By David Akoubian
I have always found solace in rivers and waterfalls. When I need to relax, listening to the sounds of water can be very calming. I grew up fishing and photographing the streams and rivers of North Georgia, and have continued to do so all my life. These days I photograph more than I fish, but the enjoyment is still as great.
When I set out to photograph rivers and waterfalls, I try to choose an overcast day to lessen the contrast in the scenes, and to expand my shooting hours. Because I don’t always know what my subjects will be, such as a large waterfall or detailed cascades, I pack both wide-angle and short telephoto lenses. My preferred lens for waterfalls is somewhere in the 17mm to 24mm range. For more detailed images, 50mm to 210mm usually gets the job done.
I always bring a sturdy tripod, since many of my exposures are one second or longer. My tripod is also waterproof, so I can set up in the water. Other essentials for me are circular polarizers and neutral density filters. Circular polarizers reduce the glare and increase the saturation of any foliage in the frame. Neutral density filters simply reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, thereby allowing me to use longer exposures. I like slow exposures for rivers and waterfalls, as they provide a silkier, softer look to moving water, and better capture the mood I feel when I visit a river. To avoid camera movement during long exposures, I recommend using a cable release, or at the very least, utilize the self-timer or shutter-delay capability of your camera.
For many of the rivers that I have visited previously, I tend to repeat compositions, which is a theme I have followed for many years. To achieve a different look to a familiar scene, I like to revisit places in every season. I live in a wide-angle world when I compose landscape images. By this, I mean I find a foreground object and then use the river as a leading line to either carry the viewer’s eye up the river or to a waterfall. That foreground subject can be almost anything — a log, a rock, or even a small plant. It doesn’t need to be strong enough to carry the image by itself, but sufficient to grab the viewer’s attention and let the leading lines of the river do the rest.
My goal is to control the viewer’s attention from the second they see the image until they have arrived at the primary subject. That’s another reason for slow exposures; the air bubbles in the water become lines at about 1/15th of a second or slower, and grow even more pronounced with longer exposures. One second is my ideal shutter speed for most situations, but when necessary, I will throw on the neutral density filter to drag it out to 8, 15, 30 seconds or longer if I need to connect lines. I always use the circular polarizer turned to its maximum effect unless there is light reflecting on the water; then I simply turn it until it captures the beautiful reflections of light.
No matter why you visit rivers and waterfalls, photographing them can help share a part of yourself with your audience, and that’s a connection worth making. In this time of social distancing, connecting with others who share or appreciate your vision is more important than ever. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep creating images.