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The Easy Guide to Photographing Waterfalls

Introduction

I am often asked for tips for shooting waterfalls, and I am always pleased to provide some. This tutorial is simply a means of stopping the process of re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, every time I do. I was going to include it in my forthcoming The Photographer’s Guide to Blue Mountains Waterfalls, but because the tips are universal in application and the Guide is ballooning in size, I decided to cut it out and publish as a stand alone.

Some of the subject matter I cover is not new and indeed has been covered by others, including Gene Walls. But the words are all mine, so please respect that.

Gear up!

Unless you’re into “freeze-frame” shooting of rapidly-moving water, which I am most definitely not (as discussed here under the heading Sample 2 – Waterfalls) you need a tripod.

And, unfortunately, it is true that the more expensive a tripod is, the better it will be for waterfall photography. For example, ideally the legs have to be thick, metal, and sturdy – not your faux-metal plastic fantastics, with the centre rod capable of being swung horizontal in order to get the camera as close to the ground as physics allows.

The upside is you can consider spending $300 and up on a tripod to be an investment. Taken care of, it will last a lot longer than your $50 el cheapo.

A spirit level is also recommended. The Big Momma tripods have in-built spirit levels, such as the Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod, which is the one I use. (And it’s not a case of having to Man Up! to carry it – my girlfriend has one too.) But if your tripod doesn’t have one, I recommend getting a small one.

But note I am not recommending a spirit level to make sure your camera (and thus your photograph) is on the level. No, I use my spirit level for an entirely different reason – to stop the tripod with camera and lens on it from falling over!!

Think about it. You use a tripod to shoot a waterfall and when you get home and see the image on your computer screen it’s not level. Big deal. Straighten it. End of story. I have spent a few thousand hours photographing waterfalls in scores of different locations and I can count the minutes I’ve spent worrying about getting a perfectly straight image with the fingers of one hand. If it looks good enough in the viewfinder, it probably is close enough not to worry about whilst on location. Besides, time is of the essence when shooting waterfalls, as I discuss below. Focus instead on the important stuff.

And the important stuff includes ensuring your tripod doesn’t fall over! Shooting waterfalls will often mean placing your tripod on uneven surfaces if not slippery edges, or sometimes sand or mud in the water, and this will mean that the tripod legs won’t always be extended to the same length.

After my tripod DID fall and cause $500 damage to my Canon EF 24-70mm lens, I had an epiphany. It is this: you set up the tripod, it looks straight, you whack your camera and lens on it, and then you stand back and walk around the tripod and then you notice how much it is not straight. Which means that during the course of a long exposure, an unbalanced tripod will tip over at a whim or whisk of wind. (In my case it was the hidden effect of a wave moving pebbles.) This is particularly a risk when using a heavy lens (such as the EF 24-70mm) which only serves to increase the imbalance.

So, in terms of setting up your tripod, my tip is this sequence of actions:

  1. Holding only your camera, check through the viewfinder for the best composition and angle and height. Mark that spot with a stone or similar.
  1. Put down you camera (preferable) or hang the strap around your neck.
  1. Pick up the tripod and position it according to your stone. Get the legs stable and at the height you want. Use a spirit level to check the balance of the tripod or check the balance with your eyesight around the legs of the tripod. Basically, it’s the centre leg you want to see perfectly vertical.
  1. Only when you are comfortable with the stability of the tripod do you place your camera on the tripod and lock it into position.

Do that sequence and you will decrease to risk of your tripod falling to almost zero. And if you really really want to then use a spirit level to check your horizon, go ahead.

Got more money to spare? Get an angle finder. Don’t be put off by observers watching you use one calling you a wanker. Sometimes the best composition dictates the camera, for example, being a millimetre off the ground, making it impossible to use the viewfinder to get the right frame. An angle finder is like a periscope, and in this scenario allows you to sit or kneel on the ground and look down vertically whilst the lens is pointing horizontally. (The older you get, you more you appreciate your angle finder!)

This is what the Canon Angle Finder C looks like:

It is compatible with all Canon EOS cameras, both digital and film. It provides a full screen image at either x 1.25 or x 2.5 magnification, and it shows exposure data. For those of us who wear specs, it also has a built-in dioptric adjustment. Again, consider it an investment. I certainly do, and it has a regular pocket in my Domke because you never know when you will need it until you are at the bottom of some valley somewhere. The Nikon version is screw-in but not compatible with all Nikon DSLRs.

As with all long exposure work you also need a remote shutter release. It’s not necessary to get an expensive one, but I do recommend you at least get a brand one, eg a Canon one for a Canon camera.

Finally, to get the best results in terms of clarity, use Mirror Lock-up as a default setting. I explain what that is and why it’s beneficial here. This is assuming, of course, your camera has a mirror.

Timing

Timing is everything. It can be an enormous effort just getting to a waterfall only to find out you got the time of day entirely wrong, so plan ahead. I’ll explain this tip by way of a little story.

I, along with my girlfriend, shoot a lot in the Valley of the Waters. There are a large number of waterfalls within it, but it’s a tough trek down to the lower ones. Normally we don’t worry too much about the position of the sun because the height of the cliffs serving as the valley walls precludes direct sunlight from hitting the waterfalls, and the vegetation is otherwise dense with a closed canopy.

It took us a number of trips, but one day we decided to walk past every waterfall without stopping and shooting them, in order to finally reach Vera Falls at the very end of the valley. We got there, eventually, but we didn’t realise that Vera Falls is so far down the valley it is past the cliff walls and with no surrounding canopy. Result: direct sunlight hitting the water. End of shoot.

Timing a waterfall shoot is thus critical in order to get there when the sun is in the right position. And for most (not all) waterfalls, this means getting to your shooting position shortly after dawn for the best possible light conditions especially if the forecast is for a clear day (and thus uninterrupted sun rays). If the forecast is for overcast conditions it is no longer imperative to get there at the farting of the sparrows. Even better, a forecast of fog or mist.

This is all because direct sunlight on your nice waterfall is a disaster. It is a disaster because it will be nigh impossible to obtain an evenly exposed image, even with the use of heavy duty filters. You just can’t do it.

Another good reason for getting to your shooting position early is simply to avoid the crowds. If you can get to a waterfall, so can everyone else. And the more spectacular the waterfall, the more likely they will.

Composition

I suspect my feelings in attempting to herd cats would be similar to those I experience writing about composition. It’s all a bit surreal, if not pointless. Nevertheless, I have consciously observed some familiar compositional patterns when it comes to waterfalls, so here they are:

  1. If you are going to get close, make it an abstract. Often there will be physical aspects of a waterfall deserving a close focal range – a water swirl here, a swirl there, or a log stuck there or a moss-covered rock here. Sometimes such a feature is ideal for creating foreground context. Other times it will make a good subject in its own right. It just depends. The point is, approach any waterfall with an open mind and viewfinder.
  1. Give your waterfall some space. Too often the urge is to plonk your tripod smack bang in front of the waterfall and frame accordingly. You’ll hopefully end up with a well-shot photograph, but will it look good? Look around RB. The best waterfall photographs show the waterfall within its surroundings. Ideally, follow the Rule of Thirds in composing the shot. This means shooting the “drop” from side-on not front on. If this means stepping away from the “established viewing position” then do it! And if you’re getting the hint you need a wide angle lens to shoot waterfalls, good.
  1. Avoid the sky if possible. This is another reason not to shoot waterfalls front-on (unless you can justify it because of other elements within the frame, an example of which is here).
  1. Which is my best side? That’s a question a model may ask. But I’ve found it also applies to waterfalls! So, if you can do it, check both sides of a waterfall for the best composition. You’ll find the left side will be completely different from the right side. One of them has to thus “look” better than the other. Of course, you may then find that the best side has the worst light, which is another way of saying Tough cookies, get the timing right. Bottom line is this: some waterfalls are photogenic and some are not. For example, Empress Falls in the Blue Mountains – spectacular falls but as photogenic as a brick if trying to capture the full drop. Solution? Find a segment.
  1. I dunno if its just me or the waterfalls I choose, but taking a shot from the top of a waterfall looking down just doesn’t seem to work.
  1. When standing before a waterfall wondering where to shoot and from where, take your time. Obviously, a “long drop” waterfall is going to be hard to fill the frame with, and you risk pointing the lens towards the sky and sunlight. These wide shots are best done from a nearby height looking only slightly up, if at all. This is an example. The spot where I shot it from was the only one beside a steep track that was on a boulder big enough to fit the tripod on and with no branches interrupting to view of the lens. It took me about half an hour to find that position.
  1. If you are facing shooting only part of a waterfall, look for stone or log features (or man-made structures) that can possibly be the fixed feature for an otherwise flowing water shot.
  1. Speaking of fixed features, keep the surrounding foliage sharp. With some images blurred foliage against a waterfall can look ok, but other elements usually factor into it. So, if it’s windy your scope for an effective long exposure is going to be limited. In that instance you’ll need to get the lens searching for a frame that isn’t blowin’ in the wind.
  1. Keep in mind that a waterfall shot in Monochrome can be just as spectacular as the same scene shot in Colour (eg Landscape mode). It depends on the light, the actual presence of colours (or not) and the prevailing conditions. For example, some of my favourite shots (anybody’s) are Monochrome waterfalls in mist. And then some others are favourites as they are rich rainforest colours. It just depends. Many times I’ve shot in one mode and presented in another. And of course, to do this also, you need to shoot in RAW.
  1. If you have a pool of water below the falls, it always adds to a composition to include it, especially if there is a swirl of water happening. The full swirl effect is achieved through a long exposure. It only takes a few seconds in the case of nicely flowing water. But you do need to be careful if there is sunlight happening as well, as it will reflect off the water into the lens and the water’s surface will give off an aluminium kinda look. The effect can be reduced by raising the height of the camera (preferable) and/or the angle of the lens.
  1. This is counter-intuitive, but I can guarantee you that a correctly-focused long exposure of a waterfall will produce a noticable crispness with body, so long as you manage the length of exposure to avoid blown highlights. And that can be a process of trial and error on the spot and will vary with your light conditions. Wish for overcast, it’s a nice constant weather condition.
  1. Go back. Yes, if at all reasonable and feasible, return to the same waterfall. Not only will you naturally search for a different, and better, POV, you will also find that the conditions change and vary constantly, both between and within seasons. Those are two reasons why I return always to Leura Cascades, for example. And one of the best times to return is just after rain. The air is cleansed, the vegetation is fresh, and the waterfall is rampant. And nothing beats stress like the sound of a waterfall. Period.
  1. Use the prevailing conditions to your advantage, by adapting how and what you want to shoot. The weather changes the character of a waterfall when it also changes. Many times I will return to a waterfall with a pre-conceived new plan of attack, only to find it made redundant by the light on the day. I drool at the prospect of finding mist, but more often I am examining the direction of the sun and the cloud situation.

Exposure

An effective water motion shot can happen from about 0.6 seconds. A that speed, a wave, for example, is both snapped and moving. A waterfall can be different, merely because unlike a wave, it tends to flow fairly evenly. I vary between a few seconds and a few minutes for long exposures, the latter only possible with seriously dark ND filters (and no wind!), the former possible with Grad NDs. I try not to fiddle with either aperture or ISO if I can help it. I tend to leave ISO at the lowest possible, for image quality. The average length of my long exposures is 30 seconds and the longest is about 7 minutes. For that shot the sun was nowhere, it was dark under foliage and the water was a mere handful of drips. Aperture I tend to leave adjusting for composition purposes (DOF), not for length of exposure.

An important caveat to trying to achieve a really long exposure is when there is a LOT of water flowing over a waterfall, particularly after rain. The volume of this whiteness will often preclude a long exposure and require careful management to avoid blowing out your image. In addition, a massive flow of water obviates the opportunity to shoot clear, straight, thin strips of vertical water through long exposures – they’re simply not there to shoot. In these respects, you can indeed have too much water to deal with in any way other than to really shorten the exposure – to 1.6 seconds, 1 second, or less.

Watch your step!

It may sound obvious, but I have seen more than one photographer injure themselves, sometimes badly, whilst photographing a waterfall for want of keeping their eyes on their steps. One occasion I even remarked to my girlfriend that a photographer we were observing was about to suddenly fall, simply because of where she was and where her eyes were not. Seconds later she did.

At the base of many waterfalls, rocks can have a permanent and thin covering of still water rendering them like ice, and if you step on one of them it will not matter one iota what type of shoe you are wearing – your foot will go out from under you, quickly followed by your leg, knee, thigh and then in an instant your arse over your tit. And if you happen to have your tripod and/or your camera in your hand ……

If you’re uncertain about the slippage factor of a rock, gently tap it with your toe. You’ll know straight away whether there’s grip. I adopt the policy of looking for fairly flat cracks and stepping on and in them.

They say there’s no gain without pain, but hell, there’s a lot of caution you can apply to achieve the same result without so much of the other!

Shooting

Elsewhere I’ve read the tip of putting your lens hood on to help minimise the effect of sunlight and also to prevent water getting on your lens. All true, but if you’re like me, you like long exposures and if you are using non-screw in filters, a lens hood is not an option.

The water is definitely an issue. If the falls are in flood, they will create their own wind, and the closer you are to them, the more water droplets there will be swirling around in all directions. This can be managed by a hood, but also by using an umbrella, and definitely by checking your lens front after each shot. But if you’re finding the conditions akin to having a shower at home, it’s probably a subtle hint you need to step away from the waterfall.

I cover issues to do with filters and shooting waterfalls here under the heading Sample 2 – Waterfalls.

That’s basically it in terms of tips. If I remember some more I’ll add them. In closing, this is the waterfall photograph I am most proud of. The taking of it involved the use of most of the tips I’ve described. In particular, I used a tripod, remote shutter release, mirror lock-up, the angle finder, and filters. I avoided the sky, chose the best angle (even though it was technically off-limits – long story), got the light and timing right, and took my time getting the tripod nice and stable:

Ciao, and happy shooting!

Serious-but-easy-to-follow stuff

  1. The concepts of Aperture and f stopexplained
  1. Understanding ISO – explained here
  1. Orton Effecthow to do it
  1. Basic Photoshop tips, eg sharpening, straightening, cropping
  1. Creating artwork samples for your profile or public view page – how to
  1. Creating a linked samplehow to
  1. Creating linked text – just like this
  1. What is mirror lock-up and when to do it – a guide
  1. Motion blurhow to
  1. Adding clouds to an image – how to
  1. Adding a rainbow to an image – how to
  1. All your questions about shooting in RAW answered here
  1. The most comprehensive easy-on-the mind guide to Neutral Density filters on the planet
  1. All your questions about converting a digital camera to infrared are answered here
  1. An Introduction to Tilt+Shift Photography – it’s the real deal!

Not-so-serious Stuff

  1. How (not) to shoot seascapes like a pro – an easy-to-follow guide here (not)
  1. An alternate use for Canon lenses (ouch!) shown here

Work-in-progress

Tutorials currently in progress:

  1. The Photographer’s Guide to Blue Mountains Waterfalls
  1. The Easy Guide to Composing a Photograph

Peter

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