How I took....

The Fantasy Waterfall

  A Tolkien-esque scene (just missing a wood elf washing herself in the foreground): Canon EOS 5DMkIV, 16-35mm f4L IS USM lens; 131 seconds @ f9.0, ISO 100

A Tolkien-esque scene (just missing a wood elf washing herself in the foreground): Canon EOS 5DMkIV, 16-35mm f4L IS USM lens; 131 seconds @ f9.0, ISO 100

This first image, then, is an early attempt in my current quest to take decent long-exposure photographs. Waterfalls are, so I'm told, a good place to start as they flow relatively fast and don't need ultra-long exposures to get that silky-look to the water.

Near to where I currently live, in South-central France, there are plenty of river-valleys and -gorges being fed with smaller streams running from the higher-slopes, often with numerous small waterfalls along their course. The river Lignon passes through the valley I live in and this combination of moving water and proximity make this an excellent place to practise. 

I easily found a good sized stream with a few waterfalls along its' length and soon found the one that best fit the final image already formed in my head. I was looking for a fantasy type effect; the kind of image that wouldn't look out of place in a Tolkien story. I found a good-sized fall with a well-formed overhanging canopy (covering about 70% of the sky) that cut down on specular highlights on the water, helping to avoid blown-out hotspots, and provided the generally dark feel I was going for.

I first took some test shots, in order to find the best composition;

  The first test shot doesn't have the look I'm going for as there is too much light and not enough greenery.

The first test shot doesn't have the look I'm going for as there is too much light and not enough greenery.

  This is closer, with more of the surrounding veg in site but still too much light. Here I realised that I needed to get closer to the main waterfall and, to do that, I needed to get to the other side of the stream.

This is closer, with more of the surrounding veg in site but still too much light. Here I realised that I needed to get closer to the main waterfall and, to do that, I needed to get to the other side of the stream.

  Now I feel like I'm closer to the right composition and, as I have moved under the over-hanging trees, there is more shade and less light.

Now I feel like I'm closer to the right composition and, as I have moved under the over-hanging trees, there is more shade and less light.

So, I'm in the right area (though, I did move a little closer to the falls for the final set-up) and, with a shutter speed of 0.3 second (hand-held), the water is already looking good. But, I want much less texture in the water below the fall and still need to get the dark, fantasy-esque feel into the final image. 

For this, I knew I would have to slow down the shutter speed even more and so needed the services of a neutral density (ND) filter. The sole purpose of these dark lenses is to reduce the amount of day-light reaching the sensor to such a degree that you can increase the time of the exposure enough to emphasise movement (be it clouds in the sky or water flowing at your feet).

Being a novice to the long-exposure game, I only (currently) have a 10 stop ND filter and so can't play around too much with exposures. Needless to say, exceptionally slow shutter speeds require a tripod so, once you've found your spot, you can set-up for the long-haul.

  Camera, on tripod, perched far more precariously than I would like. Note the rubber cover over the viewfinder and the remote switch hanging form the tripod; any need to see the scene is fulfilled via the live view function on the camera. Other settings to consider are, both auto-focus and image stabiliser on the lens switched off and, of course the camera programme switched to bulb.

Camera, on tripod, perched far more precariously than I would like. Note the rubber cover over the viewfinder and the remote switch hanging form the tripod; any need to see the scene is fulfilled via the live view function on the camera. Other settings to consider are, both auto-focus and image stabiliser on the lens switched off and, of course the camera programme switched to bulb.

Once happy with the composition and (reasonably) content with the camera-tripod set-up, I checked the correct ND exposure (using a great little smart phone app; LE Calculator) and screwed on the ND filter.

As it turned out, the exposure of around 340 seconds that the calculator gave me resulted in a too-bright image so, I halved the time and ended up with something close to what I was after.

Just a few tweaks in Lightroom to bring out the shadows and pop the greens of the foliage surrounding the waterfall, crop to a 16x10 aspect ratio and to boost the texture of the rocks, I had something approximating the picture in my head (see top image).

If I try this again at this spot, I will probably exclude the rocks in the foreground and lighten the water in the pool. I'm also thinking of trying this at night and using a torch to spot-light the ferns at the top-left of the waterfall.

So, there we go, my first attempt at a long-exposure waterfall and my first attempt at writing a narrative of how I achieved it. I'd be very interested to hear any opinions on either (or both) and I hope to improve (both) as I go.

If you want to find out more about long-exposure photography I found this article and excellent place to start.