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There are few things more majestic than a flowing waterfall, whether it’s on the Niagara river or the little stream behind your house. There are many ways to photograph these natural wonders, and I’ve compiled a few tips, tricks, and techniques to help you get waterfall images that do justice to their elegant beauty.
The equipment you need will depend on what type of photo you want to make. But you probably won’t make that decision until you are on location, so here is what I usually keep in my camera bag if I’m planning on shooting a waterfall.
The camera settings you use will depend on what kind of photo you’re after:
To create that silky smooth blur popular with waterfall photography, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed for a long exposure. With your camera mounted firmly on a tripod, set it to shutter priority mode (usually “S” or “Tv” on your camera’s mode dial) and set your ISO as low as it will go (usually 100). Then, select a shutter speed between one half second to four seconds to achieve a nice amount of blur.
Experiment with different shutter speeds to get the amount of blur you want. The best shutter speed will depend on how fast the water is moving, so getting the shutter speed just right takes a bit of experimentation. If you cannot get a slow enough shutter speed for the effect you want, use a smaller aperture so that less light enters the camera. That will allow you to select a longer shutter speed. If you still need a slower shutter speed, that’s when you can use a neutral density filter to block some of the light.
Keep in mind that when using a long shutter speed, if there are any plants or trees in your frame they may have an opportunity to move if there is any wind, and then everything in the image will be blurry. For this type of a scene, it is usually better to photograph earlier in the day when there is little wind.
Especially interesting when photographing violent falls, this requires just the opposite technique – you want a fast shutter speed to capture a brief moment and suspend the water’s movement in the air. Use shutter priority mode and select a faster speed such as 1/500th of a second or faster.
For this technique you wont need a neutral density filter and you might even be able to get away without using a tripod. If you are in a low light situation, to get a fast shutter speed you may need to use a larger aperture such as f/5.6 to let more light in, and you can increase the ISO to 200, 400 or as high as you need to go to allow a fast shutter speed.
Instead of getting a broad landscape style shot, you might want to close in on an interesting rock, plant, or other detail of your scene. For this, compose your shot (use a tripod if possible) and turn your camera to aperture priority mode – “A” or “Av” on your mode dial. This will allow you to have control over the depth of field, or how much of the picture is in focus from front to back.
The aperture value is shown as an f-stop. F-stop numbers are a little confusing because the smaller numbers represent a larger opening and vice versa. I find it helpful to think of it as a fraction. F/8 is smaller than f/4 because 1/8 is smaller than 1/4.
Small apertures let less light in, but they increase the sharpness in the foreground and background. Large (or “wide”) apertures, on the other hand, mean that only part of the picture is in focus, while the rest becomes soft and out of focus.
Look at your scene and decide what you want in focus and what should be blurry. If you want to isolate your main subject, choose a large aperture (small f/number) such as f/4 or f/2.8 to make the background out of focus. If the background is important to the picture, choose a small aperture (large f/number) like f/16 or f/22 to make the entire scene sharp and clear.
There are many compositional techniques to employ when creating waterfall images. First and foremost, remember the rule of thirds and how your eye is drawn through the image. Use the leading lines inherent in flowing water to create visual pathways for the viewer to follow, remembering that corners are very strong entry and exit points in the frame. Pay attention to both the foreground and background, and don’t forget to pay attention to what’s around the water, as well as the falls themselves.