Cloudy Days and Waterfalls

Last week, Steven and I ventured into Owen County to visit at least two locations. Our first planned stop was McCormick’s Creek State Park. We had a few different possibilities for the second location that was dependent on the weather conditions. Earlier in the week, we had approximately two inches of rain at home, but that amount could vary considerable where we were headed. There was a lot of water flowing in the streams and rivers. We decided to photograph waterfalls and streams as the alternatives would involve some hazardous hiking on slippery ridges.

The Right Weather

The weather forecast for the day was cloudy. When I retrieved the morning paper, I began to worry as it was quite cloudy and dark. As time passed, there was more light, but a gray cloud cover (cloudy bright) held steady. This type of weather is great for photographing waterfalls as you avoid the strong highlights created by direct sunlight.

Another advantage of a cloudy sky is a slower shutter speed. The slower shutter speed will cause the water flow to blur resulting in smooth patterns. I used a 1.8 and 3-stop neutral density (ND) filter to blur the water. You can purchase multiple grades of filters or a single variable neutral density filter. Different photographers have different impressions of the single versus variable filters. I have seen great photos made with each.

Slow Shutter Speeds

My first shots were taken downstream of the falls at McCormick’s Creek State Park. I used a 1.8 ND filter for these shots. The sky was very cloudy and I was in canyon that limited the light. You can see from the following photo how the slower shutter speed blurred the flow of water. The muddy water begins to look more like a caramel or coffee with cream added! The photography was so exciting; I never gave thought to running to Starbucks for tea!

Rapids on McCormicks Creek McCormicks Creek State Park Owen Coun

Shooting upstream generally produces a better image than shooting downstream. This shot blurred the water enough to create an interesting pattern and show the water flow around the rocks.

McCormicks Creek McCormicks Creek State Park Owen County IN

I was somewhat disappointed that the water was so high and fast moving as it kept me from wading out so that I could shoot the waterfall from below. My waders were left at home, but I doubt I would have wanted to venture out into the water if I had taken them. I had to “settle” for a shot on the viewing deck looking down at the falls.

Photographing a Waterfall: Perspective Counts

After viewing the larger image on my computer, I am quite glad I took the time to make this shot. Again, the slow shutter speed blurred the water and made for some interesting patterns. I made a similar shot last fall with a lot less water and it was less impressive.

McCormicks Creek Falls McCormicks Creek State Park Owen County I

Changing the Mood

The next shot was made at the upper falls at Cataract SRA. This shot of part of the upper falls was done without a neutral density filter. The shutter speed was 1/500th of a second. The speed was fast enough to capture the individual drops of water. This “stop action” shot shows a different mood than the shots with a neutral density filter. The neutral density filter allowed me to use a shutter speed that would blur the water flow.

A Small Fall at the Upper Cataract Falls Catarct SRA Own County

I would suggest shooting with and without a neutral density filter and see which image you like best for the setting. A word of caution as it is often difficult to see the image through the view finder and focus when using a neutral density filter. Take a shot and check the result on your screen before deciding you have the best image.

When shooting waterfalls or multiple drops of a waterfall as the case at the upper falls, you can find interesting shots by focusing on small areas. This shot of one part of the upper falls shows the speed and force of the flowing water. I used a 3-stop ND filter to capture this photo.

Upper Cataract Water Fall Cataract SRA Owen County IN4

May the Sun Not be With You

As we were nearing lunch time, the clouds started to break and we could see blue sky. However, the blue sky meant strong sunlight and blown out highlights. This first shot of the lower falls at Cataract SRA was shot under a heavy cloud cover with a 3-stop ND filter. The shutter speed of 1/3 of a second was enough to blur the water.

Lower Cataract Falls II Owen County IN

After taking the image, I decided to change lenses. I needed to go to my car, change lenses, and return. I also changed my location. During my short walk, the weather changed dramatically. The clouds broke and you could see some sunlight. I shot this next photo of the same falls with my 3-stop ND filter. With more light on the falls, my shutter speed increased to 1/60th of a second. While there is a little blurring of the water, the shutter speed did not produce the smooth blur of the previous photo. The mood of the image is also affected by how I captured the water.

Lower Cataract Falls Owen County IN

Photographing waterfalls is fun and challenging. You need the right kind of light and a neutral density filter. Cloudy skies provide some of the best light. As you plan your trip, watch the weather forecast and select a cloudy day. I always keep a list of places to shoot and then plan my trip based on the weather forecast from multiple websites.

Thinking Ahead

When we were photographing Cataract SRA, we were shooting from the car. That is, we left our equipment in the car and walked the 30 to 100 yards to most of the falls. I had my trouser pockets stuffed with various filters as I walked to the falls. While it was hot, I think I would have preferred a photo vest with various pockets to hold my equipment. Someday, I will remember to add my vest to my gear!

Steven’s post has a more detailed description of our trip.

Gary R. Morrison is landscape photographer who enjoys photographing the beauty of southern Indiana. He searches for places far and near and known and unknown to most. Gary is a partner in Indiana Nature Photography.