Lighting the Way-2 train waterfall

Getting the Shot – Lighting the Way

By Mandy Applin –

A couple of years ago on a clear, late summer night, I drove to the south end of Letchworth State Park where the Genesee River flows under the historic Portageville Bridge and over the grand Upper Falls. The old iron bridge’s days were numbered and work had already begun on the supports of the replacement bridge. I knew this might be my last opportunity to capture this iconic scene in the “Grand Canyon of the East”.

I arrived a little later than I had planned. The sky was getting dark and there was not quite enough time to get to my shooting spot with sufficient light to see my footing well. I was a little nervous about being out in the expanse of the park in the moonless night all alone, in an area without cell phone coverage. After parking, I hesitated at my car, decided that “I did not come this far to only come this far!”, and gripped my tripod tightly as I headed up the trail alone. Making my way toward the falls, I kept my flashlight handy in case I needed it, and did my best to let my eyes adjust to the darkness.

As I headed toward the falls, I remembered hearing advice that the most difficult obstacle of nighttime photography will be overcoming your fear of the dark, especially if you are in an area that is unfamiliar to you. This brought me a lot of comfort, and as it turned out, there were a few other photographers and stargazers in the park that night I made a few new friends.

I set up my tripod and camera without the use of my flashlight, allowing my eyes adjust to the darkness as much as possible. It is easiest to set your equipment up in the dark if you know your equipment well by touch. I’m moderately skilled at this, so was able to set up without the use of my flashlight. I had already connected a wired remote shutter release to my camera before I left my house. (I almost always have trouble connecting the cable in the dark. Doing some preparation at home really pays off!)

And then unexpectedly … lights began to appear on the east side of the embankment.

I manually focused my lens to infinity and used an L-bracket attached to my camera to easily lock the camera on the tripod in portrait orientation. I took a few test shots to get my bearings and figure out what might work best. I started out with my go-to settings for nighttime photography: aperture wide open (f/1.4 on the lens I was using), ISO 1600, and a 30-second exposure. I used my test shots to check focus by zooming in on a few images on my camera’s rear screen and used the histogram to verify exposure. I adjusted my focus slightly and changed to a 20-second exposure and took a few more shots. Repeating the process again, I checked the images on my camera’s rear screen to verify that the Milky Way, bridge, and waterfall were all in focus, and reviewed the histogram to be sure that the exposure was as I expected.

After reviewing my photos on the camera’s screen, I felt that I had gotten the shots that I wanted. I was excited to get home and download my photos. It was such a beautiful, warm evening and I was so comfortable that I lingered before leaving, with the thought I would capture a few more photos to see if I might like the position of the Milky Way better in the photo’s composition as it traveled across the sky.

And then unexpectedly … lights began to appear on the east side of the embankment. At first, I wasn’t sure what the source of the light was, but quickly realized that a train was approaching to cross the old bridge – at almost 10pm on a Sunday evening!

With no time to make any changes, and not wanting to touch the camera and inadvertently disturb the focus, I pressed the remote shutter, waited for the 15-second exposure to finish, and immediately pressed it again to begin a new exposure. I repeated this process as the train crossed the bridge.

The photo may look like a high-speed train passing across the bridge in the dark night, but the truth is that the train was only traveling at 5 miles per hour. Any concept of speed is an illusion brought about by the long exposure.

Camera: Nikon D750

Lens: Rokinon 24mm f/1.4

Settings: 24mm, f/1.4, ISO 1600, 15s

This photo was captured in a single exposure. It was edited in Lightroom to bring up shadows in the canyon and waterfall, slightly modify the white balance, and enhance colors in the milky way.

Lighting the Way-2


The Upper Falls of Letchworth State Park is just one of many beautiful waterfalls within the park. More information about the park’s many amenities and activities can be found here:

The Portageville Viaduct (also known as the Portageville Bridge) was built in 1875 over the Upper Falls of the Genesee River within Letchworth State Park. The railroad bridge was in service until 2017 and has since been taken down and replaced by a new steel arch bridge. More information about the Portageville Viaduct can be found here:

The photo “Lighting the Way” won the Grand Prize in the Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine annual photography contest and was selected as a finalist in the Photography Competition at the NY State Fair. Prints can be purchased at

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