Water is life. The existence of nearly everything living is critically linked to its availability. In and near the streams, rivers and oceans of our world, Nature thrives. It is no surprise that such a powerful force in Nature is so often depicted by the outdoor photographer. This tutorial provides basic tips that will help you capture the beauty of water in your photographs.
Use Slow Shutter Speeds
Slow shutter speeds create a soft, artistic portrait of water. Generally, shutter speeds that are 1/6 of a second and slower will yield the best results. A majority of my waterfall photographs fall between 1/4 second and 3 seconds of exposure. The key here is to dare to experiment and not be afraid to shoot a lot of film or frames. You never know what shutter speed is going to render the waterfall the way you see it in your mind's eye. Needless to say, you will need your tripod when making these long exposures. It's just one more reason to save your money and buy a good quality, full-featured tripod!
Watch Your Exposure
Why? Because waterfalls usually reflect a lot of light that is going to fool your camera's built-in exposure meter unless you compensate. I usually find that spot metering off of something neutral in the same area (and thus in the same light) works best; rocks, tree trunks and grass are usually good candidates. To learn more about properly exposing your photographs, see my tutorial Commanding Exposure.
Arm Yourself with Some Useful Tools
Your camera equipment should include a circular polarizer and/or a neutral density filter. A polarizer can increase the overall color saturation in the scene as well as decrease your shutter speeds by 1.5 to 2 stops (a good thing if you find yourself battling a rising sun with an overall increase in lighting). Slowly rotate the polarizer to witness the effect it is having on your scene. Depending on the lighting conditions and your position relative to the sun, you may or may not decide to use it. A neutral density filter can also be used to reduce light input by up to 2 stops in most cases (depending on the strength of the filter).
Use a Slow Speed Film / Low ISO Setting
Using a slow speed film or low ISO setting (ISO 25 to ISO 100) on your digital camera will enable you to photograph waterfalls with a variety of long exposures. Slow speed films like Kodak's Royal Gold 25 or Fuji's Velvia will also reward you with incredibly fine grain and outstanding color saturation.
Take a Deep Breath
Don't let the sheer beauty of the scene get you so excited that you forget everything else I've mentioned and come home with a roll or two of underexposed disappointments. Believe me, I've been there! Being close to something so beautiful and grand can sometimes lead to temporary lapses of good photographic judgement. Think about every exposure. Bracket your shots and don't fall prey to mindless "machine gun" shutter clicks.