Waterfalls are no doubt one of our favorite subjects to photograph while in the outdoors. The prettiest examples usually have the milky effect of a long exposure, giving the water a silky texture and showing us how it cascades down the rocks. A basic introduction to the principles of shooting in manual modes can be helpful here, but the idea behind getting this look is very simple: We need to greatly increase exposure time without making the photo too bright. We can counter the extra light of the long exposure by getting the aperture to its highest f-stop number and the ISO to its lowest possible setting. We are trying to achieve at least a few seconds of an open shutter to allow the water to produce motion blur. With that as our starting point, let us dive further into the subtleties of shooting waterfalls and learn some of the tips that can speed up the learning curve.
To achieve the "milky" look from moving water, or to shoot with any long exposure setting, you will need to stabilize the camera. While the tripod is the common tool, don't be afraid to use a natural substitute in a pinch. Nearby logs and rocks work well, and I have also used my shoe (after I took my foot out) or my backpack. Whatever can give you a few seconds without movement will suffice. If you need to tilt the lens upward to see more of the waterfall, simply bundle up your camera strap and place it under your lens.
If your shutter is set to open the moment you press the button, your finger pressure can shake the camera while you are trying to do a long exposure. Set up the timer in your menu so you can take your hands off of the camera after triggering the shutter and thus keeping it from shaking. Many cameras have a two-second delay, which is perfect in these situations.
These can be crucial for long exposures, especially when you will be shooting in the middle of a bright day. Often we can't get our ISO low enough and our aperture small enough to give us a properly lit multi-second exposure. To cut down on the light entering our lens use, ND filters provide the opportunity to shoot waterfalls at any time. They come in various strengths and will allow you to do long exposure in any light.
The most common mistake made when shooting a waterfall is getting your lens wet from spray and mist and not having anything safe to dry it off with. Use microfiber cloths to avoid scratches on your lens, don't use your t-shirt. Bring a UV filter as a transparent water droplet shield that can be removed at the crucial time and replaced when done. A lens cap could be used as well to keep water off your lens, but the UV filter is transparent and allows you to set the shot up before its removal.
Different lengths of exposure time will have various effects on the final photo. Since each waterfall is different in terms of the intensity of its flow and the pattern of its cascade, there is no way to know exactly what exposure will look the best. There is no magic formula for making waterfalls look good, so experiment with exposure times to get the best result.
What would a pop of your on-camera flash add to the scene? Maybe you can get creative with a portable flash at an indirect angle. Bring a strong flashlight to add some accent light and throw on a gel to highlight various colors. Moonlight is an awesome natural enhancer, and most modern head lamps are strong enough to add some serious accents in day or night. Popping a flash during a long exposure freezes some of the elements of the photo and leaves others in motion, adding specular highlights.
Using a traditional single exposure or shooting several photos to combine later with an HDR program makes a big difference in the look of your photo. Until you have experimented, it is hard to tell what the result will be. There are several programs and techniques to process the HDR with varying results as well. The water can look better with one single exposure, but the sky can be much more dynamic with HDR, especially during sunrise and sunset. To compromise, one can use a single exposure for the water and, using Photoshop, mask in a sky portion taken with HDR.
It is hard to tell the height of a mighty waterfall without some scale. If you are using a tripod and a timer, you can put yourself in the scene or find a willing participant. This doesn't mean putting yourself or others in harm's way, but rather it means bringing the viewer into the scene by helping them imagine themselves there with you. Show the viewer what a four-story waterfall actually looks like compared to a person, and it can make an otherwise stale scene appear much more dramatic.
Many waterfalls change a surprising amount from season to season and even hour to hour. Seasons will not only change the volume of the flow, they can also add autumn colors or a layer of snow to change up the scene. Waterfalls often have a lot of nearby foliage, so track the sun as it moves across the sky and see if any interesting patterns are cast from their shadows at different times of day. Can you catch a sunrise or a sunset from this vantage point, and will the sun be in a better spot in the summer compared to winter? Nailing the shot takes a lot of patience and commitment.
One great way to add a new dimension to your photo is by dropping some leaves into the pool below the falls if the water swirls around. This can add an interesting feature to the foreground. Wait for the autumn colored leaves to take this trick to the next level and pop a flash to help partially freeze some of the motion.
No tripod, no nearby logs or rocks to put your camera on, no ND filter, bright sunny day with a beautiful waterfall? It might seem like there's no chance to get the silky look, but you can sometimes pull off a hack job with just the right settings on decent DSLRs. Put your shutter at 1/10th of a second, aperture at f-22, ISO 50, turn on your vibration reduction or image stabilization, and get your wide angle zoom to its widest setting. Get down to one knee or find something to lean up against and lightly breathe out as you take the photo. If held steady, you can squeak out a semi-milky shot while hand holding the camera. I am not saying this will give you the best product, but it can give you decent results with minimal accessories when in a jam.
A few last things to keep in mind...turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization on your lens anytime you are on a tripod. The large amount of whitewash water created by the falls will likely over-expose your meter, so be careful not to lose the detail in your highlights. Bring footwear that allows you to enter the water to get unseen or exotic angles. With that being said, people slip and fall around waterfalls all the time, and no photo is worth getting hurt, so keep it within reason. It isn't a death sentence if your camera gets dunked in fresh water, but immediately remove the battery, cards, lens and do your best to drain and dry it. The rice bowl trick is recommended by some, and don't attempt to reactivate the camera until completely dry.
Have fun and be safe out there, but don't be afraid to get wet. For more tips, check out my three part article on becoming a better outdoor photographer.