Thank you Rick for asking me to do a blog on waterfall photography. Waterfalls are among the most fascinating features of the natural world, but they can be challenging to photograph. Here are some basic steps to get your readers started on making beautiful waterfall images.
1. Find waterfalls near your home. Do an online search and ask local park officials about local streams. Even small waterfalls can be beautiful. You can also travel to places that are known to have wonderful waterfalls such as Iceland (on my to do list), New England, and the Southeastern USA. Many of the most astounding and beautiful waterfalls are where I live in Oregon. We have hundreds of them. There are a few areas here with large concentrations. Most notable are the Columbia River Gorge and Silver Falls State Park.
Opening Image: Proxy Falls, Oregon Cascades. ISO 100, 1.3 secs., f/20.
2. Shoot on overcast days. In order to get that soft silky look, cloudy skies are best. Avoid direct sunlight.
3. Shutter speed. To get that creative silky soft flowing effect you will need to shoot at least ¼ second or slower. I will experiment on each waterfall at many shutter speeds. Some of my favorites are as slow as 2 seconds or even longer.
Above: Katmai Bear. A fast shutter speed, 1/250 or greater, shows the water detail. Kodachrome 64 slide film, 1/250 sec., f/8. Katmai, Alaska.
Above: Lost Creek. 1/4 sec. or slower smooths the water. ISO 200, 1/4 sec., f/20. Lost Creek Falls, Oregon Cascades.
4. Use a tripod; it is an essential tool for long shutter speeds.
5. Shoot several images. The flow of water changes constantly so each image will be a little different. You will notice this in the spray, and also in the outflow pond at the bottom of the waterfall.
6. Cut down on the light. In order to get that slow shutter speed you have to limit the light coming into the camera. First of all use the lowest ISO for your camera. Then set the aperture at f18 or higher. Put on a polarizing filter. This combination is often enough to work well on darker overcast days, especially in the forest. If you still need to cut out more light use a neutral density filter to block out light. These come in different densities. I use a 2- or 3-stop filter. I also like the Singh-Ray vari ND filter, which allows me to use different strengths of darkness by rotating the filter to let just the right amount of light through.
7. Slow down. When you arrive at a great waterfall, you will often be in awe… Enjoy it for a while. Then look around and take some time to think about a good composition. Move to get a side angle. Use a wide angle, then use a telephoto to get in close to parts of the waterfall. At many of the waterfalls here in Oregon, you can walk BEHIND the falls and get a totally different perspective.
Left: Behind Lower South Falls. Walk behind the falls if you can for a new perspective. ISO 200, 1/6 sec., f/20. South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon.
8. Shoot in manual. This way you can control the shutter speed, aperture and ISO precisely. And watch your histogram carefully. The water often gets blown out, and you want to be able to recover detail.
If the whites are jammed up too far on the right of the histogram you may not be able to recover details, so cut down the exposure an f stop or two.
Expose for the highlights. There are many techniques for bring out detail in the water, the simplest is to use the white and highlights sliders in Lightroom.
I often use curves and mask the layer in Photoshop to paint in selectively. The new Lightroom 5 has an improved adjustment brush that works really well for this, too.
Left: Coors Waterfall. Black-and-white shows the details of the water and rocks in a different way. Subtracting color makes the image rely on form and tonality alone. ISO 200, 1 sec., f/20. Coors Falls, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.
Have fun searching out waterfalls. Some of your most
rewarding and artistic photos can be of waterfalls.
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Thank you Alex! Great job!
Alex and I are running a Oregon Coast Photo Workshop Caravan this fall. It's full, but you can get on the waiting list. Info my Workshops page.