Moving water has always been one of my favourite things to photograph. It’s not just a visual thing. For me, it’s a multi-sensory immersion in sound and feeling. Whether I’m zooming in on flowers beside a brook or crouching in the spray of a roaring cascade, it snaps me straight into a present-moment engagement with nature where the lens and viewfinder are merely windows. One of the miracles of photography is that it allows us to see water in ways that our mind imagines but our eyes don’t ordinarily perceive— without indulging in any pixel tricks. Shutter speed is the secret, and you can use it to freeze a leaping waterfall in its tracks, or transform it into an ethereal veil of white.
For the first effect, you need a fast shutter speed, giving the sensor time to capture a single moment without any movement. Theoretically, the speed at which the eyes perceive stillness is 1/125 of a second, but I aim for 1/250 or faster—quick enough to still droplets in mid-air. Freezing a waterfall requires no special equipment— virtually any camera can manage these shutter speeds—but it does need a lot of light which, in monsoonal weather, can be at a premium. This means trading off elsewhere in the exposure—you’ll have to accept a wide aperture, and the resulting softness outside the zone of focus, or a high ISO, and the digital noise that goes with it.
The second method involves dialling the shutter speed all the way down to one-third of a second or slower. This gives you soft gossamer trails of white that can make an ordinary stream look like a magical river of milk. Unless you’ve got the breath and body control of a yogi, a third of a second is too long to hold a camera without introducing ruinous amounts of camera shake. A tripod or other reliable support is a must, and if your camera’s fancy enough to support one, a cable or remote release to prevent vibration at the time. Using slow shutter speeds brings you up against the unusual problem of having too much light to work with. Keep an eye on the histogram, taking care not to overexpose the highlights in the water.
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Freeze frame: There’s an almost unlimited palette of possibility for composing waterfall pictures.
There’s an almost unlimited palette of possibility for composing waterfall pictures. Try placing the waterfall in the top third of the picture and using the line of the stream to lead your eye into the picture. Or get in close and focus on a small portion of the waterfall, contrasting the gauzy movement of the water with the shiny solidity of the rocks on which it falls. Don’t neglect the opposite view: Shooting from the top of the fall, you can catch the water as it takes its great leap over the precipice.
Stay high and dry
Moisture and electronics do not go well together, so it’s critical to protect your camera from getting soaked. I’ve tried all sorts of solutions such as sealing up all possible points of entry with electrical tape. Ultimately, nature will have her way. But if your equipment packs up after a session in the rain, a nice long blast of the air conditioner can bring it back to life.
David Stott is a photographer and writer based in Australia. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org