Chutes du Diable Waterfall
Title: Chutes du Diable Waterfall
Shutter Speed: 2.5 seconds for base exposure, otherwise bracketed between 1 second and 6 seconds in 3 separate exposures
Focal Length: 40 mm
Date & Location: October 10, 2011 @ Parc National du Mont-Tremblant, Quebec (Canada)
Since 2005 when I started developing an interest in photography, it took a few years to figure out what subject matters appealed to me most. First as a simple hobby, photography was a means to document my travels and build an image bank I could use in graphic design projects without paying too much for royalty-free stock or infringing on a fellow photographer's copyrights.
Meanwhile, I wanted to learn the fundamentals like using full manual camera controls and getting comfortable with a tripod. Involving some formal education, a fair share of reading + tutorials, and a whole lot of practice. A wealth of knowledge I dare not condense in a single blog specific to waterfalls & long exposure effects, so an existing knowledge of basic photographic principles definitely helps going forward. Key factors like Aperture, Shutter Speed, Focal Length, ISO, tripod use, and how you can make them interact with full manual control instead of relying on the camera's automatic settings.
If you are starting from scratch, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. The one book that helped me most as an amateur photographer back in the day for its emphasis on visual examples, camera settings used, and breaking the chapters down to concise yet very insightful knowledge about specific topics.
Otherwise I'll dive right into waterfalls, pun intended :-) Referencing the photo above as my first milestone of sorts for the year my love affair with waterfalls began in 2011. If you're anything like me, you might find yourself approaching the subject with some reservations or second doubts. The explanations made sense when I read about them in books or tutorials, but it still felt like I was taking a huge leap of faith for putting theory into practice.
Title: Glencar Falls
Shutter Speed: 13 seconds for base exposure, otherwise bracketed between 6 seconds and 25 seconds in 3 separate exposures
Focal Length: 47 mm
Date & Location: July 14, 2011 @ Glencar Falls, Ireland
Turns out I was pleasantly surprised. If you already know the basics of photography and how to use a camera in manual mode, I would say the move to explore waterfalls & long exposure effects involves 2 additional steps; more specifically 2 key pieces of camera equipment which will greatly help for better results:
1) Tripod: Essentially used to stabilize your photo for longer shutter speeds, even the steadiest hand can experience minor shake in mere fractions of a second resulting in a blurry image. Granted, motion blur is desired in long exposure water effects for that surreal factor, but there typically are some background elements meant to remain still like surrounding rocks and vegetation. Hence the tripod as a tool to capture whatever remains still to contrast against fluid motion, in fact that delicate balance between real & surreal is what draws me into the wonderful world of waterfalls.
2) Neutral Density (ND) Filter: The one most mysterious thing before I started experimenting with long exposure effects. Might as well have been alien technology to me, but now that I know better I might best describe an ND filter as a shaded window. Deliberately meant to darken the scene through the camera lens, thereby requiring longer shutter speeds to capture the same amount of light as it might have without an ND filter. Those long shutter speeds essentially provide that silky white surreal effect.
Title: Kirkjufellsfoss Cascades
Shutter Speed: 3.2 seconds for base exposure, otherwise bracketed between 0.8 seconds and 13 seconds in 5 separate exposures
Focal Length: 105 mm
Date & Location: May 19, 2017 @ Kirkjufellsfoss in the Western Region of Ireland
That said, there are many different types of ND filters out there between solid, variable and graduated. Along with different brands to choose from, ranging in glass quality and varying shades of darkness qualified in technical terms like density numbers or equivalent f-stop reductions. Needless to say it can sound very confusing to begin with, and there are many factors to consider in using the right type of ND filter to achieve the desired result... between fast flowing vertical waterfall drops under heavy forest shade you might get away with a simple polarizer filter or no filter at all, versus 10+ stop reducing ND filters on the higher end for capturing smooth water (horizontal) motion with slower moving ocean waves on a sunny day.
The above image from Kirkjufellsfoss in Iceland might help to illustrate that point. Fast moving water captured very early in the morning under thick cloud cover where I got away with a simple polarizing filter for an exposure time of 3.2 seconds at base level (bracketed in 5 different exposures for HDR output, although that is another subject altogether beyond the scope of this blog). In contrast to the following photo I took on a very sunny morning from the rugged coast of Acadia National Park in Maine (USA), requiring a 10 stop reducing ND filter for an exposure time of 20 seconds to record some abstract long exposure effects in the water.
Raging Crocodile Coast
Title: Raging Crocodile Coast
Shutter Speed: 20 seconds
Focal Length: 105 mm
Date & Location: April 14, 2016 @ Acadia National Park, Maine (USA)
Long story short, I would say you are better off experimenting with faster moving water first. Think straight vertical drops; the wider the stream & higher the drop, the more energy tends to flow, and less time needed to capture that silky white long exposure effect (which can be as short as 1 second or less). In many cases it means you can get away with lower density numbers (i.e. lightly shaded ND filters), especially if you use natural light to your advantage like heavy forest shade, cloud cover, or time of day towards sunrise & sunset under softer light versus harsh high noon light which can wash away the details.
Beyond the pure visual, I also find myself listening to waterfalls, and the "roars" they emit so to speak. Not meant to invoke new age or spiritual beliefs, although it definitely helps if you feel a strong connection to nature. But in the context of photography, the louder the "roar" you hear basically means faster & more energetic flow of water.
Going back to my previous point of using lower density numbers, I would highly recommend going with that approach if you are testing the waters with long exposure effects. Start simple, gain enough practice to build a certain comfort level, then apply the knowledge gained through trial and error for moving up gradually in scales of difficulty (i.e. higher density numbers & longer exposure times). For me at least as a visual person who needs to experience things firsthand instead of absorbing everything at once from written instructions, this more organic process seems to work best. For like-minded photographers who operate the same way, I hope you walk away with some useful insight after reading this blog & various photo references including camera settings.
Blackwater Autumn Falls
Title: Blackwater Autumn Falls
Shutter Speed: 2 seconds for base exposure, otherwise bracketed between 0.5 seconds and 8 seconds in 5 separate exposures
Focal Length: 24 mm
Date & Location: October 10, 2016 @ Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia (USA)
You might still be wondering as a key question what brand(s) to choose especially as it relates to Neutral Density (ND) filters, and even though I have certain favorites like B+W & Tiffen, I feel it isn't in my place to champion one over the other for lack of in-depth technical analysis. In general I make my photo purchases online through trusted sources like B&H Photo, Adorama, and Amazon, where I have come to rely on the abundance of customer reviews to influence my decision on what to buy. Realizing there's always a chance of some customers leaving dishonest feedback, but the more the reviews, the more I find the law of averages plays out in determining how good a product really is.