can vary wildly from region to region, but they can also take on entirely different vibes from season to season.
Recently, I lived in southern Utah for a short period of time. After moving there from the Pacific Northwest, I figured that my days of photographing waterfalls were at an end and would be replaced with photographing red rock and desert scenery. Much to my surprise, we had experienced a surge of rainfall in the region unlike anything on record for many years. There was so much rainfall that actual waterfalls had begun to form in a nearby reservoir and it was truly something special to see.
Up until that point, just about every waterfall I had ever photographed was surrounded by the usual lichen, basalt rock, and other rainforest elements. This waterfall, however, was surrounded by slick red rock that was made even more rich in contrast thanks to the newly flowing water. It was one of the most unique scenes I’ve had the pleasure of photographing, especially because of how rare it was.
In another instance several years ago when I was still living in Oregon, we had a huge snowstorm blow through the area. As such things go, it was almost a reflex for me to pack my camera gear and beeline it to the Columbia River Gorge because, while I had photographed the waterfalls in the CRG circuit countless times, I rarely got to see them covered in snow. Fortunately, my efforts paid off because I was able to photograph a version of most of the iconic waterfalls in the world, Multnomah Falls, under a pristine coating of white snow. It was a stunning contrast to the otherwise brown and green surroundings.
4. It’s about the journey
While I just mentioned Multnomah Falls and its undeniable beauty, there’s very little to say about the journey to get to it. Once you’re fortunate enough to secure a parking spot, getting to the base of the waterfall requires nothing more than a short, leisurely stroll along a paved walkway to an observation area. There is another path that requires mild exertion that brings you to the famed Benson Bridge and a third path requiring more strenuous exertion that will bring you to the very top of the waterfall. None of these really constitute much of a journey for me. In virtually every case, visiting Multnomah Falls is all about the destination rather than the journey.
The view from the top of Mulnomah Falls. Visible are the observation area and parking lots.
However, in most every other case, getting to certain waterfalls involves a more robust journey with climbs, dips, and all sorts of meandering forest paths Along the way, you may be treated to some babbling creaks and may have to cross over some sort of bridge, either manmade or natural. Oftentimes, the hikes take several hours across many miles. You’ll probably lose your breath from the exercise and will almost certainly work up a good sweat. But, you’ll be breathing in the freshest air and be treated to nature’s uninterrupted soundtrack.
As you get close to the waterfall, you’ll begin to hear that unmistakable rumble of massive amounts of water crashing down. And finally, there is that unbridled joy when you finally lay eyes on the waterfall. It’s hard to describe that elation. As part of my routine, I almost always allow myself a good 10-15 minutes without my camera to simply take it all in and appreciate being able to enjoy this magnificent force of nature.
And then, with camera in hand, I’m off to work.
Interested in photographing waterfalls?
Let me know if you love photographing waterfalls as much as I do in the comments below. Is there anything that you're hoping to learn about it? Anything that you can improve on? I want to know!