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DPChallenge Forums >> Tips, Tricks, and Q&A >> Shooting Waterfalls: A tutorial
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06/19/2006 05:34:03 PM · #1
How to shoot waterfalls

I seem to have had some success in shooting waterfalls. I thought Iíd share some insight and tips as this can be a great way to get those ďoohĒ and ďahhĒ comments from your friends without too much difficulty.

Step One: Move to Oregon. Just kidding, but the Columbia Gorge definitely has the largest selection of waterfalls Iíve been around. Not only that, they exist less than an hour from a major city and many are not far off the highway.

Step Two: Choose your waterfall and categorize it. Not all waterfalls are built the same. I would generally split them into four groups based on their water volume (low or high) and the amount of rock the water interacts with (none or low to high). The best way to photograph the fall depends on what square it falls into. The season may change the same waterfall from one category to another and can definitely affect the way a fall looks. Ignoring the processing, look at the difference in water volume between these three shots of Multnomah. The first was taken after 26 straight days of rain, the second in late spring, the third in late August.

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Low flow, high rock interaction:
This combo makes for some of the prettiest waterfall shots. The low flow allows for longer shutter speeds without blowing your highlights. The long shutter speed makes these falls look very silky and graceful.

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High flow, high rock interaction:
More difficult, but still allows for a nice silky look. The higher the flow, the shorter your shutter speed needs to be. Too long and the flow blows into uniform white highlights. The rock interaction splits the water and allows somewhat longer shutter speeds because the water is already being split up (thus giving you a little more wiggle room before it all blends together)

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Low or high flow with low rock interaction:
These, to me, are the toughest to photograph. Slow shutter speeds make the fall turn into a straight white line. Sometimes this can look good, but often it winds up being uninteresting. This is an example where a fast shutter speed can be helpful. Freezing the water gives it texture. The higher the flow and the less the rock interaction, the better I think freezing the water works.

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Equipment needs:
A tripod is almost a necessity unless you are shooting to freeze the water. Any slower speed will require a tripod. A polarizer and/or ND filter is also very welcome. Shutter speeds Iíve found that work the best are between 0.5 and 4 seconds. The polarizer will take away some spectral highlights (but not as much as you may be used to in the sky or on flat water) but will provide 2 stops of light blockage. If you need more to get to the required shutter time then you need to add a ND filter. Iíve found that between 2 and 6 stops total gets me where I want to be most of the time. Lenses with a wide angle are often needed for larger falls.

Best time of day:
Waterfalls enjoy overcast days and indirect light. If you have direct sunlight you will get blowing of highlights very, very quickly. You can boost contrast and saturation later in PP. This is an example of a shot done on a completely overcast day. Ultimately the direction the waterfall faces will dictate when is the best time to shoot. This is probably another reason Multnomah is such a photogenic waterfall, it is nearly never in direct sunlight.

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Post Production:
This depends on taste, of course, but one trick is to do a lot of masking of your water. You want the water to be pushed as close to white as possible without blowing (and removing detail). Often adding contrast, saturation or other common PP tricks to the rest of the picture will blow your fall. Masking therefore becomes essential. I have tried adding a little blue to the water with color shift with mixed results. Some people liked it while others didnít. My latest shot was purposely pushed to surreality to look like something out of a fantasy world. It was done with lots of saturation and contrast masking while masking off the fall. I added a fair amount of blue to the water in this one as well.

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Hope this is helpful to people. If there are areas I didnít hit or questions people have, Iíd be happy to address them and update the tutorial as necessary.

Message edited by author 2006-11-14 11:27:28.
06/19/2006 05:50:00 PM · #2
A trip to yosemite might be just what the doctor ordered. :) I'll be watching...
06/19/2006 05:58:22 PM · #3
Originally posted by mpeters:

A trip to yosemite might be just what the doctor ordered. :) I'll be watching...


Yep. I was just there 2 weeks ago ;) Go there while the rivers and falls are still full ;)
06/19/2006 06:00:19 PM · #4
Originally posted by Rikki:



Yep. I was just there 2 weeks ago ;) Go there while the rivers and falls are still full ;)


Didn't you read my tutorial? You want to go when the falls are low... ;)
06/19/2006 06:10:51 PM · #5
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

Originally posted by Rikki:



Yep. I was just there 2 weeks ago ;) Go there while the rivers and falls are still full ;)


Didn't you read my tutorial? You want to go when the falls are low... ;)


Don't worry. At least one of your students read the tutorial! ;) I'll be backpacking in August so runoff should be fairly low by then and i'll look forward to using the knowledge that is sure to follow in this thread. ;)

On a more serious note... For your graduated ND or ND filters, do you use the cokin system or do you prefer the traditional threaded type?
06/19/2006 06:37:50 PM · #6
I use a threaded ND filter and a cokin grad ND filter. The graduated ND filters don't work too well round as you want to be able to adjust the area of transition up or down.
06/19/2006 06:53:34 PM · #7
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

Originally posted by Rikki:



Yep. I was just there 2 weeks ago ;) Go there while the rivers and falls are still full ;)


Didn't you read my tutorial? You want to go when the falls are low... ;)


yeah but i guess i'm diksleksick :P
06/19/2006 06:54:26 PM · #8
Perfect timing for this kind of tutorial! I'm heading to Yosemite myself later in July.

Thanks for posting this.
06/19/2006 06:59:23 PM · #9
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

I use a threaded ND filter and a cokin grad ND filter. The graduated ND filters don't work too well round as you want to be able to adjust the area of transition up or down.


Yes, i wasn't that clear with my question although your answer was just what i needed. I need some ND filters and waterfalls might be the perfect excuse. I was unsure whether to buy threaded or just go Cokin on the whole system. Graduated ND would be for seascapes.

I'm going to drag up one my photos of a Death Valley waterfall from March and play around with PP to see what can be accomplished. I'll post it later for some comments/advice.
06/19/2006 08:29:10 PM · #10
Kudos to Jason, for a great and well-written post!

06/19/2006 08:45:37 PM · #11
When shooting waterfalls, do you generally try to expose for the water or for the folliage? (or somewhere in between?)
06/19/2006 09:52:40 PM · #12
I just bought I new car (Rikki, it's more comfortable than that company car I had, so if you come to Japan again, it's Lake Chuzenji and waterfalls, ok?), so I think I will be off photographing more waterfalls during the summer vacation.

But not in such a remote location as this:
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where, if I had broken a leg sliding down the hill as I did, I would have been in a terrific spot of bother. (And mobile phone out of range...)
06/20/2006 12:20:01 AM · #13
Originally posted by JRalston:

When shooting waterfalls, do you generally try to expose for the water or for the folliage? (or somewhere in between?)


I always, always expose for the water. I use raw and just let the histogram guide me. The right side pixels are always the water and I push them to the right as far as I can. So with this in mind, and knowing what shutter speed I want, I often wind up using exposure compensation to accomplish it.

Example: I'm looking for a 1-second exposure. The proper f/stop seems to be f/11, but when I take the shot there is quite a bit of gap between the histogram and the right side. Instead of upping the exposure to 1.3 or 2-seconds (which will alter the look of the waterfall), I shift the compensation to +2/3rd and shoot again. (This would be shooting on Tv. Of course you could be totally on manual and then you just tend to alter f/stop instead of the shutter speed.
06/20/2006 12:41:24 AM · #14
Great tutorial! Thanks, doc. I'm going to have to print and save it (and hopefully not lose it) for our camping trip in August. I'm going to assume there's at least one waterfall up in the North Cascades.
06/20/2006 01:12:36 AM · #15
Originally posted by DrAchoo:



I always, always expose for the water. I use raw and just let the histogram guide me. The right side pixels are always the water and I push them to the right as far as I can. So with this in mind, and knowing what shutter speed I want, I often wind up using exposure compensation to accomplish it.

Example: I'm looking for a 1-second exposure. The proper f/stop seems to be f/11, but when I take the shot there is quite a bit of gap between the histogram and the right side. Instead of upping the exposure to 1.3 or 2-seconds (which will alter the look of the waterfall), I shift the compensation to +2/3rd and shoot again. (This would be shooting on Tv. Of course you could be totally on manual and then you just tend to alter f/stop instead of the shutter speed.


Thank you!
06/20/2006 07:09:50 PM · #16
I've reported this post to the site council and recommended that it be permanently added to the tutorials or the "How Did They Do That" section of the web site!

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us beginners.
06/20/2006 07:22:58 PM · #17
Originally posted by EarlBaker:

I've reported this post to the site council and recommended that it be permanently added to the tutorials or the "How Did They Do That" section of the web site!

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us beginners.


Crap! I've been reported!
06/23/2006 04:56:01 PM · #18
Thank you for the tutorial. I found it very helpful.

Henry

edit for spelling.

Message edited by author 2006-06-23 16:56:30.
06/30/2006 03:30:39 AM · #19
Doc,

Thanks again for the lesson. Here are two shots of the same mini-waterfall in Yosemite on Wed. I still havn't purchased ND filters for this lens but it was early morning so a longer exposure worked well. Both were 0.5s @7.1, iso 100.
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The first one has a gothic glow added and the second is just basic saturation/contrast adjustment, both with masking to hold the highlights and a touch of blue added to the water. Comments appreciated.
Mark

Message edited by author 2006-06-30 03:31:24.
07/01/2006 04:58:39 AM · #20
I have had some success in the past by using my Nikon F5 and making, for example, 100+ multiple exposures of a waterfall. This can achieve a balance between "freezing" the water or making it appear like "cotton wool" I wonder how I could go about it digitally; I have a camera that can do 10 multiple exposures, so I'm guessing I'm going to have to reset the camera before the 10th shot?

Message edited by author 2006-07-01 05:02:10.
10/28/2010 12:58:00 PM · #21
This was still helpful in 2010! I used it as a learning tool (along with several other tutorials) before heading to the Finger Lakes in UpState NY to shoot a variety of waterfalls a couple of weeks ago. Using an 18-200 Canon Lens with a CP-Filter for the first time, I was quite happy with the results. Thanks for taking time to write a clearly (and easily understood) organized Tute on the subject.
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