Waterfall Photography - by Donal Boyd
"Connect with Nature. Ditch the Tripod, Get an Olympus"
A little more than two years ago I quit my job as a Chemical Engineer in Boston, MA, USA and moved to Iceland to pursue photography full-time. I first visited this island back in 2015 and was wholly overwhelmed by the immensity of the mountainous scenery and its ability to profoundly transform ones’ perspective. As many have also discovered, Iceland is so much more than a place you go to view — it’s also a place you feel
Translating this sensation into imagery is of the utmost importance to me as a photographer and the tools I use play a quintessential role in the success of my photographic goals. Since discovering the Olympus system, I’ve developed entirely new approaches that allow me to visually encapsulate the essence of Iceland and my emotional response to nature.
Of all the beautiful settings that exist in Iceland, I’ve found the most peace at waterfalls. Sitting in the presence of a “foss”, as they’re called in Icelandic, the busy and chaotic world swiftly dissipates, surpassed by the steady tempo of rushing water and soft pattering spray – a peculiar calmness proliferates. And this time indulged in seclusion from world, nothing else seems to exist, but the present natural rhythm.
Now… How to capture that feeling? Well, it starts with the gear.
As a photographer, I’m quite the essentialist.
My gear travels wherever I do.
Atop mountains, across rivers, behind waterfalls, and beyond. So, it must “keep up” and most importantly, it must not impede my personal experience and connection with the landscape. When I’m out hiking especially, I prefer to pack light and minimize my kit to the necessities.
My favorite setup for waterfall specific missions is the OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO. The body is compact and the lens is great as a wide angle and also has a zoom for if I want to tighten up any composition. With this setup, I’m also happy to leave the tripod at home. The 5-axis in-camera stabilization of the E-M1 Mark II complemented by the hardy lens IS of the M.ZUIKO 12-100 f/4 IS PRO enables me to capture the emotion and movement of a waterfall at slow shutter speeds handheld.
As such, my approach to photography has been transformed. Rather than worrying where I’ll place my tripod legs, I can focus on where my own two feet will stand — observe and truly feel a location with concertation affixed on the scene. Composition development is effortless, as I can now shift my framing without the constraints of a metal tripod pole, or worrying that my shot won’t be sharp because of a slow shutter speed. Olympus has me covered.
Waterfall Photography Basics
Shutter Speed is key. In order to capture the motion of a waterfall, a slow shutter speed is necessary, but the ideal exposure-time varies depending on the waterfall height and volume of water, the amount of available light, and the desired visual aesthetic.
In order to set the camera correctly for waterfall photography, I suggest switching to Manual (M), so you have full control over the three settings: shutter speed, ISO, and aperture.
The first step in setting your camera is to choose the lowest possible recommended ISO, which on the E-M1 Mark II is ISO 200.
The second step is to frame your composition. There’s a few approaches to composing an interesting waterfall image, but in general my preference is to incorporate a person for scale. Otherwise, choosing low angles whilst using the swivel screen on the EM-1 Mark II, you can get really interesting perspective from ground level. Try also using foreground elements to frame the waterfall.
Once you’ve decided on a general composition, next, set the shutter speed. This is the most important element in waterfall photography, because it’s up to you as a photographer to choose the ideal shutter speed based on the desired amount of motion blur in the water. My advice is to try out a few different shutter speeds until you find the one that suits your preference. Some people like the water to be super silky smooth, while others prefer the water to have some blurriness whilst still retaining “choppy” detail in the water. A good starting point for shutter speed might be to try 1/100s and see how that looks. Generally, you may find preferable shutter speeds for waterfalls within the range of 5s+ to 1/250s or faster. Experiment.
Pro tip: Make sure to switch ON the lens IS located on the side of the lens, this is crucial in order to achieve sharp handheld images at slow shutter speeds.
Personally, I prefer to have a good bit of motion blur, but also enough detail in the water column and surrounding mist to exhibit the feeling and sense of power of the water crashing down.
As you’re testing and changing the shutter speed, it’s very likely you’ll also need to adjust the aperture to expose the image properly. If the image is underexposed, let more light into the sensor by decreasing the aperture number and if it’s overexposed, the opposite. Keep in mind that the depth of field also changes when you adjust the aperture. This can be used to your advantage if you use a lower aperture number, which can provide a shallow depth of field and greater emphasis on your subject – the waterfall. Inversely, with a higher aperture number, you’ll expect a larger depth of field, resulting in greater detail throughout your composition, which could be of benefit if you want the foreground to also be in focus.
Available Light. On a cloudy day, or in lowlight situations, it may be possible to achieve a slower shutter speed at a low aperture, but in circumstances where there is a lot of available light, like on a sunny day, you may need to restrict light entering the camera in order to prevent an overexposed image. This can be done in two ways: Increase the aperture number or decrease the ISO.
In the example image below, I purposely chose a very high aperture value of f/22 to restrict light, which also significantly increases my depth of field so the foreground ice and distant waterfall are equally in focus and sharp. In this instance, there was so much light, even at a high aperture value that in order to expose the image properly I decreased the ISO from 200 to 64.
Conversely, in extremely lowlight situations with the camera already set at the lowest aperture number (to allow the most light into the sensor via the lens), you may notice that it’s necessary to increase the ISO in order the achieve the appropriate exposure.
Hopefully these general guidelines will be useful next time you’re out enjoying nature. My final word of advice is to take your photography slow.
When you first arrive to a location, a waterfall, a mountain, or any place out there in the wild, let the camera hang by your side for a while first. Observe and enjoy the beauty, really appreciate it.
If you do this, the genuine feelings that arise within you at the time will shine through your photographs naturally. Trust me. See first, then focus on sharing second.