Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

I live only a little over an hour from Niagara Falls so I’ve visited them a lot through the years – childhood visits with my parents, trips with my own family, taking out-of-town visitors on the grand tour. I often gripe about the stupendous amount of commercialization surrounding the falls. I cringe each time I see the yards and yards of concrete, the casinos, the wax museums, the gift shops, the billboards, the lights, the whole carnival atmosphere; and yet the falls themselves are so amazing and so powerful that I keep going back.

I stand at the water’s edge and mentally block out all the crap around me, focusing on just the water. Taken all together somewhere around three-quarters of a million gallons of water flow over the falls every second. The water’s voice is a never-ending roar. The force of the water hitting bottom blasts a roiling cloud of mist back out of the gorge that can be seen from miles away. It can be overwhelming.

Back in late November I decided to go to the falls by myself. I have always gone with friends and family and only carried a point and shoot camera for tourist type shots. This time I decided to take my good camera and tripod and see what I could do. Being pretty far off season meant no crowds so I’d have room and time to fiddle around setting up shots. The temp was in the low 40s F, a bit chilly, but the sun was out so it actually was pretty nice in the afternoon.

I stuck to the American side this time. I just parked at the visitor center parking lot and walked wherever I was allowed. There is an elevator down to the river’s edge so that people can take boat tours close to the falls, but it was shut down for the season so I had to stay up on top. Sidewalks and bridges provide walking access across the main falls to Bridal Veil and on around close to one end of the Horseshoe falls. There wasn’t much wind so the mist could billow and swirl and float high into the sky which meant that my camera and I could stay relatively dry. Some days you just get soaked if you are down wind.

It was really quite enjoyable. With many of the “attractions” shut down and very few people around, I could relax and take my time. I tried to apply some of the principles of Sumi-e that I have been reading about.

Traditionally the ink used for painting Sumi-e comes in the form of a solid stick. The artist uses an inkstone to grind the solid and mixes it with varying amounts of water to create shades of color. The time it takes to prepare the inks is a perfect time for meditation. The mind can be cleared of the daily distractions and focused on the image to be painted.

Sumi-e is mostly painted from memory. The artist does not set up an easel in front of a flower bed and paint what is there. Instead the flowers are studied day after day to learn everything about them. Not only is the physical shape and color of the blossoms studied, but the artist attempts to learn the essence of them. To copy a flower exactly as it appears to the eye is one thing, but the key to great Sumi-e is to show something more – something that conveys the experience of the flower not just the image of it.

So the artist meditates to clear the mind, to think about the subject, to visualize the finished work. Ink painting is a once and done kind of thing. There is no erasing and no painting over. Once begun the image must be painted rhythmically, boldly, and confidently. Proper preparation of the materials and of the artist is essential.

I think that I already use some of the techniques of Sumi-e in my photography. I’ve never been one to carry my camera everywhere with me so that I can snap off images whenever something catches my eye. I generally only take my camera with me when I am specifically heading out to “take pictures”. Sometimes I just head out to see what I can find, but often I go to shoot a subject that I have seen before and have thought about how I might photograph it. I go into our old barn day after day and I see it in various lights and at various seasons. I notice the reflections, the dust floating in the slanting light from a window, the smell, the heat, the cold, the shadows, and the shapes. Then one day I decide to take my camera with me. Who knows why.

I have been to Niagara Falls many times. Although many of the visits are busy and chaotic, I always try to take some time to study the water. While planing this trip, I thought about where I might stand and what kind of exposures I might use. I thought about the photos I have taken before and what worked and what didn’t. When I arrived I didn’t just start snapping. I walked around studying the light and the water and thinking about what makes the falls so unique and amazing. I tried to capture the experience of the falls rather than just documenting the surface shapes.

Niagara River

I’m afraid I didn’t just take one shot of each subject and have done as in true Sumi-e form, but neither am I one to just fire off shots of everything on the assumption that if I take enough shots, a few of them have to turn out. I like to look with my eyes first and only bring up the camera when I think I have found something interesting; something that has a chance of “working”. The images from most of my trips come in clumps – I only take a few subjects, but I take many many shots of each one as I play with various combinations of shutter speed, aperture, framing, and lenses.

I photographed the falls for a few hours in the morning and then had lunch down the street at the Hard Rock Cafe. Before heading home I drove a couple of miles to a park along the river gorge. There is a place here where you can take a steep jumbled winding trail down the cliff face to the river’s edge. I spent a couple of hours climbing the rocks and exploring the rapids. At one point I was treated to a show of fish (steelhead I think) jumping up the rapids just like I’d seen in those nature shows about pacific salmon swimming up-stream to spawn. There weren’t zillions of them, but every few minutes one would pop up.

All in all it wasn’t a bad outing. It was way cooler (literally and figuratively) than being there in the summer. Maybe I’ll go back sometime this winter and check out the ice formations.



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10 Responses to “Niagara Falls”

  1. Scott Thomas Photography Says:

    Beautiful photos of the Falls. I visited in December a couple of years ago and got up in the early morning. Ice was still all over the sidewalks and got some long exposure photos of the American falls from the Canadian side. Would like to go back in the summer and do some early morning shots before the tourists mob the area.

    • forestrat Says:

      Hey Scott, thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to hear from a fellow New Yorker.

      I visited your blog – you’re killing me with those great photos of sunny Disney – the temp is 16F here right now!


  2. Scott Thomas Photography Says:

    Well, if it’s a help. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks and “enjoying” the same kind of weather you are. Cold and snowy. Look for a photo from Niagara Falls on Christmas Day on my blog. Your photos reminded about a trip I took during a past December. Lots of cold and ice in it, too. ;-)

  3. Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) Says:


    Merry Christmas (just waiting for the kids to wake up and get moving and really enjoyed this relaxing read).

    I have been to the falls a couple of times and remember at my first visit being appalled at the “carnival” nature of the place (I was only 17, but I clearly remember the acrid residue that lingered with me for some time afterward).

    Great shots (as always)! I like each for various reasons, but I think the middle one is my favorite, reminding me most of the sumi-e landscapes I have in my mind’s eye. Your explanation of your approach to the day of photographing was refreshing. I approach some of my favorite fishing spots in the same way.

    I often think of it as a reverence for the subject/location that, at least for me, causes me to pause and think before taking the first cast. It comes from time spent knowing the place. Hmmm… I think you have given me a great idea for my next post–thank you for a wonderful morning of contemplation.

  4. Sumi-e and the Art of Fly Fishing | Cutthroat Stalker Says:

    […] this is not too presumptuous of me), and he was discussing some finer points of sumi-e art (see Forest Rat’s full blog post about it […]

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi forest rat,

    Interesting to read about your method of photography, and your experience of Niagara Falls as a non-tourist…

    You get such intriguing viewpoints and angles in your photos.


  6. flandrumhill Says:

    Forest Rat, these Sumi-e posts are full of food for thought.

    I really like the idea of trying to capture the essence of a thing, whether it’s with a drawing, a photograph or a poem. I don’t think this can be done without spending a lot of time just looking at things in their environment.

    I wasn’t aware of the practice of making Sumi-e paintings mostly from memory. It seems like the opposite of Impressionism where artists often painted en plein air in front of their subjects. Yet many of the Impressionists were very much influenced by Oriental art.

    I’ve been to Niagara Falls a few times. The experience of being on the Maid of the Mist, hearing the roar of the water, feeling the spray of the falls and being surrounded with rainbows was what was most memorable for me. The mist in your second photo speaks volumes to me.

  7. forestrat Says:

    Hey folks,

    Sorry I haven’t replied lately – been out of town for the holidays and such, but it looks like it is about time to buckle down for a new year.

    Thanks a bunch for all your comments. That second photo with all the mist really does capture what I saw that day. Mist was just boiling up out of the canyon from the incredible force of the falling water.


  8. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Happy New Year!
    It’s interesting to hear how you approach your photography work.
    These are quite spare. I especially relate to the first one.

    • forestrat Says:

      Thanks K,

      I seem to have developed a thing for “spare” images. I like to isolate certain parts of a scene through the differences in light values and by varying the exposure times. I don’t know why I do it really – it’s just how I see things at the moment.


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