I was out hiking in the Smokies, with my family, a few weekends ago when I ran across some great streams to photograph. Now, I had not really intended to shoot anything on this hike. It was spontaneous and more about time with my family than photos. I say that to emphasize the fact that I did not bring a tripod with me. This got me to thinking about photographing water and how it is kind of like photographing a living thing. This can often be a challenge. Here are some things I have learned over the years when shooting waterfalls and streams.
Always bring a tripod.
I know I just said I had not brought a tripod along on this recent trip, but, in fairness, I was not in my car. I always have a tripod in the trunk. A tripod is invaluable when photographing moving water. In this particular case, I used a rock as a tripod. Sometimes this is even better than a tripod for getting close to the scene.
One of the greatest effects of photographing water is to show this movement. By using a slower shutter speed you can really get a feel for the flow of the water and the cool swirls as the water moves through the scene. I generally like the feel of an exposure of 1/15th of a second to 1 second on an average mountain stream. However, this can change depending on a lot of factors. This brings me to my next point.
Bracket your exposures.
Don’t settle for just one exposure. Vary your exposure to get different looks. Changing your shutter speed can make a lot of difference in an image where the water is moving. Longer exposures create great movement in the photo, but there is a limit to the length of the exposure. At some point it can cloud the water in the stream to where all you have are white blurs of water and no feel for the depth of the water and details in the stream. Varying your f-stop can also create some different effects with the depth of field. A slow ISO setting or neutral density filters can be helpful here as well.
Lighting is important.
Lighting can be tricky in these situations. If it is really sunny out, you can get some great light filtering through trees, but it can cause some real contrast issues. Many of the areas can get washed out in the highlights or the shadows can get blocked up if you concentrate on the highlights. I prefer early morning or late evening or overcast days when the sun is low and not coming through the trees onto the water too much. Over cast days are my favorite because of the nice soft even light it provides. Of course this can change depending on the situation and is not a hard and fast rule.
Water flow makes a difference.
Weather can play an important role in other ways, too. How recently it has rained, whether snow is melting or the season of the year can have direct impacts on the amount of water flowing through the streams. More water is not always best, but it generally is much more dramatic when there is a lot of water moving through the scene.
Wear good shoes.
This is not a rule of photography as much as it is for your own safety and the safety of your equipment. When working in and around water, things get slippery. If you are in a mountain stream, wet rocks can be enough to easily send you under water at the very least and destroy a camera or cause great injury to you personally. Good shoes with good traction can go a long way towards keeping you and your gear safe.
There are lots of other things that go into getting a great shot of waterfalls and moving water, but these are some of the basics I have found helpful to me in the past. I hope you find them useful. Now get out there and shoot something!