Photographing Waterfalls and Other Moving Waters

     Hey.  I started this post over a week ago.  I got interrupted by a grand child being born.  My daughter had her first and it’s my first grandchild.  Here’s his pic.  Liam was 8lb., 7oz. on December 8th, 2011.  Now entering another new dimension in my life.  Grandpappydom. lol

To the point, there is a lot of interest in photographing waterfalls.  I can tell you that I am certainly a fan, as are many of my friends and traveling companions.  Actually, any kind of moving water is a reason for me to attempt a photo, but especially waterfalls, though I love the ocean as well.   The ability to manipulate the water into a hard driving force, destroying all in it’s wake, or a delicate cloudy blanket of white, spilling over the side of a hard rock face, has always been one of the cool things that I have enjoyed portraying with my camera.  It’s one of those spaces where you have so much control and few limitations.
     So, today, we’re in the forest, where waterfalls, and many other water features abound.
     Some of the things I’ve learned over the years have really made a difference in the type and quality of image that I produce.  The most significant thing that I learned was the use of circular polarizers and graduated neutral density filters.  You don’t need a whole boatload of specialized equipment to shoot waterfalls, but you really should splurge for a circular polarizer, if nothing else.
     The circular polarizer, properly adjusted, will remove the glare from the water and imparts a deep, rich tone to the image.  I, personally, take all the glare out when I use this filter.  It is possible to allow some glare or, even all, to show, but, my preference, in general, is “0” glare.
     Another thing I’ve learned is to work with my shutter speeds.  Adjustment of the shutter speed can effect the texture of the water dramatically.  The longer the shutter is open, the silkier the water will look.  It’s often advantageous to show some of the structure of the water, though, as it cascades over rocks .  Instead of a super big blob of white cottony mass with blowout (specular highlights, as my friend calls them), you will start to notice more texture where the water moves over the rocks as you increase your shutter speed.  There’s an example of three images shot at three different shutter speeds below.  Of course, the longer you leave the shutter open, the more likely you are to discover other phenomena that move.  We’re talking tree branches and leaves, and sky as well, if you’ve included that.  You’ll have to decide if the compromise of long shutter for effect is worth it, given your particular circumstance.
To be safe, bracketing is in order.  The lower set of three images is part of a nine shot bracket.  It was shot with my D700 which will do it automatically, when set, and that’s fine for me, but back in the day, I used to shoot 3, 5, 7, and 9 shot brackets manually.  It’s not a big deal, once you figure out which way to turn the shutter speed dial.  lol.  I screwed up a bunch of bracketed shots by turning the dial the wrong way.  Learn your camera.  Anyway, the nice thing about auto bracketing is the speed of it. The speed of it comes in very handy for HDR images.   When I would manually bracket, it would often be the case that the difference between frames would show a lot of blur in tree limbs and leaves as well as sky when converting in HDR.  With the auto bracket feature on D700 (and others), you just set it, push and hold and listen for the appropriate number of clicks.
     So, this is Courthouse Falls located in Western North Carolina.  Images are from Fall of 2011.  Rainy day at the end of October.  Images were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and sharpened in Photoshop CS5.

1/20 F8
1/10 F8
0.4 F8

For an even silkier effect, just reduce you shutter speed by changing your F Stop.  Here’s one of my secret locations at F22 and 1.0 sec.

Big Creek

All of these images have been shot with a circular polarizing filter.  Basically, a polarizing filter will remove or greatly reduce the effect of reflections or glare upon the surface of the water, as long as you remember to rotate it.
     You’ll notice above, that there is hardly any reflective quality to the water in the pool.  Normally, you would see something, even if it were just on the edge of some ripples.  With the polarizing filter, you can virtually eliminate the glare effect.  Not to be overlooked, is the added depth of color or saturation that is realized.  Colors will look very rich.  Here is an example of a shot with and without a circular polarizer.   Note the image at right is without glare and you can see to the bottom of the creek and identify the stone laying on the bottom.  Whereas, the next image (below right) shows the reflection of the colors of the surrounding trees casting their reflections upon the waters.
     So now we know what polarization does,

Big Creek

we can choose when and when not to use it.  I was fortunate to have “forgotten” to adjust my circular polarizer on this shot, as I would not have gotten the effect of the blue and gold in the water if I had followed my normal habits.  Sometimes, someone is watching, even when you forget.  Anyway, yes, I profited from a mistake and some post processing was necessary to bring out the colors and effects in the second shot.
Which brings me to another point about shooting water.  As you will notice, there is an obvious effect of glare (or shine) on the water and it actually looks like liquid gold in some places.  In camera raw, use the sliders “Black-Contrast-Clarity-Saturation in combination to achieve the glossy molten look.  I can’t tell you a formula, as each is different, but, if you work with it, it will come and can be made to appear even more dramatic if you want.

My personal opinion is that I like rainy days for shooting falls.  Not only do you get the best water flow, but skies are generally overcast or cloudy, helping to eliminate blown out portions and major contrast in the image.  However, if you find yourself in a situation with a bright sky at the top of a waterfall, which is often the case, there are several approaches.  One costs money, the other is a composition detail.  Adjust your composition to exclude (or include only minimal amounts of) sky.  Often, you will want to show what’s above the crest of a waterfall, but all you will get is blowout. This is especially prevalent when you are down in the creek looking up.  Blowout (the lack of digital information) is the bane of landscape photographers and is often very hard to deal with.  The truth is, if you look at your scene, the reality is that certain parts are pure white, absent of digital data in the camera, but that’s what nature is showing.  So, is it bad to show what nature is showing?  Not always, but, it can be very distracting in the final image.  Something you’ll want to tame.  You can do this with HDR, however, even with HDR, it may be necessary to employ the rather expensive investment of Graduated Neutral Density Filters.
GND filters come in many shapes and sizes and are generally pretty expensive.  When I was using DX format, it was fairly inexpensive, relatively speaking, to purchase the Cokin “P” system.  I don’t remember the cost, but compared to what is required for my newer FX series lenses, it was a bargain.  Once you start using these type of filters, you’ll wonder how you got along without them.  It’s amazing how much more productive you can be with a good set.  You can tame that bright sky with a GND filter or three.
The following are shot of High Falls in Dupont State Forest, North Carolina.  The first is exposed for shadows, the second is exposed for highlights, and the third is exposed with multiple GND filters.  This is probably not the best example of the good use of GND, but the best I can muster at the moment.  Following the three examples is the finished product using HDR processing.


Here is the final.

Gotta go.  Drop me a line for any questions or just post something in the comments.  Happy waterfalling.