Photographing Waterfalls

MicWaterfalls may be my favorite subject to photograph. My personal style is to use a slow shutter speed to turn the water silky smooth. Then I add texture to the water in post processing to accentuate the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of individual streams that comprise the flow.

To get a sufficiently slow shutter speed polarizing filters or neutral density filters are typically necessary. I find that a 1/4 of a second exposure or slower gives me the texture I’m looking for.  The slower the shutter speed, the silkier the water.  Obtain the proper exposure by adjusting the holy trinity of camera settings – aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

The tips I’ll explain in this article will work best for manual exposure mode, aperture priority mode or shutter speed priority mode.  If you like to shoot in Program mode, I highly recommend you change your setting to one of these three modes.  They aren’t difficult to use and will open up a world of creativity.  You will also need to take your camera off auto ISO.  We’ll be setting our ISO manually.

Also, be sure to use a tripod, turn off image stabilization if your lens or camera has it, use either a cable release or self-timer mode and, if you are using a DSLR, use mirror-lockup.  You will be shooting at slow shutter speeds and need to be sure the camera is rock solid when the photograph is taken.

When shooting waterfalls, I’m focused on getting a very specific shutter speed.  You can get the shutter speed you want through a combination of a small aperture (to let less light hit the sensor), a low ISO (to reduce the sensor’s sensitivity to light), through filters or by time of day (shooting near dawn or dusk).

Waterfalls: Firehole Falls in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

Firehole Falls on the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park.  Overcast weather creates ideal conditions for waterfall photography.

The weather is the great wildcard and depending on your objective, can be good or bad for photography.  Overcast weather provides nice and even light but no shadows that “sculpt” and “define” subject matter.  Sunshine illuminates and provides shadow but can create hot spots and make it challenging to get a low enough shutter speed to slow the flow of water.  Wind can be a nightmare if you want to avoid blurry foliage but this same blurry foliage can also create a surreal and artistic photograph that you might find pleasing.  I strongly believe that in most weather conditions you can come away with a strong photograph if you have the right tools, skills and knowledge.

In some cases the conditions might require you to use software to finish off the photograph and compensate for any external factors that negatively impacted your artistic vision (of course you can use software to enhance your artistic vision as well!).  I’ll discuss these topics in more detail and illustrate how I apply each of them to my photography.

Small apertures

Small apertures provide greater depth of field than larger apertures. They also reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor and depending on how small an aperture you use, can introduce diffraction which degrades image quality (diffraction is a complex topic for another day but you can find a very good overview of it here on Cambridge in Color’s website).  So much in photography is about trade offs.

The phrase “small aperture” refers to the size of the lens’ aperture opening (the part that controls how much light hits the sensor), not the f/stop number.  It seems counter intuitive but the bigger the f/stop number, the smaller the aperture’s size and the slower a shutter speed will be required to get a proper exposure.  It’s really a fraction.  Aperture is measured as a fraction of the lens’ focal length (f = focal length).  Therefore, an f/4 aperture on a 100mm lens is open 25mm to let light onto the camera’s sensor (100mm / 4 = 25mm).  “Stop down” that aperture to f/10 and and the lens opening is 10mm (100mm / 10 = 10mm).  It’s not counter intuitive any more is it!

The smallest aperture I will use is typically f/16.  I choose my aperture based on how much I want to be in focus (if there are near and far subjects I want in focus then f/16 is typically what I will use).  I use a full frame camera and generally speaking the equivalent aperture on an APS-C camera (e.g., Canon Rebel, Nikon D5500) is about f/10, and on a micro four-thirds camera (e.g. Olympus Pen, Panasonic Lumix) it’s about f/8.

Waterfalls: Tower Falls in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

Tower Falls in Yellowstone National Park

 

This is another complex topic and for another day!  Just know that APS-C and micro four-thirds cameras will introduce diffraction earlier than a full frame camera but these cameras also provide greater depth of field so you don’t need to shoot at f/16 to get everything in your composition in focus.  When I use an APS-C or micro four-thirds camera I will shoot at f/10 or f/8 in these situations.  The nasty little secret is that by increasing the aperture (remember, increasing the aperture makes the number smaller but the aperture opening bigger: f/16 to f/8, for example) you are letting in more light.

APS-C and micro four-thirds camera owners will need to reduce the light hitting the sensor even further than full frame camera owners to to get to the shutter speed you want.  But, don’t worry, it can still be done easily – or you can just not worry about diffraction and shoot at f/16.  The choice is yours.

Utilizing ISO

Nearly all digital cameras allow for changing the ISO, which is the sensor’s sensitivity to light (same concept as the film days but obviously a different way of doing things).  The lower the ISO, the slower the shutter speed you will get (reducing the sensor’s sensitivity to light requires more light to hit the sensor during the exposure). 

All cameras have a base ISO rating (e.g., ISO 100 or 200) where the sensor will capture the best image quality.  Many cameras allow you to go even lower than the base ISO (e.g., from a base of 100 to 50 or 25).  Image quality degrades the further you go from the camera’s base ISO.  It’s common knowledge that the higher the ISO you use the more noise appears in the sensor.  But, you also lose dynamic range and this impacts your ability to capture highlight and shadow detail.  This may or may not be important depending on what you are photographing.  However, even setting the camera’s ISO lower than the base ISO will result in reduced dynamic range.  I’ve yet to have this impact one of my photographs so I never worry about setting the ISO lower than base. 

I also generally don’t worry about a high ISO either when shooting waterfalls.  A slow shutter speed is generally my priority.  But, if you want the absolute best image quality (a consideration if you are going to be printing the image large) you should shoot at base ISO and use an aperture larger than f/16 (e.g., f/11, f/8 or f/5.6) – or, for those of you using a APS-C camera or a micro four-thirds camera, at an aperture larger than f/10 or f/8.  That said, sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and/or you need more depth of field.  Photography is all about trade offs!

Filters

During a sunny day it’s difficult to get the shutter speed slow enough for silky smooth water.  Lowering the ISO can help to a degree but sometimes this still won’t get you to a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second or slower.  Here’s a real world example:

The Sunny 16 rule says that a proper exposure at f/16 and ISO 100 is 1/100s.  To get to 1/6s you need to reduce light by 4 stops.  That means you need to drop your base ISO from 100 to 50 (one stop) and add a 3 stop ND filter.  If you don’t need the depth of field that f/16 provides and want to maximize image quality (i.e., you want to avoid the softening effect of diffraction), then you need a stronger ND filter.  Open up the f/stop to f/8 and you’ve lost two stops; your exposure time is now 1/50s.  That’s not going to cut it if you want smooth water with texture.  You’ll need a stronger ND filter.

This example uses the Sunny 16 rule.  That’s based on full strength sunshine.  If you are shooting under cloud cover or early or late in the day, then a polarizer or a 3 stop ND filter will be sufficient.

Things to consider (but not to stress over)

Subject magnification (either through distance and/or focal length of the lens used) affects the amount of shutter speed needed to produce sufficient water texture.  The smaller the subject is in the frame the slower the shutter speed required to freeze action.  This means you have to slow the shutter speed even more than you would ordinarily to obtain silky smooth water texture when the subject is smaller in the frame. 1/4s might not cut it.  You’ll need to experiment.

The speed of the waterfall also will impact your shutter speed.  You won’t need as slow a shutter speed for a very fast moving waterfall to produce great texture.  On the other hand, a slow moving waterfall will require an extremely slow shutter speed to produce silky smooth texture.  Not all waterfalls are created equal.

Of these two considerations, I’d focus (pun intended) more on speed of the waterfall than subject magnification.  The bottom line is that we are in the age of digital.  Just take the picture and check the monitor.  If you don’t like what you see, change your settings and take another photograph.  What could be easier?

A well stocked filter kit would include a circular polarizer, a 3 stop ND filter, and a 6 stop ND filter.  I love 10 stop ND filters but rarely use them for waterfalls.  But, I shoot with full frame cameras and seldom need that much light reduction power.  If you are using an APS-C or micro four-thirds camera, a 10 stop ND filter would be a helpful addition to your kit.

Waterfalls shutter speed illustration (Doug Oglesby)

The above two side-by-side photographs provide a good example of the impact of the speed of water flow.  Both images are at a similar shutter speed.  Akaka Falls on the Big Island of Hawaii is on the left and was shot at 1/5 of a second.  It is a 400 foot waterfall with a strong flow of water.  On the right is an unnamed waterfall (also on the Big Island) that was shot at 1/4 of a second.  Its flow was much slower.  The water in the image on the left is much silkier than the image on the right.  Slower water requires a slower shutter speed to generate the same amount of blur.

Time of day and weather conditions

Of course the time of day also impacts your shutter speed. The earlier or later the better – both in terms of quantity and quality of light.  That said, overcast days can be very helpful when photographing waterfalls.  This is because the cloud cover acts as a giant soft box, providing a nice soft and even light while making it a heck of a lot easier to get a slow shutter speed.

Direct sunlight can be overcome with the right aperture, ISO and filters.  A more difficult challenge is the dappled sunlight that occurs from the sun shining through branches and leaves.  This can ruin a photograph, creating all kinds of little hot spots that are unsightly and distracting.  Sometimes you can adjust for this in post processing by using local adjustments to reduce the exposure in just these areas.  My image of Madison Falls in Olympic National Park (on the right) is an example of a waterfall photographed in dappled sunlight, but in this case it worked – barely though (I was able to tone down the hot spots in post processing to make them less distracting).

Hawaii is notorious for having intermittent cloud cover (and wind – which I’ll get to in a moment).  Intermittent cloud cover can make for electrifying photography.  There is nothing better than gorgeous clouds and the sun spotlighting just one portion of your composition while other areas remain in shadow.

Waterfalls: Madison Falls in Olympic National Park, Washington (Doug Oglesby)

Madison Falls in Olympic National Park, an example of dappled lighting that was toned down in post processing.

 

See the image above of Akaka Falls for a good example of this spotlight effect.  I was at this location for about an hour and the clouds were moving so much that the sun’s “spotlight” was constantly changing. I waited patiently until it perfectly spotlighted the waterfall and used an ND filter to slow the shutter speed enough to create the water texture I was looking for (f/13, ISO 50 and 1/5 of a second).

Wind is an entirely different battle.  When photographing waterfalls with plant life, wind can be your enemy or your friend. If you want to let the foliage blow and blur for artistic effect, then there’s no problem. However, if you want to freeze motion then you need to get creative.  I’ve used both methods.  Which I choose depends on my artistic vision at the moment (I usually take photographs to accomplish both methods).  This is where post processing comes in handy.

Waterfalls: Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park, Washington (Doug Oglesby)

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park, Washington.  This is an example of blending two images – one shot at high ISO to obtain a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the foliage that was blowing in the wind and another shot at base ISO and a polarizer filter to make the water silky (it was overcast, making it quite easy to obtain the shutter speed I wanted.  See below for more information.

 

Post processing

Obviously, to freeze the foliage you are going to have to use a shutter speed that won’t give very pleasing water texture.  What’s the solution?  You need some post processing skills and a photo application that allows for layer blending (like Photoshop).  The process involves taking your normal exposure to provide sufficiently nice water texture (while blurring the foliage) then taking another exposure with a higher ISO (and/or removing your polarizer and/or ND filters) to freeze the foliage.  Combine the two images manually in post processing using layer masks (layers can be created in Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements) and “brush in” the high ISO image around the waterfall.  It sounds complicated but it really is quite simple.

The image at the top of this post of Sol Duc Falls is an example of layer blending.  I combined an ISO 1600 photograph at 1/80th second to freeze the foliage with an ISO 50 photograph at 1/2 of a second to provide silky smooth water (the flow was moving quickly so I didn’t need an even slower shutter speed).  The photograph of Marymere falls (to the right) in Olympic National Park is an example of just letting the foliage blur.

 

Waterfalls: Marymere Falls in Olympic National Park, Washington (Doug Oglesby)

Marymere Falls in Olympic National Park, Washington.  An example of allowing the foliage to blur in a windy environment.

 

Let’s talk for a moment about software.  Google just recently made their Nik Collection software free of charge.  It used to cost $500.  And it was worth every penny back then.  Google purchased the company then promptly cut the price significantly.  Now it’s free!  This is a tremendous collection of software filters.  I use their software on nearly all my photographs to add vibrancy, contrast and detail.  Their polarizer filter is so good that I rarely use one in the field unless I need to cut reflections.  As good as the software is, it can’t replicate the reflection cutting power of the physical circular polarizer filter.

There are several products within the Nik Collection suite.  Color Efex Pro is the one product in the collection I use the most.  It contains a large number of filters.  While not all of the filters are useful to my photography several are.  Tonal Contrast is one filter within Color Efex Pro that does a wonderful job of enhancing the texture in waterfalls.

Viveza is another Nik product that is included within Nik Collection suite.  It’s devoted to light and color and provides very precise control.  Their software uses a feature called control points.  Control points enable you to make adjustments to particular parts of an image without affecting other parts.  Use this feature to darken or lighten skies or hot spots, for example.  This feature is included across their software suite.  I highly recommend you try it (no, I’m not sponsored by Google).  It functions as both standalone software and as plugins for Lightroom and Photoshop (including Photoshop Elements).

Composition considerations and wrap up

The majority of my waterfall images are verticals.  The “rule” is that you should frame vertically subjects that are taller than wide. But, rules are made to be broken, right?  In many cases horizontal waterfall imagery can be quite powerful and dramatic.  Take two images – a vertical and a horizontal – and see which one you like best.  I’ll bet you’ll be surprised how often you prefer the unconventional photograph.  Also, try using different lenses to obtain different perspectives of the falls.  Zoom in tight and capture just a portion of the falls.  See my two images of Firehole Falls for an illustration of this.  And, move around to see if you can find a different vantage point.  I find that often times my first spot isn’t the best spot.

Ultimately there are several ways you can go about photographing waterfalls.  No matter the time of day, there is likely an option that can work for you.  If you have any questions “shoot” me an email and I’d be happy to answer your questions.  Good luck!

Waterfalls: Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, California (Doug Oglesby)

Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, California.  This is an example of a horizontal aspect ratio that works quite well.

You can find more of my waterfall images here.

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