The waterfall. A popular, versatile but slightly clichéd subject for landscape photographers. However you look at them though, they can look atmospheric, even ethereal, if captured using certain techniques. Here, I will show you how, including a few hints and tips that I have picked up over the years.
First, you need to find one
If you live in Wales, Scotland or Southern Ireland then the chances are that you are not far from a decent one. Elsewhere you may have to look around or use your imagination. If a natural one does not present itself nearby they can often be found in parks and gardens belonging to stately homes or National Trust and English Heritage properties.
I have found waterfalls in Ireland, Europe, and in my locality around Dartmoor and the Devon Coast. I find Ordinance Survey maps especially the OL series especially helpful. The OL28 for example (Dartmoor) has many actually marked in small blue text. Another I use is the North Devon Hartland to Clovelly OL126. This particular one has waterfalls marked on the coastline!
Firstly, set the camera to Aperture Priority mode and the ISO to 100. This will allow control over shutter speed and depth of field. Base ISO will give you the lowest shutter speed in the available light without filters.
The technique applied varies for the effect you require and the end result is also dependant on the shooting conditions. Do you prefer the ‘frozen’ dramatic effect or the ‘surreal’ soft water. The ‘milky’ effect can even be adopted with a little extra effort (and cost).
As per the norm for good landscape photography a decent tripod is essential.
The ‘frozen’ water effect will require fast shutter speeds. To enable this a wide aperture would normally be needed for example f/4 – f/6.3. If the light conditions are good a base ISO of 100 should be OK, but as the light reduces the higher the ISO may need to go. On an overcast day (or if the waterfall is in a valley or shady spot) you may need to push the ISO as high as 800 to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to ‘freeze’ the water. Try to hit the 1/500 sec mark or faster to achieve sharp detail and perfectly suspended water drops.
For the more popular effect of a smooth flow but still retaining detail and texture in the water a shutter speed of ½ to 1 second is ideal. Overcast days are ideal for this technique. If you attempt any kind of long exposure of water in bright conditions you will end up with burnt out high lights on the water surface due to harsh reflected light. This will totally spoil the effect you are trying for. I always shoot waterfalls in shady or overcast conditions with a polariser. To attain the ½ to 1 second a simple adjustment of the aperture to around f/16 to f/18 at ISO 100 will usually suffice.
If a small aperture does not allow a long enough exposure due to light conditions then you will have to resort to Neutral Density filters. I use the screw in type like Hoya or B+W. My favourite ‘waterfall’ filter is a 77mm Hoya ND8. (3 stop). This nearly always allows the shutter speed I require when waterfalls are on the menu. For example; if you had a shutter speed of 1/8 second before adding a filter and then used the ND8 (3stop) the exposure would increase to approximately 1 second.
The extreme is to look at exposures of 30 seconds or more. I attain these in shady daylight conditions with a screw in B+W ten stop filter. Another popular slot in filter (if you can find one) is the Lee Big Stopper that is also ten stops. Both are in the region of £100.
Other recommendations for shooting long exposures or for general landscape photography are a good tripod to ensure sharp images. The Manfrotto 190XPROB is a personal favourite that strikes the price/quality mix just right. It is very well made and not expensive including a good ball head.
Also, a cable or remote release for your camera to keep your ‘hands off’ when camera shake must be kept to a minimum.
About the Author
Adrian Oakes is a Devon-based landscape photographer who specialises in images of Dartmoor and Devon. Over recent years he has worked with both the National Trust and the National Park Authority as well as running his own photography workshops in and around Dorset and the South and North Devon coastlines. You can view more of his work at www.adrianoakes.com