Waterfalls seem to grab the hearts and minds of people. Go to any location that has one or more waterfalls and it is pretty much a guarantee that they will be a major attraction, if not the main attraction, of the area. However, as beautiful as waterfalls are, it is not always easy to capture that beauty with a camera. It is easy to produce pictures of waterfalls; it is not so easy to produce powerful images.
Waterfalls provide their own unique set of problems which requires a unique set of solutions. This article is about those unique problems and the solutions that allow photographers to produce images that communicate the power and beauty that is inherent in the waterfalls that stand before their lenses. Part 1 of this two part series concentrates on setting up for a waterfall shoot. Part 2 concentrates on capturing the waterfall image.
Waterfalls and Weather
One of the most important factors in waterfall photography is the weather. The problem is that waterfalls do not photograph well in nice weather. Conversely, the best weather for waterfalls is actually overcast weather.
Some waterfalls photograph best in light overcast. Light overcast produces a light that is gentle but still has enough power to bring out the colors in a scene. Other waterfalls photograph best in strong overcast. Strong overcast can produce a very moody image with a power to convey that sense of mood. In fact, very powerful waterfall images can even be produced in rainy weather (during a break in the rain).
Keep Your Old Filters
One of the major challenges in photographing waterfalls has to do with water getting on the lens (or the filter in front of the lens). Powerful waterfalls can drop huge amounts of water which produces a mist. In other cases, the weather may produce fog, drizzle, or rain that gets on the lens. All of this can be exacerbated by wind (which always seems to be pointed directly toward my lens).
While there is no perfect solution, a partial solution can be found in an old filter. Just put the filter on the front of the lens before the equipment is set up. This filter should stay in place while you determine your composition and settings. Once you are ready to take your shot, the filter is removed.
I know, it is tempting to shoot a waterfall with a hand held camera. It is so quick and easy. Unfortunately, the quick and easy way will, very likely, not produce a great shot. This is because a large part of the waterfall experience is the large amount of water that goes down the waterfall. To produce a nice waterfall shot, a slow shutter speed is required to properly capture the sense of flow of the water. The slow shutter speed requires the use of a tripod.
Manual White Balance
Light that illuminates waterfalls often has a color cast. In overcast or rainy weather, the light will tend to be a bit blue. Waterfalls that are located in a forest may be illuminated by light that has a green tint that the light picks up as it filters through the leaves. Consequently, it is necessary to adjust for the white balance (i.e., color) of the light. The auto white balance option on your camera is not the best choice under these conditions as it may not produce accurate colors. The preset auto white balance options may also produce less than perfectly accurate colors. Your best choice is to perform a manual white balance (also known as a custom white balance) to get accurate colors. The manual that came with your camera should explain how to perform a manual white balance.
Objects that are wet tend to produce glare. This glare is often polarized. This is particularly an issue with waterfall shots because the rocks and vegetation near the waterfall will be wet and will almost certainly have a certain amount of glare. A polarizer will remove the glare. In addition, a polarizer has a secondary effect. By removing the glare, the color saturation will improve.
The human eye is good for a lot of things. However, one thing that it is not very good for is judging whether a camera is level. So, in order to get images that are level, it is best to use a bubble level for leveling the camera. Bubble levels are fairly inexpensive, small, and easy to use. They fit into the hot shoe of the camera. They work just like a carpenter’s level. All you have to do is to center the bubble in the level and the camera will be level
Now that the camera has been properly set up for the waterfall shot, Part 2 of this article will cover the capture of the waterfall image.
If you are interested in learning even more about waterfall photography, please check out Ron’s full length waterfall article at Waterfalls.