Digital Rebel FAQ Series

Compose, focus, click. That is all it takes, right? Sure, if you want a standard, some-what lifeless waterfall photo. You may have noticed that in photos of waterfalls (large and small cascades) sometimes really pop and have a dynamic nature about them? How do you achieve these kinds of results? Click below for some hints and help.

What is it about waterfalls that compels us so? There's much about a waterfall to impress on a person, both spiritually and even intellectually. Waterfalls are a natural source of grace and energy. They're also a wonder of geology and hydrology. The right mix of environmental conditions that go into making a beautiful waterfall are rare and unique indeed. Its this natural grace in motion that is so hard to properly catch on film.

I hope I don't sound too corny, but a waterfall is a bit like a snowflake, no two are alike. However, I believe that unlike tiny snowflakes, the vast difference in scale between waterfalls is very unlike that of snowflakes. Huge wide cataracts like Niagara, tall thin cascades like Multnomah or the quiet trickle of an Appalachian mill creek. One common trait they all share: they are water in motion.

The essence of the waterfall is its motion. I believe the key to taking a captivating waterfall photo is to capture the feel of this motion in the photograph. This goal takes some preparation and experimentation with your camera equipment to get just right. Keep in mind, no two waterfalls are going to photograph the same, so consider these as guidelines and suggestions, rather than standard procedure.

Capturing the Sense of Motion

How does one take a static image that conveys motion? Think of a photograph of a car racing on a track. An extremely fast film speed and shutter speed can snap a photo of a car racing and freeze it in time. Take a look at the photograph of the race cars:

Both images are of moving cars taken in two different ways. Which image conveys a sense of motion and why? The bottom car was taken with a slightly slower shutter speed and the camera panned with the movement of the car blurring the background. The first car could be traveling at a fast clip, but you have no sense of scale as to what kind of speed its moving at. Its this kind of expression of movement I find ideal in properly capturing a waterfall:

Which photo of the same waterfall seems to convey its sense of motion better: the photo that seems to be stopped in its tracks or the waterfall that's has more of a "streaming" feel to it?

Putting the Static in Motion

It is not a difficult process to capture a waterfall like the bottom photo above, but there are several gotchas that you may encounter as you attempt this which I will try to explain.

Its obvious that a longer exposure is required to capture the ethereal-like movement of the water. This longer exposure gives the moving water time to leave its visual trace on the film or sensor as it moves down the cascade. Finding the sweet sport for a particular waterfall will take experimentation as every particular waterfall, or even particular angle of a waterfall for that matter, will have its own lighting conditions. Its the lighting that make these kinds of photos most challenging.

In most cases, the average amateur shooter will "slow down" and increase the duration of the exposure by increasing the aperture. This reduces the amount of light passing through the lens and increase the time to properly expose the shot. However, this will be directly affecting your depth of field (DOF). The only way to maintain your desired DOF and extend the exposure time is to use neutral density filters. These are filters that reduce the amount of light hitting your lens without affecting DOF. Its really up to you to decide which method is better for you. In most cases, a deep DOF is acceptable for a waterfall picture, so shooting at f/8 or even f/22 is acceptable. Because we're talking about exposures of 1/4 second or more, I should point out that a tripod is absolutely essential in taking these kinds of photos. A remote cord would be a great assistance as well.

The challenge in taking waterfall photographs is managing over saturation and hot spots in your long-exposure. Presumably you're going to be shooting your waterfall photo during the day, sometimes in the bright mid-day sun. Water, especially white-water is a highly-reflective surface. Unfortunately for us, waterfalls are almost entirely whitewater. Extending your exposure often leads to overexposing the water itself when attempting to create its sense of motion and maintaining the proper exposure of the environment around the falls. You must put extra effort into properly metering the scene while striving for that ideal exposure. (Not all waterfalls or daylight conditions will permit this without a neutral density filter. )

In most cases I've found that at ISO100, f/8, an exposure of at least 1/4 of a second will capture a good sense of motion for most situations, however if you're using your aperture to control the lighting without regard to DOF, I.E. using "Av" mode on your Digital Rebel, the exposure length will be based on how the field of view is metered. If you've set your camera to Av mode and ISO 100, your camera will tell you the shutter speed it is will use for what it metered from the FOV. Adjust your aperture until you've reached an adequate shutter speed (such as 1/4 second). If the scene is too bright to permit a long exposure, you may need to resort to a neutral density filter.

Metering against blowouts

As you look look through the viewfinder to compose your waterfall shot, try to determine which areas are the whitest or will lead to the possibility of over saturation. It will likely be where water hits object such as a rock, where the water hits the pool or the upper lip of the fall. You will have to carefully avoid over saturating these areas during your exposure while not under-exposing the surroundings (trees, rocks, lower pool, mill, what ever it may be). If you can, use your AF-points to isolate the brightest spot and meter against that. If this yields a photograph that is too dark (as its preventing over saturation of that white area) you may need to use another point as a metering aid, risking slight blowout of the previous spot. It may be practically impossible to eliminate all blow outs entirely. Some small blowouts can be expected and may not detract too much from the image.

Here's an example of mine of Multnomah Falls in Oregon that exhibits two types of blowouts:

In the above photo, the waterfall is blown in several places where you can see large blobs of undefined white, as well as the sky at the top of the photo. The latter, in this situation, was nearly impossible to control due to the sun being only a few degrees above the very top of the falls. Including the top of the falls meant losing the sky.

A properly exposed photo of the same waterfall:

Notice that the sky is still over saturated.

They trick here is to experiment. If acceptable illusion of motion can be achieved in 1/8th second, you're going to be well ahead of the game with respect to preventing blowouts. If the dimly lit scene requires a 1 second exposure, you run a high risk of blowouts. There's no hard and fast rule for exposure to apply here.

Controlling the Sky

Overcast skies are always the bane of a photographer, but even partly cloudy skies can make photographing interesting foreground matter. This compounded with longer exposures for waterfalls as I have described is a recipe for blown out skies. But there are a few ways to combat this.

The Graduated Neutral Density Filter is similar to a standard neutral density filter in its application, however unlike the standard ND filter, the graduated ND filter only has been darkened on half of the glass. Like a circular polarizer, the screw-only type filter can be rotated to place the area of adjustment wherever you need it. Like standard ND filters, graduated ND filters are usually available in 4 levels of opacity, each adding approximately an additional stop to that portion of the FOV. If you're a Cokin-type filter user, you have a lot more flexibility in the placement of the filter. The screw-on standard type limits you to 50% coverage, where the cokin allows you to move the filter as you wish.

By rotating the darkened area of the ND grad filter to cover the sky area of your FOV you can virtually stop-down that portion of the photo, leaving the rest of the frame to expose normally. As with any challenging lighting condition, you may have to experiment with the right combination of ND strength and exposure time.

If you're unable to take a photo with an ND grad, you are still able to salvage that sky. This method uses features of Photoshop to accomplish a balanced photograph. By combining two exposures of the same vantage point (a tripod is required here), you combine the properly exposed elements of both into one properly exposed image. First, take a photo, metering off of the waterfall, using the methods above to best eliminate blow outs in the waterfall details. Carefully, without moving the camera on the tripod, take a second photo, this time metering off of the sky. Later, in Photoshop, you can combine the two exposures into one. I'll provide you a link rather than try to fumble my way through explaining it myself.

Composing the Shot

As with anything, there's no one way to compose your waterfall photo. While a waterfall picture by itself is a wonderful thing, you can enhance the photograph by encompassing other elements around the waterfall. Seasonal details, such as green foliage or fall colors are a nice touch. Adjacent period buildings or bridges give a sense of scale to a waterfall. Using an angle that leads the eye along a horizontal waterfall or up and down a tall waterfall give additional sense of motion. The possibilities are endless.

One more magical thing about waterfalls is the fact that just about every locale in the world has some type of cascade available to photograph. Its up to you to capture it and bring it to life as a photograph.