Waterfall Photography – Tutorial and Tips for Shooting Waterfalls
So you just bought a new Digital SLR and you’re ready to take the next step as a photographer and learn how to use it. Here's a fun self assignment to help you leave the Automatic camera setting behind for good. Learn about the shutter speed and aperture settings and create gorgeous landscape photos at the same time!
Waterfalls make great subjects for nature photographs because they’re both dynamic and consistent. They flow in a consistent, repetitive patterns, presenting photographers with great opportunities to play with their natural forms. By using slow shutter speeds you can capture the movement of the water, adding a dynamic quality to your shots. Alternatively, with extremely fast shutter speeds you can freeze the action of splashes and moving water in a way we can’t appreciate with the naked eye.
How to create the blur effect: The blur effect seen in many waterfall scenes (in the above photo of the Subway Narrows along North Creek in Zion National Park), is achieved with very slow shutter speeds. To create this effect of blurred, flowing water you’ll want to use a tripod. The best shutter speeds for blurred water range from ½ second to 2 seconds, far longer than those used in "normal" photos. It's impossible to hold the camera completely still for this long without a tripod (or some alternative way to steady the camera). Once you’ve settled on a subject and set up your tripod, adjust your camera’s command dial to the shutter speed setting (S). Start by choosing the longest shutter speed possible within the range of correct exposure. Note that the f-stop or aperture setting should be as high as possible (anywhere from f-16 to f-32 depending upon your lens and camera). Alternatively, you may use the aperture (A) setting and select the highest possible f-stop within correct range of exposure. This will automatically provide the longest shutter speed possible. Note: pick the slowest available ISO setting on your camera to achieve the longest possible shutter speeds (on most digital cameras this will be an ISO of 100 or 200).
In order to achieve the desired long shutter speeds, you'll need to shoot during the parts of the day with the lowest light levels. Early morning or late evening are the best times for long exposures, and cloudy, overcast days also offer good, low-light conditions. If the edges of the day aren't an option, seek out subjects in the shade or out of the sun (The North Creek image was shot in a deep, narrow slot canyon, where the sun only reaches the ground at noon). Another trick to slow down shutter speeds is to add a polarizing filter to your lens, which will reduce the amount of light by as much as two full stops. A polarizing filter will also reduce reflected light off the water, which can be a plus in some situations.
Bracketing several different exposures will quickly give you an idea how different shutter speeds effect the level of blur. Here are two looks at the same scene using a fast shutter speed to "freeze" the pouring water (first) and a slow, 2 second shutter speed to capture the blurred movement of the cascade (below).
Try starting with 1/15 of a second (this will read as 15 on your camera) and bracket a string of longer exposures up to several seconds long. 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1 seconds, 1.5 seconds, and 2 seconds should give a good idea of how the different shutter speeds produce varying effects. Get a feel for how much blur different shutter speeds produce and take it from there.
Ideas of Composition:
Okay, now that you've mastered the basic blur effect, here are a couple tips (with examples) to make your waterfall images a little more interesting. In photos that have a lot of moving water, I seek out "anchors" within the composition to give the viewer a point of reference. Rocks or other objects the water is moving across, around and through will give the blurred water context.
You'll also notice there's no sky in this image. With the extremely long exposures necessary to create the desired blur effect, skies tend to appear unnaturally washed out. A split neutral density filter can help some with this, but I've found its better leave out the sky when possible on my waterfall photos.
Focus on the details!
Look for ways to take make your images captivating. Are there fallen leaves on the bank of the river? Remember, sometimes less is better. Keep it simple and focus your audience.
Search for unique patterns in the water. Here there are bubbles in a creek below the falls and they've created a circular in the pool. Notice the washed out sky in the upper left corner of the frame.
Can you find any interesting patterns in the rocks to focus on? Let the natural lines in landscape draw the viewers into the photo like these white igneous intrusions. Also notice the tree reflecting in the small puddle on the rock. The quiet pool of water adds a nice contrast to this rushing waterfall.
Find an interesting foreground to focus on, and use the blurred background to complement it in the background. These frozen leaves on the Stilliguamish River are the real subject of the picture, but they wouldn't be nearly as interesting without the river moving along behind it.
These ideas should provide you with the basic tools to go out and shoot appealing waterfall photography. Its relatively simple and easy to do, and it will force you to learn about shutter speeds. Start by learning the simple skill, apply your own creativity, and see what you get!