How many times have you been on holiday and seen a dramatic waterfall and wanted to capture its beauty, only to find when you look at the images, you are a bit disappointed?
Below are some simple tips and examples that will help you to get better shots next time.
Photography is all about light and, when it comes to photographing a waterfall, you’re up against it from the start. Waterfalls will have very bright highlights (the water splashes) and very dark areas (typically rocks and both dry and wet shadow areas), hence the dynamic range of the scene is wide. If the waterfall is in direct sunlight there’s a strong possibility that this range will be outside that of your camera’s sensor.
So you may need to ‘compress’ the dynamic range. Take a few test shots, assess your histograms for clipping of the highlights and shadow areas. The main interest in a waterfall photo is in the highlights of the splashing/running water so you must hold in the detail there by protecting them. The danger is that you will do this at the expense of shadow detail and the rest of the scene will appear very dark and bland.
So, here is what you can do:
- Use a polarising filter to suppress the bright light coming from the highlights
- Visit at a time of the day when the whole waterfall is in shade
- Use fill-in flash, to lift the shadows
My preference is to try a different time of day as this is technically much easier and will give you the best results – of course, you may be in the middle of nowhere and returning at another time might be impractical.
2. Shooting mode
To capture some interesting effects you will want to shoot at different shutter speeds, so it makes sense to shoot in Shutter Priority (‘S’ or ‘Tv’) mode. To ‘freeze’ the movement of a fast-flowing fall you will need to shoot at 1/1000th of a second. Note: You may have to bump up your ISO to achieve this in shady conditions.
At the other extreme, to get that really milky/misty effect, a shutter speed of 20 seconds is not uncommon. For this you may well require a neutral density filter (I carry 3-stop and 10-stop filters with me all the time).
My personal preference is not to include any sky in the shot – I just want to see the waterfall. This means getting a vantage point at a similar level to the top of the fall (not always possible) or choosing to photograph what I would term a ‘cascade’, where you can pick out detailed areas rather than the whole fall. This way, you can ensure that the dynamic range is kept narrow.
Think about the normal composition rules of photography (rule of thirds, leading lines etc) when composing the scene.
4. Technical considerations and work flow
Using a tripod is a given – I hope I don’t need to explain why!
Make sure that you are comfortable with using your camera in Shutter Priority mode and that you know how to dial in exposure compensation. Once you have decided on the scene take a few test shots so you can get the exposure right – i.e. a small amount of clipping of the highlights – by using exposure compensation.
Next, decide which shutter speeds you would like to shoot at and dial in the first of these (I normally start at the fast end and work down), say 1/1000. I then try somewhere around 1/8 to 1/4 and then a long one – anything between 2 and 20 seconds.
Bear in mind that there may be 15 stops difference between your fastest and slowest shutter speeds and your lens may have only 7 or 8 aperture stops. In fact, you may only have 4 or 5 usable stops such that you can maintain enough depth of field to keep all the scene in focus. This is why you will need to adjust your ISO setting and possibly use an ND filter to achieve the very slow shutter speeds.
The examples below were shot with a focal length of 45mm at a small roadside cascade near the Dordogne river in France. Note the shutter speeds and how they affect the appearance of the water – also included are the other settings for reference.
I hope this was of some help and that you will tackle the challenge with more confidence next time.