Route & Safety Planning
First things first, and if you’ve listened to other episodes, you’ll know how important this is to me, safety and knowing your route. Exploring in winter is a totally different monster than exploring during any other season. A simple summer route may become deadly and impassible in the winter. So, before just heading out to a waterfall you’ve hiked to in the summer - look at your route. Does it pass through avalanche terrain? Where are the hidden dangers? What equipment or training will you need? Deep snow can hide dangers on the walk-in, like hidden boulder fields or stepping out onto a cornice. Avalanches can pose a considerable risk in winter - either directly in your path or above you on some trails. Make sure to check with a local expert group to learn of any dangers on your route. Also, don’t forget that travelling in winter will take you longer, so give yourself more time and bring more water. Navigation can also be challenging as some markers will be buried and hidden, well-worn paths may not be very obvious, and going off-trail can put you in perilous situations. So, get to know your route, even if you’ve been there before, as this will help ensure you stay as safe as possible. And this is all before you even get to the waterfall itself.
Once you are at the waterfall, you should take some safety precautions. Firstly, if there are ice climbers on the falls, stay back and give them space. Ice climbing is a fantastic sport, but it can also cause instability in a frozen waterfall, with an increased risk of chunks of ice coming down or a climber coming down suddenly. You do not want to be in the crash zone. And this zone can expand out past the waterfall. So if there are climbers there, be respectful and stay back until they finish their climb. Definitely don’t wander around under the waterfall while someone is swinging an ice axe into it.
If there are no ice climbers there, feel free to approach, but take careful stock of the condition of the ice. Are there open spots where you can see rushing water? Then it may not be safe to step out onto the waterfall. HAs a part of the waterfall been in direct sunlight for a few hours? That area is potentially weaker than parts in the shade, so be more careful around those areas as there is a higher possibility of stepping through the ice or chunks of the waterfall coming off. This is because the sun will heat up those areas and cause potential instabilities. Finally, don’t forget to look up and see potential hazards. Many waterfalls have large icicles hanging around them that could break loose. Keep an eye on them while you are exploring, and do your best not to stand directly under them or in front of them as they could come loose and seriously injure or kill you or a member of your party. All this is to say, frozen waterfalls are amazing, beautiful and worth the work to get to them, but they can be incredibly dangerous and should not be underestimated. Go, see, and explore, but take the proper precautions to keep yourself and your party safe so you can keep exploring.
What to Bring
Alright, so, if you’re heading into a frozen waterfall, what should you bring with you?
There are two sets of gear you should have. Your adventure kit and your camera kit. Let’s start with the adventure kit. As with every hike, you should have your basics like proper footwear (it’s winter, so winter footwear is a MUST have), a medkit, water, food, and emergency supplies. Beyond that, you should bring microspikes with you. These mini teeth for your shoes stretch over the bottom of your boot and give you grip on slippery surfaces - especially ice. And traction around a frozen waterfall is a necessity. Without microspikes, I wouldn’t even bother heading out the door to go to a waterfall in winter. So if you are planning on going, head to a store and pick some up. You are looking for the ones with actual teeth, not the ones that look like treads or chains you would put on tires. You’ll also want to bring a helmet to protect from possible ice fall, rock and ice climbing helmets are ideal for this, but any type of helmet will really do. These also protect you should you slip and bash your head on the ice. You could also consider bringing rope (depending on the conditions you walk through and into) and hiking poles. Finally, waterproof pants and jacket or a change of clothing. Even when frozen, waterfalls are very wet places. And you’ll likely end up with damp everything while shooting (and slipping and falling). I know I was crawling around on my belly for shots, which would have soaked through everything except my Gortex.
Alright, so you’ll want all that gear with you. But of course, you’ll also want your camera equipment with you. And this is where it gets a bit easier. If you are heading out to explore around and inside a frozen waterfall, you can leave your big telephotos at home. During my Jasper shoot, I mainly used a Canon 16-35 f/4, and I wished I had a wider lens - something closer to 12mm to get some of the compositions I wanted. Waterfalls create these beautiful ice caverns and details, but they can be very tight spaces, so you will want a wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens with you. An excellent prime lens with low light performance would be ideal as the insides of the caverns can be very dark, so think something with an f/2.8 or lower - or a really good high ISO camera. But I’d rather go with the low-light lens, so you aren’t losing any detail while dealing with noise. And, if you’re a macro lover, definitely bring that with you. There are so many spectacular details in the ice. You’ll also want a tripod for any focusing stacking or HDRs you want to create outside of that gear. And, if you’re like me and take the straps off your camera all the time, you’ll want to remember a strap for your camera that holds it tight to your body or a bag that gives you quick and easy access to your gear. You will be moving around on slippery surfaces where falls happen quickly, so you’ll want both hands free and your camera gear protected.
Alright, so you’ve got your gear, you’ve got you’re route, and you’re there and ready to shoot. But shooting a frozen waterfall can be overwhelming. There is so much detail, so many places to explore and put people, what do you do? Here’s how I typically start things. I’ll scout around the whole waterfall, finding all the cool hidden crevasses and angles. It can be tempting to just pull out your camera and start shooting, but you really want to know what is around you before dedicating shooting time to any area. This is because that first spot you come across may not be the best, and you’ll want your lay of the land. So, explore first.
Next, look for a way to provide scale to the waterfall. I like using a person for scale. Putting them into the scene can really help your viewer get a sense of the scale of a waterfall (little person, big object typically, and this really draws people in). So, get low, get high and use something for scale. And don’t just get focused on the waterfall itself. Look for all the little details around it. Waterfalls throw a lot of water when they aren’t frozen, which typically means cool, tiny ice formations form nearby. These can make beautiful macro subjects or framing and foreground tools to enhance your shot. Finally, when you get sunlight or off-camera lighting shining through a waterfall, you will see some fantastic colour casts. I find these are typically deep blues and some greens. Make use of these colour casts in your images. Lean into them and don’t shy away from the unique look and feel they can provide.
Oh, and don’t forget about your subject’s clothing and colours. Black and dark shades really blend in. Do your best to put your subject in a colour that will pop against the waterfall, like yellow, orange, or red.
Editing Waterfall Shots
Alright, you’ve gotten your shots; you’ve gotten out and home safely. Now what? Well, let’s talk quickly about editing. Because editing a waterfall shot can be a bit of a different experience. I find this is typically from those unique colour casts. You’ll get it into your editor - like Lightroom - and the program will automatically try to pull all of the blue out of the shot, or you’ll try and colour balance it and take away that colour cast. Don’t do that. Keep that colour cast in there, at least somewhat. It’s part of what makes the experience so magical. It can also be tempting to go around and remove any minor imperfections in the waterfall, like dirt specs, misshapen pieces of ice, or things of that nature. Go ahead and do a little bit, but don’t overdo it. Make sure you keep some imperfections in the waterfall. It’s naturally occurring; there will be dirt and some weird pieces. And getting rid of everything changes the reality of your photo and gives it this surreal and unnatural feeling that most viewers will not enjoy. They may not be able to place it precisely about what feels off, but something will keep them from loving the shot. So, remove things with care.
And that’s really it. Shooting a frozen waterfall is a massively rewarding experience. It can be a lot of work and preparation, but it is very worth getting there and creating unique pieces. Plus, the experience is truly magical. I find myself just standing there staring in awe, not even shooting. And I hope you can have this experience as well.