Long Exposure Waterfalls

Back in the days when I was shooting 35MM film (yes, I’m old enough to have shot film) I started fooling around with long exposure photography, particularly long exposures of waterfalls.  I loved the end results of seeing waterfalls in a way that you never see them in when looking at them in real life, but I have to admit, I struggled with the limitations of the technology of the time.  Basically, to get things right, it took a lot of trial and error shooting, and long waits for the end result to see what worked and what didn’t.  Since most of my work wasn’t really getting me the results I was looking for, I started using a notebook to record my camera settings as I worked, so that when I got the finished pictures back I could compare those that achieved the results I wanted with the notes I took.  Slowly, I was able to start getting myself “dialed in” on what it took to shoot a successful long exposure image.

When I got my first digital SLR camera, I was thrilled at how I could shoot an image and see the results immediately.

Now that I could see immediate results, it was a lot easier to start to adjust the technique and camera settings to get the smooth flowing look I was after.  As the camera technique became easier to deal with, the bigger challenges of location, lighting and camera placement moved to center stage.  Here are a few of the most important tips I can share with you if you’re interested in shooting these kinds of pictures.

  • Spend the money on a really good tripod.  A steady platform is absolutely critical, and since you’re shooting these pictures in and around water, the tripod needs to be easy to adjust to difficult locations and steady once you get it in place.
  • Don’t bypass the little drops in search of the big prize.  Some of the images I’ve enjoyed the most were taken when I walked the length of a small little stream no more than a foot across and an inch or two deep.  By getting close to small waterfalls, you’ll bring more of the deep greens of the vegetation and the details of the rocks into focus.  No doubt we all love the iconic waterfalls that plunge over massive drops, but there’s just as much beauty in a tiny stream if you take the time to look for it.
  • Move a lot and shoot a lot.  Even if you think you’ve found your spot, shifting camera location and angle can bring new details into the image.  While it might be tempting to just get the tripod set and shoot, I’m a big fan of moving around and shooting a favorite fall from as many different angles and distances as possible so I have lots of raw material to work with when I’m editing the pictures.
  • Shoot in raw mode.  If you’re camera can shoot raw images, just do it!  Trust me, you’ll need the extra data when you start working to pull some details out of a shadow or recover details in an area that got overexposed.
  • Be prepared to get wet!  Waders, flip flops, barefeet, whatever it takes just be prepared to step into the water to get the perfect shot.
  • Be prepared to keep your camera dry!  Keep in mind that where there is water falling, there is splashing, mist and other forms of airborne water that can make your camera very unhappy.  I use a rain cover if there’s much chance of my gear getting wet.
There’s plenty to see even in a small waterfall.

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