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I’ve found myself photographing a lot of waterfalls lately. Whether that’s due to the fact I live in a city dubbed the “Waterfall Capital of the World” (that’s Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, if you’re wondering) or to some deeper need for the reflection and reverie they inspire, I’m not sure. Either way, waterfalls are a beautiful subject for landscape photography, with long exposures adding a quality of magic I find captivating.
If you’ve never shot long exposures before, waterfalls are a great place to start. Since exposure times tend to be on the shorter side of the long exposure spectrum, calculating a proper exposure tends to be simpler. Also, the lighting in gorges and forests where waterfalls are often found tends to be dimmer, especially when shooting on cloudy days or when the sun is low. This often eliminates the need for extra equipment like ND filters, which are almost always needed for other daytime long exposures. As far as other equipment goes, the same applies as to all other long exposure photography, which I’ve written about here, so I won’t go into detail on that.
That being said, here are just a few things I’ve learned while shooting waterfalls on film!
For shooting waterfall long exposures, the water is moving so fast you don’t need a very long exposure to get some pretty neat effects.
The question is, what is the effect are you looking for?
I personally love the silky, dream-like look you get with an 8-15 second exposure. Here the flowing water will appear as smooth ribbons, the absence of movement replaced with an other-worldly timelessness.
If, however, you’d like to keep the details in the water and convey a sense of movement, an exposure time as short as 1/15 or 1/2 of a second will work fine. Waterfalls provide a great opportunity to experiment with different exposure times of the same shot, so don’t be afraid to try two or even three different times to see which results you like best.
No Wide Angle? No Problem!
The obvious lens choice for waterfall photography (and landscapes in general) is a wide lens. It enables you to get all the elements of the scene into your composition. Wide-angle lenses are great for drawing the viewer into your photo, leading them to the subject, and giving a sense of depth to the photo. But since I’ve only got an 80mm lens for my Hasselblad (that’s roughly a 50mm focal length on a 35mm SLR), I’ve been forced to look at the scenes differently and find creative shots that aren’t obvious at first.
For example, with a narrower frame I’m forced to look more at the details. The way the water further down the stream curls and bubbles around a boulder, a smaller cascade you might miss if you’re focusing only on the larger waterfall further up. There are endless interesting compositions to be found by narrowing your focus in this way (pun absolutely intended :D). A longer focal length can help you to be creative in the way you look at a waterfall scene.
As with any style of photography, the choice surrounding which film to use largely comes down to personal preference and the look you are trying to achieve. In general, for waterfall photography, I prefer a low grain, slow speed film. I find that the details in the water and surrounding elements stand out more with film speeds of 100 or 125.
The slower film speed also allows for longer shutter times before needing to pull out the ND filters. I shoot mainly black and white films, and my film of choice for waterfalls, and long exposures in general, was (until recently discontinued) Fuji Acros 100 (find on Amazon). Lately, I have even had good results with 400 speed films like Ilford HP5 (find on Amazon) and Tri-X (find on Amazon). So while slower film speeds may be the ideal, don’t be afraid to experiment!
Reciprocity Failure is Still a Thing
In brief, reciprocity failure means that after about 1 second of exposure, most films become less sensitive to light the longer they are exposed to light. This means that for waterfall long exposures, any exposure longer than 1 second, you need to add a little bit of time to account for it, otherwise your negative will be underexposed. You can find information on the reciprocity failure of most film types online (Ilford, for example), or, as I have done, by downloading a handy reciprocity failure APP on your smart phone!