River, Stream or Creek - A Landscape Photography Question

Do I Call It a River, Stream or Creek?

When I photograph something, I like to feel confident as to what I am going to refer to it as when I add it to my portfolio on the website.

Is it a mountain or a hill? Is it a sand dune or a sand drift? Is it a swamp or a hammock? Is it an Aspen or Birch tree? Is it a lake or a pond? You get the idea.

When I’m photographing water, it’s either the ocean or inland body. We’ll leave the lake or pond discussion for later and focus on the river, stream or creek question for now.

"Secret Stream" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a hidden stream in the Smoky Mountains. Click on Photo to Purchase

Looking For Official Definitions

The three have many things in common such as consisting of fresh water, flowing in one direction, flowing downhill, capable of flooding and serving to drain watersheds. The United States Geographical Survey states that they are all names for water flowing on the Earth’s surface, and other than size, there is no difference.

All are using gravity to simply bring water from higher elevations to lower elevations. Creeks and streams feed rivers, that eventually make their way to the ocean if not stopped by dams creating reservoirs. Rivers cannot exist without creeks and streams to feed them.

My Impression Over the Years

I have always thought and assumed that rivers were bigger than streams and streams were bigger than creeks. From all I have read, this uninformed assumption appears to have some validity. However, that conclusion by itself leaves a lot of room for various opinions depending on the size of the river, stream or creek.

"Blue Rush" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a section of the McKenzie River in Oregon. Click on Photo to Purchase

The Naming of Rivers, Streams and Creeks

I would imagine my impression as to how they relate to each other is fairly common. It just feels right. Technically speaking, rivers, streams and creeks are all a form of a stream. The term “stream” appears to be the overall name of what they are, geographically speaking. I admit I did not know this.

In writing this article, I noticed that none of what I felt were “streams” that I have photographed have the word “stream” in their official name. They all seemed to be officially named “river” or “creek”. That seems to be pretty much the rule everywhere in the country, although there may be some exceptions, but I think they are rare. Until writing this article, I had no idea this was the case.

Photographing A Stream or Creek

In my feeble mind, when I think of a creek, I am thinking of something very small, maybe 5-15 feet wide that is very shallow and certainly doesn’t have enough water to float a canoe, kayak or any type of watercraft. It may ever dry up from time to time.

When I think of a stream, I am thinking of something bigger, maybe 15-30 feet wide with much more water running through it where you could float a canoe or kayak, at least for many parts of it. There are usually sets of small rapids running over the exposed rocks in shallow areas.

I like photographing creeks and what I call small streams as the tree branches are able to overhang a large portion of the water giving it a very cozy and inviting look. The following photograph of Gorton Creek in Oregon is a beautiful example of a lush and inviting creek.

"Three Brothers" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of Gorton Creek in Oregon. Click on Photo to Purchase

Photographing the Rivers

Having the word “river” in the name doesn’t necessarily make it a river to me. I still personally like the word “stream”. I would like to think of sitting by or fishing in a stream than in a creek. There are small rivers like The Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains shown below, which feels like what I think of when I think of a stream.

"Spring Flow" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of The Little River in the Smoky Mountains. Click on Photo to Purchase

The large rivers like the Columbia River, Colorado River and Mississippi River are huge and obviously deserving of the word “river”. I rarely find them photogenic and tend not to photograph them. I might include them in a big scene photograph as I did with the photographs below. The first is the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park and the second is the St. Johns River in Florida at sunset.

"Oxbow Spring" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Click on Photo to Purchase
"St. Johns Sunset" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of sunset over the St. Johns River in Florida. Click on Photo to Purchase

In Conclusion

After doing the research, it appears I should change my thought process to use the word “creek” more and the word “stream” much less. Of course, it doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, but it's been a fun exercise.