As we approach springtime here in the Carolinas, that generally means it's time to photograph two of my favorite things - spring wildflowers and waterfalls. Obviously, spring is not exclusively the best time for waterfalls, but it does offer some unique opportunities including the best time for good water flow. I've come up with 3 tips to keep in mind as you start planning your trips for shooting one of my absolute favorite subjects - waterfalls!
Luckily here in North Carolina, there are over 400 in the state to choose from (not to mention all the rivers and streams that abound in the landscape). There are many aspects you need to consider for waterfall photography, but here are a good three to start with that I've learned over the years.
This may be obvious, or maybe you've just never thought about it. With any form of photography, a key ingredient to better photographs is a unique perspective or composition. With waterfalls, that means getting off the bank and in the water! This goes without saying, but BE SAFE! Take care of the water's temperature and current, as well as your footing as you walk. The rocks are typically very slimy and slippery, so only step when you have sure footing. Sometimes I use a tripod leg for stability.
I can't begin to tell you how much this changed my photography, as you can get completely different and unique perspectives that you just can't get any other way. This is one of my favorite examples:
This is Courthouse Falls, which is hard to shoot because the falls is pushed way back, and has a large empty pool in front. I waded in the pool and was about waist deep here, but allowed me to get extreme wide and capture the amazing colors of the rock as an awesome foreground to the falls.
Cullasaja Profile1.0s @ f11, ISO 11, 16mm For this shot of Cullasaja Falls, I waded into the river at the base of falls and composed this at 16mm and got a very unique side profile composition of the main falls with an interesting foreground. There's no other way you can get this perspective!
While you're in the water, I would strongly consider quick dry clothing, water sandals (if it's not too cold, or you may need waders or a wet suit), and I really love the Lowepro S&F Deluxe Technical belt. It allows you to have a couple lenses and filters at the ready while you're treading water (just don't fall in!).
There is at least one filter I think that is required when shooting water, and another I strongly recommend.
You just absolutely cannot take decent waterfall photographs or anything of water in my opinion without a Circular Polarizing filter like this one. They almost eliminate the glare on the water surface and wet rocks completely and help to saturate colors. You turn the filter to vary the effect.
I also strongly recommend you have some form of ND (Neutral Density) filter. These are not graduated, as the entire filter is used to lessen the amount of light into your camera. These filters vary in strength measured in stops, the higher the number the more light they cut out. The more light it cuts out, it provides a more silky smooth effect on the water. When using 6-stop or 10-stop ND filters like the Little and Big Stoppers from Lee, your exposures can get into minutes long (there are apps to help you calculate a correct exposure). Basically you just double your exposure for every stop of light, so if you're base shutter speed is 1/4 second, add a 10-stop filter and you would adjust your shutter to 4 minutes, 16 seconds.
When photographing waterfalls, a key element to your composition should be simplicity - you want a clear subject and background, and no distracting elements. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to capture every rock, tree, bush and water splash around the waterfall in your shot. However, you will end up with an ok snapshot and not the photograph you were hoping for.
When used properly, wide angles and telephoto can make for very powerful compositions and isolating subjects. Let's say between 14-24mm or 100-400mm? There's no rule here, but in general here are my thoughts.
Use wide angle lenses to get really close to a foreground to emphasize it's size or create dramatic impact like this image of Log Hollow Falls in North Carolina.
Telephoto lenses are great for making isolations, focusing on specific parts of a waterfall.
Stay tuned for even more tips on photographing waterfalls!