How To // Photograph Dreamy Long Exposure Waterfalls

Living in Southland we are so lucky to have a huge selection of waterfalls to photograph. The Catlin’s boast at least 5 that have easy access from the road with good walking tracks.

In March this year I posted a session I did at the Purakunui Falls. Since then I have had a flood of interest in waterfall sessions (I have already done 6 this year!) and questions about how to get images like this.

Here are some tips and tricks I have been using this year to really get those stand out images.

What gear do I need?

Good news – nothing too fancy! If you have a camera that can shoot in manual mode and a tripod you are well set.

I also use a polariser (this takes that glare off the rocks and water etc) not essential but I find it makes a difference especially if I am photographing a bride in a white dress.

A remote shutter release (So I can take photos without having to touch my camera)

Lens cleaner and cloths (For when the wind blows water all over the camera)

What settings should I use on my camera?

Every waterfall is different. If I am going to be photographing at a waterfall that is in the bush and has lots of shade, then I use these settings to start with:

Camera in manual mode (M)

Aperture somewhere between (f.11 – f.22)

ISO (100)

Shutter speed (“6)

The most important thing to think about is what you want to set your shutter speed at as this defines how smooth and silky the water is. Too slow and you lose all the detail in the water, too fast and you catch every drip as it falls.

I find this greatly depends on what ‘feel' I am wanting in my image. Smooth and silky water creates a dream like and calming feeling where as sharp falling water is more rough, dramatic and wild.

How do I get people in focus and not blurry but keep the water silky smooth?

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of adding people into a landscape image.

They must stand still! I find with one person this is relatively easy as you can ask them to hold a pose and if they don’t move for a couple of seconds they will be sharp.

With a couple or group of people this is much harder! I find having poses in mind helps a lot and being very clear in what you are trying to achieve. Communication is key! If you don’t let your family/clients know exactly what is required to get the shot you are after then if can be extremely frustrating for everyone.

Here are some images I have taken in the last few months at the most popular waterfalls in the Catlin’s and how I went about getting the look I was after. These images were shot in RAW and have been minimally edited in Photoshop.

Purakunui Falls

This image was from my Red Dress Series – I love a pop of colour and people in my landscape photos. I wanted soft and dreamy water with lots of detail. There was a strong flow as it had rained the day before.

Settings were: f.16, Shutter Speed “6, ISO 125

Number two was earlier in the year when the falls had hardly any water. I think it worked perfectly for a wedding session because there were so many dry patches for the couple to stand on and not get Greta’s dress wet.

Settings were: f.22 Shutter Speed “6 ISO 400

This was another composition we did – I asked Greta and Jamie to just look at each other for 10 seconds. This allowed me to get 4-5 frames and caught this moment. Love!

Settings were: f.22 Shutter Speed “6 ISO 400

McLean’s Falls

These are both images from my red dress series.

This first one had to be shot super wide to get the entire waterfall in frame. I used a 24mm – 105mm lens at 24mm. In hindsight I had too slow a shutter and the water has lot most of its detail in the stronger flowing areas.

There was wind, so I had to wait between gusts to reduce the movement in Sam’s dress.

Settings were: f.22 Shutter Speed “6 ISO 100

This is the upper section of the McLean Falls. Again I lost a lot of detail in the fast flowing areas so should have had a slightly fast shutter.

Now this is where the beauty of a remote shutter comes in! Nobody wanted to get into the pool of water for this shot so I had to model myself. I set up my camera, framed the image and had a friend stand off to the side and click the remote when I was in position. It was super windy, so the spray got all over my lens – thankfully I had lens cleaner and cloths with me!

Settings were: f.22 Shutter Speed “6 ISO 100

So, grab your camera, tripod, a bunch of friends and get out exploring! Practice, be creative and have fun. If you don’t get that perfect photo for the wall the first time, just go back and try again. When you capture that jaw dropping image it will all be worth it!

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