waterfall

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park (Canada)

There is some confusing information out there regarding Bear Creek Falls in Glacier National Park of Canada. When I was doing research for my recent trip to British Columbia's rocky mountains, I came across websites that suggested that you can't get to the trail head when driving from the north at all. That's not exactly true. You can, but due to construction and high traffic within Glacier NP during my visit, it was difficult to tell where the pull off for the trailhead was. My wife saw it as we drove past (headed south along Trans Canada Highway West from the park entrance), and we simply turned around at the next safe place. There's nothing keeping you from turning left as long as you don't miss it. The sites I visited said there is no left turning lane for the trailhead, but there is no right turning lane either if you're coming from the other direction. The sign is only visible when coming from the south (Trans Canada Highway East). Just be very aware of traffic - I've never seen people drive so unnecessarily fast in all of Canada as they do down the Trans Canada Highway through Glacier NP. 

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Now that you've found it, simply park in the lot and head down the relatively short and easy downhill trail through damp mossy woods to Connaught Creek. The trailhead is obvious and the trail itself is well-maintained all the way. The main waterfall cannot be missed. It's well worth the 1.7 km round trip hike. Sturdy waterproof footwear is a must for exploring this area, especially in autumn. The waterfall cascades beautifully and powerfully down mossy boulders framed by lush green spruce, firs, and ferns. From about 30-40 feet up, blue waters pool into the large creek below in a few stepped ledges high above the trail. 

Glacier National Park of Canada is a stunning environment and a great option if you're weary of the huge crowds in Banff and Jasper. We only encountered two other couples on our Bear Creek Falls hike, and it's one of the most popular spots in the park. As always, check the conditions on the Parks Canada site before venturing out.

Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part I, Jasper National Park

Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I'm still very much in the process of getting settled in since the move from North Carolina to Alberta earlier this month, but I've made sure to spend a little time out west in the Canadian Rockies. So far I've visited Jasper National Park twice; once for an evening with my wife and our dog and once alone while car camping at Honeymoon Lake. The scenery is breathtaking, and opportunities for both wildlife and landscape photography are abundant.

The Icefields Parkway winds and dips through the craggy rocky mountains mostly following the course of the Athabasca River all the way to Banff NP in the south. I have yet to make it to Banff, but it won't be long until I do. Jasper NP is located just over 3 hours west of Edmonton, AB via the Yellowhead Highway (16 West). Exit onto Alberta Highway 93 headed south at the town of Jasper to drive the Icefields Parkway, which is a 268 kilometer drive through stunning mountain vistas peppered with blue lakes and dense spruce forests. It can also be accessed from Banff, AB simply by driving north. 

This year (2017) Canadian National Parks are free admission in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday. This does not include fees for overnight stays. There are various types of campsites available ranging from backcountry to fully serviced RV camping and even rental cabins. Some campsites can be booked online, but most front country sites are first come, first serve and you simply pay at the campground when you arrive. For more info about fees, regulations, and safety information, visit the Canada Parks website

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

After my brief initial visit to Jasper NP (and a handful of decent images in the bag) I had to return as soon I could for a longer stay. As a photographer, it's hard to stay away with such amazing wilderness a short distance from my home. I decided to drive up on the longest day of the year, shoot sunset at Athabasca Falls, camp in my Jeep at beautiful Honeymoon Lake, and photograph sunrise at the lake shore a few steps from my campsite. Of course, all plans for photography in nature are at the mercy of the weather. Though the forecast was clear to partly cloudy, I experienced lots of wind and intermittent rain over the course of my two day stay. 

Iconic Waterfalls & Wildlife

After securing my campsite at Honeymoon Lake, I decided to start my photographic journey a few kilometers south of there and work my way back up to the town of Jasper the next morning. My first stop was Sunwapta Falls, a must when traveling through Jasper NP. It's an iconic waterfall along the Athabasca River. Fed by glacial runoff, the waters practically glow iridescent blue. An island of tall spruce sits in the center of the river and the waters rush around it soon falling several meters into a gorge.

Getting this image was not easy. Because admission is free, Japser was particularly crowded even though it was Wednesday. The wooden bridge that crosses the gorge in front of Sunwapta Falls vibrated as tourists came and went in large family groups. This made getting a sharp photo with a slow shutter speed impossible. The view from there isn't actually that great anyway. To protect visitors from falling to their death, there is an ugly chain link fence that follows along the cliff's edge in both directions. Achieving a composition that does not include this obstruction is difficult. I walked along the fence until I found the end of it and what do know!? A photographer's path! I would not advise people to climb the fences or go to the edge of the cliff. It's dangerous for sure. Because there was no barricade or sign warning otherwise, I decided to follow the narrow footpath through dense forest until I arrived near enough to the edge that I had an unobstructed view of the waterfall, but wasn't so close that it was risky. Light rain had been falling, but the clouds cleared a bit as I was approaching the falls. The sun came out and a mysterious haze formed over the mountains providing the scene with a bit more visual interest. I set up my gear, using a polarizer, 6-stop ND, and 3 stop ND grad, and took a few shots. Happy with the results, I moved on up the Icefields Parkway. 

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Driving north I spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear eating dandelions by the road. I slowly pulled over close enough to use my 70-200mm, but not so close that the bear even glanced up at me. I waited a moment for the bear to step out into the open- it was moving casually toward me as calm as can be- but just as it did, several cars pulled up out of nowhere in front of me. Some less than intelligent lifeforms popped out of their vehicles to snap pics with their phones only a few meters away from the large bear. The bear immediately became agitated and lumbered off into the woods. I was agitated to say the least. Little angers me more than having a potential shot ruined by irresponsible and disrespectful tourists. Luckily, I had already photographed this same bear a few days before on my first trip to Jasper. 

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After my less than ideal bear encounter, I continued on to Athabasca Falls, another iconic waterfall along the Icefields Parkway. It's a bit easier to photograph and has fewer obstructions than Sunwapta Falls. The blue waters plunge into a deep gorge just like Sunwapta, but the river is wider and there is a much better view of the mountains. I arrived an hour before sunset in hopes of getting vivid dramatic color over the mountain; it was raining, of course. A few other photographers and I waited patiently for the clouds to part. For a brief moment, they did. At first, the sun lit only the strip of trees below the mountain, a beautiful scene, but less than ideal for a picture as the rest of the frame was very dark in contrast. A few more minutes of waiting and the light finally made it up the mountain. I was hoping the entire mountain from base to peak would be golden, but the clouds wouldn't allow it. I had to settle for the peak. The light soon faded, and instead of dramatic color, the scene turned dark again as the light was snuffed out by dark rain clouds. I waited in the car nearby for conditions to change, but they didn't improve. I watched a pine marten fiddle about at the forest edge for a moment, then drove back to my campsite in hopes that I would be able to capture an epic sunrise in the early morning. 

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After 4 hours of sleep, I woke before sunrise to light drizzle tapping the glass on the sunroof. I stepped out and walked over to the bank of Honeymoon Lake to find that low hanging clouds were completely blocking the mountains. No views at all! A little discouraged, I prepared my equipment and camera settings for potential wildlife shooting as I made my way north and out of the park. I didn't have to drive far. Only 5 minutes from the entrance to the Honeymoon Lake campground stood two bull elk grazing beside the road. I drove past several hundred feet, made a u-turn, then parked near enough to photograph them, but not so close as to bother them. It was around 5 am and barely bright enough to take pictures. I waited as they peacefully grazed, occasionally looking up at me to make sure I was up to no funny business. It gradually became brighter, and I shot away using my 70-200 2.8 and 1.7x teleconverter. This time no tourists upset the encounter. No one but me was on the road that morning. Just me and two impressive creatures of the northwest. 

Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I had a good half hour with the elk before they faded off into the dark woods. Feeling much better about the morning, I headed north toward home, stopping once for one last image of tall spruce trees leaning over the Athabasca River with Pyramid Mountain in the foggy background. Now satisfied with the experience, I headed back to Edmonton to real food, a warm shower, and comfy bed. I will not be away from Jasper National Park for long.

Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

 

Travel Resources:

5 Tips for Waterfall Photography

Öxarárfoss ("Axe Falls"), Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G, Nisi V5 Polarizer, Lee 0.9 Graduated ND filter,    Sirui   T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

Öxarárfoss ("Axe Falls"), Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G, Nisi V5 Polarizer, Lee 0.9 Graduated ND filter, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

If you've browsed through my portfolios, you've probably noticed that waterfalls are a consistent subject for my photography. I live near dozens of them. Some are well-known and famous with photographers and naturalists (like Linville Falls pictured below). Some don't even have names and are rarely seen. I visit many of them every season because they never seem to get old to me. If there is nothing else to shoot and you're in a place like the Appalachian Mountains or Iceland where there is lots of water and it's constantly flowing, then you'll always have a subject. I don't mean to say that these wonders of nature are only fall-backs, only that they rarely disappoint, as long as you know how to make the scene in front of you come to life on film (or digital sensor, of course). I've been shooting a lot of waterfalls this summer on my quest to retake (or at least reinterpret) images that I made when I first moved back to North Carolina from D.C. in 2011. I've managed to reconnect with some old friends that I've neglected to visit in the past 5 years, like Linville Falls and Glen Burney Falls. It's been great to catch up. Here are a few tips and tricks that I've learned over the last several years when it comes to waterfall photography.

Tip 1: Use a Sturdy Tripod

I cannot stress this enough! A solid tripod is a landscape photographer's best friend. Do not skimp on this purchase if you are a serious nature photographer. Carbon fiber is best. I use a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 2 with a Manfrotto fluid pan/tilt ballhead on it. This combination works great and has given me several years of use. A good tripod set up eventually pays for itself (if not in funds, then in convenience and sharp images). Mine has been very reliable despite having been dropped several times onto hard granite. I also use a Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head when I need to travel super light. Carbon fiber is lighter and absorbs vibrations better than steel or aluminum. It is also more expensive (though some new manufacturers of carbon fiber tripods are selling them cheaper these days), but to me it's a no-brainer. If you're putting an expensive camera and lens on a cheap tripod, you are nuts. No two ways about it! If you want to get a sharp image at slow shutter speeds and have that smooth velvety look to running water, you need a tripod.

Tip 2: Use a Wide Angle AND a Telephoto Lens

Most people think wide angles when they think of waterfall landscapes. Telephotos are usually an after-thought. Many of my favorite landscape images have been made using a telephoto zoom. When you come to a scene, give it a good look over. Look at the light and the subject and figure out what you want to say about it. Think about its "story" first. Then, choose the right lens for the job. If a wide lens is required to take it all in, make sure to place the elements in the frame so that the composition is simple and lacking distraction. Make sure to have a foreground element to provide a sense of depth and interest. Then switch to a telephoto (focal lengths ranging from about 70mm up) to pick out details, compress the elements, and further simplify the scene.

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    150 Foot Tall Linville Falls, North Carolina. (Nikon D7000, 70-200 f2.8 VR II @ 70mm, Nisi Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

150 Foot Tall Linville Falls, North Carolina. (Nikon D7000, 70-200 f2.8 VR II @ 70mm, Nisi Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

The image of Linville Falls (above) was made using a 70-200mm lens on my cropped sensor D7000 (my full frame camera was at Nikon for a cleaning) at 70mm. The 1.5X crop factor makes the 70mm focal length equivalent to 105mm. This allowed me the ability to isolate the falls and keep the large boulder in the frame while narrowing the distance between them. Notice that the large boulder and the small waterfall in the lower center are about the same size in the wide angle shot (below) as they are in the telephoto image. The 150 foot high fall, however, is much smaller because the wide angle focal length exaggerates the distance between the two. The wide angle shot was taken just a few meters in front of the large boulder, while the telephoto image was made about 15 meters away from it. In my opinion, because the telephoto shot is simpler with fewer elements, it is the stronger image.

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    Linville Falls, North Carolina. Nikon D7000, 18-35G @18mm, Nisi Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

Linville Falls, North Carolina. Nikon D7000, 18-35G @18mm, Nisi Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

Tip 3. Use a Polarizing Filter to Cut Reflections

I think a circular polarizer is the most useful filter for waterfall photography. A neutral density filter will allow you to get slower shutter speeds, but it doesn't do much as far as saturating colors and cutting the reflections from the rocks and water in your image. Because a polarizer is dark, it also helps slow your shutter speed down a bit. I use the Nisi V5 filter system, which comes with a very nice circular polarizer. By rotating the filter, you can change the amount of polarization to suit your needs. Even though polarizers are most effective when the sun is at 90 degrees of the direction your lens is pointing, it will still make highlights and reflections less harsh in any lighting condition. I prefer to shoot waterfalls at shutter speeds of under 1/2 second to get that silky smooth flowing water effect (the longer the exposure, the better). During brighter conditions the polarizer helps me to accomplish this.

Öxarárfoss ("Axe Falls"), Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G, Nisi V5 Polarizer, Lee 0.9 Graduated ND filter,     Sirui     T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

Öxarárfoss ("Axe Falls"), Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G, Nisi V5 Polarizer, Lee 0.9 Graduated ND filter, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

Tip 4: Choose the Right Light and Weather

The best times to shoot waterfalls are early mornings, late evenings, or in foggy and overcast conditions. I prefer to shoot them just after a rain or early in the morning when the rocks and moss are damp and the colors are saturated. The benefits of photographing waterfalls under these conditions are many. First, the sun is low or blocked by clouds altogether so getting slow shutter speed is easy. Second, the reflections on the water and rocks are less severe and are less likely to be "blown out" in your images. Third, the scene is probably not going to be so contrasty that the shadows in your image are "plunged" (or too dark) if you expose for those highlights. Fourth, you're likely to have the place to yourself in dreary weather and especially in the early morning. I very rarely come across another person while photographing even the most popular waterfalls in my region. Even though I prefer these conditions, waterfalls can be photographed during the day and in sunny situations. The trick is to use both a polarizer AND a neutral density filter to even out the exposure and allow the ability for slow shutter speeds.

Skogafoss Waterfall, Iceland. Though this image was made at mid-day, the heavy overcast clouds allowed me to use slower shutter speeds and have no issues with glare or reflections. I used the person in the red coat to show scale. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G,  Sirui     T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

Skogafoss Waterfall, Iceland. Though this image was made at mid-day, the heavy overcast clouds allowed me to use slower shutter speeds and have no issues with glare or reflections. I used the person in the red coat to show scale. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10 Ball Head)

Tip 5: Get Wet

When out shooting waterfalls I often wear water-proof shoes or slip them off in order to go barefoot. Sometimes the best composition isn't on dry land. I have often stood waist deep in rushing water while holding onto my tripod to keep it from being swept away just to get a picture. Be careful. These are slippery conditions and I never get in over my head (so to speak). I make sure that if I slip, I'm not going down a mountain or over a cliff or into a gorge or something. This is another reason a sturdy carbon fiber tripod is necessary. Even with fast moving water pushing against the legs, it is still typically able to absorb the vibrations enough for a sharp image. In order to get the shot below, I was in fast rushing waters up to my thigh with the water line up to the top set of twist locks on my tripod. In order to get the water out, I simply take the the little rubber "feet" off the legs and let it run out. Be sure to have several dry micro-fiber cleaning cloths for your lenses and gear as well; these things tend to get wet when you're in a river.

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    Roaring Creek near the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina. (Nikon D7000, 24mm 2.8D, Hoya Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

Roaring Creek near the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina. (Nikon D7000, 24mm 2.8D, Hoya Circular Polarizer, Gitzo Tripod with Manfrotto Ball-head)

For more about the photography equipment I use, check out my full gear list!