Waterfall Photography

02/06/2013 - 00:25

Waterfall and white-water rapids photography guide


To get a smoothness to the white-water motion, yet still have a sense of texture and details in the water -  an exposure duration of  1/4 to 1 second is an ideal starting point.



* Exposure duartion =1/4 second



 Overcast days are ideal for this technique as are early morning or evening light.


 Many waterfalls in England, Scotalnd and Wales have trees surrounding them, which in turn help soften the light – open moorland ones are much more of a challenge.


* Exposure duration = 0.3 second



 Lengthy exposures of water in bright sunlight will result in ‘burnt out’ highlights  on the surface.


For long exposures of waterfalls, a sturdy tripod is a ‘must have’, though I have done a couple using a POD bean bag support (which screws into the tripod thread on the base of your camera) such as ‘Coalesce’ below:


* High Dynamic Range image from Exposure lengths of  = 0.25 seconds, 0.7 seconds, 1/20 second and 1/45 second


A polarizer will help cut out glare from the surface and help to attain a shutter speed of ½ to 1 second along with an aperture of f/13 to f/16 – it will also reveal some of the stones/ rocks on the river bed in the calm pools above/ below the falls (depending on your vantage point) and still maintain some surface details of the calm pools...






…. so long as you don’t crank the polarizer to its maximum power (if you go too far and the stream/ river is very shallow it can end up looking like a waterless pebbly trench  or dried-up stream bed!)


e.g. if you had a shutter speed of 1/4 second before adding a polarizing filter (2 stops) the exposure would increase to approximately 1 second. (doubling of exposure duration per stop)


If those exposure durations are still not achievable then a 2 or 3 stop neutral density filter will help (the polarizer, hopefully already attached will lengthen the exposure by up to 2 stops)




 Carefully considered leafed branches within the frame that sway in the breeze, during the long exposure, can add a pleasing simplicity to the scene. Their softeness will juxtapose some of the angular sharpeness of the rocks (especially granites and slates); soften the distracting details of surrounding woodland a bit  – as well as adding to that narrative sense of ‘time-lapse’ that the silky waters bring.





Waterfalls are a great opportunity to practice the modern interpretation of Ansel Adams’ ‘Zone System’ – brought into the digital age and explained perfectly by the brilliant Yosemite Photographer Michael Frye.





Also an opprtunity to apply some High Dynamic Range techniques by combing several exposure durations in challenging light:



* Exposure durations = 1/20, 1/8 & 0.3, seconds



Sometimes people go for 20 or 30 seconds, or more -  by using a ten-stop filter, though at around £100 it’s a costly investment. However, they can also be used for long exposure sea-scapes, making the waves’ ‘ebb and flow’ into an enchanting mist and add dynamic flow to the clouds above – especially at dawn and sunset.


Use a cable realease trigger (if your camera will allow one) or the ‘timer’ function to keep the subtle flow patterns and rock details sharp.


"We are never far from the lilt and swirl of living water. Whether to fish or swim or paddle, or only to stand and gaze, to glance as we cross a bridge, all of us are drawn to rivers, all of us happily submit to their spell. We need their familiar mystery. We need their fluent lives interflowing with our own."

(John Daniel)




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