For me, waterfalls have been some the most challenging subjects I have ever photographed. The difficult part is the extreme “dynamic range” of the light to dark areas in most waterfall scenes. The trick is to find a way to capture that very wide spectrum of contrasts.
The tips listed below are a detailed description of the methods that I used to achieve the specific “look” that you see in most of my waterfall photos. If that is the kind of result you would like to get in your pictures, these methods could be very helpful. However, each photographer should also experiment with different methods and settings to see which results fit their own personal or artistic “style”.
Here are a few “secrets” that might help
Please be sure to check out the fantastic tips that were added by Tim Devine , a bit lower in the comments section. (You might want to stop by his RB portfolio to see his excellent work, too!)
1. USE A GOOD TRIPOD – This is not an option, it is absolutely necessary when shooting waterfalls with long shutter speeds. I carry a heavy duty tripod (that weighs a TON) on every waterfall shoot, even if the hike is 10 miles or longer. It’s a pain in the you-know-what, but it’s really THAT important!
2. Use at least two good quality lens filters, a CP (Circular Polarizer) and an ND (Neutral Density) filter. I often stack both filters on the lens at the same time, with the CP in front. With a full frame camera, stacked filters can cause vignetting (darkness in the corners of the frame). My 17-40mm lens allows me to use a rear mount ND filter to prevent that problem. “Thin” or “slim” filters can also solve the problem, most of the time.
3. Be VERY aware of the horizon line. Remember, the water’s surface in a pool is truly “level”. The human brain perceives a slanted water line as a visual incongruity …more simply stated, it just doesn’t look right! I use a bubble level that is built-in on my tripod, but I also have a simple bubble level that attaches to the camera’s “hot shoe”. It works just as accurately in “landscape” (horizontal) and in “portrait” (vertical) orientation too. At least, be sure that the horizon looks perfectly level in the view finder.
4. Shoot in Manual (if you are comfortable doing that) or Aperture Priority Modes. Be sure to close down the aperture to between f/9 to f/18, but be aware that as you get closer to the smallest aperture opening (f/16 or so), there will some loss of sharpness. You want to achieve the longest open shutter time as possible, without over exposure. That’s what gives the water that smooth looking appearance. (It is also why a good tripod is an absolute necessity!) You can shoot falls with a wider aperture, but only if you want to come closer to “freezing” the droplets of water, without so much “smoothing”. I usually try for at least a half second exposure, to as long as 60 seconds or even longer for some shots, depending upon the “look” that is most appropriate for the scene and the type of falls. I set the camera’s ISO to 100 or lower for nearly every waterfall shot I take.
5. Prevent “camera shake” by using a remote shutter release, cable or wireless remote control. In a pinch, the camera’s timer mode would work, but it is more time consuming and a bit awkward.
6. Use your widest lens for most of these types of shots. Mine are usually taken from 17mm to 24mm focal length. It is very difficult to find a good shooting position to capture the entire waterfall with any lens longer than 35mm. These focal lengths apply specifically to “small frame” (1.6 X) DSLRs. If you own a “full frame” camera, you might be able to go slightly longer in focal length with your lens.
7. As always, bracket your shots. I usually shoot normal, +2, +1 and -1, -2 exposures for every shot. I always shoot in RAW camera format. Bracketing also allows you to use HDR software to tame the dynamic range, if it’s absolutely necessary.
8. Try to visit waterfalls on overcast days, if possible. The weaker diffused light can be extremely helpful. Direct sunlight on the water could be captured as very ugly white globs (called “blowouts”), where the camera’s sensor becomes totally saturated with light in the brightest areas, surrounded by mostly black everywhere else. “Blowouts” should be avoided as much as possible.
9. Use the lens hood that was designed specifically for your lens, especially on sunny days. The hood can also help reduce the number of water droplets that could end up on your lens, to some degree.
Well, this is how I shot most of the waterfalls that I have displayed on RedBubble. If you get a chance to visit and shoot some falls sometime soon, you might want to try these tips. They might help you to get some really nice looking photos of those gorgeous waterfalls.
Now, get out there and capture some beautiful waterfall pictures!