Waterfalls: The Shooter's Challenge
by Kelvin Taylor
If you have taken many waterfall shots you have certainly encountered some not so terrific
results due to bad lighting. Ideally overcast days give you the best conditions because the
clouds evenly diffuse incoming sunlight and thus eliminate the harsh shadows. Clear days
present a challenge especially when part of your subject is sunlit and the surroundings are
shady. The bright sun can be a very hard situation to deal with. Since moving water is 95% or
more reflective, taking shots in full sun is like shooting straight at a mirror. Even with clouds
you can run into less than ideal conditions due to the way a waterfall is "posed" with respect
to the angle of the sun.

Unfortunately not every waterfall we want to shoot is located in an open cove with well-
lighted banks. Waterfalls in thick woods more times than not have dark shadows called black
spots. Many times there are various degrees of shade along the stream banks. Combine that
with the bright white nature of running water and you will encounter a huge variation in the
dynamic range. Hot spots on the water and black spots from deep shade usually mean your
images will have areas of both over and underexposure. If you have experienced this, don't be
discouraged….. there are ways to help fix the problem.

One method of choice to remedy this problem is simply shooting when the lighting conditions
are just right. Since light is the first element of creation being at the right place at the right
time has its rewards. Nature photographer John Shaw said at a seminar I attended a couple of
years ago, "don't be late for work" meaning be at your location early for optimum light. For
those who aren't full-time pros this isn't an easy solution. Sure it would be wonderful to hit a
waterfall at the perfect time of day  to capture an image under perfect conditions. But for
most of us who have jobs and other responsibilities we don't have the time to be in the field
at exactly the right moment. We ended up making due with the conditions available. Using a
polarizer and a tripod will go a long way in improving your image quality. I never shoot
waterfall scenes (and most other subjects) without one. When you can take advantage of just
right conditions, do so. There is no real substitute for ideal lighting.

Another solution is to use graduated neutral density(ND) filters. These can come in handy in
uneven lighting situations to balance exposure. These type filters are part clear, part neutral
density. They allow the transition to be blended into the scene. They are also used to increase
color saturation in sky scenes by lowering sky exposure. Keep in mind these filters can cost
twice as much as a standard ND filter.

Ok, you didn't make it to the waterfall when the sun was in the very best position. Since
nature doesn't always provide us with what we want, photographers can use the technique of
digital blending can help achieve results closer to "ideal" conditions.

What is digital blending anyway? This technique combines two images with very different
exposures into a single image. The goal is to extend the dynamic range of a photo by
blending the areas of overexposure with the underexposed areas from the two separate
images.  Often it's necessary to  balance the light intensity in one part of a scene with
another.  This is especially true in bright,  contrasty landscapes  like waterfalls.  The best   
way to demonstrate this cool feature is by example. So read on!

There are various methods for digital blending. The following tutorial will illustrate the Layer
Mask technique. I want to give credit to Michael Reichmann at
The Luminous Landscape for
some of the information in this article. This is where I first learned about digital blending. Visit
his site for more information on photography techniques and applications. Note: this tutorial
uses Adobe PhotoShop CS. Other photo editing programs also have this functionality. I
haven't yet figured out an easy way to use PhotoShop Elements for digital blending. If anyone
knows a way please let me know.

First you will need two images - one exposed for the water highlights and another for the
darker shadows of the surroundings. Another one near the correct exposure is also a good
idea just in case.
Dark image exposed
for the water
Light image exposed for
the shadows of the trees
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