Waterfalls in State Parks in the Northeast and How I Shoot Them

For this shot of Resica Falls, I used an ND filter to block some of the light and allow me to use a slower shutter speed. 1/4 sec. f/3.5 18mm ISO 100.
For this shot of Resica Falls, I used an ND filter to block some of the light and allow me to use a slower shutter speed. 1/4 sec. f/3.5 18mm ISO 100.

Story & Photos by Sastry Karra

Photographing waterfalls is one of the joys many nature photographers have in common. As a hobbyist, I count myself among those who are passionate about waterfall photography. Even though for some people a waterfall is a waterfall, photographers see many different compositions in even the smallest falls.

When I owned an HP Photosmart 8MP digital camera, I was not able to adjust the shutter speed to fit my needs. With advances in camera technology, and using a better camera (a D3400), I could select a shutter speed from 30 secs to 1/4000 of a second. After replacing that camera with a D7100, I can go all the way up to 1/8000—a speed I’m happy to have when shooting sports and other action images.

I have seen many waterfall images by various photographers posted in Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, using shutter speeds from thousandths of seconds to freeze motion, to several seconds to completely blur the water. Generally speaking, using a shutter speed between 1/5 and 1/13 at ISO 100 is my choice for the best range of settings to get that lovely, cottony waterfall look with detail—slow enough to look silky but fast enough to preserve some texture. A cloudy day is ideal for shooting waterfalls but, if the sun is falling directly on the falls, I’ll use a neutral density filter. Of course, perfect conditions don’t always exist.  For me, shutter speed and aperture are most important and I’ll let AUTO ISO take care of the rest, within limits.

For most of my pictures, I shoot wide, with my AF-P NIKKOR 18-55mm DX VR-1, 1:3.5 to5.6G kit lens. I want to capture the whole falls, but I also look to zoom in to find interesting details, using my AF-S NIKKOR 55-300MM DX VR-1 1:4.5 to 5.6G ED lens.

I recently visited some of the waterfalls relatively close to my hometown in New Jersey, and had an opportunity to take some of photos and hone my skills. These are all located in state parks, making access easy for anyone, though some parks charge an entrance fee. For someone living in or visiting the MidAtlantic region, these are worth checking out.  They are some of my favorite places.

The Upper Falls at Cascade Falls, Patapsco Valley State Park, MD. Nikon D7100, using 1/5 sec. f/5 40mm & ISO 360.
The Upper Falls at Cascade Falls, Patapsco Valley State Park, MD. Nikon D7100, using 1/5 sec. f/5 40mm & ISO 360.

Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland

Last week, after few rainy days, I got an opportunity to visit Cascade Falls in Patapsco Valley State Park, just outside the Baltimore Beltway . The falls were not THAT great, as the amount of water falling was minimal but, with the colorful autumn leaves scattered around, the surroundings made it more attractive. [Editor’s Note:  Cascade Falls, like many waterfalls in the Northeast, tends to have much greater flow in the spring.] There are an upper and lower falls, both up a relatively short trail from a parking area.

Blackwater Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/40 sec. f/3.5 18mm & ISO110.  At 1/40 second, the water isn’t frozen, nor is it silky smooth.  Instead, it shows movement and power. It’s all about capturing what you’re feeling and this is a powerful waterfall.
Blackwater Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/40 sec. f/3.5 18mm & ISO110. At 1/40 second, the water isn’t frozen, nor is it silky smooth. Instead, it shows movement and power. It’s all about capturing what you’re feeling and this is a powerful waterfall.

Two West Virginia State Parks

Blackwater Falls is the more famous, with plenty of magazine cover-quality images on Instagram and Flickr, but don’t overlook Valley Falls State Park.  This lesser-known park contains a set of four “picturesque falls,” as the park’s website describes them, along with a half-mile series of cascades where you might get a kayaker adding color and interest to your shots.

Valley Falls State Park- Cascade Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/40 sec. f/5.6 55mm & ISO 100. I checked the flow of the water and the amount of light on the falls.  In this case, the speed and brightness of the water made me go with a faster shutter speed than normal to get the effect I wanted.
Valley Falls State Park- Cascade Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/40 sec. f/5.6 55mm & ISO 100. I checked the flow of the water and the amount of light on the falls. In this case, the speed and brightness of the water made me go with a faster shutter speed than normal to get the effect I wanted.

Pennsylvania State Parks and a National Park

Hickory Run and the nearby Lehigh Gorge State Parks offer a lot of opportunities for interesting hikes and photos.  I was interested in Hawk Falls, a 25 foot waterfall on Hawk Run. The falls are a relatively easy walk from the trailhead parking area, but can be a very popular destination on weekends and holidays!

Hawk Falls at Hickory Run State Park using Nikon D3400, 1/5 sec. f/5.6 55mm & ISO 100.  At 1/5 second, you get the silky, cottony look. Having some light hitting your waterfall isn’t a deal breaker so long the contrast isn’t too great and you have a polarizer to cut any glare. Alternately, a split ND filter could even out the light.
Hawk Falls at Hickory Run State Park using Nikon D3400, 1/5 sec. f/5.6 55mm & ISO 100. At 1/5 second, you get the silky, cottony look. Having some light hitting your waterfall isn’t a deal breaker so long the contrast isn’t too great and you have a polarizer to cut any glare. Alternately, a split ND filter could even out the light.

On a trip to Pocono Mountains in Eastern Pennsylvania last week, I got a chance to visit three waterfalls: Dingmans, Ressica & Raymonds. 

Dingmans Falls drops about 130 feet in total as Dingman Creek flows down to the Delaware River.  The falls is easily reached through a half-mile boardwalk that begins at the Dingmans Falls Visitor Center.

This is the bottom of the Dingman Falls, shot at 1/30 sec. f/5.6 52mm ISO 8063.
This is the bottom of the Dingman Falls, shot at 1/30 sec. f/5.6 52mm ISO 8063.

Resica Falls (see the photo at beginning of this article), also in the Poconos, is in the Resica Falls Scout Reservation, but visitors are allowed in to the falls, so long as they stay within the roped-off areas.  Resica Falls is quite broad, about 25 or 30 feet tall and sometimes splits into three or more sections.

Two Connecticut State Parks

Chapman Falls drops about 60 feet in a series of steps punctuated by circular potholes.  Located in Devil’s Hopyard State Park, between New London and Hartford, the falls are a short walk from a parking area.

Chapman Falls.  Nikon D3400, 1/8 sec. f/25 31mm & ISO 12800. At ISOs like 12800 and 25600, noise is a problem.  The scene was dark and required tradeoffs.
Chapman Falls. Nikon D3400, 1/8 sec. f/25 31mm & ISO 12800. At ISOs like 12800 and 25600, noise is a problem. The scene was dark and required tradeoffs.

Not far away is Wadsworth Falls State Park, which contains an Wadsworth Big Falls (50 feet wide, 30 foot drop) and Wadsworth Little Falls (40 foot drop).  Big Falls is accessible via a short walk from a parking area.  The Little Falls take a bit more effort hiking along a trail.

Front view of Wadsworth Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/13 sec. f/22 18mm & ISO 10000.  Without an ND filter, a slow shutter speed and big depth of field result in high ISO.
Front view of Wadsworth Falls using Nikon D3400, 1/13 sec. f/22 18mm & ISO 10000. Without an ND filter, a slow shutter speed and big depth of field result in high ISO.

Waterfalls challenge a photographer’s technical and creative skills.  Overall, my goal is to keep ISO in AUTO mode and make sure the shutter speed is between 1/5 and 1/13, using a ND filter, if necessary. With these settings, I am successful most of the time in capturing the image I want. This works for me.  Your mileage may vary. If you’re curious about why I like ISO AUTO, stay tuned for a more detailed explanation in a future article.

Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in NJ since 2004.

During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on instagram at #sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.