Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Freezing Water

When shooting a waterfall, photographer Jim Richardson says, you can take the clichéd route or try for something different.

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Perhaps unlocking one creative door opens another.

Somehow that’s how I felt dashing back to the Zodiacs to leave Thistle Fjord in Iceland, flush with confidence from my photographic encounter with the bird wing. If I could break through that creative barrier, what other challenges would succumb to me?

Then I remembered the cascading waterfall near our landing site. Nothing huge, just crystal clear waters sweeping past the ancient farm and dancing down over the rocks to the sea. With a couple of minutes to spare, perhaps I could pull off one more image.

First, a bit of photographic background. Waterfall pictures are moving perilously close to being clichés. I say "close" because I doubt we humans will ever lose our fascination with the delights of cascading water plunging dramatically from on high. But ... the techniques used to capture waterfall pictures have become standard fare. The most common current rage is to use a long, very slow shutter speed to turn the water into silky, silvery curtains of liquid smoothness. And lovely pictures they are. It's just that the style has been done over and over by countless photographers. Me, too—guilty as charged.

The method is simple, even if accomplishing it takes a bit of gear. You simply use a slow shutter speed, usually a half a second or longer, maybe up to as long as 30 seconds. The water in motion blurs to become as smooth as glass. The trick is getting that long shutter speed in broad daylight. You can crank the f-stop all the way down, use the lowest ISO your camera can manage, and still not get there. This is where you need to have a good, strong neutral density (ND) filter, which will cut out enough light to make the long exposure time possible. (Oh, and it should go without saying, you’ll need your tripod or a very conveniently placed rock to set your camera on.)

Well, I didn’t have either an ND filter or my tripod along, which—as it turned out—was a very good thing. That meant I couldn’t fall back on my old tricks and would have to try something new.

But there was more than mere necessity at work here. This waterfall, this setting on the coast of Iceland, was all about bracing clarity, energy, and the freshness of the moment. It was not about serenity and peacefulness, which the usual silky-water picture would have implied. Besides not having the gear to take that picture, I wanted something else.

So I went to the opposite extreme, which is often the most refreshing way out of a creative trap. I decided to try totally freezing the water with a very high shutter speed. In this case that was 1/2500 of a second, which turned the sparkling water into crystallized glass, full of dazzling shapes and totally unexpected textures. My eye could see nothing of this. It was the act of photography that revealed the possibilities.

So I kept exploring the nuances, moving closer to the side of the waterfall, able to get within mere inches of the water (without drowning my Nikon D3), seeing how getting lower put the glasslike water up against the azure sky. Held still in space, the water suggested something I knew was impossible: transparent lava.

In the end the image seemed more appropriate to this starkly beautiful land, so raw and new, so of the moment. In the middle of all this my faithful fedora blew off into the stream and up into the pool above me. Then it came swirling back by, where I could grab it, now sopping wet, but a good omen of luck within my reach.