Photographing Fish Creek Falls is no easy stroll |

Photographing Fish Creek Falls is no easy stroll

The biggest key to getting a good photograph of Fish Creek Falls is patience, Rod Hanna explained. Wait for the right light. Any of a thousand factors could be in the mix there, from time of the year to the time of the day.

— Blame the sun.

That's a bit harsh, of course, as light is as elemental to photography as the P and the H.

Light is the answer to the vast majority of photography questions, and it's the answer to nature photography, Steamboat Springs-based photographer Rod Hanna said.

Obviously, then, it's the key to grabbing a great photograph of iconic Steamboat Springs landmark Fish Creek Falls. The light can be tricky back in the canyon that hides the falls, however, and how a photographer handles the light has everything to do with the end result. Different strategies produce drastically different photos, and sadly none of them are as simple as walking to the pedestrian bridge at the base of the falls, snapping a picture and leaving.

"It's a little like photographing the Grand Canyon," local nature photographer Judy Jones said. "This time of year, it's so spectacular, then you get your photographs and it looks like nothing. It's really hard to get."

Slow it down

Hanna's list of photography credentials is ridiculous. He spent time at newspapers in the Midwest, as the official photographer for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos and Steamboat Ski Area. He's released two books filled with Colorado landscape photographs, including "Seasons of Light," set entirely in the Yampa Valley.

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Fish Creek Falls, though, never has been an easy get, even for him.

"I'm not sure I still have what I would consider the definitive shot," he said. "It's something I've gone back to from time to time. I have what I consider nice pictures, but nothing that people are going to take a look at and go 'wow.'"

Maybe he's modest, but the challenges are real. The main problem is one of contrast.

Although the falls are buried deep in a canyon, surrounded by high walls, they actually receive plenty of sunlight during this time of the year. The sun sets staring almost straight down the canyon in the spring and summer.

That's not always the advantage it may sound like. Sun splashing on the brilliant white water makes balancing that with the inevitable shaded areas very difficult to capture. One tactic Hanna advised: Find a way to skip the sun.

"Do it fairly early in the morning, before the sun hits it so it's all in the shade," he said. "The next best time would be late in the afternoon, when, if the sun is on it, it's a little softer and not quite so harsh."

At that point, there are two ways to go about it. A photographer either can take a more traditional photograph, stopping the action, freezing the water as it tumbles down the creek. Or, a shift in settings can allow a long exposure that will turn the crashing waves into a sleek stream, ribbons of white carrying down the falls, over the boulders and through the stream.

"To me, you want to use a slow shutter speed so that you've got the movement of the water and it isn't frozen but kind of in motion," he said. "It's more pleasing of a picture that way."

A shutter speed setting as low as 1/25 second will bring that into effect. The longer the exposure, the less chaotic the water will seem.

Think big

Jones went a different route when she captured the falls for a downtown exhibition that left viewers marveling at the detail.

To freeze the action, she said to keep a shutter speed higher above 1/250. To fully capture the rip-roaring nature of the falls, she didn't even try to get it all in one frame, either. Using a wide angle lens, she shot the falls with her camera horizontal and with the exact same settings for every shot, moving the viewfinder 2/3 of a frame down for each picture. When she got back into the office — after a series of trips to get things just right, of course — she was able to stitch the pieces together for one dynamic, gigantic photo.

"It's such a cool thing to do," she said of making a big panoramic shot. "If someone is really adventurous, it's a lot of fun"

She advised photographers use the "P" program mode setting and the exposure compensation button (it has a +/-) to find the perfect exposure.

That's just one of many options photographers have when they tackle something like Fish Creek Falls.

Hanna said the only way to truly get it right is to dedicate the time. Try both methods. Jones said the best time to photograph this time of year is in the softer afternoon sunlight between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Try that, try at dusk and try at dawn.

"The light is always changing, so there are an endless variety of opportunities to play with it until you think you've got it right," Hanna said.

Try different vantage points, too. There are at least three great places from which to photograph the falls.

Following the main hiking trail down to the bridge, due east from the upper parking lot, allows a photographer to look up at the falls and truly gain an appreciation for the power being unleashed.

Follow the trail leaving from the north side of the upper parking lot, heading northeast, for a spectacular overlook from above the falls. That's the easiest trail, accessible to anyone.

Finally, the Uranium Mine hiking trail, which takes off from the north side of the road between the lower and upper parking lots, offers an even higher vantage point.

Fish Creek Falls may be one of Steamboat's most jaw-dropping works of nature, in part because it's so easy to access. There's nothing easy about trying to capture it in a photograph, however.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email

If you go

Fish Creek Falls is at the end of Fish Creek Falls Road in Steamboat Springs. From Lincoln Avenue, turn north. Go one block to Oak Street and turn right. Stay on Oak, which becomes Fish Creek Falls Road. There’s a $5 parking fee.

Fish Creek Falls tips

■ Go with a slow shutter speed to give movement to the water.

■ Try different times of the day. The late afternoon sun — 4:30 to 5 p.m. — can be sweet. The early hours before the sun is on the falls and late hours after it’s off them can be great, as well.

■ Check out different locations. There are advantages to the overlook, the Uranium Mine trail and the pedestrian bridge.

■ Add a bit of fun and perspective by including hikers as they stop to marvel.

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