Waterfalls in harsh light

August 06, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

McArthur-Burney Falls excited me. From the images that I saw of the falls, I could not wait to photography them. By the way, why do we refer to "falls," plural, when there is just one of them, singular? Either way, we got there and I discovered that the falls were as impressive as I had hoped they would be. You can even walk down to where the water fall hits the earth below. There was just one problem, a rather major one. The light was harsh. Parts of the falls were in very bright, harsh light. Other sections were in shade. The dynamic range (the difference between the brightest part of a scene and the darkest part of it) was too much for any camera to deal with.

          This is not the kind of scene where HDR (taking multiple exposures at different levels of brightness and then merging them into one balanced image) would work well. We had to drive on the our next location and could not spend more time here. Even if we had more time, it would have taken a long time for the weather to change or for the sun to get low enough. Yes, we were there on the wrong time of day. However, we did not have a choice because of where our accommodations were for the night.

          So what do you do? How do you get a half decent image in impossible light?

The only viable option we had was to forget about the large water fall and focus instead only on the parts that were in shade. Go for more intimate, smaller scenes. Put the wide angle lens away and fit a longer lens. Find small areas of interest that are in shade and shoot them. Does any area have nice color? How about nice patterns, or texture? Does anything stand out? Is anything different? If nothing catches your attention just zoom in a bit and start panning (moving the camera from one side to the next) the scene slowly. Soon enough you should see something that perks your interest. Here is an example:

Here are a few tips to photograph waterfalls:

  • Determine which shutter speed renders the water flow as you want it. Do you want milky smooth water, water movement but with some definition, or water drops frozen in mid-air? You can do all of that with your shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds show movement by blurring it while fast shutter speeds freeze movement.

  • If you want to show water movement you will have to use a slow shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds will require you to use a tripod to get that which is not moving (the rock face and moss) sharply in focus.

  • Use a polarizing filter. When things like rocks are wet they are shiny. Shiny stuff can be too bright and distracting. A polarizing filter can cut that shine out, giving you nice and dark rocks and colorful moss. You want to create that contract between the water and the rock.

  • Continually wipe the front of your lens clean and dry, especially right before you fire. Drops on your lens will ruin your image. Mist on your lens will render your photo dull and slightly out of focus. So keep wiping your lens to keep it dry.

  • If you are in sunlight make sure to shield your lens from the sun. Failure to do so may result in flare or an image with diminished contrast. You can use your lens-hood. If I need to constantly wipe my lens dry I prefer not to have a longer lens-hood on because I struggle to see in there and to get in there to thoroughly dry the lens. I just place my hand between the sun and my lens to cover my lens with my hand's shadow, then I shoot. If a wider lens is in use it will have a smaller lens-hood, in which case I will go ahead and use its lens-hood.

Even in harsh light, you can still get okay images if you just shoot that which is in the shade and go for smaller sections of the falls.


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