Waterfalls are one of my favourite subjects so you can see a few in my portfolio. The following post is not intended to be prescriptive, but rather to share some things I have learned over the years and give a few pointers you may find useful in your pursuit of that definitive waterfall image.
No self respecting landscapist is without a steady tripod which is vital for capturing moving water. The next essential item is a polarizing filter which will reduce glare from wet rocks, water and foliage in the frame producing a more saturated image. This filter with its attendant filter factor allows for longer shutter speeds for a soft, foamy effect if desired. Some people find a cable release useful though I tend to use the self timer and mirror lockup functions instead. In bright situations a neutral density filter can be helpful in lowering your shutter speed for creative blur.
Timing is an essential element in the sense of exposure, (more on that later) and time of year. Waterfalls look their best when they have water flowing. In the dryer season many waterfalls are reduced to a trickle which detracts from their photogenic appeal.
“There’s no such thing as bad light, only light that isn’t suited to the subject you had in mind. The trick is to be open to the possibilities of the light you have available” –David Ward
Light is probably the most important ingredient in waterfall photography. In particular soft light is valued because one of the great challenges for this subject is controlling contrast.
As landscape photographers we crave that lovely directional light of early morning and late evening for its colour and for the modelling qualities. When we wake to overcast skies we may feel disappointed. However for most waterfall and interior forest scenes overcast skies are just what the doctor ordered. So much so, I am often hoping for grey overcast weather when the rest of the family are hoping for clear blue skies. Reduced light levels enable longer shutter speeds for creative effect, and overcast light reduces contrast.
One other environmental consideration is the wind which will move surrounding foliage in your frame. The best conditions are high overcast and little to no wind, unless you desire blurred foliage in your image.
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” –Yousuf Karsh
Composition is a complex and subjective topic which requires a book to discuss in any detail, so I will just touch on some specifics relevant to our subject waterfalls.
One of the key design elements in waterfall images has to be lines. Lines need to be arranged in such a way as to draw the eye through the image but not out of it. Water must come into and exit in your image. This natural flow should be arranged in your composition to provide a sense of flow without drawing the eye out of the image area.
Look for winding “S” curves and diagonal lines that will help the viewer through the image. If there are particular centers of interest, ensure that the “S” curve or diagonal lines you use, lead the viewer’s eye to that subject. Check your viewfinder for highlights such as white water and sky areas. White water highlights are best placed on the thirds or in the body of the image, not at the edges of the picture where they tend to draw the eye out of the image. Overcast sky is usually best excluded from your composition altogether, which may mean seeking an elevated viewpoint particularly where the waterfall is high.
After composition the biggest challenge is to get the exposure right. We need to capture information in the shadow areas whilst not losing data in the highlights. Too much exposure results in details in the white water being lost. Too little and the shadow areas go completely black. Sometimes it is necessary to take two exposures one for the highlights and one for the shadows and mask the two in Photoshop to give the resulting image.
Choice of shutter speed is an important creative decision. Tastes vary in how people prefer to see the water flowing over waterfalls as presented in a photograph. A faster shutter speed will freeze the motion and show the droplets in the water. A slower shutter speed blurs the motion and shows the flow of the water. The length of exposure to blur water is usually 1/30 sec and longer depending on the flow of water and the effect you desire. I typically choose an exposure between 1/15 and 5 seconds. Be aware that any motion in surrounding objects such as foliage will also be blurred.
Mucking in and around waterfalls is not without its dangers. Photographers are often by themselves in these areas, and you need to be aware of the dangers. Slippery rocks, precipitous drops and water are a lethal mix. One slip and you could knock yourself out and drown in a small pool of water. Assume all rocks and logs are slippery and dangerous. Also be aware of weather situations in the catchment area as sudden rising water levels can be catastrophic, particularly in a ravine or canyon situations. Always have a way of escape and be watchful. Take a buddy and tell someone where you are going. No picture is worth your life so be sensible.
I trust these few words will be useful have fun F8 and be there.