….that is the look I’m after when I create my waterfall images. Spring is waterfall time for me, and with all the snow we had in New Hampshire this year, it should be a good Spring. Some people may not care for that silky, cotton candy look found in most waterfall images, but I find it quite appealing. To me, the illusion of motion is more easily conveyed, and artistically represented by a soft flowing silky-smooth look to the water. I have seen waterfall photographs taken with shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the motion of the water, some may like it, though I find it harsh and unappealing, I’ll stick with my cotton candy. I would have included examples of waterfalls taken with “frozen” water, and probably should have, but I find them so unappealing that they don’t last long on my computer.
I am always rather surprised when people think it is some high-tech trickery, or fancy post-processing techniques that get that wonderful silky-smooth look. In fact it really couldn’t be easier. A good composition aside, the only thing you need to create a pleasing photograph that includes moving water, is a slow shutter speed. Going hand-in-hand with the slow shutter speed, you need a good sturdy tripod. In fact I don’t consider a tripod an accessory, I consider it a required piece of equipment for almost all of my photography. For waterfall photography, especially if you want the soft, silky look to the water, you are going to be dealing with slow shutter speeds. Unless you are a statue it will be next to impossible to hold the camera steady enough during the long exposure by hand alone. After all, you still want the things in the photo that are supposed to be sharp to be sharp. This is where the tripod comes into play.
Anywhere from a 1/2 second to a 5 second exposure usually gives me the look I’m after. Enter the second pieces of gear I rely on to create my images: filters. Depending on the light it can be next to impossible to get a slow enough shutter speed if it is too bright, no matter how low an ISO setting or how far you stop down the lens. This is when filters come into play. The filter I use most often is a circular polarizer. Not only does it remove reflections from such things as the water’s surface, wet leaves and rocks, it is also good for reducing about 1 1/2 to 2 stops of light. This is often more than enough to slow the shutter speed to where I want it. The second filter I use is a four stop neutral-density filter. With up to six stops to play with, using both filters combined, I can almost always get what I want for a shutter speed regardless of how bright it is. A note about filters: as with anything else, you get what you pay for, and cheap filters can add a color cast (or worse) to your image. The polarizer I use is made by B+W. Expensive, yup, but knowing I don’t have to worry about it falling apart or causing any issues such as color casts to my images is worth it. My neutral density filter is a Hitech 85 ND 1.2, which is good for reducing four stops of light. The Hitech filters are a good compromise, with very high quality at an affordable price.
One last note about my waterfall photography techniques: Get wet. It’s as simple as that. You can photograph a waterfall from the same vantage point as every other person with a camera, or get in the water and shoot it from an angle the casual shooter wouldn’t even think of. That way you will have a unique image to call your own. But, use your head and always be safe. The best time to photograph most waterfalls is when they are at their highest flows. This means strong, potentially life-threatening currents, and no photograph is worth injury or worse.
Now go get some cotton candy!