This was a popular post in a previous blog that I ran for a while and decided to re-write it. The basics of photographing waterfalls is fairly simple with the right equipment.
I love photographing movement. Each time we are faced with shooting movement we have two choices as a photographer, and both yield dramatically different results. We can choose to 1) stop the motion or 2) capture it. It’s good practice to mix it up and try out both techniques.
Most of us cant hold steady enough, for even 2 seconds so it’s important to have a tripod with you. A polarizing or ND filter will also be helpful when photographing waterfalls or any body of water outside on a bright day.
How to Photograph Waterfalls.
Take a test shot! I suggest using auto-mode for the test. Turn off your flash, point your camera and just take a shot. Now, take a look at your results and note the settings your camera picked as they will be a good indication of where you should start. Generally you should try and expose for about 1-2 seconds to get a nice blur.
Use your Tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you will need to figure out a way to steady your camera for a few seconds, like a rock, or tree branch… something. If you are using a Tripod (and you darn well should be!) make sure you secure your camera strap if it’s windy out. I usually wrap my around mine around tripod. The slightest bit of movement can cause “camera shake” and ruin your picture. If your camera has a TV mode (Time Value), also known as Shutter Priority, switch to it and set the shutter speed to 2 seconds and click. Oh, if only it were just that easy.
The problem with increasing the time the shutter stays open is that it allows more light to hit your camera’s sensor, so unless it’s a dark area under a tree cover or cloudy you’re going to overexpose the shot even with the automatic settings.
So how do we get the exposure right?
You can do a few things to stop some of the light from coming in the camera and help get a better exposure. Here are some tips.
Low ISO. When you set your cameras ISO to 100, or below (how low can you go?) you are essentially decreasing the light sensitivity for your camera’s sensor so the shutter can stay open longer. The low ISO will help in keeping noise at bay too. Bonus! I always shoot with the lowest ISO possible to lessen my chances of grainy artifacts and will hardly ever raise it before exhausting all other options, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Filters. All filters decrease the amount of light entering the camera, even if its a minute amount. The easiest and cheapest filter to get your hands on is a polarizing filter, they are usually sold in sets along with a UV filter – so you get 2 for one! (This is a basic set that no photographer should be without.) The Polarizing filter reduces glare, reflection, and even darkens the sky so you aren’t blowing out details or overexposing. However, I recommend investing in a ND (neutral density) filter of atleast N8 which provides a 3 stop reduction in light if you are going to be shooting a lot of waterfalls or water movement in day light hours. You can use either filter, but in my experience it is much easier with the neutral density filter.
Time of day. Your optimal times for shooting long exposures are the blue hour (between dawn and sunrise or sunset and dusk) and the golden hour (the first and last hour of sunlight in a day) because it’s less bright and the color temperature is dreamy! Dull, overcast/cloudy days are a good time to shoot as well, but we can’t control the weather. So aim for these time for great results when possible.
Close your Aperture. Set your camera’s aperture to the smallest it will go, most dSLR can get down to at least f/22 and then set your shutter speed to a little bit longer than your test shot, and then check your results. Make changes as needed to get proper exposure or try using your cameras AV (Aperture Value) to have your camera do the work.
Bracket the shot. If all else fails, take a few shots, (usually 3 or more) with different shutter speeds, and aperture openings to give you varied exposure. Your camera should have an exposure bracketing (AEB) setting that will allow you to set the difference in settings and then automatically take the pictures for you all at once. If you are unsure if you camera can, RTFM!
Clean up! It’s okay to clean up the area surrounding the waterfall as long as you aren’t intruding or breaking any rules/laws. In my photo above, I left the leaves in tact to give added color and to capture the messiness that is fall in the beautiful Smoky Mountains.