Waterfall Photography Tips

Matai Falls in over 1 second exposureMatai Falls in over 1 second exposure
This page provides photography tips and techniques to address the issues you're likely to face when you're out capturing your own memorable moments and sights. Now I'm no professional photographer, but I have learned quite a few things during my travels that I thought I could share with you. Hopefully, you'll find this page useful.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm assuming digital photography though most of the principles apply for taking traditional photographs as well.

The topics I cover are shown below. You can click on their hyperlinks to jump to their respective sections.

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Perhaps the one thing that gives the impression that your waterfall photo is "professional" is the ability to make the waterfall "smooth and silky." Now while a truly good photograph incorporates good composition (how the subject is positioned with its surroundings), color, and lighting, I've had people tell me a particular waterfall photo was "good" just because the waterfall looked smooth and silky (even though other aspects of the photo were not up to par).

The critical concept employed to make the waterfall smooth and silky is what is called a long exposure (also known as slow shutter speed). What is meant by long exposure is that when you're capturing a scene onto film or a sensor (CCD or charged coupled device for the digital camera photobuffs), you leave the film or sensor exposed for a time longer than if you normally took a photo and "froze" the moment. In essence, with each passing time the photo is exposed, you're essentially "drawing" on top of the previous image until the shutter is closed and the final image is produced. It's kind of hard for me to describe this in words without getting too technical and confusing so let's look at the following examples to illustrate the difference between "normal exposure" and "long exposure" photography.

Normal exposure of Lower Bouma Falls Long exposure of Lower Bouma Falls
Normal exposure of Lower Bouma Falls Long exposure of Lower Bouma Falls
Notice how in the top photograph, the water looks like it was "frozen" in the air. Then, in the bottom photograph, notice how the water looks like a series of lines added together (as well as brighter due to all the added light from the longer exposure).

The bottom photograph essentially took advantage of the movement of the water. Everything else in the photo stood still in this long exposure photograph. It is this motion blur that creates the silky smooth look that really spices up your waterfall photo.

So now that you see the principle behind long exposure photography, you're probably wondering, "So, how do I do it?"

In the case of my Canon EOS 20D digital SLR camera, I have a "Shutter Priority" mode that allows me to tweak the shutter speed. In my old point-and-shoot Sony Cybershot, I was able to set the camera to "S" mode and then spin a different wheel to change the shutter speed. All cameras have their own way of changing the shutter speed (assuming the manual capabilities are available). Consult your owners manual to see if you can change the shutter settings for your camera. But realize that most commercially available point-and-shoot cameras lack this ability.

Once you've figured out how to adjust the shutter speed of your camera, there are other things you'll have to worry about in a long exposure photograph - namely camera shake and overexposure.

A photo that suffers from camera shake during a long exposure attempt A photo that suffers from overexposure
A photo that suffers from camera shake A photo that suffers from overexposure
Camera shake occurs when the camera (or some other subject in the photo) moves any time the image is exposed and written to the sensor. You'll need to hold as still as possible when taking a long exposure photo. This is where a tripod comes in handy to steady the camera and keep your photo from looking blurry. I will discuss more about this subject in the Tripods section of this page. Just keep in mind that you can't move the camera in a long exposure photograph or else you'll have a blurry picture.

Overexposure occurs when there is too much light that gets added to the final image. It is easy to accomplish this in a long exposure photograph especially if it's already bright to begin with. One way to counteract this superposition of light is to use what's called a neutral density filter, which essentially darkens the image before it even reaches the camera. That way, you can lengthen the exposure without making your photo look too bright. So just keep in mind that you'll need lower-than-usual light to keep your photo from getting washed out.

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Our eyes have an amazing ability to resolve a tremendous range of lighting conditions even when there are subjects under shadows in a bright day. Unfortunately, the sensors in a digital camera aren't quite as flexible. The result is an image that is washed out when a subject in shadow is resolved, or an image with the subject in shadow that's too dark to see when everything else has decent light.

This is probably best illustrated in the following photographic examples.

Washed out photo in an effort to resolve the subject in the shadow The waterfall is now too dark underneath the shadow even though other parts of the photo look fine
Do you notice how everything outside the shadow of the gorge is too bright, but you could at least see the waterfall in the shadow? Do you notice now how everything outside the shadow has acceptable lighting but the subject underneath the shadow is now barely visible?
A way to combat this problem is to put a split neutral density filter or a fancier (but much more expensive) graduated neutral density filter over the camera lens. These filters essentially darken just a particular region of your scene (preferrably the brighter section) before getting to the camera. Combine this filter with a long exposure photograph (keeping your camera still of course) and you'll be able to resolve the shadowed areas without washing out the nonshadowy areas.

Unfortunately, most of us will find the split neutral density filter cumbersome to use (you have no say where the dividing line between light/dark is unless you reposition the camera) and time consuming to put on. Furthermore, most of us aren't professional photographers so a kit supporting a graduated neutral density filter is out of the question.

So what do we do?

The best answer I can give is to try to time your visit (if you have the time to do this) so the shadows won't kill you. This is typically around mid-day when the sun is high on the horizon and casts the smallest shadows. You can also time your visit to where everything is under shadow even though this may mute other desirable colors present in the scene. Now all of this assumes you have sunny weather.

If you have cloudy or overcast weather (including rainy conditions), you at least don't have to worry about bright and dark zones. That's because the clouds will scatter the sun's light in such a way that everything has roughly the same lighting. The consequence of this is that waterfall viewing may even be enhanced in less-than-ideal weather - so your trip isn't ruined if it's not sunny.

Take a look at the examples below to see the difference between a photo taken during a sunny day versus one taken in overcast conditions.

A photograph taken of a waterfall under sun The same waterfall under clouds
This photo was taken under the sun. Do you see how sometimes good weather doesn't necessarily bring out the best photos for your photography? Do you see how overcast skies have actually enhanced this picture more so than the previous one above?
One last thing you can do to combat light/dark zones involves Photoshop (or whatever your photo editing software of choice is). You could take an overexposed photograph to resolve a subject in the shadow and then a normally exposed photograph with the shadowed subject shrouded in darkness. You could then combine the two photos by keep the desirable parts and stitching them together.

Of course the caveat here is you have to know how to do the photo combining on Photoshop and you have to make sure you do a good enough job of it so the photo looks realistic and not fake.

Personally, I haven't really tried to do this myself as I lack the patience nor time to really want to do this. However, if I didn't have a choice (I would probably be forced to give this a try at some point), then I'll keep you posted if I discover anything worth passing along.

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Imagine this scenario. You manage to reach the base of this gorgeous waterfall and you eagerly snap several photos of it to capture the beauty of the moment. When you finally get home and put the photo on your computer, your heart sinks as you see each of your photos were ruined by waterspots from the waterfall's mist spraying your camera lens. And you wondered why this was not visible through your view finder or your LCD at the time you photographed the waterfalls.

A photograph suffering from waterspots A photograph of the same thing while managing to avoid waterspots
Waterspots ruining this photograph Waterspots not ruining this photograph; see below to see what I do to try to minimize the waterspots under misty conditions
This is perhaps one of the most annoying things to deal with when it comes to waterfall photography. I've had my share of ruined photographs resulting from the above scenario.

Well there's really nothing magical about how to remedy this problem. Basically come prepared with a lens cloth or soft tissue and a filter you don't mind getting wet (unless you don't mind wiping the camera lens directly - risking a scratch in the process). Then in the course of your waterfall photography, frequently double check the camera lens or filter to ensure waterspots are not on it.

There are some cases where waterspots are inevitable because of the amount of mist generated by the falls. To counter act this, I try to employ the following technique:

  1. Point the camera at the falls and press the button half way to lock in the current exposure settings (don't worry about water getting on the lens at this point)
  2. Turn away from the mist with one finger on the camera trigger still half way down and use the other hand to wipe the waterspots from the lens
  3. Cover the lens with your free hand and turn around in the direction of the mist
  4. When you feel a window of opportunity swing open (i.e. less mist blown your way), remove the hand covering the lens and quickly push the camera button down the rest of the way to take the photo

This photography method is crude, but it at least gives me a chance to capture a waterfall in otherwise difficult conditions.

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We've all taken photographs that were ruined by blurriness, which is why this tool is essential for photography. You'll often see serious photographers carrying tripods around to ensure their photos don't suffer from the camera shake - especially long exposure photographs (i.e. night time photography, waterfall photography, etc). The tripod also has the added benefit of allowing you to take photos of yourself without needing someone else to take the photo for you (you'll need to know how to set up the camera's self-timer feature to do this though).

There are various flavors of tripods and hence various prices reflecting this variety. The sturdier tripods tend to be more expensive and heavier, but they can usually keep the camera still under most windy conditions. The lighter and/or smaller tripods tend to be cheaper and more mobile, but they are more prone to camera shake - especially under windy conditions.

The best of both worlds is a tripod that is both sturdy and light (such as the ones made of carbon fiber). But realize that you're going to pay a price for this. Most tripods also have attachments that go onto your camera so you can mate it with the tripod.

Also, you will want a tripod that has a flexible head that swivels so you can take photos on the tripod in various angles and positions (e.g. portrait vs. landscape, shorter setup times, etc).

But while the benefits of using a tripod for photography are obvious, they tend to be cumersome to carry around and require a little bit of setup time (which many of us don't have the patience for when we're out on a trip). Lugging around a tripod can be especially difficult if you have a long hike or multi-day backpack.

Fortunately, you might be able to improvise without a tripod by taking advantage of props in the area. For example, you may find you can rest your camera on a rock to take your long exposure photos. You might also find a picnic table to rest your camera on.

If no props are available, then you might be able to use your hiking sticks to keep the camera from moving in at least two directions or sit on the ground and try to rest your camera on your knees.

You'll have to use a bit of your imagination and a willingness to spend some time on some trial-and-error to pull off a long exposure shot without a tripod.

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There are various filters available to enhance your photography. They all do different things and there are probably way too many to talk about in this limited discussion. So I'll just focus on a few filters that I've used in my experience. If you're interested in learning more about the subject, you can consult various photography websites and literature to deepen your understanding.

Circular Polarizer: The role of the polarizer is to cut out glare and reflections caused by the sun. Most people who wear polarized sun glasses will notice the difference in the clarity of what they see and thus have already seen the benefits of the polarizer.

The circular aspect of the circular polarizer basically means you can adjust the degree of polarization by rotating the filter until you get see a suitable setting through the view finder or LCD.

Through this filter, you'll see your subjects "jump out" more as the contrast between the subjects and the background is further increased. You may also notice bluer skies as well as more vibrant colors in the polarized image. If you're fortunate enough to have a rainbow in your photo, you may be able to enhance the rainbow.

Now it's also possible to overdo the polarization like making the skies too dark or getting rid of the rainbow in your photograph. There are also situations where the polarizer won't help you like if you're looking against the sun. A polarizer also won't help you much if it's overcast.

Maximally polarized imageA maximally polarized image

Minimally polarized imageA minimally polarized image

Still, this is probably the most commonly used filter and it's especially useful when you have a sunny day.

Neutral Density Filter: As mentioned earlier in this page, these filters darken the scene before reaching the camera. This affords you the ability to take longer exposures on your photos, which is especially useful for the motion blur of moving water. Other than that, the only other use for this filter that I can think of is to darken an otherwise very bright scene where underexposing your photo without filters is an unacceptable solution.

These filters are generally specified by the number of "stops" (more technically f-stops). So if you buy a 3-stop ND Filter, you'll have to increase the exposure of your photo by 3 stops to get back the original exposure had you not used the ND Filter in the first place.

You might also see some additional numerology like 0.3, 0.6, 0.9, etc. Each factor of 0.3 is an f-stop. So 0.6 is a 2-stop and 0.9 is a 3-stop.

Typical filters that people use are generally 2-stops or 3-stops. I tend to use a 3-stop so I have more leeway in terms of how long of an exposure to use.

Part of the view finder darkened by a 3-stop neutral density filterPart of the view finder darkened by a 3-stop neutral density filter.

Split or Graduated Neutral Density Filter: These are basically Neutral Density Filters except only part of the filter is darkened. If you use the cheaper but less flexible split neutral density filter (where the division is fixed), you will also have to worry about the percentage of area that is darkened. 50% means half the filter is darkened by the specified number of stops. 25% means only a quarter of the filter is darkened by the specified number of stops.

To be honest, I haven't really used this filter all that much during the course of my photography experiences. Only when you have long shadows and you can't stand the light disparity would I even bother to use this filter.

The graduated neutral density filter is really a professional photographer's tool. You need a pretty large and fancy kit that allows you to mount the large filter in a way you see fit. You won't be handcuffed like you would with a split neutral density filter.

This is great if you want to capture the dramatic colors of sunrise or sunset while still resolving detail in the shadowy areas. But, you'll need a tripod so nothing moves and you need a large, fancy kit to mount the filter properly. Professional photographers definitely use this for that coffee-table book quality photograph. Still, it might be overkill for the majority of waterfall photography situations.

UV Haze Filter: I haven't really noticed much of a difference in my photos when I employ this filter. However, I do use it to protect the camera lens and the sensors from UV radiation when no other filters are being used. It's equivalent to putting on shades for the camera so your retina doesn't get sizzled by the sun (though in this case, it's the CCD that would get sizzled).

Wide Angle Lenses: This lens basically brings more objects into your image while making your subjects appear further away. It's great for landscape panoramas where there are things that you'd like to capture but doesn't all fit on the viewfinder. It's also great for those times when you're too close to a subject that's too big (but can't do anything about it). The wide angle lens will help you capture as much of that big subject as possible.

In my waterfall photography experience, I've found that I might be able to show multiple waterfalls in a particular scene where I wouldn't be able to without this attachment.

The drawback with wide angle lenses is vignetting and distortion. Vignetting occurs when you zoom all the way out and you start to see black corners on your photo. This may or may not ruin your photo depending on the effect you're trying to achieve.

Distortion can definitely be a big problem in wide angle photographs because you might notice parts of the photo start to lose focus or sharpness towards the perimeter. This really comes down to the quality of the lens and how much you're stretching its capabilities (i.e. you've zoomed too far out). It's something you'll have to cope with when employing this lens.

A wide angle imageA wide angle image. Notice the distortion and vignetting around the edges, but the additional coverage as compared to the photograph below

A normal image without wide angleA normal image without the use of a wide angle lens

Telephoto Lens: This essentially has the opposite effect of the wide angle lens and may be something you'll wish to use for your photography. Instead of bringing more objects into the image, you're excluding more objects. It's essentially like putting a telescope in front of the camera lens. It's great for bringing distant objects (that would otherwise appear like a spec or a dot on your image) into greater focus and detail.

For waterfall photography, it might help you bring a distant waterfall closer. But in general, you could photograph the moon or other heavenly bodies. You could also photograph wildlife without having to get dangerously close to them.

I personally haven't spent money on a telephoto lens yet. Maybe later if I find I run into many more situations where it's necessary to use one will I have more to say about this. Until then, I'll save my money and spend on more pressing photographic (especially waterfall photography) needs.

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From left to right: A Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot 5 megapixel camera, The trusty old Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot 3 megapixel camera with attachments, A Canon EOS 20D DSLR with 17-85mm zoom lensFrom left to right: A Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot 5 megapixel camera, The trusty old Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot 3 megapixel camera with attachments, A Canon EOS 20D DSLR with 17-85mm zoom lens

While everyone has different photographic needs, I will attempt to address this question by comparing the two since I've used both during the course of my photography.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras: These are the widely available cameras that you see just about everyone use. Many of them these days are small enough to fit into your pocket.

The great advantage of using this type of camera is obviously its ease of use. It basically tries to take care of all technical aspects of photography through its algorithms while all you do is point and shoot the camera (as the name suggests).

Other advantages include price and size. Most people are pretty happy with what they do, which is why their use is so widespread.

The drawback (and a big drawback if you're a serious photographer) with this camera primarly revolve around the lack of flexibility in terms of manually tweakable functions. Thus, you'll find yourself fighting the camera if you want particular photographs that require settings the detract from the norm.

There are other quirky things about point-and-shoot cameras. For example, the eye-piece is practically useless. You're probably better off shooting through the LCD viewfinder. Unfortunately, that LCD won't help you determine if your photo is blurry or not (due to its limited resolution). Also because of this function, you'll also find out that battery life is very limited - mostly to support the active LCD.

SLR (Single Lens Reflex) Cameras: These are the bigger, bulkier, and more expensive cameras that you see the serious photographers carrying around. You can generally tell an SLR camera from a point-and-shoot camera simply by the size of the camera (though some of the old point-and-shoot cameras were quite big).

The advantage of an SLR camera is flexibility and speed. With the flexibility, this allows you to choose how you want to take your photos and what kind of photo effects you're trying to achieve. So if you want shutter priority for your silky waterfall shot - no problem. If you want closeup photos with lots of detail - no problem. You can even make the SLR work like a point and shoot if you don't want to worry about all the functions before you.

By speed, the time it takes the camera to take the photo from the time you close the shutter to the time it stores the image onto the CCD sensors is far less than the commercial point-and-shoot cameras. Consequently, you also have the option to take several consecutive photos split seconds apart if you're trying to capture a fleeting and dynamic moment that point-and-shoot cameras would surely miss (unless you got real lucky).

In fact, almost all photographers who sell their work gave up their point-and-shoot cameras in favor of an SLR.

The eyepiece of the SLR is also a very accurate indication of how your photograph will turn out. The single lens reflex is essentially the coordination of mirrors from the path of light through the lens that lead up to the eyepiece so you pretty much get what you see through it.

Unfortunately, there are many drawbacks to the SLR. Among them are price (they typically run upwards of $1000 or more when you include lenses, filters, etc.), size and weight (they're bulky and heavy), and a very high learning curve.

The Verdict: During the course of my photography, it actually took me at least 5 years of using a point-and-shoot camera before I finally spent money and devoted the time getting up to speed on a digital SLR camera.

My original point-and-shoot camera was a 3-megapixel Sony Cybershot that fortunately had manual tweaking capabilities as well as the ability to have filter attachments. Through the time and experimentation using the point-and-shoot camera, I was able to learn about different filters, wide angle lenses, long exposures, etc. all without committing to an expensive SLR. Still, the old point-and-shoot had its limits and eventually I had to switch.

The digital SLR camera was expensive as I had expected. However, I came ready to buy armed with a better knowledge about photography (especially waterfall photography) in general and what functions I really needed or cared about. I still had to adjust to the way I used to do things with the point-and-shoot, but in the end, I think the DSLR is better for the long run.

Now when I go hiking and have to lug this camera around, I won't lie to you and say it's not much of a factor. It is, but at least it's not so bad that it keeps me from going far on hikes and backpacks. You just have to get used to the inconvenience. Finding a decent camera bag for the SLR was also a challenge.

So if you feel you have much to learn about photography in general (especially waterfall photography), I'd say experiment with a point-and-shoot (see if it has manual adjustments or filter attachments). Once you get comfortable using the camera and understanding how it works, then I think you're better armed to splurge and spend on a fancier SLR camera.

I don't think you would want to spend on an SLR first and then find out several thousands of dollars later that it wasn't what you had thought. Still, if you're serious about taking good photographs, you'll eventually outgrow a point-and-shoot camera and definitely want to own an SLR camera.

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