Its easy to take a picture. Its not quite as easy, however, to take a good picture. Apply this concept to the world of landscape photography - in specific, waterfalls - and one can easily become muddled in the world of sub-mediocrity. There are far too many mistakes one can make when taking pictures of waterfalls, but fortunately, knowing a few tricks and techniques can completely alter ones behaviors and promote good photography. Some of what I've written here is opinion, some is based on fact. Take what you read with a grain of salt and practice and experiment - thats the only way you'll really learn.
This is a fairly common question for those entering into landscape photography with no previous experience. The short of it is, if you want a good result, an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) - either Digital or Film, it doesn't matter - will give you the best results because of the level of control it offers. As emerged in the digital age as we are, I seriously doubt anyone reading this will be working with film, but most of whats said here applies to both mediums almost universally.
Those of you who do not have, or have access to, an SLR camera can use any digital camera that will allow you to adjust BOTH the shutter speed and the aperture size. Having adjustable ISO will also help, but it isn't necessary (we'll get to that later). Many entry level digital cameras will allow a small amount of control over settings, but you typically won't get complete control without spending a couple hundred bucks (the Canon S and G series cameras are good examples).
Yes, you can take the camera out of the box, turn it on and take a picture. But you can also take the camera out of the box, learn about its settings and take a BETTER picture. Heres a quick rundown of what you'll want to focus on (note - this is assuming one is using a digital camera).
A long exposure can enhance the shape and natural patterns in a waterfall
The speed of the shutter is basically the key to taking good photos of waterfalls, but its also the most subjective aspect of waterfall photography. Some people prefer to take pictures that show exactly what they see, stopping the motion of the water dead in its fall. Others, myself included, prefer the "cotton candy" effect achieved by leaving the shutter open for a longer period, which results in the movement of the water being blurred out. The key is the longer you leave the shutter open, the less detail you will see in the water. How you wish to apply this concept is entirely up to the photographer.
The Aperture of the camera is a diaphram that controls how much light enters from the lens and strikes the sensor (or film plain) and how that light is focused. The size of the aperture necessary to expose an image is directly related to the speed at which the shutter will remain open. All cameras with manually adjustable controls will allow the user to set both the shutter speed and aperture independantly, but also have modes that will set one and automatically compensate the other. The aperture is more important to get right because it will dictate how much of the image is in focus.
Aperture sizes depend on the lens used, but in general can range from f/1.4 (wide open) to f/40 (extremely narrow). The narrower the opening, the more in focus the whole image will be. A wider opening will result in the center area (or the area at the point of focus) in extremely sharp focus but the outlying areas will be blurry. For landscapes and waterfalls, its best to stop the aperture down to the range of f/8 to f/14 to achieve a good balance of sharpness and detail. How much detail depends on exactly where in the scene the camera is focusing. This is something you should experiment with until you understand how the focus is affected by any given aperture setting.
The ISO, or ASA for the old film converts, is basically the sensativity of the camera. Shooting film, the ISO is tied to the film itself and can't be changed. With the digital revolution, one of the biggest advantages of a digital camera is the ability to change the sensativity on the fly. Basically the more sensative the camera, the shorter amount of time the shutter has to stay open.
The downside (if you could call it that) here is that to achieve maximum detail, the LEAST sensative setting has to be used - especially on point-and-shoot style digital cameras - and this means using a tripod becomes necessary quite often. Most current Digital SLR models can produce high quality results up to ISO 400, some even up to 800 and 1600.
With film, one is at the mercy of the natural hues that the grain produces. Kodak films are known for erring on a reddish tint, particular as they age. Fuji films, particularly Velvia, are know to produce exaggerated green and blue hues. With digital, however, one has complete control over this color balance. All cameras have the ability to taylor the White Balance to the current lighting (be it bright sunlight, shade, overcast, tungsten bulbs, etc). The key is that you can control this when you process your pictures on your computer as well. Here you'll have more control over how you choose how the colors are balanced. I suggest keeping the camera set on Auto White Balance (AWB) and taking care of any color adjustments when you take your pictures to your computer.
A flash is largely useless when photographing a waterfall and in most cases it will only make your picture look worse by overexposing details in the foreground (like leaves, tree branches or rocks). Turn it off - if its too dark to hold a camera by hand you should be using a tripod anyway.
The key to taking good landscape photos is lighting. With good lighting an average scene can look great, with truly dramatic lighting, a boring scene can look stellar, but with bland lighting, even the most photogenic location on earth can look a bit boring. The key is understanding how to shoot to make the most of the light you have.
There are two primary ways to shoot waterfalls: the "stop-motion" style and the "cotton candy" style. One requires a fast exposure, one a very long exposure. While both techniques can usually be used on any given waterfall, the results will depend largely on the lighting.
A fast exposure can illustrate the drama and power of a large waterfall
Stop Motion Lighting
In order to freeze a waterfall as it falls, its necessary to shoot with a very fast shutter speed. This effect can amplify the chaotic nature of a river or stream as it explodes into millions of droplets of water, however it can also make a waterfall look unbalanced and unstructured in certain circumstances, taking away many levels of photogeneity. Shooting a waterfall in this manor yields the best results with waterfall with a heavy volume of water flowing over them, where spray is kicked up at the bottom and rainbows are often seen. In order to shoot waterfalls in this manor, however, direct sunlight is usually necessary to both illuminate the water evenly and to ensure that your exposure will be fast enough to stop the motion.
Cotton Candy Lighting
The preferred technique among the vast majority of landscape photographers for capturing any form of moving water is a long exposure. The movement of the water recoreded for any period of time generally over 1/2 of a second will result in a blurring of the movement of water, producing a very lacy, ethereal image. This is generally best achieved on smaller waterfalls where the interaction with the bedrock can be enhanced by tracing the shapes the water makes as it falls. In order to shoot like this, one must be able to leave the shutter open for an extended period. Direct sunlight works directly against this technique, so the best lighting to shoot in is on overcast or rainy days when the cloud cover diffuses the ambient light evenly.
Exposing for Water
How to properly expose for a waterfall is a tricky thing to learn. Water is reflective and as a result, is usually brighter than its surroundings. This means that if you meter off the waterfall itself, the camera will think the whole area you're shooting is brighter than it really is and everything else will end up underexposed. Conversely, if you meter off the trees or rocks next to the waterfall, the camera will think the scene is darker than it really is and will overcompensate and the waterfall will be overexposed. I've found the best middle ground is to make sure you're using Center-Weighted Metering (for those cameras which have the function), then expose for the water, and up to 1 stop over and 1/2 stop (sometimes up to 1 stop) under to provide the best possible results.
With the advent of digital cameras users have been given much more control over how they can process and refine their images. There have been extensive and very long winded debates about whether Digital Cameras have eclipsed the capabilities of high end Film, and whether that may be the case or not, there are techniques which have caught on to at least simulate a greater capability of digital - namely the concept of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.
I won't go into the subject too in depth, because there are many places that can describe it better than I can. The basic concept is to bracket between 5-10 (or more) exposures of the same scene then using software to take the most accurately exposed parts of each picture and combine them into one frame which would, in theory, more accurately represent what the eye sees.
The problem here is that HDR is much too easy to abuse. The VAST, and I mean galactic majority of pictures floating around on the Internet which have been created using HDR methods look like absolute garbage. Whether this is a function of the software or the user, I can't tell. The end result is that people think that in order to squeeze ALL the detail out of a photograph there can't be any really dark areas and there can't be any really bright areas either because that would indicate that something is overexposed. This leads to pictures looking extremely flat, two dimensional and highly unrealistic.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule (theres a difference between combining two images and twelve images to optimize the dynamic range), but for shooting waterfalls, HDR photography is not necessary and I would personally strongly discourage anyone from using it until they fully understand how to compensate for harsh lighting without the software as a crutch.
The composition of a picture can make it or break it. Most people will point the camera, center the object of attention (be it a waterfall, mountain, people, whatever) and click. Understanding a few simple rules will greatly improve you pictures.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of thirds is the most basic concept one can learn to improve the quality of photographic compsition. The idea is to divide the viewfinder into equal thirds on both the horizontal and vertical axis. The focal point or primary subject of the image should then be placed either along one of the lines or at one of the four intersections of these lines in the image. Off-centering the point of interest in the photo helps to create a natural sense of movement in the photo and it helps to lead the eye to other locations in the frame as well.
A strong forground element can be the difference between eye-catching and me-too.
A sense of depth is very commonly lacking in landscape photographs. Allowing something to appear in the forground of the picture to compliment the focal object will allow the viewer to connect with the scene by giving them a sense of scale and immersion. This is not an easy concept to master and it works best with wider lenses and can easily be overdone.
The trick is to find the right balance between having something in the forground that doesn't overpower the rest of the image and using something that doesn't add anything to the scene. Rocks, streams and small plants (flowers, ferns, etc) work very well for this.
Another good method to draw the viewer into the scene is to use naturally occuring frameing objects, such as trees, large rocks, cliffs and shadows. Composing an image so that there is an object on either side of the focal point of the image will funnel the viewer to that object. Again, the issue is finding the right balance between funneling and attention-grabbing.
A question I get asked a lot is "What kind of camera do you use?". The camera I use isn't necessarily the best camera for someone else, but this is a quick rundown of the gear that I would suggest using in order to get the best possible waterfall pictures:
- Digital SLR Camera - OR - a Point and Shoot Digital Camera with full manual controls
- Wide Angle Lens with a focal range between 10 and 25mm.
- All-purpose Moderate Zoom lens with a focal range between 15 and 150mm.
- Telephoto Lens with a focal range maxing at or above 300mm.
- Tripod rated to hold at least 6 pounds.
- Circular Polarizer.
- Solid Neutral Density Filter (3 stops minimum).
The lenses you use are entirely up to your personal preference. For shooting waterfalls, I switch fairly evenly between my ultra-wide and my moderate zoom lenses, but I use the telephoto much less frequently. A Circular Polarizer is the one absolutely necessary filter for shooting waterfalls because it reduces the natural glare / reflections on rock and water and allows the colors of the scene to be much more defined. A Solid Neutral Density Filter is useful in bright conditions for slowing down the speed of the shutter, but it isn't necessary.
Don't waste your time on colored filters since you can apply color adjustments in post processing. UV filters are commonly purchased to use as a protecting layer over the front of the lens, but when using a Polarizer and UV filter at the same time vignetting of the frame may occur, so it may be necessary to take the UV filter on and off repeatedly. For that reason, I see them as useless and a waste of money (the filter aspect of it doesn't do anything for Digital Cameras).
All this said, the single most important piece of equipment you can purchase for your camera is a tripod. Using a tripod will improve the sharpness of your pictures in ways you wouldn't otherwise realize, it will force you to slow down and think about how to compose and shoot your pictures and it will, of course, allow you to slow down the shutter speed and take more artistic pictures.
If you've browsed this site already a bit you may have noticed that there is an option to purchase prints of the pictures displayed on the site. Over the last several years I've started to get in the habit of looking at waterfalls in a more artistic way and I'm starting to post more pictures that reflect this, rather than just an illustrative shot or two. So, further details on what can be purchased and how can be found by reading on to the next page...