I’m used to having people stare at me in the field. Most underwater photographers are, walking around with giant hunks of metal that look more like an alien probe than a camera. But having dozens of fall foliage tourists stare you down while you sit waist-deep in front of a 100-foot-tall waterfall raises unwanted attention to an art form.
Last week I gave my self the task of capturing a rare view of waterfalls that few people ever consider—from in the water with over-under photography. Timing the journey with the peak of fall colors, my girlfriend and I headed to upstate New York to search out the dozens of falls, rapids, and cascades of water that roll down the cliffs of the Catskills and Finger Lakes.
I load up my trunk with everything I’ll need for my journey upstate, including my pair of Nikon DSLRs (D7000 and D300), underwater housings, 5mm wetsuit and mask. Oh, and then there’s snacks for the road (Tip: Beef jerky, people).
In perhaps the biggest obstacle overcome in the entire assignment, we beat rush hour traffic out of the city. Otherwise, I’d probably still be in the car.
We use the six-hour drive up Route 17 to scout out potential waterfalls that will suit the needs of the assignment. We line up a map of the waterfalls with a map tracking the progress of fall foliage (forests even a few miles apart can range from green to barren branches). Although there are dozens of significant falls in upstate New York, few are easily accessible with a heavy camera housing. Even fewer form calm, safe pools at their bottom for split shots. And even fewer “technically” allow visitors to enter the water. We settle on three likely subjects: Buttermilk Falls, Eagle Cliff Falls and Lucifer Falls.
After finally arriving in Ithica, NY and checking into our hotel, I decide to go for a run and scout out Buttermilk Falls, only two miles away. It gets dark before I can find it in the park. I start thinking of coyotes. I head back to my hotel room to regroup.
8:00 a.m. (the next morning)
Our spirits are high, the weather is bleak. Gray skies and rain seem to follow us to Buttermilk Falls, where the bad news continues: Entering the water is prohibited. The conditions aren’t too promising to make me want to break the law and we move on.
Flat gray is replaced by bright blue punctuated with puffy clouds.
Pulling up to Lucifer Falls in Robert H. Treman Park we are greeted by another “Swimming Prohibited” sign. The sky is perfect, the leaves are perfect, and a sign can’t keep me out of the fall’s pool. I forgo a wetsuit in an effort not to attract attention, but slip on a pair of worn-out running sneakers to protect my feet from the rocks below the surface. I wade in.
Regretting leaving the wetsuit in the car. The water is 55 degrees. People judge my decision as I shoot away.
It’s not always about underwater photography. Even though close access to Taughannock Falls is strictly limited, I can’t miss the opportunity to photograph the impressive scene. Fun fact: Taughannock Falls is actually 30 feet taller than mighty Niagara Falls.
The final falls on the list, Eagle Cliffs, is a two-mile hike in a wooded ravine. I sling my housing over my shoulder and begin the climb.
We reach the rarely visited falls nestled in a small cove at the end of the trail. Fortunately, brightly colored leaves have fallen into the pool, making for an interesting below-the-surface subject for the split shot.
That’s a wrap on the assignment. Feet frozen, I lug the gear back in the car and can’t help but feel a little stoic that I’ll have to wait an entire year to shoot the falls and leaves in full splendor. That is, unless I head south next weekend…
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