Sunday, October 27, 2013

Yes, Go Chasing Waterfalls

Waterfalls are a classic photographic subject, and despite the TLC song, many photographers do spend time off chasing waterfalls. With the right equipment and a little bit of planning, you can make the most out of your waterfall shots.

Take Your Waterfall Photographs to the Next Level | Boost Your Photography

Equipment for Waterfalls

Many waterfall photographs feature the long, slow, "cotton candy" looking water that can only be achieved by using a long exposure, on the order of full seconds to even minutes. In order to successfully capture this kind of shot, it helps to have a few extra supplies with you. (After each suggestion, I will offer some 'how to cope without' tips in the parentheses.)

1. Tripod. A tripod will hold your camera steady for a longer shutter speed and can help you get angles or views that might be difficult while hand-holding. Read more about How to Maximize your Tripod for advice on using a tripod effectively. (If you do not have a tripod with you, try resting your camera on something steady like the ground, a rock, or a railing.)

This wide view of a waterfall in Mount Rainier was shot by setting the camera down on the bridge.

2. Remote Shutter Release. A remote allows you to trigger your camera's shutter without touching the camera. This minimizes camera shake and helps you capture a steady, sharp image. A remote shutter release also allows you to use the 'Bulb' setting on your camera to get shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. Read more about why Remote Shutter Releases are a Cheap and Easy Upgrade. (If you do not have a remote with you, use the 2-second or 10-second timer on your camera.)

3. Circular Polarizer. A circular polarizer helps with waterfalls in two ways. First, it reduces the amount of light entering your camera by one or two stops, which allows you to shoot with a slower shutter speed. Second, turning the polarizer allows you to only record light bouncing off the water instead of through it, which maximizes the slow water effect. Read more about how a Circular Polarizer will improve your photography and how best to use one here. (If you do not have a polarizer, you can try shooting through polarized sunglasses, but this can add an unusual color cast to your images.)

Sunglasses can mimic the effect of a polarizer but often add a color cast.

4. Neutral Density Filter. A neutral density filter (regular or variable) allows you to reduce the amount of light entering your camera. A regular neutral density filter will reduce the light by a set amount of stops, while a variable neutral density filter will allow you to vary the amount of stops. The darker the filter, the less light that reaches your camera, and the longer you can leave the shutter open. (If you do not have a neutral density filter, you will not be able to get the really long, slow shutter speeds.)

Making the Most of Your Waterfall Shots

Shoot in Aperture Priority or Manual Mode

When shooting waterfalls and trying to get the long, slow water look, you want to get the slowest shutter speed you can while still keeping the overall shot exposed properly. To do this, you want to set your ISO to 100 (or the lowest value on your camera) and your aperture to f/22 (or higher if you have it). If you are shooting in aperture priority mode, the camera will then calculate the longest shutter speed that it can for the given ISO and aperture. If the picture comes out too light or too dark, switch over to manual, dial in the same settings, and adjust the shutter speed as needed.

If you are able to use a shutter speed longer than 30-seconds (likely if you are using a circular polarizer in combination with a neutral density filter), then you will need to use the 'Bulb' setting in manual mode. In Bulb, the camera will leave the shutter open as long as you press the shutter button or hold down the remote. Using a remote with a lock allows you to keep the shutter open as long as needed to get the shot.

Gorge of Waterfalls by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

Aim for Even Lighting

Waterfalls look best when they are shot under even lighting: either the entire scene is in direct sun or in the shade. Dappled light can be very pretty in real life but makes it difficult to properly expose for your waterfall shot. In the shot below, you can see that the parts of the falls in direct sunlight are too bright, while the shady sections are still dark. Cloudy, overcast, or just entirely shaded falls work best, as the lighting is already a little lower, and you can use a longer shutter speed.

The bright sunlight spots make this waterfall image uneven.

Provide a Sense of Scale

Waterfalls vary greatly in size from small ripples through stones to powerful behemoths with thousands of gallons of water pouring over each minute. Think about providing your viewer with a sense of scale or context when composing your waterfall shot.

Waterfall at Mendenhall Glacier

This composition emphasizes the power and scale of this waterfall in Juneau, Alaska. The falls itself fills the entire frame, and alone, the viewer would have no idea as to the scale of the falling water. The addition of the couple, however, provides that needed sense of scale, and lets the viewer understand some of the immensity of this waterfall.

Vary your Perspective

Many people look at waterfalls, take a shot of then head on from the bottom of the falls or an overlook, and move on. This can be a very lovely shot, but there is so much more than you can do.

Waterfall in Fall by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

The photograph above is a more traditional view of a waterfall. While it looks like this was shot head-on from the bottom of the falls, it was actually shot quite a distance away with a zoom lens. This was the middle of a series of falls in a narrow canyon, but zooming in places you, as the viewer, much closer to the falls than is actually possible for that location.

Leaves in the Falls by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

Get up close and personal with your waterfall! While not advised for all falls (know your limits), getting physically very close to a waterfall can provide some amazing shooting opportunities. This small waterfall happened to be right next to a fairly dry bank that allowed me to get right up to it with my tripod without actually having to wade through the stream.

Above the Falls by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

Looking down from above is another way to change your perspective and get a different waterfall shot. In this one, the focus is much more on the swirling leaves in the background than on the actual waterfall itself. Again, a long shutter speed (60 seconds in this case) made the swirling pattern evident.

Forget the Waterfall Entirely

Both of these next shots are untraditional versions of waterfalls shots: the falls itself is not even visible.

Serene Swirls by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

In this shot, the focus is on the swirling leaves and the narrow gorge that is the setting for the waterfall. This image was a combination of two shots, one for 15 seconds to expose for the swirling leaves and water, and one for 5 seconds to expose for the brightly lit background.

A Wide Look at Fall by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

This shot is off the water just above the waterfall. Here, the water is still and its mirror-like surface reflects the scene around it. This reflection is only slightly disturbed by the ripples as the water approaches the falls. The leaves in the foreground bring a wide-angle feel to this image. The key to shooting a photograph like this one is to get the camera physically down low to the water and to shoot with a wide-angle lens (although 18 mm was the widest that I had here).

Waterfall Summary

If you want to shoot waterfalls and want to achieve the long, slow moving water style, then it helps to be prepared. Bring along a tripod, remote, circular polarizer, and neutral density filter, so that you can get longer shutter speeds, such as 15 or 30 seconds or even up to full minutes. Think about the lighting and try to plan your visit for a time when the waterfall and surrounding scene will be in full shade (or full clouds or overcast). Once you are there, do not be satisfied with just getting the 'classic' waterfall shot. Take some time to vary your perspective and include a sense of scale. Consider even forgetting about the waterfall entirely for some shots. You may be surprised to find that your favorite shots are those where you took the time to try something new.

Waterfall in Motion by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

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