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.

Continuous Shooting Mode : Not Just for Action

Hand held Canon 400mm f2.8 shot in burst mode with a 1DX. 1/60th of a second at f2.8, ISO 10,000. This is frame #2 of 7 frames. All soft except for this one. Note my focus was on the Carl Zeiss lettering. The extreme shallow depth of field of a 400mm f2.8 shot on a full frame sensor at nearly minimum focus caused the rest of the image to be out of focus. This is a straight jpg image from a RAW file - no post processing.

Continuous release mode is often thought only to be useful when shooting dynamic subjects that are in motion. A rapid burst of frames can help when you are looking for just the right moment in a fast sequence of events. There is a SF 49er game on right now as I type this. You can be certain that all those shooters on the sidelines have their cameras cranked to the highest continuous release mode they can, 10 -12 frames per second. Makes sense for them, but there is another, often forgotten or maybe unthought of use for continuous release mode.

Often the sharpest image, in a burst of frames is not the first or last image. This is because regardless of how softly you think you’ve pressed and released the shutter, there’s always some inherent motion induced that isn’t there when you’re just holding the shutter release down. That motion, ever so slight can ruin your fine image if you are shooting slow shutter speeds without a tripod or other type of support. Shooting in bursts of three or more counteracts the motion of pushing and releasing the shutter release. So often times, you’ll find your sharpest images are somewhere in the middle of your burst, not the first or last frame.

A short burst of frames, coupled with a good solid shooting stance (one foot ahead of the other, hips centered, elbows tucked to your sides) and image stabilization can be used to create amazingly sharp images of a static subject. Look at my image above. Shot with a 9 pound hand held Canon 1DX and 400mm 2.8 lens at 1/60th of a second. Only frame #2 was sharp – six others showed motion blur.

So next time you’re out shooting, and don’t have a tripod, give continuous release mode a try. The worst you can do is not get the shot, however you may be pleasantly surprised when you find one or two sharp keepers!

Btw, combining continuous release mode with back button focusing is the way to go, but more on that in another post…I’ve got a game to watch!

Keeping It Dry

Pouring down rain outside the windows of Camera West in Walnut Creek right now. Need to shoot in these conditions? Read on…

Two worst things for a digital camera : impact and water. Drop your camera on a hard surface and your camera (and your day) is most likely ruined – same with water. One drop inside where the circuitry resides and it’s off to the repair facility for a very expensive fix.

You all know how to avoid dropping your camera so we won’t go there but I thought I’d pass on some tips for keeping your equipment dry while shooting in the rain.

Believe me I learned this first hand one day many years ago when I had to explain to my boss how my (actually the SF Chronicle’s) $15,000. Canon EOS D2000 got wet and died during a rain-soaked 49er game. It really wasn’t my fault, because I did my best to keep it dry, but the camera according to the Canon repair techs was unrepairable – a complete loss due to water in the circuitry. An expensive lesson learned!

During my career as a shooter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I had countless shoots outside in the pouring rain. Keeping myself dry was never a problem, however the camera equipment was another matter and sometimes using an umbrella was not an option. Umbrellas on the sidelines of a 49er game was definitely frowned upon by the NFL.

So, before ThinkTank came up with their Hydrophobia series of excellent rain covers, I used a very simple, low tech solution…a grocery store plastic bag. Camera and lens was placed inside the bag, with the opening of the bag wrapped around the front of the lens and secured tightly with rubber bands. With this, I was able to work all the controls of the camera and still see through the viewfinder and check my images on the LCD. Worked well, even in the heaviest downpours. Only drawbacks were: a camera strap could not be used and you still had to be careful to not get water on the exposed front element. I always carried a small, soft chamois cloth in the pocket of my my gore-tex rain jacket just for this purpose. It worked perfectly for absorbing all the water drops that collected on the front element, and when the chamois cloth got soaked, it was a simple matter of just wringing it out. A standard microfiber cloth once soaked is worthless, but a chamois keeps on working. Covered many rainy 49er games this way, wiping the raindrops off the huge front element of my 400mm f2.8.

Since I found myself shooting often in the rain, I eventually made a custom waterproof camera cover out of a gore-tex stuff sack I picked up at REI. With a bungy-cord replacement of the draw string, a square hole cut in the bottom of the sack for the eyepiece, and a slit along the side for the monopod and my hand, I had the perfect cover for my camera with a 400mm f2.8. This served me well until ThinkTank came up with the perfect solution : the Hydrophobia 300-600mm cover.

Of course you could forget all the above and just buy the Canon 1DX. A Canon rep once told me you could place this camera with an “L” lens under the shower and let the water run for hours without damaging the camera or lens, but would you do this to your own camera, even if it was a 1DX? I think not.

Have peace of mind and get the ThinkTank Hydrophobia for your next shoot in the rain. Order yours today at Camera West.

Key Features (aside from peace of mind) :
• Built in camera strap and lens mounting system (70-200 and 70-200 Flash models only)
• Full view rear and top windows
• Built-in front element cover
• Storage for eye piece • Mesh storage bag included • Easy access to controls, lens and tripod mounts

Shooting a Moonrise

Photos by Michael Maloney

Once a month, there is one day where the full moon rises at close to the same time as the sun sets. What this means for you the photographer is that you can get a detailed shot of the moon and still have detail in your landscape. You need to shoot quickly however because as the moon rises and we go into twilight, our perfect shooting conditions change at which point we need to decide if we want detail in the moon which is lit by the sun, or detail in the landscape which is now plunged into darkness. Choose to expose for the moon, and your landscape becomes pitch black. Expose for the landscape, the moon will lose all detail and look like a white dot.

The best way to determine when this one day occurs is to use The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE). This app is all you need to determine exactly when and where the sun or moon will rise or set on any day, past, present, or future, from any place in the world. I even use TPE to plan vacations! It is absolutely an essential app for landscape shooters.


  • Camera with an assortment of lenses. Longer lenses will show more detail in the moon.
  • A sturdy tripod
  • A remote shutter release or you can use the shutter delay function on your camera.

Camera Settings

  • I recommend shooting in the RAW mode. You can get much more out of your image in RAW – rather than JPEG.
  • Set your white balance to 3200 – 3800 K or Tungsten if you want a blue, colder tone…otherwise use Daylight balance. (If you are shooting in the RAW mode, it doesn’t matter where you set your white balance as it can easily be tweaked in post production)
  • Turn off your image stabilization (IS/VR). This is recommended whenever your camera is locked to a tripod
  • Set your ISO to 100 – 400. Do not use AUTO ISO. Since we are on tripods, and the moon is lit by the sun, we can get by using a lower ISO which will give us a better quality image.
  • Use single point auto focus. Recommended because with single point focus, we will know precisely where our focus will be. Once focus is set, turn auto focus off. Now you can arrange your composition and not worry about focus shift. You need to be very careful however not to move your focus ring. I often use tape to lock the focus ring in place.
  • If you are not comfortable shooting in the manual exposure mode, then use aperture priority (AV on Canon, A on Nikon). Aperture priority is recommended because we want control over our aperture. We want a small aperture (f8, f11, f16) for deep depth of field, especially if you are using a long lens. For those of you comfortable shooting in manual mode, bracket your exposures. (changing your settings for at least 1 stop over and 1 stop under). By bracketing, you are sure to get the perfect exposure.
  • Keep in mind that you will be changing your exposure settings as the moon rises and your scene gets darker. You don’t want exposures that are too long however, because the moon will appear as an elongated blur. You can get away with a 5 second or so exposure with a wide-angle lens, but with a telephoto you need to keep exposure times to no slower than 1 second.
  • Choose a small aperture if using a long lens (200mm +). The depth of field the smaller aperture gives you should allow both your landscape and the moon to be tack sharp. If shooting with a wide angle lens, you can get by with a wider open aperture.
  • A graduated neutral density filter (2-3 stops) will extend your shooting time as twilight turns your foreground dark.
  • Last but not least, to assure tack sharp photos, lock your mirror up if you are using shutter speeds slower than 1/30th of a second, or better yet, use Live View mode.

Tripod Tips

  • Make sure your tripod is set up properly – on sturdy footing, all leg sections firmly tightened, camera secured tightly.
  • Try not to raise the middle column. You will get better stability just extending the legs.
  • Always have one leg of your tripod aimed at your subject. Forget doing this with a long heavy lens in the wind can be a costly mistake!
  • Secure your camera strap so that it is not flapping in the wind. Better yet, take it off your camera.
  • If windy, use your body to protect the camera from the wind.
  • If using long lenses with big lens hoods in the wind, take the hood off. The hood can catch the wind, causing slight vibrations that will ruin your shots.

Shooting Through Fences

Meet Ginger a beautiful tiger who resides at the Oakland Zoo with her three sisters. I was fortunate that she was in a posing mood while I was there leading our Camera West Photo Walk this morning. (more on the photo walk in a future post)

Ginger was quite photogenic…only problem was, she was behind this pesky chain link fence which was about 5 feet from me.

I had no other options but to shoot through the fence. But where is the fence in my photos of Ginger? It’s there but just not visible as I used a long lens and a wide open aperture, plus my subject, Ginger was about 30 feet from the fence. The long lens, in this case about a 300mm and wide aperture of F4-5.6 allowed for a shallow depth of field so the fence was invisible. Had I shot this with a wide angle or a small aperture, the pattern of the fence would show.

In the photo above, Ginger was quite intrigued by a baby crying and came up closer to the fence to investigate. Note now, the fence is more visible, causing some irregular patterns on her back and on the cement wall, ruining my photo. The fence was now about 5 feet from Ginger rather than the 30 feet in the first photo. Ginger btw is crouching behind a cement wall that you see running just below her eyes.

Now Ginger is right up to the fence. no way to make the fence disappear here unless you are a Photoshop genius with too much time to spare.

So, if you are ever in similar situations shooting through a fence, No worries! You can make it magically disappear if you can get close to it with the subject far away while using a wide open aperture on a telephoto. The longer the telephoto the better, also the closer you can put the front of the lens to the fence, the better your image will be. And one final tip, you need to use single point auto focus, or go to manual focus to avoid the camera from locking focus on the fence.

One last photo for you. Check out the teeth on Ginger! I’m sure glad that fence was there!