Longer Days Ahead.
The sun is rising earlier and setting later, a sure sign that Spring is on the way. With the onset of Spring my attention is inevitably drawn to waterfalls. One of the great things about living in the state of New Hampshire is the abundance of waterfalls that can be found around the state. Luckily, one usually doesn’t have to drive very far to find them either. Whether it’s a popular named waterfall in the White Mountains, one where you may have to wait your turn for the best shooting spots, or the little known unnamed falls scattered throughout the state. Large or small, they’re everywhere and Spring is the best time to photograph them.
The Etherial Flow.
Soft, silky, like cotton candy, however you describe it, that silky flowing appearance of the water, so common in waterfall images, requires a long exposure. I generally want at least a 1/2 second exposure, but 5, 8, even 10 seconds or more isn’t uncommon. Because of these long exposures, the most important piece of equipment you’ll need for your waterfall photography is a tripod. For capturing the flowing water while rendering the surrounding scenery as sharp, a good sturdy tripod isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Besides camera and lens, my tripod is the one thing that never gets left behind. This goes for any of my landscape photography, not just waterfalls.
Controlling The Light.
A Circular Polarizing filter(CPL) is another must-have in my camera bag. Not only does it help remove the glare and reflection from the surface of the water, wet rocks, and leaves that may be in the photo, it also reduces the light coming through the lens by 1 1/2 to 2 stops. Reducing that light can help you achieve those longer exposures on brighter days. At times the light will still be too bright to allow a slow enough shutter speed even with a CPL in place. This is when a neutral density filter comes in handy. I carry a 4 stop square ND filter made by HiTech. This filter is designed to slip into a filter holder mounted on the front of my lens, but I often just hand-hold the filter in place. ND filters are available in several variations, both glass or resin slip in type, and round screw on style with as much as 10 stops of light stopping power. Becoming more and more popular are Variable Neutral Density filters, screw on filters that can be adjusted by rotating them to give from 2 to 8 stops of light reduction. As with most anything, you get what you pay for so buy the best you can afford. Another tip with screw on filters, buy a filter that fits your largest diameter lens and then buy step up rings to fit it to your lenses with smaller diameter filter threads. That way you don’t need to buy multiple expensive filters in different sizes to fit all of your lenses.
The Blinkies Are Your Friend.
While shooting waterfalls I always pay close attention to the histogram to help avoid blowing out the highlights. I also turn on the “Blinkies” the highlight alert warning that flashes in the image preview. Overexposed highlights will flash as black, and you want little if any in the photo. I say little because if you’re shooting in RAW, as you should be, a small amount of overexposure can be brought back with the highlight recovery slider in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, or other RAW converters.
The Weather At It’s Best.
Is not the best weather for waterfalls. The best time to photograph waterfalls is on grey overcast days. This will give you nice even lighting across the falls, enabling longer exposures, and more importantly, helping to reduce hot spots on some of the white water on the falls. Trying to get a decent exposure when part of the fall is in the shade and part in the sun will result in either a lot of blown highlights (there won’t be much detail in the flowing water, but it shouldn’t be a featureless bright white either), or a perfectly exposed waterfall surrounded by dark blocked up shadows. The nice even lighting of an overcast day makes getting good exposures almost easy.
(The image of Garwin Falls, above, is a perfect example of what can happen when part of the falls is in the sun. Because of this there are several spots in the white water of the falls that are much brighter than I’d prefer)
Adventures In Composition.
**Let me start by saying that safety should be your primary concern when around swift running water, especially during the height if Spring runoff, and on the slippery rocks along the riverbank.**
That being said, a willingness to get a little wet, maybe more than a little, can often be the difference between your images being “me-too” copies of every other photograph of that particular waterfall, and being truly unique photographs you can call your own. Always with an eye towards self-preservation, more often than not, I can be found standing, even kneeling, and occasionally sitting, in the water downstream of my chosen waterfall.
Be careful. Be sure to empty your pockets(this one is very important, your iPhone probably won’t enjoy a swim). Give it a try. You’ll dry off on the hike back to the car. Just remember, no photograph is worth risking your safety.
Odds And Ends.
Here are a few pieces of equipment that, while not necessities, can make your waterfall photo adventures easier and more enjoyable.
Remote Shutter Release. Sure you camera’s self timer will work, but a remote means you don’t have to wait for the timer to count down. (Yes I am that impatient).
Knee Pads. My knees aren’t getting any younger and kneeling on stream side rocks and stones doesn’t help. Available at any home improvement store for little money. Not just for waterfalls either, they’re always with me when there’s no snow on the ground. Your knees, and pant legs, will thank you.
Micro Fiber Lens Cloth. If like me you find yourself kneeling in the water below a waterfall you’ll also find yourself dealing with a water drop or two finding its way onto your lens. There is nothing worse than getting home to find that “Winner” image ruined by a water spot in the middle of the frame. Check your lens often, and gently wipe it off.