Iceland: 12 Tips for Capturing Great Waterfall Images
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In June of this year, I will be leading a photographic workshop in one of my favorite places to shoot: Iceland. Focus on Nature (the organizers) asked me to write a blog post for them about the upcoming trip. Instead of just saying how great it’s going to be (how can it not be? It’s Iceland!), I decided to give a little sneak peak at what folks might learn there. I’m posting the write-up here as well, because I think you will enjoy it.
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I’ve been to Iceland several times and the reason I keep returning is that it truly is one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen. I’m sure you can tell by the photos that this year’s trip is going to be a visually-rich journey. What the photos might not explain, however, is how our Iceland trips are also a journey into your own creativity and photographic education. When I was asked by Focus on Nature to write a blog post about my upcoming June 2012 trip, I decided that, instead of telling you how beautiful it’s going to be (you can see that for yourself), I would actually share some of the things you might learn in my workshop. We don’t have the space to cover everything I might teach, so I thought I’d just pick one topic and give you an example of the type of things you might learn.
In Iceland, there’s one thing you simply can’t avoid seeing a lot of: waterfalls. There are so many that, when you start your trip, you’ll be excited about every one you encounter, but then over time you’ll start to take them for granted and only seek out the ones that offer something overly unique to capture. Here are a dozen tips that I use when shooting waterfalls. I hope you can come to Iceland to learn some of these techniques in the field with me.
1) Fast Shutter Speeds
Your choice of shutter speed will have most dramatic effect on how your waterfall images will look. Shooting with a fast shutter speed will freeze every drop of water and produce a lot more fine detail than using a long exposure. There’s a trick I often use when shooting this way that will cause a waterfall to look as if it has a lot more whitewater. I shoot multiple exposures using a fast shutter speed and then composite them in Photoshop. I might take 10-12 images and then select the resulting images in Bridge, choose Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers to stack the images in a single file, then click on each layer and change the Blending Mode pop-up menu (found at the top of the Layers panel in Photoshop) to Lighten mode. Setting all the layers to lighten mode has the effect of filing in most of the gaps in the waterfall, which makes it look like there’s more water going down it.
2) Show Shutter Speeds
For the traditional silky look in a waterfall, I’ll set my F-stop to f22 and my ISO setting to the lowest setting it goes to. If that doesn’t produce a long enough exposure, then I’ll add a two-stop neutral density filter to the lens to further slow my exposure.
3) Multiple Shutter Speeds
The problem with shooting a waterfall using a long exposure is that any foliage that surrounds the waterfall can end up being blurry if it’s windy. When that’s the case, I end up shooting a few long exposures to get the silky look with the waterfall and then I’ll increase my ISO setting to ISO 200 and change my Aperture setting to F8 to end up with a much faster shutter speed to freeze any motion in the greenery that surrounds the waterfall. Once I’m in Photoshop, I’ll stack one of the fast shutter speed shots on top of a slow shutter speed image and then add a layer mask to the top layer and paint with black over the waterfall so that the slow shutter speed shot is used in that area while the fast shutter speed is used on the surrounding image.
4) Wide Angle to Expand Space
If I can get close to the stone wall that is behind a waterfall, then I’ll end up shooting with a very wide angle lens. That will have the effect of visually exaggerating the space between near and far objects in a scene and can make the waterfall feel like it is farther away from the wall.
5) Telephoto to Pull Things Together
If I have objects that are far away from the waterfall that I’d like to incorporate into a shot, then I’ll consider using a telephoto lens. Longer lenses visually compress the space between near and far objects in a photograph. That way, I can make it look as if a church is much closer to a waterfall compared to shooting the same scene using a normal or wide angle lens. I’ll simply back away from the church as far as is practical considering the landscape and my view of the waterfall, then I’ll find the longest lens that will allow me to include both the church and waterfall in the shot without cropping out anything essential. By doing so, I’ll make the church feel much closer to the waterfall compared to how it would look if it was shot from up close.
6) Removing Mist
If there is a breeze at the location of a waterfall, then the area to the right or left of the waterfall can become obscured by the mist that’s coming off the waterfall. To reduce or eliminate that mist, I’ll take multiple exposures using the same exposure settings. I’ll end up with 10-12 images that look very similar, but the position of the mist will vary slightly. I’ll then stack the resulting images and then blend them using Darken mode in Photoshop, which will help to break through the mist by allowing the gaps in the mist to add up from each shot. The technique is very similar to what I mentioned in tip #1 above.
7) Shooting for Large Format Output
If I know that I’ll want to make a huge print of a waterfall, then I’ll shoot it as a multi-shot panorama and stitch the resulting images. That way, I’ll end up with a much higher resolution image than what I could get from a single shot. To get a really clear and sharp image, I’ll manually focus using the LiveView feature of my camera at 10X magnification. I’ll also use a cable release to insure that I don’t bump the camera when pressing the shutter and use the mirror lockup feature to further reduce camera movement. I’ll also use an aperture setting of f8 or f11 because that’s the range where your lens is the sharpest. All those things put together will allow me to produce a huge image that is extremely sharp.
8 ) Show off Scale
A waterfall all by itself is OK, but getting a human element in the scene gives the viewer a much better sense of scale. In that kind of setup, I’ll try to make sure I don’t shoot from a position too close to the human subject. If I stand close to them, then they will appear huge in the frame which can cause the waterfall to feel smaller. Shooting them from further away can help to make the waterfall feel larger since the person will not look as large in comparison.
9) Bracket for a Blue Sky
I often need to vary my exposures in order to retain detail in the sky. Let’s say I run across a waterfall that is in the shade and surrounded by a dark cliff. Once I get the exposure so that the waterfall is rendered satisfactorily, there is a good chance that the sky will end up blown out as a solid white mass. After capturing a good looking exposure of the waterfall, I’ll take my next shot about two stops darker in order to capture detail in the sky. I can then stack the two images as separate layers in Photoshop and then mask the darker image so that it only shows up where the sky should be. That way, I get detail in both the waterfall and the sky.
If I ever include the sun in a shot of a waterfall, I’ll take multiple shots and vary the aperture setting to change the way the sun is rendered. When shooting “wide open” at f2.8, the sun will look like it does to my eye in the field. Stopping down the lens to f22 will cause the same sun to become a starburst. Shooting both versions will give me two options. I can either call attention to the sun (by using the starburst version) or simply make it look normal. When including the sun in a shot, I always take a look at the front element of my camera lens. If the sunlight is falling on the front glass of my lens, then I’m going to end up with a lens flare in the image and lower contrast in the scene overall. To prevent the flare and increase contrast, I’ll position my hand so that it casts a shadow on the front of the camera lens while it’s just outside of the camera’s view.
11) Near and Far, Both Sharp
I often try to get my camera extremely close to the pool of water that is found at the bottom of a waterfall. By doing so, the viewer will often feel more connected to the experience. That often involves putting my tripod in the water and getting the camera lens within an inch of the water’s surface. When something is that close to the lens, it can be difficult to maintain sharp focus across the entire distance between the pool water (that’s close) and the waterfall (that’s far). That’s when I might choose to take multiple exposures with different focus points and use an aperture setting that limits the depth of field and therefore renders areas that are far away from the focus point as soft. In one I’ll focus on the water near the camera, in another, I’ll focus 1/4 of the way between the near and far areas, in a third, I’ll focus a bit closer to the waterfall and in another I’ll be focused right on the waterfall. I can then stack the resulting images in Photoshop, select the resulting layers and then use the Edit>Auto-Blend Layers command to have it combine the sharp areas from each shot into a single image.
12) Water on the Lens
I always keep a towel nearby when shooting waterfalls. Any mist coming off the waterfall can easily collect on the front element of the lens and cause blurry blobs to appear on the resulting captures. I drape the towel over the camera when I’m moving around the scene and getting set up. I also use it along with a lens cloth to clean off any water droplets that accumulate on the lens. If I simply can’t avoid getting a few drops on the lens, then I’ll shoot “wide open” at f2.8 and make sure that I’m focused on an area far away. That will reduce the impact of any droplets on the lens and produce a cleaner looking image compared to shooting at a higher f-stop setting.
Hanging out with me in the field is the only time when you’ll get first-hand experience on how all these ideas can be executed. We only have so much space here on the blog and it’s much easier to understand when you’re actually using these techniques in an environment where you can ask questions and I can review your results. That’s why you should join me in Iceland this year! Our trip will be June 24-30, 2012 with Focus on Nature.
If those are the ideas I might share when shooting waterfall, then imagine how much more you could learn when we explore other subject matter in Iceland. We’ll talk about getting the most compelling compositions, using the most ideal camera settings and the post processing techniques that are essential to producing dramatic images.
The June 24-30 trip will be my sixth visit to Iceland. I know what to expect and have a lot of experience shooting this unique landscape. There is no doubt you’ll leave Iceland a much better photographer than you are right now. You can sign up for this workshop on the Focus on Nature site HERE.
If you can’t make it to the Iceland workshop, we’ve got plenty more coming up in places like Namibia, Zion National Park, the American Southwest, and more. Check them out HERE.