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GUIDE TO SHOOTING WATERFALLS

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The waterfall. A popular, versatile but slightly clichéd subject for landscape photographers. However you look at them though, they can look atmospheric even ethereal if captured using certain techniques.
Here, I will show you how including a few hints and tips that I have picked up over the years.

First, you need to find one.

Venford Brook, Dartmoor. 0.5 seconds at f/13

If you live in Wales, Scotland or Southern Ireland then the chances are that you are not far from a decent one. Elsewhere you may have to look around or use your imagination. If a natural one does not present itself nearby they can often be found in parks and gardens belonging to stately homes or National Trust and English Heritage properties.
I have found waterfalls in Ireland, Europe, and in my locality around Dartmoor and the Devon Coast. I find Ordinance Survey maps especially the OL series especially helpful. The OL28 for example (Dartmoor) has many actually marked in small blue text. Another I use is the North Devon Hartland to Clovelly OL126. This particular one has waterfalls marked on the coastline!

The next tip is when to actually head out. The best time of all is after a long spell of very wet weather.


Welcome Mouth fall taken after days of heavy rain. A ten stop B+W filter was used to slow the exposure to 30 seconds despite the fact that the fall was in full sunshine. I also added a polariser to saturate the colours and reduce the flare/highlights on the water surface.

In woods or valleys, an overcast day works well as the cloud diffuses the light which then fills shadows. You also dont get blown highlights or 'bright spots' on the water surface. On bright days a polariser will help to control the highlights on the surface of the water.

TECHNIQUE

A coastal waterfall at Welcome Mouth beach in North Devon. 1 sec at f/22

Firstly set the camera to Aperture priority and the ISO to 100. This will allow control over shutter speed and depth of field. Base ISO will give you the lowest shutter speed in the available light without filters. The technique applied varies for the effect you require and the end result is also dependant on the shooting conditions. Do you prefer the ‘frozen’ dramatic effect or the ‘surreal’ soft water. The ‘milky’ effect can even be adopted with a little extra effort (and cost). As per the norm for good landscape photography a decent tripod is essential.

This small 'waterfall' is actually a small leat dropping over a ledge. By closing in and getting low with a wideangle lens the small fall can be exaggerated into looking quite impressive.

The ‘frozen’ water effect will require fast shutter speeds. To enable this a wide aperture would normally be needed for example f/4 – f/6.3. If the light conditions are good a base ISO of 100 should be ok but as the light reduces the higher the ISO may need to go. On an overcast day (or if the waterfall is in a valley or shady spot) you may need to push the ISO as high as 800 to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to ‘freeze’ the water. Try to hit the 1/500 sec mark or faster to achieve sharp detail and perfectly suspended water drops.


I used a 70-200 lens to close in on a particularly attractive waterfall that had hidden detail. The long focal length removes the problem of waterspray building on the lens.

For the more popular effect of a smooth flow but still retaining detail and texture in the water a shutter speed of ½ to 1 second is ideal. Overcast days are ideal for this technique. If you attempt any kind of long exposure of water in bright conditions you will end up with burnt out high lights on the water surface due to harsh reflected light. This will totally spoil the effect you are trying for. I always shoot waterfalls in shady or overcast conditions with a polariser. To attain the ½ to 1 second a simple adjustment of the aperture to around f/16 to f/18 at ISO 100 will usually suffice.



If a small aperture does not allow a long enough exposure due to bright light conditions then you will have to resort to Neutral Density filters. I use the screw in type like Hoya or B+W. My favourite ‘waterfall’ filter is a 77mm Hoya ND8. (3 stop) This nearly always allows the shutter speed I require when waterfalls are on the menu. For example; if you set your aperture to the smallest available (eg f/22) and set your ISO at base (eg 100) and the minimum shutter speed you could attain was 1/8 second before adding a filter, when you add the ND8 (3stop) the exposure would increase to approx 1 second.

The extreme is to look at exposures of 30 seconds or more. I attain these in shady daylight conditions with a screw in B+W ten stop filter. Another popular slot in filter (if you can find one) is the Lee Big Stopper that is also ten stops. Both are in the region of £100.



Here is a list of great waterfalls to visit in my home county of Devon.

Devils Kitchen, Tavy Cleave.
Park at Lanehead carpark on Dartmoor. Walk along the leat towards the Cleave and follow the river Tavy. After about 30 minutes you will come across the fall.

Becky Falls near Manaton.
This fall looks its best after heavy rain.

Canonteign Falls.
Englands highest water fall.

Welcome Mouth on the North Devon coast
Runs down onto the beach

Spekes Mill Mouth.
This fall is just South of Hartland Quay on the North Devon coast.

Burrator Reservoir, Dartmoor.
There is a very accessable fall at the edge of the road not far from the dam.

Adrian Oakes 2012