Chasing Waterfalls with Long Exposure Photography
A Cross-Country Road Trip and Photo Expedition
With camera in hand, I was out the door and leaving California on a cross-country road trip to the east coast, in particular, Rhode Island and environs where I have family and friends I wanted to visit.
Actually, when I left I had more than just my camera in hand. I mean, come on… it was an all the way across the country road trip. I needed more than just my camera. My car was packed with everything I could need, would need, might need, might not need, and more than I will ever need. I’m a “just-in-case” type of person, and needless to say, I over packed everything from clothes to food, emergency supplies, and camera gear. Especially the camera gear. I always end up bringing almost everything in my entire photography kit. And it usually fills three or more large camera bags – not to mention a bag or two or three for tripods, stands, lights, et al.
Of course, once I start shooting I seldom even touch any of the excess gear I lugged along. I almost always end up just using the same camera with the same lens, and every now and then, I’ll use a tripod. The other gear is just used to build up my muscles carrying it in and out of motels each and every night.
I think that I’m forgetting to mention something. Oh, yes. My trusty travel companion. My beautiful and sweet ten year old Silver Lab – named Silver. With her food, water, toys, collars, leashes, brushes, booties, blankets, and bed, she takes up the majority of the back seat. But I’m not complaining, she’s a great travel buddy. She sleeps a lot, doesn’t complain much, doesn’t care what music I play, and she doesn’t care how many times I have to stop to pee. She usually has to as well. With Silver and everything else finally loaded in the car we hit the road.
The plan was to quickly drive out of congested California and then leisurely drive through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas – stopping along the way to see the sights and take beautiful landscape photos of the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring scenery.
But that didn’t happen.
Once I got in the car, hit the gas, and drove for hours on end I really didn’t have the energy, inclination, or motivation to stop, unload camera gear, clean it, and carry it out to some scenic roadside overlook just so I could shoot the same photos that I’ve already shot on every previous trip. Though the scenery was beautiful, I felt uninspired.
After almost 1500 miles and two nights in low-budget motels Silver and I finally made it to the Dallas / Fort Worth area where we stayed a week visiting friends. And not one photo did I take. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even unpack any of my camera equipment. I didn’t even think about it.
Truth be told, I did think about it once or twice. But with the overabundant amount of excessive gear and accessories that I’d brought, I was… Well, let’s just say that I was overwhelmed at the thought of disturbing the well packed camera kit. Either that or I was just too lazy. I told myself it was a little bit of both, but in reality, it was because I still hadn’t felt one single iota of a creative spark.
Time had moved quickly and it was once again time to continue our drive to the east coast. But this this leg of the journey would be different. To make sure that I wasn’t going to be discombobulated by all the gear, I made it easy for myself and packed a daypack with just the camera equipment that I actually used and needed. Camera, lens, batteries, filters, doubles of everything, etc., etc... NO! Take all the other crap out. Just pack the first four items. Okay, done!
With the daypack ready to go and resting within an arm’s length on the passenger seat, Silver and I drove straight to my home state of Rhode Island – only stopping for gas, food, and sleep. And once again, not a single photo taken along the way.
Another week had passed before I realized that I had driven all the way across the country and I wasn’t doing what I’d set out to do – and that was to take beautiful nature shots. The last time I was in Rhode Island I had spent the entire time taking photos of the ocean, sunsets, tranquil bays, and boats. The time before that was architecture – new buildings and old.
I wanted to photograph something different. But what? One style of photography that I’ve always been fascinated with was “long exposure.” Clouds, waves, water. You know… where it gets that beautiful smooth look of movement.
I started to feel a flicker of motivation. But what could I shoot?
Unknown to most people, myself included, Rhode Island and environs (Massachusetts) has a great number of waterfalls tucked away in beautiful wilderness areas. How is that possible? Rhode Island is small. I mean literally, it’s 40 miles wide by 60 miles long. But unbelievably it has so much nature packed into it that you continually ask yourself if you’ve stepped into some type of alternative space/time reality, continuum thingamajiggy, or something.
Since it was autumn and the leaves were turning, I decided to take advantage of the bountiful beauty of the area and photograph a few of the waterfalls that Rhode Island has to offer. And I was going to shoot them “long exposure” to get that smooth look that I’ve always wanted to capture.
I got up early the next morning, Googled the local waterfalls, and planed out the rest of my trip. I’d do a big circle around the tiny state and hit at least three to four waterfalls a day. Well, that was the enthusiastic plan. Things happen… oversleeping, spending quality time with family, going out to breakfast, reminiscing with my sister, taking my ageing dad to the market, and all the other wonderful aspects of a vacation.
By the time I finished with family time, I only made it to one waterfall the first day, and it wasn’t in Rhode Island, but close enough. It was just past the state line in Massachusetts on the Blackstone River in an area called the Blackstone Gorge. The waterfall is so close to the border of Rhode Island that from where I took the photo, I was probably physically standing in Rhode Island. Or maybe I was straddling the border with one foot in each state. I’m not sure. All I know is that it was a gorgeous location to shoot.
As it stands though, it’s not a natural waterfall, but a man-made dam. But as far as I’m concerned a waterfall is a waterfall, and it was beautiful, so I decided to capture it in all its long exposure glory.
I’m a professional photographer and as I’ve already stated, I have a lot of equipment that I schlepp around, but I don’t have the latest or greatest. I think Canon now has something like the 5D Mark One Billion or some such number. But me, I’m still using the first Canon 5D that came out. And that’s quite okay. It’s a great camera – no reason to upgrade. Even though the geek part of me would love to.
In my daypack I had my Canon 5D and a nice 24-70mm Canon lens. Since I was planning to shoot long exposure I also packed a remote shutter release and a couple cheap-o ND filters. That’s it. Oh, and I also had my tripod – there was no way I could hand-hold a long timed exposure.
FYI… ND stands for neutral density and it’s a filter that basically reduces the amount of light entering a lens. The darker the filter, the more light it blocks. And the more light it blocks, the longer the exposure can be.
Silver and my sister accompanied me on the outing and after we arrived at the falls, I scouted the area and found a nice spot with the composition that I thought would make the perfect shot. I started setting up my gear and… Well, let me explain. I’m not a technical photographer. I don’t pay a lot of attention to all the numbers of shutter speeds, f-stops, ISOs, etc. If you asked me what I used on a particular shot, I probably couldn’t tell you. Yes, I know all the basic settings and I do use them. But, I mainly just go with what looks and feels right at the time. Most people who see my work, say that I have a really good “eye” and that’s what I rely on to take a good photo instead of all the technical mumbo-jumbo.
I finished setting up my camera, framing and focusing the shot. I’ve never done much with long exposures before so it was going to be a lot of experimenting, guess work, and yes – some technical gobbledygook. I knew that I had to stop the shutter down – way down. So I took a guess and set it to f/13. It sounded like a good number to start with. Next would be the exposure time. I had no clue, so again I guessed and set it to 20 seconds. Then came attaching an ND filter. I didn’t have much experience with them and didn’t know which one to use. So I just picked the darkest one that I could barely see through and screwed in onto the end of the lens.
I was set. I was ready. And for the very first time on the trip, I pressed the shutter button. It clicked, and I waited. It was probably the longest 20 seconds of my photography career. The shutter finally snapped shut, and I looked at the photo.
WOW! Just wow!
Unbelievable. Success on the very first shot. The photo was beautiful. It was everything I had envisioned. It almost made me cry.
At that point I could’ve packed up and left. But of course, I’m a perfectionist and I spent the next couple of hours trying to get a better shot using different angles, f-stops, exposure times, etc. But the first shot was still the best and I never improved on it.
With a satisfied smile and very proud-of-myself feeling, I finally called it a day. We drove back to my family’s house and I immediately uploaded the image to Photoshop. It didn’t need much work. A little dodging, burning, some other minor adjustments, and that was it.
One great shot was all it took. I felt inspired. Over the next week or so I visited and shot many beautiful waterfalls – capturing some stunning long exposure images. But in my opinion, not one was as good as the very first click.
About the author
Lon Casler Bixby is a published author: Fiction, Poetry, Humor, & Comic Books. He's also an award-winning photographer whose work has been featured in magazines, art & coffee table books, & in Art Galleries throughout the world.