Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall (Part 1) / by Paul Waldo

A serene waterfall surrounded by rocks and fallen leaves.  How was this image created?  This post gives a step-by-step walkthrough from image capture to final edits.

This weekend, my son was interested in going for a hike and seeing a waterfall. I'm always up for photographing waterfalls, so we headed to one of my favorite spots at Scott's Run Park. This is an amazing place, probably only 10 miles outside Washington DC, but you would never know that it is so close to the hustle and bustle of a huge city. Unbeknownst to me, the day we went (January 1) was a national push to get people out to their state parks. On the day I thought everyone would be home nursing hangovers, the parking lot was mobbed with hikers! It seemed that getting a shot of the falls without people in it was going to be impossible. Luck favors the prepared though, so we set off to the falls with gear in hand.

My son, who is eight, hiked like a trooper, scrambling over rocks larger than he and climbing up some pretty steep hills. We finally got to the base of the falls and I was disappointed to see that there were lots of people around. Drat! Oh well, we were here to see waterfalls and I figured I would at least scout the location using my Sigma 8-16 mm ultra-wide-angle lens. We could always come back later on a less busy day.

Whenever my son sees me get out the tripod, he rolls his eyes and I can almost hear him groan “Not again…” Eight year olds are not known for sitting still and especially hate adults obsessing over minute changes of a tripod angle. Thank goodness cell phone reception was good, so I gave him my iPhone to use while I was setting up the shots. Watching train videos is his favorite pastime, and that would keep him from wandering around and landing in the drink!



When it comes to waterfalls, I love the blurred dreamy effect of a slow shutter speed shot. Therefore my primary goal for these shots was to use a slow shutter speed. I find that for this particular waterfall, 1/2 second is the bare minimum to get this effect. A tripod is necessary for a shot this slow plus it helps with maintaining the exact placement of the bracketed shots for HDR.

As soon as I got the camera and tripod set up and switched Live View on, I could see that the spot I had chosen was going to be fantastic. The 8-16 mm Sigma has some pretty heavy vignetting, but it worked to my advantage here.

The foreground rock and the waterfall in the background were the lightest objects in the scene, emphasizing the relationship between the two. “This could be a very cool image!” I thought to myself. If only there were no people…

With all the tripod adjusting and LCD ogling, I hadn’t realized that some dark clouds had rolled in and it was starting to sprinkle lightly. Apparently all the other folks, out for a more leisurely hike, decided to pack it in and go home. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I started shooting in earnest. I little light rain was not going to kill what looked to be some really nice shooting! Yes, I had to wipe off the camera every once in a while, but it had the advantage of lowering the light to get a good slow shutter speed. This lets the running water turn into the ethereal flow that looks so good!

I adjusted my position a bit and took a few more shots. Over the roar of the flowing water, I heard “Dad, its time to go!” The rain was getting a bit stronger now, so I conceded and started to pack up. While I knew I could have stayed for another hour at least, I was happy with the fact that I got some good shots.


Once I got home and started looking at the images in Lightroom, I realized that this was the  sequence that looked most promising.

Each one of the shots allowed me to capture detail in a specific area of the scene: mid tones, highlights and shadows.  The next step was to use HDR software to combine these three images into one that holds detail in all three areas.

In Part 2 of Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall, I will be showing, in a slider-by-slider description, how I turned the raw images above into a single image that gently guides the viewer through the scene and captures the feeling I had at these fantastic waterfalls.