Since I was young, I've always been captivated with waterfalls. The exploration involved in finding them and the challenge to capture their majestic beauty have always been something I personally connected with... When I was shooting film, I will never forget the first time I nailed a long exposure waterfall shot. I still cherish that image today and think of all the factors that came together to help me capture that perfect moment. At the time, I thought I was pretty much "the man." Now, I have come to realize there is a bit more involved than just showing up with a camera and tripod. Let's explore the challenges and equipment needed to capture silky, smooth waterfalls.
4 minute exposure at Linville Falls
Finding a good Waterfall:
Places like Google images, Flicker and 500px are all great places to explore your area waterfalls from home. Photographer Blog posts are also great resources and often have additional information on waterfalls and directions to the falls. Your local Park Rangers are also a great source of information and can often put you right on a good falls at a perfect time of day.
*A camera with a shutter speed around 2-4 seconds is a good place to start, but a camera with the "Bulb" setting is ideal and will give you maximum flexibility on exposure times.
*A sturdy tripod is a must have and will allow you to take long exposures without camera shake. A remote shutter release(or cable release) is required to trigger the shutter without touching your camera. Try to avoid touching the camera during the exposure. Even the slightest movement can ruin your shot.
*A Polarizing Filter will do several things for you... It will control reflection, saturate the greens and by cutting back the light, it will allow a slightly longer exposure time.
*Neutral Density Filters come in various strengths and help to reduce the amount of light coming in through the lens and reaching the camera's sensor. These filters will be necessary to give you the ultimate in control over your shutter speed. An NDx8(3 stop) will be a good filter to start with if you are shooting in low light. Midday light will require a much darker filter. If you plan to include the sky in your image, you should consider a ND graduated filter which will help you tone down the bright sky and blend it in with your exposure. An experienced waterfall photographer will have a variety of ND filters with them at all times.
Timing of your shoot:
When planning your waterfall shoot, consider the best time of the year for optimal results. Late spring is usually a good time as everything is filled with new green foliage and the water levels are usually normal or slightly higher. Late summer and fall can sometimes suffer from low water levels and lead to less than desirable results. I will usually scout a location before I plan to photograph it. It should be noted that a raging falls can benefit from a faster shutter speed, while a low, slow moving falls may need a longer shutter speed. It's all a matter of taste.
I usually try to hit waterfalls in the morning hours while the sun is still behind the mountainside. You do not want direct light hitting the falls or rocks around the falls as this will create hot spots and dappled light. Low, morning light is nice and even and it can help to keep your exposure time long. As the sun comes up, you will need to incorporate the use of filters to tone the light back down and achieve longer shutter speeds.
Cloudy and rainy days can be the perfect time to shoot waterfalls because the light quality is low and soft. Plus, the water levels are usually up... a double bonus!! Fog can appear after a good rain which can add a nice mood to your image. When shooting on a cloudy or rainy day, try to shoot down on the falls from an elevated position or at least compose your shot to eliminate the flat gray sky. Get close on the falls and direct the viewers attention to the water.
A good starting place is to put your camera on Shutter Priority or Manual.(I use manual) Set your shutter speed somewhere around 2-4 seconds. ISO at the lowest setting to start out. I will usually check my aperture at this point to see where it is landing. If it is around f11-f14, I will go ahead and take a shot. I try not to max the lens to it's lowest aperture when possible. I always try to use the lens at it's optimum f stop. See your lens manual for it's optimum settings.
Using the histogram on your camera is a perfect way to check to see if you are clipping any highlights or darks in the image. Once I have a test shot to go by, I will evaluate it and begin to adjust my camera settings and filters to find the ideal settings. All the while, keeping an eye on your ideal shutter speed to control the water movement. I always add the polarizer first so I can control the highlights and reflections at the water's surface.
When I look at waterfalls, I see many shots within shots. The first capture I will make is of the grand landscape.(The waterfall as part of the surrounding landscape) If possible, I will always try to incorporate compositional elements in the foreground like rocks or a log. I will rarely photograph the waterfall straight on and centered in the image. Rather, a more interesting composition would be from a side angle with the falls offset to one side. A zoom lens is helpful here because you can keep far enough back to avoid any spray given off by the falls. While I work my way around the falls, I always zoom in to tighter compositions of the falls.... showing the falls within the larger falls. I am constantly amazed at how many beautiful images will come from one waterfall. This is also a perfect technique to use in less than ideal light. Simply crop out the hot spots of light and focus in on the small cascades that make up the larger falls. While working your compositions, don't forget to pay attention to other elements that may affect your image such as the wind. You're taking long exposures and while the wind won't affect the water, it could potentially ruin the trees. You might consider taking an additional exposure for a nice, clean capture on the trees. This can be used later in post processing.
These are all the essential components of capturing the soft, silky water look that so many try to catch.
If you interested in advanced waterfalls tips, individual instruction and visiting some of the best waterfalls in western North Carolina, check out our Waterfall Workshop at:
Waterfalls in Western NC Workshop