Waterfalls

This Quick Fix installment is a bit different from my past columns. First, I’ll share some quick digital darkroom fixes for waterfall pictures. Then, I’ll move on to some tips for making the best in-camera waterfall exposures. After all, you must start with the best in-camera image. Always.

The opening image for this column, taken in Iceland, is an in-camera HDR image taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. It was created by combining three RAW files into a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) JPEG.

In-camera HDR processing, available in several camera models, doesn’t compare to processing images in HDRsoft Photomatix or Nik HDR Efex Pro, two programs developed specifically to give you total control of your HDR images. Both programs offer dozens of creative and corrective controls to give you the best-quality HDR image.

By the way, subject movement, such as fast-moving leaves, can be a problem for HDR. However, movement can work when photographing waterfalls because the water is in slightly different places in different frames, and that can enhance the feeling of movement in your image.


ORIGINAL

Here’s the average exposure in my three-image HDR Iceland waterfall sequence: 0 EV, +2 EV and -2 EV. I had to shoot HDR due to the contrast range of the scene: bright sky, bright water and relatively dark foreground.

Onsite, another way to compress the brightness range of a scene is to use a graduated neutral-density (ND) filter, which is dark on the top and gradually becomes clear on the bottom. When shooting film, I used a graduated ND filter in situations like this, but now with digital, I simply shoot HDR.

Other options for darkening the sky include using the virtual graduated filters built into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, and in Nik Color Efex Pro.

In addition to using HDR as a quick fix, a simple crop gave my image more impact. In looking at the image, I didn’t think the dull sky added anything to the scene, so I cropped it out. Never underestimate the impact tight cropping can have on an image. For this situation, three exposures were enough to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, up to nine exposures are needed. Simply put, more contrast equals more exposures. You can learn more about HDR in my iPad app, Rick Sammon’s iHDR, available on iTunes.


BEFORE


AFTER

Here’s a before-and-after set of waterfall images. The dull shot is my original nighttime shot of Niagara Falls. The quick fix here was first to increase the saturation and contrast, and then to add a Bi-Color filter in Nik Color Efex Pro.

As a final step, I reduced the noise in the image using Topaz Labs DeNoise plug-in. Most noise, by the way, shows up in dark and underexposed areas—and in the blue channel. It also can show up in the sky. As a general rule, the lower the ISO, the lower the noise.

Let’s move on to some tips for making beautiful waterfall images.

Use Slow Shutter Speeds. Almost always, you’ll be shooting at relatively slow shutter speeds to create the effect of flowing water. Those speeds can range from 1/30th of a second to a minute or even longer. To steady your camera, you must—and I mean must—have a very steady tripod.

Even when your camera is mounted on a tripod, use a cable release or the camera’s self-timer to prevent camera shake that might be caused by pressing the shutter release button too hard.

I can’t give you an exact recipe for the best shutter speed. It depends on how fast the water is moving and the effect you want to create. My advice is to take several exposures at long shutter speeds and then, when you get home, pick the image you like. Often, you can’t judge an image by what you see on your camera’s LCD monitor.

The close-up you see here was taken using a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds. The Niagara Falls image was taken at 2.5 seconds. The average exposure in my Iceland HDR sequence was taken at 2.5 seconds. So, you see, shutter speeds vary. Most Important Filter. The most important filter for waterfall photography is a variable neutral-density filter. With this filter, you can dial down the amount of light entering the camera. Less light means you shoot at slow shutter speeds, even in bright light. I use a Tiffen 2- to 8-stop variable ND filter.

Variable ND filters, like good tripods, can be pricey. Don’t skimp. If you do, you’ll probably be disappointed with the results, which will result in you spending more money in the long run.

Second Most Important Filter. A polarizing filter is important, too. It can reduce reflections on the water, reducing the contrast range, and also letting you see through the water. Yes! Don’t skimp on this filter.

Expose For The Highlights. As always, you want to expose for the highlights—the brightest part of the scene. This can be tricky in waterfall photography, due to reflections.

After you take a shot, check your highlight/overexposure warning to make sure you have no "blinkies" on your camera’s LCD monitor. Also check your histogram to make sure you don’t have a spike on the right. The quick fix for both blinkies and a spike is to reduce the exposure.

Keep Dry.
Often, there’s spray around waterfalls. Protect your camera with a rain cover or plastic bag. Also, keep a microfiber cloth handy, and clean your lens from time to time. One tiny water droplet can look like a big blob in your pictures.

You also need to keep yourself dry. I use collapsible boots called Neos that slip on over your shoes. These boots come in handy when you’re climbing around wet areas and, of course, when shooting while standing in the water.

Rick Sammon a regular here at Digital Photo magazine. For more info on Rick, check out his website: ricksammon.com.

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