Shooting the mighty Niagara
By Dean Askin
27 Dec 2010
Whether you visit Niagara Falls once, or whether you visit it often, it's one of those places that just begs to be photographed every time you visit it. A few centuries from now, the Horsehoe Falls will likely be all the way back to Lake Erie, because of erosion — so fortunately, there's still time to plan your next photo trip and aim to bring back some powerful images from your day at the mighty Niagara.
Tip #1 — Think like a photographer, not a tourist
About 13 million people visit Niagara Falls every year from all over the world. The majority visit the Canadian side, because that's where the Horseshoe Falls is, and the best views are from Niagara Falls, Ontario. And there are some great photos to be made. While you may be a tourist, always think like the photographer you are or are striving to be. Tourists to the Falls take snapshots from the scenic viewpoints along the Niagara Parkway; photographers make memorable, impactful images of the Falls and its environs. You've got to always keep in mind the light, what makes a good composition, and the three guidelines for any photo you make: What's my subject? How do I focus on it? How do I simplify?
Tip#2 — Take more than one lens in your kit
In my kit, I've got a Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8 prime lens that I've had for over 20 years; a Nikkor 16-85 mm VR wide-angle zoom; a Sigma 70-300 mm macro f4/5.6 telephoto zoom; and a Sigma 10-20 mm f/3.5-5.6 ultra wide-angle zoom lens. Make sure you pack at least a wide-angle zoom and a telephoto zoom when you're planning an expedition to Niagara. You'll need both to get an interesting variety of shots. At the Horsehoe Falls, you'll need an ultra wide-angle lens in order to get a landscape shot that takes in the whole falls. A 16 mm wide-angle lens simply isn't wide enough. Using a 10-20 mm enables you to go really wide and get a creative over-the-shoulder photo taking in the whole falls including the tourist in front of you with a pocket compact who's lamenting that his camera just can't get in the entire scene; or capture the Maid of the Mist in a double rainbow.
Tip #3 — Pack a polarizer and a neutral density filter
A polarizer is a must, especially if you're visiting at the peak summer times of the year. On a bright, hot summer day, there's a haze above the Horseshoe Falls, and if you're shooting towards the sun and falls from the Niagara Parkway scenic viewpoints at the foot of Clifton Hill, you'll especially need the polarizer. It's also needed if you're closer to the top of the Falls. With a polarizer, you'll get richer images rather than photos of the Falls with blown-out highlight details and washed-out summer skies. Try shooting the Falls with an ND6 neutral density filter for even more motion blur of the rushing water.
Tip #4 — Try to visit the Falls at different times of the year — in summer, and in winter or spring
While most people visit the Falls during the summer tourist season, there are great photos to be made in the off seasons when the snow and ice are still on the falls. Try to get in more than one seasonal visit, depending on where you're visiting from. This is a lot easier to do if you live in Buffalo or Toronto than if you're visiting from afar on vacation to Canada.
Tip #5 — Get a hotel room with a view
There was a time when an overnight getaway to Niagara Falls was cheap. Ever since the casinos were built, the average cost of any hotel room in the city is about $200 a night. So if you're going to put out the bucks for a weekend in Niagara, ask to go high up and with a room on the falls-view side. It gives you an opportunity to not only shoot the Horseshoe Falls from higher up, but also other interesting views such as the city skyline and even the adjacent hotel. When you're high up, you can set up your tripod right in your hotel room and shoot away without worrying about tourists getting in your way, or vice-versa.
Tip #6 — Don't just shoot The Falls, shoot the environs too
Once you've got all your shots of the Falls itself, sling your DSLR over your shoulder and go for a walk around town. There's much more to photograph in Niagara Falls than simply the rushing water. For example, there's a winding pathway that meanders around the back of the Fallsview Casino. Stroll along here with your camera, and you can compose some great shots with leading lines; people shots; and interesting detail shots. The architecture of the Fallsview Casino, for example, is spectacular and you'll want to have your wide-angle lens on. A good time to shoot the front of the casino is in the evening, just when all the lights are coming on. It's all in how you see the world around you through the viewfinder.
Plan as well to visit and shoot at the Arboreum and Greenhouse; the Butterfly Conservatory and Botannical Gardens; and the Spanish Aerocar ride over the Niagara Gorge. Follow Tip #1 at each location, and you'll leave each one with some powerful images. The Botannical Gardens, for example, give you a great opportunity to explore creating images with symmetry.
Tip #7 — Ride the Niagara Skywheel
While it's rather expensive, the ride on this giant ferris wheel is definitely worth it. It gives you the opportunity for some great aerial shots of both the Canadian and American Falls as well as the city itself. The cars are enclosed, and are all windows, so there are good views in both the peak and off seasons in all directions.
Tip #8 — Use both aperture and shutter priority mode
Six-hundred thousand litres a minute of water rush over the Horseshoe Falls, so your shots should capture that motion. Snapshooters will tend to snap away at a high shutter speed, thereby freezing the motion of the water, which doesn't look natural when the subject is the mighty Niagara. When you're photographing the Falls, use shutter priority. Shoot at a variety of shutter speeds — explore the differences between shooting that rushing water, for example, at 1/8 or 1/15; at 1/30; at 1/500; at 1/1000 or 1/2000. If you're not using a lens with vibration reduction, remember to follow the general rule that your minimum shutter speed shouldn't exceed the lens focal length, i.e., 1/60 for a 50 mm lens. If you want to go slower for motion blur effect, use a monopod or a tripod, or steady your camera on the railing. The crowds along the railing can be very thick, making a tripod rather impractical, so make sure you pack a monopod in your kit if there's no elbow room to brace on the rail.
For photographing the Niagara Falls environs, use aperture priority (or even go full manual if you're comfortable), to create a variety of shots and be able to control your depth of field. There are excellent opportunities for selective focus shots at the Butterfly Conservatory, for example.
Tip #9 — Go for the unusual shots, not the obvious ones
All the tourists cram together elbow-to-elbow and jostle for space along the railings to shoot snapshots of the Horseshoe Falls. The challenge is to find a different angle than the tourists, and stake out that good spot. Make sure you've got all your lenses with you (see Tip #2). Sometimes, for example, there's a double rainbow over the Horseshoe Falls, and if you've got an ultra wide-angle lens with a polarizer, you'll be able to make a much more powerful image than the tourist with a compact camera that has a fixed focal length.
Tip #10 — Get creative with your shots
Shoot high, shoot low, tilt the camera. A casino directional sign isn't necessarily a creative or unusual subject; it's how you shoot it that counts. Look for interesting detail shots in a water feature, or the way the shadows fall on the Fallsview Casino walkway in the early evening. Going for a walk up Clifton Hill? There are creative ways to shoot the street and the throngs of people.
Put your skills and camera through their paces, and explore your creativity at Niagara. You'll come away with amazing photos of this wonder of the world — whatever time of the year you visit.