Tips for shooting long exposures of waterfalls - On The Brink Photog

Hi there, my name is Chris Santos I am the photographer behind On The Brink Photog. Today I will be teaching you how to get a great running start into the world of long exposures. In this tutorial, I will be focusing on the basics of shooting a silky smooth cascading waterfall. As well as lend some tips and tricks to help you nail that shot you've been dreaming of. 

Power the dams

Let's jump right in (no pun intended).

First let's get some of the technical things out of the way. When you are shooting a long exposure you will be controlling your exposure triangle much different than normal. If you don't know what the exposure triangle is it is the relationship between your shutter speed (how much movement you capture in one shot), your aperture/ f-stop (controls your depth of field as well as how much light can be absorbed by the sensor), and your ISO (boosting the signal to your sensor giving a brighter image at the expense of increased noise). 

So normally you want to shoot your photos with a fast shutter speed to freeze motion while being able to hand hold your camera to create a nice sharp photo. Now to get your shutter slowed down to an adequate speed that truly shows the movement and power of the water, you are left with a few options.

If your ISO is already as low as it can go the next choice is to stop down your aperture, a usual recommendation when you are starting is f16 this is due to the large depth of field while shutting out more light, the effect of diffraction (softening of lens when stopped fully down or close to it) doesn't come into play as much, and by doing that you can now open up your shutter speed to compensate for stopping down to f16.  This will allow for more movement to show in your scene.

After you read this paragraph Grab your tripod and camera, go turn on your kitchen sink and give this a try! Set your camera to f16 iso 100-200(depending on how bright your house is) and slow down your shutter speed until you start to get motion blur. If you just took your first long exposure congrats welcome to the fantastic world of movement!

mt hood fresh snow

OK, now that we have the basics covered I will go into how I set up for my shots on location. What I look for, how to achieve the proper exposure/ effect you want, and tips to help when the light isn't to your benefit. Let's get started!

1. Scouting a location: Prior to going to a waterfall or area that I am not familiar with I have a few simple steps that greatly help my success rate of a keeper shot. Before I even leave the house I am on the computer or my phone using an app called the photographer's ephemeris, it is a sun and moon calculator. At any day of the year any given time this app will tell you the angle of the sun in relation to where you are. This is beneficial due to the fact that sunlight on the water makes for blown out highlights and you want to avoid that at all costs ( we shoot digital folks there's no excuse for over exposing highlights). I will aim to shoot on overcast days or after a fresh rain when everything is lush and colorful. An overcast day makes it much easier to slow down your shutter sometimes upwards to 10 seconds without filters if the light is really low. On the sunny days, I use the tpe app to know when the sun will hit the water so I know to show up before or after to shoot while the light is soft. If it's an east facing waterfall shoot in the A.m. and if it faces west shoot in the afternoon. 

The next thing is Google Earth, you can use it to get a rough idea of the terrain and possible good vantage points to shoot from, you are also able to see others photos of the location to help you get an idea of where to go before you even leave the comfort of home. This helps out a ton and can even help you separate yourself from the dozens of other shots at a given location. 

2. Finding your composition: When I get to my location I like to show up 30 minutes earlier than I wanted to shoot by, that gives me time to walk around and appreciate the area as it is without worrying about my gear getting wet or falling over. 

I will mosey around and look for interesting foreground objects and leading lines to pull my eye's to the waterfall. Basically, I look for the elements that make me say 'wow' or really make me look more closely at the scene. Remember though don't clutter up your shot with excess things if it doesn't aid your shot (I still struggle from this time to time). Don't like the trees on the side or the sky in the shot? Then switch up your framing. This is where you can start to visualize the shot and decide on what you want your exposure to look like and how much motion you want the falls to have.

The faster the water moves the quicker it will blur at any given slow shutter speed. Too fast of a shutter and you don't get a nice blur, too slow and the water loses the detail and becomes a white mass. It's a juggling act that is different with every waterfall or stream you come across, honestly, it is a lot of trial and error and what looks good to your eye. After all, this is your vision don't forget to make it look how you want it to. 

Mountain Runoff

3. What should your exposure be? 

This is where we get to the fun! Now that I found my frame and what I want to shoot I will set up my tripod which is an absolute must for long exposures (you'll want a sturdy one) I will pull out my camera and get it on the tripod and frame up my shot, keep in mind if it's misty your camera may get wet so I like to keep a grocery bag and lens cloth handy for covering the camera while not being used.

Now we are ready to figure out what our exposure will be. I will cover both ways of shooting a slow shutter speed without and with the help of Neutral density filters so you can get an idea of what will work for you at the time. I used to shoot without nd's but it always ended up as more time in front of the computer vs being out and shooting. 

Anyhow, for shooting without a filter I will set my aperture to f16 and my ISO to 100 now I will slow my shutter speed down until I get a nice even exposure without blowing out any highlights. Switch to your live view and watch your histogram you do not want any spiking on the right edge of the histogram, that means you blew the highlights and they are not recoverable in post processing. On a darker overcast day I'll usually get anywhere from 1/4th of a second to 5 seconds. So yes you can manage to get long exposures without the aid of filters. 

Now you're ready to shoot some test photos, you shot one and notice that the water has too much motion but you like the overall exposure. The solution? That would be to speed up your shutter speed to freeze the water more, but that will darken your exposure. Since we want to keep that f16 aperture you will raise your ISO by the same amount of stops to compensate. For example, Shooting f16 iso 100 10sec. water is moving to quick so I close my shutter speed 1 stop to 5sec. I would need to boost my iso by 1 stop from 100 to 200.

You should be closer to the shot you are after! Not so hard right? Well, let's say the exposure isn't as long as you wanted for the movement to show as envisioned, and you want to shoot at your lens sharpest f-stop.

That's where we start shooting with an ND filter. These are essentially neutral colored sunglasses for your lens letting in less light, they come in varying stops (how many f stops of light it blocks) right now I am using a 10 stop ND now that means whatever my exposure was, when I put the filter on it will need 10 stops slower of a shutter speed to equal the same exposure of iso and aperture.

Focusing can be difficult with the ND on your lens so I recommend removing it to focus first and then follow this awesome tip to nail your exposure. 

Since you are able to darken the exposure with the ND I don't have to stop down as much and can shoot in my lens sweet spot for me that's f8. What I will do is get my exposure set without the ND. For this situation let's say I am at f8 ISO 100 1/60th of a second. That's much to quick to get any blur on the water. In comes the ND filter, remember mine is 10 stops.

We can do some simple math, remember to maintain your current exposure when you change one side of the exposure triangle, one other has to change to compensate. Either iso aperture or shutter speed. Since we want the same iso and aperture we have to change the shutter speed by full stops. Ok, so 1 f-stop change for your shutter speed and iso is done by doubling or halving the setting.

So to get that exposure we saw on our 1/60th exposure without the filter. I'll start by putting the 10 stop ND filter on after I had focused the shot and open up my shutter speed by the same amount. 1 stop from 1/60th would be 1/30th, then 1/15th 1/8th 1/4th 1/2sec 1 sec 2 sec 4 sec 8 sec, and 10 stops equal a 15-second shot. There is many exposure calculator apps that will do this math for you, I preferred to memorize it so I can have one less thing to fiddle with while shooting. 

Now that you have an understanding of changing your settings by full stops, going 10 stops from 1/60th lends the same exposure as before except with a nice 15 seconds of blur. If you're still blowing your highlights or have lost the detail in the water you can raise the iso, and speed up your shutter speed by the same amount of stops to get the same exposure with less movement. For example 10 stop ND at f8 iso 100 15sec if you raised your iso 2 stops to iso 400 you'd speed up your shutter speed by 2 stops to 4 seconds. 

4. Tips and things that help me get my shots quicker and more consistent from location to location:

A sturdy tripod is absolutely mandatory, you will not want the camera moving at all during the exposure. With that being said you should shoot on a 2 or 10-second timer to eliminate camera and hand shake alternatively, you can buy a cheap wired trigger like I have to shoot without worry of shake.

A polarizer filter will help to remove the glare from the rocks and will let you punch through the reflections in the water showing the rocks and river bed below, I personally use one most of the time on waterfalls due to the way it brings out the natural rich colors of the foliage and water.

Lens cloth lens cloth lens cloth, mist happens, sometimes it can take 30 shots before I finally get one without any water droplets on the lens. I even will lay one on top of my camera when not shooting just to minimize the water contact to my not weather sealed camera.

If the waterfall faces east shoot in the am before the sun hits it and if it faces west shoot in the afternoon.

Overcast days are your best friend! Even with 10 stops of ND on a sunny day, you may not be able to get the result you want.

Enjoy the waterfall relax and appreciate it's true power.

Cold Creek grotto

I hope this Write-up can be of some good assistance to you! Get out there and start shooting, it is the only way to get better! If you have any questions feel free to comment or email me at onthebrinkphotog@gmail.com Have fun and be safe!Chris Santos @onthebrinkphotog

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