Shooting Waterfalls

Canon 1DX with Zeiss ZE 100mm F2.0 Makro. Four minute exposure at f20 with B+W Neutral Density 1.8 filter (6 stops)

Just got back from Cataract Creek near Mt Tamalpais in Marin County where all the waterfalls were flowing at near peak levels. Was there to check out the area for a February photo walk.

Shooting moving water is fun because you can make the water come alive with just the right shutter speed. The water takes on a silky smooth look with a slow shutter speed. To get that look, a tripod is absolutely necessary. A remote shutter release is also handy although in a pinch, you can just set the shutter delay to 2 seconds. Another necessity is a neutral density filter if you are shooting on a sunny day. Shutter speeds from 1/30th a second and slower are where you want to be so ND filters of various strengths will get you there.

How do you determine what shutter speed you need? Read on.

Camera Set Up

  • Use either Live View mode or lock your mirror up. When your shutter speeds get slower than 1/30th a second, the mirror movement can blur your image.
  • Turn on the highlight overexposure warning. This helps you determine quickly if your highlights start to clip (blow out). Blown highlights cannot be recovered so you need to make sure you keep them under control. It’s ok however to have a few very small areas without detail. The goal is to have detail in the shadows without blown highlights. Checking your histogram is the only way to accurately tell if your exposure is good.
  • Make sure your camera is set for 1/3rd stop exposure increments. This will allow for finer control over your exposure.
  • Set your shutter release to a 2 second delay or better yet, use a remote shutter release. Pushing the shutter button causes the camera to move slightly even when on a tripod which can blur your image when shooting long exposures. A remote shutter release can allow you to use the Bulb mode to get your exposures longer than 30 seconds for some really interesting effects.

Determine Shutter Speed & Exposure

  • At all times, make sure your tripod legs are firmly locked and positioned. We don’t want any cameras falling into the water! Some tripods tips have aluminum spikes – use them if you have them. If you set your tripod in the creek to get that perfect angle, make sure the current is not moving as it can vibrate your tripod.
  • Watch closely for any unwanted movement in your scene during your long exposures. Things like ferns or other vegetation could move in the wind and be a distraction in your image.
  • Set camera exposure mode to shutter preferred (TV on Canon, S on Nikon and most other cameras) and run through shutter speeds from 1/30th second to as long as you like. Keep checking your meter however because you will exceed the exposure range and may have to adjust your ISO or use ND filters to get slower shutter speeds.
  • Now review your images on the LCD to determine which shutter speed gives you the look you are after. Take note of the aperture.
  • Make sure that the exposure is a good one by viewing your histogram. The correct exposure will be the one that maintains both shadow and highlight detail.

White Balance & Shoot

  • Set camera to manual mode and set your camera to the shutter speed and aperture you determined in the above steps. If you want a different aperture you can change it but you’ll need to change your ISO to maintain proper exposure.
  • Next, include a gray card in one of your images. This will allow you to set accurate white balance in post. Especially important if using ND filters as they tend to create some minor color shifts.
  • I usually like to bracket my exposures, keeping the shutter speed constant. I’ll go 1 stop over and 1 stop under in 1/3rd stop increments. If you are shooting film, bracketing is essential, including bracketing your shutter speeds.

Now through spring is the time to go out to shoot waterfalls. They can be found nearly everywhere and don’t have to be the classics like those in Yosemite. Out at Cataract Creek the tallest waterfall is just around 10 feet – most are much shorter, but all are spectacular to witness and a whole lot of fun to shoot.

I am leading a photo walk out to Cataract Creek next month to shoot the waterfalls. If you would like to join me, let me know. More details here.

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