A couple of people have asked me for specifics, camera, settings etc. for waterfall pictures I've taken recently. So I decided to do a small blog post about my waterfall workflow. Taking a really nice picture of a waterfall takes a little more effort than some other subjects. I have been taking waterfall pictures for long time now, in fact, I grew up in South Fallsburg – named after the falls at the four corners in Fallsburg. This is a photo of my mother taken at these falls before I was even born.
While I was in high school (1977) I took this photo of the falls on slide film.
In order to give the water a softer look photographers generally use a slower shutter speed when taking waterfall pictures. Allowing a proper exposure with a slow shutter speed requires some trade-offs. Typically, you can use a smaller aperture to admit less light and also use a slow speed film (100 speed or lower). With digital cameras the same considerations apply except the sensor can be electronically set a lower sensitivity. If you're taking pictures on a sunny day, even with a small aperture the shutter speed can't be set too long or the picture will be overexposed. Furthermore, with a very small aperture you can begin to get softer images due to diffraction issues. For digital cameras, very small apertures also have the unfortunate effect of highlighting dust on the sensor although this does not occur with fixed lens cameras. (You can see this in the final image of the series below if you look carefully - they appear as dark spots.)
For the slide image I took in 1977 above, I probably used a 1/4 of a second exposure at F-16 or F-22 but this information was not recorded. Photographers also use filters to cut down on the amount of light coming into the camera. A Polaroid filter is commonly used but neutral density filters are also very handy because they don't affect the image quality or color. Here are some examples of a waterfall taken at different shutter speeds:
1/400 of a second:
1/100 of a second:
1/25 of a second:
1/6 of a second:
The series above was taken when I revisited the falls at the four corners in Fallsburg in 2005 with my digital camera. The main falls looked much the same in 2005 – here's a shot taken from a slightly different perspective (1/3 of a second at F-25).
My recent waterfall pictures have benefited from an item which has recently become more reasonably priced, the variable neutral density filter, which uses two polarizing elements that can be rotated and provides an ideal way to cut down on the amount of light entering the camera without affecting image quality. Because you can easily adjust the filter to select the amount of light required for a given shutter speed you have much more creative control over the photographic process. Shutter speeds of 1 to 5 seconds are easily obtained using this filter which renders a very nice, soft appearance to the water. Obviously, a tripod is necessary to get a good shot with these long exposures.
In addition to the variable neutral density filter, I have been using HDR software in order to render images in a more realistic way. HDR stands for high dynamic range. It turns out that our eyes can distinguish much greater differences of light and dark in a scene than common film or digital cameras can. On a sunny day the difference in illumination between an area in deep shadow and sunlight hitting the top of a waterfall can be very large. Normally, this results in a contrasty image with either the highlights blown out or the shadows muddy or both. Better quality cameras will do a better job of rendering both the highlights and shadows correctly and some cameras now have an HDR option which attempts to compensate for the shortcomings of the sensor.
My workflow generally involves taking a series of pictures of different exposures to try and capture all of the detail in a scene from the lightest to darkest and then use HDR software to combine the exposures into a single HDR image. The number of different exposures I will take depends upon how contrasty the scene is. For the waterfall picture at the top of this post I took a series of 4 exposures; one exposure was two stops underexposed, the next one-stop underexposed, the third with the correct exposure and the last one stop overexposed. The exposures were 1/2 to 4 seconds at f-8:
I have tried different HDR software but have been mostly disappointed with the results until I started using HDR Efex Pro 2 in the Nik Collection
by Google. I have found this software to be sufficiently flexible that I can get the results I want in most cases and avoid some of the over-the-top HDR effects that I dislike. It allows you to have complete control over the HDR process which means it's fairly complex to use but it does have a variety of default settings to get you started.
You might notice that in the four exposure combination image someone had thrown a plastic cup in an unfortunate spot. I used Photoshop to remove this distraction from the final image as I didn't notice it before I took the picture. If it's convenient and I notice it, I will often remove this kind of thing before I take the picture. My current camera is a Canon T3i and I used a Canon 15-85mm lens, variable ND filter and tripod for this shot. The final result is an image that is closer to the way a person actually experiences a waterfall: