Creating stunning waterfall and river shots is not always as simple as finding a compelling composition and just pointing your camera. There are some basic, and even advanced techniques that you need to consider.
I just returned from a three week road trip through Washington state, Oregon, and Northern California; one of the regions of the world with the most abundant waterfalls and cascades, thanks to the very high annual rainfall of the area.
I’ve shot waterfalls from Arizona to Scotland and beyond over the years, but none compared to the concentration and variety I visited recently… I was just blown away by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. The forests are lush with vegetation and the rivers run crystal clear and some even take on a deep blue hue.
The first concept you want to think about when photographing moving water is whether you want the water to blur or whether you want to stop the action. 9 times out of 10, your image will be more compelling and interesting with blurred water, so that means you will want a shutter speed of at least 1/2 a sec. I prefer around 2.5 to 10 seconds to achieve the look I like.
But if you have an element of action in your image that needs to be stopped, you will want a faster shutter speed. Consider the image below. Although I would’ve liked the water cascade to be blurred and smooth, I knew it was more important that I stop the action of the cliff jumper… so I made a split second decision to change to a 1/125 sec shutter speed.
So, you might be asking, “What if it’s the middle of the day? How can you achieve such a slow shutter speed?” Well, that’s a great question. I would refer you to an earlier post on neutral density filters. But if you don’t have a solid or variable ND, you can often get close enough to the speed you need with your circular polarizer… Which brings me the next consideration to make; to polarize or not.
This series of images, shot at Proxy, Toketee, and Punchbowl Falls in Oregon are good examples how of using a circular polarizer can enhance your waterfall photographs. First, the polarizer will give you at least 2-3 extra stops, allowing you to utilize slower shutter speeds. But it will also cut the glare from the water, allowing the colorful water to take shape in your image. But perhaps my favorite reason for using the polarizer is because it will also cut the glare from the surrounding vegetation and make the greens pop like never before.
The next thing to consider, as I’m sure you’ve butted heads against already, is camera stabilization. All these long shutter speeds do not work unless you have a very sturdy tripod. I have three tripods that I cycle between that are all great for different reasons and applications. The best for waterfalls, is my Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 Aluminium 3-Section Tripod with 410 Junior Geared Tripod Head. It is heavy duty though, and if I’m flying to a location or backpacking in, I use my lighter Gitzo GT2340L Series 2 Aluminum 4 Section Tripod, with the same sturdy, geared head.
A good tripod will save you from many headaches in the field and heartaches when you get your images on your computer (or get your film back) and see that none or very few are even sharp.
But even with a hefty tripod, you will need one more piece of equipment… a remote shutter release. Canon makes two different kinds; the Canon RS-80N3 & the Canon TC-80N3. I have both and like them, but they are pricey for what they are.
I recently stumbled upon the Polaroid Wireless Camera Shutter Remote. It is wireless, which is fantastic for so many reasons (including the fact that I can shoot star pictures without leaving the comfort of my tent!), it is an intervalometer (so I can time-lapse, and shoot really long exposures with precision), and the price is right.
There is one way around the shutter release, but you have to set your timer delay every time you want to do a long exposure. I would recommend investing the money in a decent shutter release, and I would even go with the wireless, intervalometer.
Having a good tripod and shutter release, whether wired or wireless, will ensure no camera shake, giving you the sharpest images possible.
Now that we’re done with the technical side of things, I’d like mention something more on the subjective/ artistic side.
Only in recent years have I begun to add people to my landscape images. And it’s become a bit addicting. It’s a whole different mindset in many ways. But in practice, I simply compose the landscape image I want first, and then I look for the perfect (and most interesting) location within the composition to place the human element.
You may be like me and vehemently resistant to such an idea initially, but I would encourage you to round out your portfolio with interesting “people in nature” images. Unless you exclusively make your living from fine art print sales, you stand to make some decent coin from shots like this. Both advertisers and editorial producers alike love this type of image.
Another prime example of why I would go with the Polaroid Wireless Camera Shutter Remote… Sometimes you will be the only person available to place in your image. The wireless remote makes being your own model a real breeze. Trust me, I have to do it all the time :)
One of the trickiest things about photographing waterfalls is the spray. Powerful waterfalls will produce a spray or mist within a certain distance, and sometimes the shot you want is going to fall within that wet perimeter. It is very difficult to keep your lens dry. So what I found is you have to stand in front of the lens until the very last moment, wait for the wind to die down or shift, and then wipe the lens with your lens cloth, all the while jumping out of the way as you press the shutter on your wireless shutter release. Needless to say, It’s not easy.
So sometimes, you just have to roll with it. The image above is after I got one good frame, I gave up trying to keep the mist from the front element of my lens, and a very impressionistic image was the result. I ended up really liking the look and feel. I’m glad I experimented with a non-traditional shot.
Along these lines, the last thing I think is important to mention (and this applies to any nature photography you might be in to); don’t forget see the beautiful details. They are easy to miss sometimes, but when we are able to slow down, tune in to them, and notice the quiet shots, we are rewarded with unique images.
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Big Bend NP // Night/ Landscape // 2016
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