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July 30, 2018 - Water in Motion

Covering more than 70% of the Earth's surface, water is an extremely abundant resource on this planet. Although completely without color, odor or taste, it is vital to all known life. We clean with it, bathe in it, hydrate with it and cook with it. During days of high heat, we flock to the beach, basking in its refreshing coolness. Although humans can survive as long as three weeks without food, we can only survive three or four days without H2O. Water is a powerful lifeline.

What is more powerful than water alone? Water in motion. Watermills have been used for centuries as hydropower in the production of a large number of material goods, including flour, lumber, paper, etc. Water falls produce enough energy to provide electricity for large cities. That same powerful force is also responsible for severe destruction. Tsunamis have destroyed islands. Heavy rainfall causes landslides jeopardizing seaside homes. Those of us living along the Susquehanna River basin know all too well the devastating impact of floods.

This week's featured photographs illustrate many of the benefits as well as disastrous effects resulting from water in motion.

1. Birds

Waterfowl, or anseriformes, consist of around 170 species of ducks, geese and swans that live entirely on or near the water. Among them, Trumpeter Swans are one of the most beautiful and celebrated. Seeing them dart gracefully across the water's surface, it's difficult to imagine they are North America's largest native waterfowl. With legs positioned behind their center of gravity, swans require a 100 yard stretch of water or land for taking flight. This image photographed by Bill Thomas Quinn beautifully illustrates their long, lumbering takeoff from this water runway.

Trumpeter Swans Take Flight photographed by Bill Thomas Quinn

As waves pull back out to sea, they deposit in their wake a number of small aquatic invertebrates. Shorebirds, like this Semipalmated Sandpiper photographed by Gina Vaughan, spend their days following waves into the sea and feasting on those newly exposed sea creatures. It's a battle against time though as they quickly forage for all they can find then run back to safety as another large wave crashes against the shore.

Semipalmated Sandpiper running from the wake photographed by Gina Vaughan

Even songbirds can frequently be found taking refreshing baths in streams and creeks. All birds will dip into the water multiple times and then shake to clear the excess from their feathers. This American Robin was photographed by Gina Vaughan. Setting her shutter speed at a medium speed of 1/200 sec, Gina was able to capture some great motion within the water spray while keeping the bird sharp.

American Robin photographed by Gina Vaughan

2. Waterfalls

There are two predominant methods for photographing the beauty of water falls, each with very distinctive and alluring results. Both are depicted in the next two images.

Using a relatively fast shutter speed, at least 1/500 sec, a photographer can create a very dynamic image. This photo of Horseshoe Falls shot by Diana Meyn captures the full intensity of the scene as nearly 700,000 gallons of water rush downward every second with a whopping 2500 tons of force. A total of five power plants are driven from the force of water at Niagara falls, including New York's Niagara Power Project. According to the New York Power Authority, the Robert Moses Power Plant and Lewiston Pump Generating Plant, combine together to become "...New York State’s biggest electricity producer, providing up to 2.6 million kilowatts of clean electricity."

Using filters and slow shutter speeds to capture the motion blur of a waterfall results in a much more serene scene of quiet beauty. The following image of Upper Buttermilk Falls was photographed at Buttermilk State Park by Dan Dunn. According to Dan, using the right gear and settings allows a photographer to capture the "soft whimsical flow of the water."

The most important camera setting to produce this soft water effect is shutter speed. Dan suggests a speed no faster than 1/2 second and often 3 or more seconds. This slow speed will pull in a great deal of light, therefore it is necessary to set ISO as low as possible, typically 100. Stopping down your aperture will allow you to produce a greater depth of field as well as additionally reducing the gathered light. Set your aperture to at least f/16 or f/18. Photographing in low light conditions, early mornings or cloudy days, can also help reduce captured light.

Dan recommends the following gear:

  • Sturdy tripod - this is essential because any camera shake will become very pronounced at the slow shutter speeds required to soften water flow.

  • Polarizing filter - this filter helps to cut glare and reflections on the water's surface as well as reducing the amount of light entering your lens by one stop.

  • Neutral density filter - ND filters reduce the intensity of light without affecting image color. Several models are available which can result in a reduction by 2, 4, 8 or more stops. This filter is most commonly needed during sunny days or with extremely slow shutter speeds.

Beginning in 2019, Dan will offer waterfall photography workshops. If you have further questions or would like to be added to his mailing list, please contact Dan at

3. Floods

Cheryl Utter's before and after images of Wilson Creek illustrate how heavy downpours can quickly transform a beautiful, clean water stream into a murky mess as sediment is churned and transported. Sustained periods of heavy rain can produce widespread and devastating results.

In September 2011, Tropical Storm Lee moved over the mid-Atlantic states and stalled. Interacting with a frontal system from Ohio Valley, several inches of rain poured over Central NY and northeastern PA during a 48-hour period. Massive, record-breaking flooding occurred resulting in nearly a billion dollars in damage. Thousands of businesses and homes were destroyed and rebuilding, when possible, took months, even years. The street signs say it all in this image photographed by Kelly Frederick Sweet as main streets in Newark Valley and throughout the region became large passages as the fast rising water destroyed everything in its path.

For reference, here is a side-by-side view of this image and the current scene from the same intersection, also photographed by Kelly.

Catastrophic weather events can also produce great beauty. The left image below of Multnomah Falls was photographed by Bill Thomas Quinn. This spectacular dual waterfall in Oregon was created by cataclysmic flooding at the tail end of the ice age. Glacial ice was also responsible for producing the gorge at Watkins Glen as well as all of the finger lakes. The right image below of Rainbow Bridge and falls at Watkins Glen was photographed by Cheryl Utter.

4. Resource Links


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