Waterfalls -- Part II

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow



Identifying and capturing strong composition is an extremely important part of creating powerful waterfall images. While the purpose of this article is not to carry out a thorough review of composition, a couple of aspects of composition, curves (or lines) and environment, that are particularly important when photographing waterfalls will be reviewed (for a more comprehensive coverage of composition, see the series Advanced Composition).

Curves can make or break a waterfall image. With waterfalls, two types of curves are particularly important. The first type of curve is the curve formed by the water. Waterfalls where the water flows or falls in such a way as to form curves tend to create much more interest than waterfalls where the water simply falls straight down. In essence, graceful curves add an element of elegance to a waterfall. The second type of curve is a curve that points the attention toward the waterfall. This type of curve will repeatedly redirect the attention toward the waterfall and strengthen it as the center of interest.

Figure 1: Waterfall with Curves

Figure 1 illustrates the first type of curve. The water falling through the jumble of rock and ferns forms a system of curves (with many of the curves intermingling or intersecting). It is these curves that make this image work. If these curves were replaced with a single mass of water pouring over the rock, the image would lose much of its attraction.

Figure 2: Waterfall with Both Types of Curves

Figure 2 shows a waterfall with both types of curves. This waterfall has a small flow of water, and the water falls only a short distance. This waterfall will never impress anyone by its power or grandeur. Instead, this image utilizes curves for its impact. First, the water forms a zigzag curve as it approaches the waterfall. This adds a touch of grace to the image. Then, the water forms another curve as it falls diagonally across the image. This diagonal line makes the image more dynamic. The last curve is formed by the red pine needles on the foreground rock. These needles contrast sharply in color with the rock and form a strong curve that points directly at the waterfall -- thus, directing the eye toward the center of interest.

The second major component of waterfall composition, covered in this article, is the environment surrounding the waterfall. This is extremely important to many waterfall shots. By itself, falling water is simply not that interesting. Rather, it is the environment within which the water falls that makes waterfall images so impressive. If you doubt this statement, try the following. Go into your bathroom and photograph the water falling out of your bathtub faucet. Then, get an image of a waterfall cascading out of the side of a dark, mountain forest. Show both images to your friends and try to convince them that the bathtub shot is just as impressive as the forest, waterfall shot. Good Luck!

It is the surrounding environment that gives waterfalls much of their character. Therefore, why not include some of that environment in the image to bring out the waterfall character. This runs contrary to what we often hear about photographic composition in other types of photography. Usually, it is a good idea to move in close and crop out unnecessary detail. This focuses the attention on the center of interest. Including extra detail often serves only to distract the viewer's attention. However, in waterfall photography, the surrounding detail is often as important as the center of interest (i.e., the waterfall itself).

The concept of using the surrounding environment is clearly seen in Figures 3 and 4. This waterfall was originally composed as seen in Figure 3. The image focused in on the waterfall and cropped out most of the surrounding detail. After taking this shot, I looked up for a moment and was hit by the intense beauty of the surrounding, wet rainforest. I recomposed the image and shot again (producing the image seen in Figure 4). This time, I included the rainforest in the shot; in fact, the waterfall is relatively small in the image. However, the image has been greatly improved as the waterfall is now properly placed in perspective with the inclusion of the beautiful rainforest. In Figure 3, you have a nice waterfall. In Figure 4, you have an elegant waterfall plunging out of a misty rainforest.

Figure 3: Close Shot without Surrounding Environment
Figure 4: Wider Shot with Surrounding Environment
Figure 5: Poor Waterfall Shot
In contrast, Figure 5 shows an example of a waterfall image that has neither of the two compositional elements covered above. There are no significant curves in the flowing water (while there are a few minor curves at the bottom of the falls, they do not serve much of a purpose in this image). Mostly, the water just pours straight over the edge and drops straight down. In addition, there are no noteworthy curves directing the attention toward the waterfall. However, the thing that contributes the most to the failure of this image is the surrounding environment. What little is shown is pretty ugly. This image clearly demonstrates the importance of curves and the surrounding environment to a waterfall image by showing what happens when they are absent.


What shutterspeed should be used to blur the falling water? That seems to be the first question that people who are just learning to shoot waterfalls ask. Ignoring the fact that shutterspeed is only one of a number of factors involved in producing great waterfall shots (and probably not the most important one at that), the question far oversimplifies the issue. There is no such thing as one correct shutterspeed for shooting waterfalls! Rather, the proper shutterspeed is a function of five factors:

Only when these factors are understood can a photographer hope to get a shutterspeed that will produce the desired results. Understanding these five factors will allow a photographer to select the proper shutterspeed for a particular waterfall image.

Shutterspeed: The Amount of Blur Desired

First, a photographer has to decide on the emotion he wants the final image to communicate to the viewers of the image. That emotion will be partly achieved by creating the appropriate amount of blur in the falling water. Then, the proper shutter speed must be chosen that will capture that amount of blur. For our purposes, we can consider four general types of emotions that can be captured with waterfalls:

Table 1: Emotion and Shutter Speed
Emotion Example Amount of Blur Shutter Speed
Surrealistic Motion Dreamy, surrealistic, waterfall image. Large amount. In this type of image, the moving water is heavily blurred causing a loss of much of the detail in the water. This produces a romantic, peaceful image. Long shutterspeeds are required.
Realistic, Fluid Motion. Realistic waterfall image. Moderate amount. This is the category in which most waterfalls fit. Here, the water should be blurred to emphasis the continuous motion of the water. Some detail loss in the water is acceptable in order to achieve the blur effect. A moderate shutterspeed is required.
Frozen Motion Water crashing forcefully against rocks. Small amount. Here, we want to freeze the action, but not completely. There should be a small amount of blur to emphasis the movement of the water. For this, a moderately fast shutterspeed is required.
Turbulence, Action, Danger River rafting the rapids Almost no blur. Very fast shutterspeed that will freeze the motion of the water.

In order to study the relationship between emotion, blur, and shutterspeed, Figures 6 -- 14 show the same waterfall shot at different shutterspeeds.

Figure 6 shows a waterfall at a 2s exposure. Clearly, this image falls into the surrealistic category. The water is far smoother than it appeared to the photographer's eye at the time the shot was taken. However, it does produce a very peaceful image. On the other hand, it should be noted that some areas of the water have pretty much lost almost all detail due to the blurring effect.
Figure 6: Waterfall at 2s Exposure
Figure 7 shows the waterfall at a 1s exposure. Clearly, this image still falls into the surrealistic category, but there is a tiny bit more detail in the water.
Figure 7: Waterfall at 1s Exposure
Figure 8 shows the waterfall at a 1/2s exposure. Even at this shutterspeed, the image still has heavy blurring.
Figure 8: Waterfall at 1/2s Exposure
Figure 9 shows the waterfall at a 1/4s exposure. This image has entered the category of realistic, fluid motion. The waterfall still has some blur that clearly communicates the movement of the water, but it looks much like what the photographer experienced. The viewer can now more clearly distinguish the detail in the water. In some parts of the water, what appear to be individual strands of water are visible.
Figure 9: Waterfall at 1/4s Exposure
Figure 10 shows the waterfall at a 1/8s exposure.
Figure 10: Waterfall at 1/8s Exposure
Figure 11 shows the waterfall at a 1/15s exposure. At this exposure, the waterfall is starting to lose its smooth, peaceful feel. The turbulence is just starting to become apparent.
Figure 11: Waterfall at 1/15s Exposure
Figure 12 shows the waterfall at a 1/30s exposure.
Figure 12: Waterfall at 1/30s Exposure
Figure 13 shows the waterfall at a 1/60s exposure. This image fits into the category of frozen motion. The water appears to be frozen in mid air, but the small amount of blur makes clear that the water is moving quickly.
Figure 13: Waterfall at 1/60s Exposure
Figure 14 shows the waterfall at a 1/125 exposure. Clearly, the turbulence of the water is the most notable characteristic of this image. This image is starting to move from the category of frozen motion to the turbulence category.
Figure 14: Waterfall at 1/125s Exposure

It should be obvious from these shots that longer exposures produce more blurring of the water. However, it must be kept in mind that the speeds shown in Figures 6 -- 14 are valid only for this particular waterfall when shot the way the photographer set up the shot. In other words, these shutter speeds produced the effects seen in the figures because this waterfall shot has a waterfall with a specific amount of water, traveling at a specific speed, at a specific angle to the camera lens, and at a specific distance from the camera. These same shutterspeeds will produce different blur effects if used on a different waterfall (or even the same waterfall if shot from a different perspective or distance).

Hopefully, that last paragraph doesn't sound too daunting -- How can I ever figure out the best shutterspeed; it changes from one waterfall to the next? It is simply a matter of experience. Once you develop some experience with a few waterfalls, you can use your knowledge of the five factors to make adjustments for new waterfalls.

Now, there is one thing that photographers must be wary of when shooting waterfalls: loss of waterfall detail. Sometimes, we get overenthusiastic about blurring the water. That is particularly true when we want to create a dreamy, surrealistic waterfall image. The problem is that the longer the shutter is open, the more water that passes by the camera. At any point in time, the water in front of the camera has a certain detail to it. However, the detail changes at each instance in time. With longer exposures, the sensor is essentially averaging the detail of the changing water over the time that the shutter is open. If the shutter is open long enough, the detail will average out to a blur. In other words, the detail in the water will be lost. In this case, the water will turn into a smooth, silky band of color (usually white). While this may be desirable in some surrealistic images, it does not look real. Figure 15 shows a waterfall that has lost almost all of its detail due to a very long 3.2s exposure.


Figure 15: Loss of Waterfall Detail

Shutterspeed: The Volume of Water

Figure 16: Large Volume of Water

The volume of water that flows down a waterfall has a large impact on the selection of the proper shutterspeed. Figure 16 shows a waterfall with a large volume of water (shot at 1/80s). Waterfalls like this one, generally, require a fairly short shutterspeed for two reasons. First, the large amount of water that falls at any given point in time means that a large number of water particles will pass in front of each pixel while the shutter is open. Each water particle causes some blurring effect. With so many particles passing in front of the pixels (each producing a certain amount of blur), the pixels will quickly average out the detail (as mentioned in the section above). This will cause the water to lose detail and the waterfall image to acquire a surrealistic look unless a short shutterspeed is used. Second, waterfalls that have a large amount of water tend to be turbulent by nature. With a lot of water trying to pass at the same time and in the same place, the water gets thrown around a lot. This creates turbulence. If a photographer desires to capture the true nature of such a waterfall, that turbulence will need to be recorded by the camera. As covered in the previous section, capturing turbulence requires a relatively fast shutterspeed.

Figure 17: Small Volume of Water

Figure 17 shows a waterfall with a small amount of water (shot at 1/4s). This type of waterfall requires longer shutterspeeds to produce any given amount of blurring. Since less water is flowing, fewer water particles pass in front of each pixel. Thus, it will require a longer period of time before any desired amount of blurring can be achieved. Using a fast shutterspeed with a waterfall like this one tends to make the water look like it is frozen in mid air. In fact, even at 1/4s, the exposure on this waterfall was a bit on the short side. When seen in a larger size, some of the water does appear to be frozen in mid air.

A good example of the impact that the volume of water has on a waterfall image can be seen by comparing Figure 16 (lots of water) to Figure 13 (much less water). Both images were shot at approximately the same shutter speed, but the effects are much different due to the volume of water.

Shutterspeed: The Speed of the Water

One of the most obvious factors affecting the proper shutterspeed for a waterfall is the speed that the water is traveling. Unfortunately, not all waterfalls drop water at the same speed. Now, this is not to say that gravity malfunctions in some waterfalls. The problem is that some waterfalls drop water over a greater distance than other waterfalls. The farther the water drops, the faster it travels. In addition, some waterfalls drop water straight down; this creates the greatest speed. Other waterfalls have obstacles in the path of the water or may force the water to change direction on the way down. This will slow the water.

Figure 18: Fast moving Water

Figure 18 shows a waterfall that is fairly tall (shot at 1/4s). Furthermore, the water in this waterfall dropped relatively straight down with little interference until it reached the pool below the falls. This created fast moving water, especially at the bottom of the falls. As can be seen, the water was significantly blurred.

Figure 19 shows another tall waterfall (shot at 1s.). This is an interesting case for shutterspeed selection. The waterfall is very tall. One might be tempted to think that this would result in fast falling water with a requirement for a relatively fast shutterspeed. However, the water in this waterfall is in close contact with the rock of the mountain. Furthermore, the rock face of this mountain has a rough texture. As a result, much of the water is bounced around on its way down. This appreciably slows down the water. In fact, the vertical speed of much of the water in this waterfall is fairly slow. Thus, a longer shutterspeed was required than might originally be suspected.


Figure 19: Slower Moving Water

Shutterspeed: The Distance between Water and Camera

The distance between the water and the camera affects the selection of the shutterspeed. The shorter the distance between the water and the camera, the faster the shutterspeed will have to be to produce a certain amount of blur.

Figure 20: Water Close to Camera

This is demonstrated in Figures 20 and 21. Both images have rapidly flowing, turbulent water. In Figure 20, the photographer was positioned close to the water. Positioned so close to the water, even a shutterspeed of 1/200s did not completely freeze the water.

Figure 21: Water Far from Camera

Conversely, in Figure 21, the photographer was stationed a good distance from the flowing water. As a result, a shutterspeed of 1/3 of a second was used.

If this does not make sense at first, think of it this way. If you stand on a freeway overpass and watch the cars go by, they seem to roar pass at high speed. On the other hand, if you look in the sky and watch a passenger jet, it appears to barely crawl across the sky. In reality, the jet is moving many times faster than the cars, but it appears to be moving much slower due to the extra distance between the jet and the viewer.

Shutterspeed: The Direction of Water Flow with Respect to the Lens

The last thing that affects the shutterspeed is the direction that the water is flowing with respect to the axis of the camera lens. Water that is flowing perpendicular to the axis of the lens will require a faster shutterspeed to produce a given amount of blur than water that is flowing directly at or away from the lens.

Generally, this isn't a big issue with waterfalls as most waterfalls are photographed in such a way that the water is falling perpendicular to the lens axis. It is a more common issue when photographing rapids or rivers. For example, in Figure 20, the photographer wished to capture the turbulence of the water. Even with the water flowing toward the camera, this required a fairly fast shutterspeed of 1/200s in order to emphasize the turbulence. However, had the photographer turned 90 degrees and shot the rapids from the side, she would have had to use an even faster shutterspeed or the water would have taken on a much more blurred appearance.

Bracketing Shutterspeed

Even with knowledge of the factors that affect waterfall shutterspeed selection, determining the best shutterspeed can sometimes be inexact. Therefore, it is often best to bracket the shutterspeed. Especially with digital cameras, this is cheap insurance that you will not lose the shot.


Waterfalls -- Part I     Waterfalls -- Part III