Upper Aysgarth Falls, Wensleydale, Yorkshire Dales

Photographing Water in the Landscape – Rivers and Waterfalls

Upper Aysgarth Falls in Wensleydale Yorkshire Dales England

Moving water has to be one of my favourite landscape subjects, so I consider myself very lucky to live so close to the Yorkshire Dales with its numerous rivers and waterfalls. And possibly the greatest thing about shooting moving water is that it works best under diffused or flat lighting, so if I find myself out in the hills and the clouds roll in turning the sky to a featureless mid-tone grey, then I know exactly what to do. Head for water! On one such occasion recently I decided to have a look at Cotter Force in Wensleydale, which I had not been to before. When I got there I wondered how it had passed me by, being just a short walk on a well-maintained path from the main road to the west of Hawes, and incredibly pretty! Cotterdale Back tumbles over two main cascades, made up of numerous smaller steps, providing lots of interest, but below the waterfall the beck is a bit flat and featureless, so rather than looking for nice rocks in the foreground for a lead-in to the falls I selected a long lens to concentrate on the falls themselves. I felt that the overall view of both parts of the falls looked a bit lop-sided, so I zoomed in closer and picked out a letterbox crop of the lower cascade and also a vertical composition using the upper cascade and just part of the lower which had a bit more impact. I experimented with a variety of shutter speeds to get the blurring effect in the water that I was looking for. I prefer a fairly slow speed to give smoother lines in the falls, whilst still preserving some detail in the water, as I find the effect of using a fast shutter speed rather jagged and unnatural looking. Obviously the best shutter speed for this effect will depend on the velocity of the water being photographed, but as a rule of thumb I normally go for somewhere between 1/8th and 8 seconds, so a sturdy tripod is essential. On this occasion 1/8th didn’t seem quite slow enough, but exposures from 1/2 second down to 2 seconds seemed to work quite nicely.

Lower Aysgarth Falls in Wensleydale

Aysgarth Falls, also in Wensleydale, provides even more opportunities for getting in close to the water, where the River Ure descends a multitude of cascades amongst large flat rocks (if the river level is low enough) which make an excellent base for the tripod legs. When producing this kind of image it’s quite a good idea to make sure that your DSLR’s sensor is as clean as possible – dust spots show up very nicely against a bright waterfall and can be a pain to remove in Photoshop, as the soft vertical lines of the moving water tend to confuse the healing brush so it’s necessary to resort to carefully cloning out each one! I always shoot raw files and so tend not to worry too much about white balance out in the field, leaving the camera set to auto white balance, as I know I can adjust it at the raw extract stage later if it’s a problem. However, white balance is worth thinking about when shooting in these conditions, especially if you’re shooting JPEGs only. At Cotter Force, the daylight setting produced an acceptable result – a little too cool, perhaps, but near enough. The cloudy setting, however, produced a result that was far too warm, with the water looking rather muddy – not what I was expecting at all! Clearly the overcast conditions were nearer to daylight balance than I had thought – so it’s best to take extra care with this, or stick to raw files if you can.

Get Your Feet Wet!

Very often the best view of a waterfall can be had from in the middle of the stream below it, particularly where there is a nice rocky riverbed with lots of interesting features to use as foreground.  If you’re lucky you may be able to hop from rock to rock and get a good central viewpoint without going for a paddle, but it can be useful to have a pair of wellies in the car just in case!

Related Workshops

If you’d like to explore river and waterfall photography a bit further then  why not join Mark and Sam on a Natural Light Workshops Aysgarth Tour?  The River Ure around Aysgarth Falls provides many different moving water subjects with a variety of cascades and rapids and we finish off the day at the spectacular West Burton Waterfall.  Our Swaledale Weekend Workshop also explores the beautiful waterfalls around Keld in Upper Swaledale.

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