Over the years that I’ve gone chasing waterfalls, I’ve learned early on that waterfall photography is a very important part of the overall experience. It presents unique challenges as well as opportunities to really make my waterfall photos look more interesting. So I wrote this waterfall photography guide to share some tips and techniques that I’ve acquired on our adventures.
After all, waterfalls are dynamic and constantly moving, and I’ve always wanted my waterfall photos to have that silky effect to convey its motion and grace. Unfortunately, automatic settings on the camera don’t allow for this as it doesn’t fit into the “typical” use case of what most people prefer when taking photographs.
In my early days of waterfalling, this caused me to start tinkering with my camera (which was a 2 megapixel point-and-shoot camera), and that led me down the rabbit hole of digital photography.
I’ve learned that I didn’t have to go deep into this very rich topic to start improving my waterfall shots, but I’ve also had more than my share of hard lessons from bad photos due to my ignorance of not knowing any better.
Indeed, I’ve had photos with water spots on them, photos with overexposure or blow outs, photos that came out too dark, and photos that came out blurry. It sucks when I would come home from an expensive trip or high-effort hike only to find out that a large chunk of them turned out to be disappointing.
So throughout this article, I focus on the waterfall photography tips and techniques that I’ve put into practice based on my understanding learned from my mistakes.
That said, I’ve also learned that waterfall photography is more than the mechanics of making them silky, and a lot of what I had to learn through photographing waterfalls also coincided with the broader subject of digital photography. Therefore, I’ll also discuss the most important concepts that I had to grasp in order to consistently produce better results.
Hopefully, you may benefit from these lessons learned and take an interest in both waterfalls and the art of capturing them well in photographs.
There are a lot of aspects to waterfall photography (and digital photography in general), but I’ll only focus on the five most important ones to get you up and running. They are…
- The Mechanics of How to Make Waterfalls Blurred
- Managing Light – Understanding the Exposure Triangle
- Composition – What is the purpose of the Photo?
- Managing or Responding to Situations
- Photography Equipment
The Mechanics of How to Make Waterfalls Blurred
From the feedback that I’ve gotten on my waterfall photographs, the one thing that gives the impression that they look “professional” is the ability to make the subject appear “smooth and silky.”
Now while a truly good photograph incorporates other factors (all of which I’ll discuss soon), it seems like this silkiness is what makes people take notice.
That said, not all waterfall photos need to be silky. In fact, when I want to convey a waterfall’s sense of size and power, then I’d rather shoot it with the water “frozen-in-the-air”.
In any case, concerning when I make my waterfall photos blurred versus when I make them frozen, I generally go for the blurring effect if I’m trying to convey a waterfall’s gracefulness and tranquility. However, I’d go for the frozen look if I want to convey its power or the sense of awe.
Anyways, I’ve learned that the critical concept to make the waterfall smooth and silky is what is called a long exposure or slow shutter speed. It’s essentially that effect where the photo draws onto itself for as long as the sensor is exposed to the light it’s receiving.
Conversely, a fast shutter speed or short exposure would “freeze” the frame quickly instead of leaving the sensor exposed for a long time. This is what most default camera settings are set to. After all, most photos from unaware users would turn out blurry if this wasn’t the case.
The following photos illustrate this point.
Notice how in the top photograph, the water looks like it was “frozen” in the air due to the fast shutter speed. However, in the lower photograph, notice how the water looks like a series of lines added together (as well as brighter due to all the added light from the longer exposure).
The latter photograph essentially took advantage of the movement of the water to get that silky smooth look. Because of the increased exposure in this mode, I really have to hold the camera still or else other aspects of the photograph will be undesirably blurry.
By the way, this technique is not just relevant for waterfalls. You can also apply this technique for other things that are in motion like waves, clouds, and even people or wildlife. Heck, you could create a Star Wars Light Speed kind of effect by keeping the camera focused on a single object while you move away from it.
Indeed, you can get real creative with this effect!
How to Make Waterfalls Look Blurred on a Smart Phone
Since I own an iPhone XR using the software version 12.4, here’s how I learned how to get the long exposure photograph on this device.
Step 1: In your Camera app, enable LIVE mode
I believe just about everyone has an iPhone that is capable of shooting in LIVE mode, but this is a pre-requisite for taking long exposure photos on it.
Step 2: Take the picture in LIVE mode
When you do this, you’ll want to make sure you hold the phone as steady as possible.
Step 3: Go into your Photos app (or tap the shortcut to the app on the lower left of your Camera app) and select the photo you took in LIVE mode
Notice that the animated picture in LIVE mode will tend to have multiple photos associated with it. These photos are what made the LIVE photo animate in the first place.
Step 4: Scroll up to bring up the Effects options and choose “Long Exposure”
Now, instead of the photo behaving in LIVE mode, it now behaves in LONG EXPOSURE mode. On the iPhone’s camera roll, the LONG EXPOSURE photo will still animate as if it was in LIVE mode.
However, the actual photo itself is a single photo that “added” all the photos together in a similar manner to how I described earlier where each photo drew onto itself multiple times.
Before I get off the topic of taking long exposure photos with an iPhone, I want to mention that I also have an old iPhone 7 using the software version 12.3.1. It turns out that it was also able to do the same thing.
I believe as far as old phones are concerned, you may not be able to do this trick with even older phones (like older than an iPhone 6). So that’s something you may want to immediately check out to see if your older phone is able to take a picture in LIVE mode.
If you do have iPhone 6 and later but you still can’t take a picture in LIVE mode, then you might want to make sure you’re running the iOS software version 11 and greater.
I generally have to worry about the version because I don’t turn on automatic updates on my iPhone. Call me paranoid, but I don’t trust that some of the updates they push onto the phone won’t make my current phone more obsolete by slowing it down or putting more bloat in it.
How to Make Waterfalls Look Blurred on a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
Since I’m most comfortable doing this for a Canon EOS 70D DSLR camera, I’ll now walk you through how I take a long exposure photograph with it.
If you’re using a different DSLR or mirrorless camera, you’ll have to consult the owners manual for the official word on how to tweak the settings I’m about to outline right now.
Step 1: Set the ISO to 100
It will become clear why you need to do this step before adjusting the shutter speed when I discuss the Exposure Triangle later in this article.
Step 2: Turn the mode dial to “P” (programmed automatic mode)
Note that you can also take long exposure photos in other modes like “Tv” or “S” (shutter priority mode), “Av” (aperture priority mode), “B” (bulb mode), and “M” (manual mode). However, I’m going to move forward with “P” mode for the sake of simplicity.
When I get into the Exposure Triangle, then it’ll become clear what all these modes do and how they relate to each other.
Step 3: Auto-focus the subject you want to photograph by pressing the shutter button half-way down (and don’t let go)
If you do this, you’ll notice that the display screen will show some additional numbers. For the sake of simplicity, the only number you really care about is the leftmost number, which controls the duration of the exposure or shutter speed. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but for now, just roll with it.
In the photo above, you’ll see a 25 on the far left of the display. This means that the shutter speed is set to 1/25th of a second.
That in turn means that if I take the picture with this exposure setting, it will keep the sensor exposed for 1/25th of a second before saving the image to memory.
Step 4: Set the desired shutter speed by turning the exposure wheel
In the photo above, this exposure wheel is the jagged wheel under my index finger. You can also see that I spun the wheel to the point that the shutter speed is now 1″. In other words, if I take the picture now, the sensor will be exposed for 1 second before saving the image to memory.
As far as what setting to use to make the waterfall images look blurry, it really depends on how well I’m able to keep the camera still and how far away the waterfall would be from the camera. I’ve been able to create the long exposure effect from shutter speeds as fast as 1/6″, but many pros may find that unacceptable.
So to that end, I’d say you can get pretty reliable silky shots at 1/4″ or 0.3″ and above. Obviously, the bigger the number, the more silky (and cloudier) the waterfall looks. Some pros with the means to hold still for long periods of time would say a minimum of 1″ is required while others prefer to go even longer than that like 5″!
Step 5: Press the shutter button all the way down to take the picture
At this point, you must keep the camera still for that 1 second that I had set the shutter speed to, which is a pretty long time to hold it still. Failure to maintain stillness will result in more than just the waterfall being blurred.
This is where a tripod with a remote trigger would be useful to minimize the camera shake.
Without something to steady the camera, I might be able to pull off the blurred waterfall look with a 1/4″ exposure. If I get up to 1/6″ exposure, I might still make only the falls look blurry without a tripod, but that’s probably the limit of the motion blur. On the flip side, holding the camera still for 1″ without a steadying aid like a tripod is really difficult to pull off.
In any case, by this point, the photo is taken and committed to memory, and you can look at your handywork by pressing the “play” button, which shows you the photos that you’ve committed to the camera’s memory card.
Notice that in the above photograph, I didn’t do a good job of keeping still for 5 seconds (even with a tripod). As a result, the lower resolution LCD already showed that the falling water was blurred along with the rest of the photo.
Anyways, now you see the mechanics of how to take a long exposure photograph on both a smart phone and a DSLR camera. That said, the iPhone may allow me to cheaply and quickly take a silky waterfall photo, but it leaves a lot to be desired in its image quality.
In order to improve the image quality and get consistently good results, there’s more you have to understand about how to manage light in your photos.
And this is where the DSLR or mirrorless camera gives you so much more control over this aspect. Of course, there’s also additional equipment that you have to consider like a tripod, tripod mount, filters, and other things.
Managing Light – Understanding the Exposure Triangle
Now that we’ve discussed the basic mechanics of how to take a long exposure photograph, we now must learn how to get consistently good results. That can’t happen unless you understand how to control the light that makes it to your camera’s sensors.
This is what’s referred to as exposure.
Perhaps this is best summarized by the famous exposure triangle diagram. The following is my feeble attempt at illustrating it.
As you can see in the exposure triangle, there are three interrelated components of an exposure. There’s Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.
The numbers I put on there show you the range of what my zoom lens attached to my DSLR camera are capable of. Those numbers will be different depending on the lens and camera body combination being used. Even an iPhone can have an exposure triangle though I haven’t looked deeply into its limits nor how to control the exposure triangle parameters (assuming it lets you).
Understanding the Exposure Triangle – Shutter Speed and its effect on Blurriness/Sharpness
Let’s start with the shutter speed. We just went over how to control it on an iPhone as well as a semi-professional camera (my DSLR in this case). So by controlling the shutter speed, we essentially moved along the base of the exposure triangle.
Notice that the left side of the Shutter Speed leg of the triangle says “blurry” while the right side of the same leg says “sharp”.
This is essentially saying that we can control the sharpness of our photo by changing the shutter speed between 30″ (30 seconds) or 1/8000″ (1/8000th of a second).
The way to control the shutter speed on the EOS 70D camera that I used in the example above is through the “P” mode (as explained in the previous section) as well as the “Tv” and “M” (manual) mode.
By the way, if I only wanted to control the shutter speed without messing with the number to the right of it (which I’ll get to below), I’d use “M” mode.
That said, controlling the shutter speed isn’t the only thing we have to worry about.
As the above photo showed, failure to limit the amount of light on a long exposure photo can easily blow it out.
Understanding the Exposure Triangle – Aperture and its affect on Depth-of-Field
So as I just hinted at regarding the number to the right of the shutter speed number, that pertains to the camera’s aperture. And that number is called an F-stop or F-number.
The camera’s aperture pertains to the size of the hole to allow light through to the camera’s sensor. You can think of the F-stop number as the fraction of the full size of the hole to allow light to reach the sensor. You can also think of that F-stop number as the radius of the size of that hole letting light get through.
As a result, an f/1 allows the maximum amount of light through to the sensor. An f/1.4 allows half the amount of light through to the sensor as f/1.
This is because the area of a circle is proportional to the square of its radius. Conversely, half the area means the radius is reduced by the square-root of 2 or about 1.4.
Continuing with the aperture trend, f/2 allows a quarter of the amount of light through to the sensor as f/1 or half that of f/1.4. An f/4 allows 1/16th of the amount of light through to the sensor as f/1.
You don’t need to get too much into the details of what the exact numbers are, but you do need to know that the bigger the number, the smaller the fraction of the full radius, and thus the smaller the aperture (i.e. less light gets through).
Conversely, the smaller the F-number, the larger the fraction of the full radius, and thus the larger the aperture (i.e. more light gets through).
As you can see in the exposure triangle and the aperture picture above, the F-stop of f/22 means the aperture is like a tiny pinhole while the F-stop of f/3.5 means the size of the hole is much wider.
So why are we talking about apertures anyways? Well, this control of the aperture’s size has the effect of what’s known as the depth-of-field.
A greater depth-of-field means everything in the photo is in focus, which is useful for landscape photographs where you care about the entire panorama.
Waterfalls are generally shot with a greater depth of field because we want to limit the amount of light to take long exposure photographs.
Conversely, a lesser depth-of-field means only the focal point of the picture is in focus while everything else is blurry.
Generally wildlife, sports, close-ups, and portraits (including wedding photos) want this effect because it only allows the subject of interest to be sharp.
If I wanted to adjust the aperture on my semi-pro camera, I’d want to set the camera in “Av” mode and turn the exposure wheel. On my camera, this also has the effect of moving the shutter speed number along with it.
However, if I want to mess with just the aperture while fixing the shutter speed, then I’d put the camera in “B” mode and turn the exposure wheel.
Understanding the Exposure Triangle – ISO and its effect on Color Saturation and Noise
Finally, there’s ISO, which stands for International Standards Organization. However, all you really need to know about ISO is that it controls the brightness of a photo.
This is carry-over terminology from the days when you used to have to develop photos on film, and this number was a way to quantify the sensitivity of the film to light. But in the digital photography realm, that film is replaced by the sensor, and thus ISO really pertains to the sensor’s sensitivity to light.
Generally with high ISO, you’ll get more vibrant colors in the photograph, but you’ll also get more noise. You won’t really notice the noise unless there are shadows or you take a photo in low light or with very little going on. Then, you’ll see the noise “grains” show up in the darkness.
With low ISO, the colors are more muted in the photograph, but you’ll get less noise. In order to get better color saturation while not having noise, you’ll want to shoot in low ISO, but this also means you’ll need to hold still to let more light onto the sensor.
On my Canon EOS 70D camera, the ISO can be controlled by pressing the ISO button then spinning the exposure wheel to change the ISO number to the desired amount. This camera let me choose from “A” (which stands for Auto) as well as the range of 100 to 12800.
Waterfall photos are generally shot with low ISO and a big F-stop number in order to limit the amount of light that gets onto the sensor. This in turn would prevent the photo from getting washed out from the additive effects of the light touching the sensor.
In order to adjust the camera’s ISO setting, I’d press the ISO button between the upper display and the exposure dial. This was discussed as the first step in adjusting my DSLR camera for long exposure photos earlier in this article.
So bottom line is that if you can understand the Exposure Triangle and know how to control your camera to precisely the right combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, then you know how to take the best shot possible in any situation!
Composition – What is the Purpose of the Photo?
Up to this point, we’ve discussed how to control the camera to make your picture have some pretty cool effects, especially as it pertains to taking photos of waterfalls.
However, we haven’t addressed the critical concept of how you want to control the gaze of people seeing your photo. Sure, you can make the viewer look right at the center of your photo by placing your subject there. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to draw the viewer’s gaze to the entire photo instead of just one spot?
Indeed, the art of making people react to your entire photo by manipulating how you position your photo subject in your frame is known as Composition.
A lot has been said about composition in the photography literature. If you delve deeper into this topic, you’ll definitely hear about things like the rule of thirds, leading lines, and the golden ratio.
By the way, the photo of Athirappilly Falls above was my attempt at employing these composition concepts to make the photo more interesting than if I had just centered the waterfall. In this instance, I tried to use the “lines” of the river to draw the viewer’s gaze from the waterfall towards the valley in the distance.
Nevertheless, I’ll just summarize the main takeaways of what I’ve learned and practiced in the field as far as composition is concerned.
Basically, if I’m photographing a waterfall, I try to ask myself these questions.
Do I want that waterfall square in the middle of the frame?
Or do I want this waterfall off to a side to show what else was nearby?
Indeed, how you compose the picture can completely change what you’re trying to communicate or convey in that photo. Consider the following example depicting just how a change in the composition tells a different story…
So from the example given above, hopefully I’ve driven home the importance of composition and how you can use it to make your photos more interesting and appealing. There’s definitely more to this topic, but I think the above example captures the essence of what composition is all about.
Managing or Responding to Situations
The last thing I want to go over as far as techniques on how to take better waterfall photographs concerns dealing with conditions or situations that inevitably arise in the field.
After all, there are things you can do to take advantage of situations or opportunities as they present themselves. However, there are other times when you have to make the most of a non-ideal situation (like “making lemonade out of lemons”).
So in this section, we’ll discuss some of these situations as they pertain to waterfall photography.
Managing or Responding to Situations – Recognizing And Responding To The Lighting Conditions
One of the most important things to consider when taking pictures is the lighting.
Is it sunny? Which way is the sun shining?
Or is it cloudy? Dark? Shady?
When it’s sunny, one of the things I try to do is to maximize backlighting. In other words, I’d prefer to have the sun behind me and shining on the subject I care about (as well as its surroundings).
That way, the subject (in this case a waterfall but it could be anything else) would get the benefit of good colors and light without the glare from looking against the sun.
An added bonus is that if the sun is striking the water droplets at the correct angle (around 44 degrees relative to my line of sight), then I might be seeing rainbows along with the waterfall itself!
Unfortunately, sometimes timing or circumstances are beyond our control, and it just so happens that backlighting from the sun would not be possible at the moment.
So if the sun happens to still be out but I’m looking against it, then I might try to position myself such that the waterfall is side-lit by the sun.
That way, the spray might look like it’s glowing and would have that ghostly effect while other things around the waterfall might appear like shadowy silhouettes. This is shown in the photo above.
If the timing is real cruel and the sun is pretty much in the line of sight, the best thing I can do there is to try to shield the lens from the sun to minimize the annoyingly unwanted glare that can show up on a photo.
Sometimes, there are shadows cast on the scene resulting in very high contrast light and dark zones. In such circumstances, the stuff in the shade could be too dark while at the same time the stuff in the sun could be too bright.
Typically such situtations call for the graduated neutral density filter, which is a type of gradient filter that professional photographers use to darken the light zones to even out the contrast in shadowy scenes like sunrise and sunset.
Since I’m not equipped with such a beefy filter in my travel arsenal, when I’m faced with shadows, there’s not a whole lot I could do. So I try to be patient and wait a bit in the hopes that one of two things happen.
Either I wait for the shadows to engulf the subject entirely so the camera can hone in on lighting conditions of the shade (which happens in the afternoon). Or, I can wait for enough of the shade to retreat to reveal the subject entirely in the sunlight (which happens in the morning).
Then, there are other times when I’d rather not have the sun at all because of the aforementioned shadows and the extra brightness that it causes. The pair of photographs below illustrate the effect that the sun can have on the lighting conditions.
As you can see from the above example, when I photograph waterfalls, I often prefer cloudy skies as the light would be more evenly scattered. Moreover, taking better long exposure shots is much easier to do when the skies are overcast.
I could even experiment more with the ISO settings to really try to amp up the color saturation and bring out the greens of the vegetation that would typically accompany waterfalls.
Managing or Responding to Situations – Lots of Mist
Imagine this scenario. I manage to reach the base of this gorgeous waterfall and I eagerly snap several photos of it to capture the beauty of the moment.
When I finally get home and put the photos on my computer, my heart sinks as I see each of my photos were ruined by waterspots from the waterfall’s mist spraying the camera lens.
And I wondered why this was not visible through my camera’s view finder or my LCD at the time I photographed the waterfalls.
Believe it or not, I’ve had this happen to me too many times to count. So what do can I do in such situations?
Well there’s really nothing magical about how to remedy this problem. Basically I try to come prepared with a lens cloth or soft tissue and a filter that I don’t mind getting wet (unless I didn’t mind wiping the camera lens directly – risking a scratch in the process).
Then in the course of my waterfall photo session, I would frequently double check the camera lens or filter to ensure water droplets are not on it.
Of course there are some cases where getting sprayed as I point the camera at the falls is inevitable. So to counter act this, I try to employ the following technique:
- I point the camera at the falls and press the shutter button half-way to lock in the current exposure and focus settings. I don’t worry about water getting on the lens at this point.
- I turn away from the mist with one finger still on the camera trigger pressed half-way down, and use the free hand to wipe the waterspots from the lens
- I cover the lens with my free hand and turn around in the direction of the mist
- When I feel less spray on the hand covering the lens, I quickly remove that hand and push the camera trigger the rest of the way down to take the picture before waterspots get all over the lens again
This method is crude and it does have its limitations (i.e. if there’s too much mist, then sometimes there’s nothing I can do). However, it at least gives me a chance to capture a waterfall in otherwise difficult conditions that might have denied me the opportunity to take a decent photograph.
Managing or Responding to Situations – Improvising Without A Tripod
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my tripod because I generally find it annoying to set it up and use it in the field. I also don’t like to carry it around on hikes since it’s not light and it tends to get in the way (especially if the hike gets a bit rugged). Thus, I often try to find other ways to compensate without a tripod.
It turns out that I can do this by trying to improvise with props I might happen to chance upon.
For example, I might be able to rest my camera on a rock, a railing, or even a picnic table in an attempt to take a long exposure shot. However, if no props are available, then I might try to use trekking poles (if I happened to bring them along since I also have a love-hate relationship with those, too).
At the very least, I’d have to adjust the exposure settings on the DSLR for a faster shutter speed that can still result in motion blur of the water while minimizing the blur resulting from camera shake.
Indeed, for these kinds of situations, I have to use a bit of my imagination as well as a willingness to spend some time on some trial-and-error experimentation to pull off a long exposure shot without a tripod.
Given all the techniques and concepts that has been discussed so far to succeed at waterfall photography (and digital photography as a whole), we now have to consider what tools would make these tasks easier.
But before you go off and go nuts buying expensive photo gear, you really need to determine how much you care about taking good photos.
Obviously, the more you put into the craft, the higher the potential for better results (which might be good enough to make money). On the flip side, you could find yourself spending too much time and money on features you might not care about.
In this section, I’ll try to clear the air about this photography investment dilemma.
After all, in the course of a quarter-century, I’ve gone from using point-and-shoot film cameras to point-and-shoot digital cameras to DSLR cameras. Then, I’ve continued the evolution with smart phones as well as mirrorless cameras.
Indeed, over that time I’ve also gone from being a naive novice who knew nothing about photography to a semi-serious photographer with still lots to learn (despite all the things I’ve written on this page).
Nevertheless, this discussion about photography equipment may provide you with a reference from my own learning experiences. Hopefully, that will help you visualize where you’re at in the learning curve as well as the decisions that I had to make along the way that you might have to face.
Photography Equipment – The Smart Phone versus the Semi-Professional Camera
With the ever-expanding capabilities of the smart phone, the question still remains. Should I start ditching even the expensive semi-pro or professional camera?
Let’s face it. The list of things that the smart phone can’t do compared to the DSLR is getting shorter as time goes on. So it’s natural for us to ask if the bulk, weight, and cost of lugging around the expensive camera gear is justified.
I personally know people who used to swear by the DSLR and have since ditched it for the smart phone. One person in particular that I’m thinking of was an avid backpacker and mountaineer, and he felt shedding over 5-10 pounds of camera gear was a welcome trade for the perceived hit in image quality.
In fact, a lot of reviews and articles that are in the literature have side-by-side photo comparisons where it’s really hard to tell the difference between a smart phone and a semi-pro or even full-up professional camera. And this was despite the sensor size differences between the two, which was the major driver behind the size and bulk of the camera.
Now the thing that I noticed about these articles is that none of them address the challenges of waterfall (and nature) photography, especially the ones that I’ve been talking about throughout this article. So given that premise, here are my experiences.
Long Exposure Photos
With my DSLR or mirrorless camera, I am able to easily take long exposure shots. Provided that I brought a tripod with Manfrotto interface to ensure the camera is steady, I can make the waterfalls as silky as I want for as long as I’m willing to pursue this photo subject.
With the smart phone, I have to rely on the computational processing of LIVE mode, which is still not quite there.
So apparently, waterfall photography still resides on the fringes of the average user that we still don’t have the ability to take longer exposure shots while controlling the lighting and ISO.
In addition to waterfall photos, I recalled being the only person on our multi-family trip to Joshua Tree to photograph the Milky Way at night.
Everyone else had iPhones, but they couldn’t figure out how to set their cameras to accomplish a 30 second exposure while increasing the ISO for better low light sensitivity.
Therefore, in my experience, the DSLR or mirrorless camera still wins as far as long exposure shots.
Capturing Fleeting Moments
Another aspect of photography in general where I’ve had better success with my DSLR camera was the ability to use a fast telephoto lens to capture sudden moments that are fleeting.
For example, I was able to easily capture New Zealand dusky dolphins doing backflips looking sharp. My wife tried this with her iPhone and couldn’t react fast enough to capture the split-second moment that it was in the air.
Another example where the DSLR really shined in the field was when we were in India on a tiger safari and saw a bird fly in front of our vehicle. Our fellow jeep mates look at me in awe when I was successfully able to photograph the bird 3 or 4 times in a row in flight with my DSLR camera with fast telephoto lens. This would have been less likely even with smart phones available in 2020.
Superior Optical Zoom
Often times, when it comes to photographing wildlife or waterfalls that are in the distance, it’s better to bring the subject with optical zoom as opposed to digital cropping.
So all the expense of blowing high quality glass for camera lenses is also justified in this respect. After all, the iPhone lenses are small and there’s only so much you can do with its size before distortions become a problem.
Sure, there can be some software to postprocess the flawed image to get rid of the aberrations, but there’s generally no substitute for getting the image right in the first place before the postprocessing is done to make further refinements.
Basic Summary of Pros and Cons:
Here are the other things that I wanted to mention as far as the Pros and Cons of photos taken by smart phone versus those taken by a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Smart Phone Advantages:
- Do-it-all device in addition to taking photos
- Photo quality continues to improve with help of increasingly complex image (post)processing software
- Compact, light, and less to bring
- Lower learning curve – less need to learn photography
- Easy to share photos and videos
- More mist-proof and weather-proof (note I didn’t say waterproof)
Smart Phone Disadvantages:
- Tendency to have to fight the default auto settings for specific non-default situations like shooting waterfalls in long exposure
- Small sensor means image quality will suffer (i.e. get noisier) if attempting to blow up the picture
- Privacy concerns – metadata leaking
- Less able to handle capturing sudden and fleeting moments
- Small lens means limited optical zoom
Camera and Lens Advantages:
- Can easily handle atypical shooting conditions that are beyond the defaults
- Larger sensor so you get a cleaner image with less time spent postprocessing
- Faster at capturing fleeting moments like sports, wildlife, precious moments (with a capable lens, of course)
- Superior optical zoom (depending on the lens chosen)
- Can take super long exposure shots like 30-second exposure for waterfalls and night sky shots
Camera and Lens Disadvantages:
- Higher learning curve to properly use
- Bulky and heavy
- Lots of things to carry around (memory cards, batteries, cleaners, filters, tripods, mounts, etc.)
- Very expensive (especially if you add up the lenses, filters, tripods, mounts, etc.)
- Fragile (I’ve damaged at least 4 18-200mm zoom lenses in a 12-year span)
So that’s my take on the smart phone versus camera and lens combo debate. That said, I’m sure it’s likely to change as time progresses given the continuing improvements in the smart phone’s (computational processing) capabilities.
Photography Equipment – Our Travel Arsenal
So given the pain points mentioned in the smart phone versus camera-and-lens combo discussion, I do indeed still use the traditional camera and lens combo on our travels. Meanwhile, our iPhones act as backup for those times when we want to take pictures without bringing along the DSLR camera (like city touring in crowded places or taking food pictures in restaurants).
Anyways, for the rest of this section, I want to divulge what we bring on our travels as far as photography equipment is concerned since we still want to be agile as active, adventure travellers.
Camera and Lens:
The Camera and Lens combination controls all aspects of the Exposure Triangle. Image Resolution (and the associated increase in file size) is another parameter that tends to increase as new models continue to come out over time, which causes our older cameras to be more obsolete.
At the moment, I’m torn between using the Sony Alpha A7 III Mirrorless Camera with a Sony FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 Oss E-Mount Camera Lens SEL24240 and our trusty Canon EOS 70D DSLR Camera with a Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Standard Zoom Lens.
We’ve been using this Canon combo since late 2014 and into 2020. I’m happy with the flexibility the lens affords me as I can shoot landscapes, macros, and distant subjects without needing to change the lens.
Therefore, I managed to capture fleeting moments that occurred suddenly and unexpectedly as I only needed to point-and-shoot without doing any fumbling. In fact, I’ve been using this lens since around 2010, which gives you an idea of how well it fits my in-the-field needs.
Unfortunately, this flexibility comes at a price. For example, it’s very fragile.
I’ve managed to damage and replace this lens at least 3 or 4 times because it’s not weatherproof. Even my current lens has been acting up, which is why I might finally give up some of the zoom range for an expensive L-series lens that’s more weatherproof.
Other things I don’t like about the 18-200mm lens is that it has some optical distortions and aberrations at the extremes of its focal range. Combined with the camera’s body, it’s also heavy, which gets tiring on long hikes.
We only recently bought the Sony Mirrorless camera as a possible replacement to the Canon as well as an attempt at diving into the world of mirrorless cameras. Its 24-240mm zoom lens is quite heavy compared to the lighter mirrorless body, but this combination is comparable in weight to the Canon combo I’ve been using for the past several years.
The things I like about this Sony combo is that the pictures are noticeably sharper than the Canon. Its live mode shooting allows me to take pictures without needing to look through the eyepiece (useful if I have to shoot over a crowd or at a higher angle).
However, this Sony Camera hasn’t convinced me to give up on Canon because of these factors:
- I really don’t like its battery life due to the constant live-shooting mode that I can’t control or turn off
- Compared to the Canon combo, I don’t like the minimum shooting distance for autofocus to work with this zoom lens (so I’d have to fumble with manual zoom if I happen to see a flower or insect that I want to photo on the spot)
- Compared to the Canon combo, I don’t like how much fumbling with the controls I have to do to things like changing settings, deleting multiple photos (I keep running into a file quantity limit), etc.
- The shutter button has strange sensitivity in that I often either don’t take the picture when I expected it to after pushing the button or it takes a second or third waste shot after pressing the button (very annoying)
- The zoom lens rotation is opposite that of the Canon solution, which always throws me off
- I don’t like the price that I paid for this lens and camera given these limitations
So the jury’s still out on whether I’m committing to Sony Mirrorless or sticking with Canon going forward on my waterfall travels.
At least at the very minimum, my wife likes using the Sony Camera with her Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens SEL90M28G because she uses it to take food shots.
As for other camera and lens combinations, I’ll just mention that I also keep around the Canon EF 70-200mm F4L IS USM lens. I only bring this lens around if I know in advance that we’ll have good wildlife sightings and it’s worth putting up with its extra bulk and weight by bringing it.
I had bought it back in 2008 specifically for an African Safari, but I also managed to use it on a tiger safari in India as well as some wildlife sightings off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Japan, and whale watching in New Zealand. Other than that though, I don’t think I brought it on any of our trips since the start of 2010.
In case you’re curious, other DSLR camera body and lenses that we’ve used in the past include the Canon EOS 7D (which still works) and the Canon EOS 20D with the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM default zoom lens.
Prior to committing to DSLR cameras near the start of 2006, I had shot with various Sony and Nikon point-and-shoot cameras where the most notable one was the Sony DSC-S75 which I used from 2001-2006. That was because it had dials that let me pretend to be a DSLR user as I got to take long exposure photographs with it, which was perfect for waterfalls.
Tripod and Mount:
Regarding the tripod, it’s pretty obvious what they do in terms of keeping the camera still during long exposure photographs. They’re also useful for family self-portraits in the field. More often than not, we take our shots better than asking a st ranger to take a photo for us.
As far as the tripod that we use in our travels, the only one that I’ve bought and still use to this day is the Giottos GB1140. It’s an aluminum tripod that actually fits into my carry-on sized luggage.
Generally, I pack this tripod on our trips, but I often find it cumbersome to use it because of the amount of time it takes to set it up. Moreover, it’s yet another thing to carry around on hikes as well as in our travels.
Another thing I’m not too keen on regarding this tripod is its fragility. This was exemplified on our Australia-Africa trip in 2008, where one leg broke off when I slipped and fell. Thus, the tripod stopped being useful for the rest of the trip.
To Giottos’ credit, they shipped us a replacement leg when we got home so I would consider buying from them again if I needed a replacement.
Speaking of fragility, I also lost a rubber tip on one of the legs and the hook at the bottom somehow fell off and got lost. So it has definitely aged over the years of use and abuse that I had put it through.
As for the camera mount to mate with the top of the tripod, I use a Manfrotto 486RC2, which is a ball head with a quick release plate. I’ve pretty much stuck with this combination for the entire time that I’ve been shooting with DSLR cameras.
So that ought to give you an idea of their longevity as I generally don’t like to keep buying equipment.
Filters are attachments that we put in front of the camera’s zoom lens in order to “filter” the light before it reaches the zoom lens and ultimately the camera’s sensor. There are all kinds of filters that do different things, but the filter that I care most about is the circular polarizer.
Circular polarizers can cut glare in the photo as well as bring out deeper color saturation before the filtered light makes it to the camera’s lens and sensor.
The circular polarizing filter that I use the most is the B+W 72mm Circular Polarizer, which I attach to my Canon EF-S 18-200mm Zoom Lens and be done with it. After all, I pretty much do almost all of my shooting in landscape mode, and I appreciate the high quality glass to minimize distortions as the light passes through the filter and onto the Zoom Lens and ultimately to the camera’s sensor.
This filter tends to reduce the amount of light by 2 stops, which can be helpful in taking long exposure photographs though I do have to find ways to increase the exposure to compensate for this darkening on other photos where I’m not shooting a waterfall.
Nevertheless, even when the camera is stowed in my camera bag, I often don’t bother to detach the lens and put on a lens cap. That way, I’m always ready to take a picture without needing to remove a lens cap and/or screwing on a filter, etc. The only catch to doing this is the inevitable dust that can get onto the filter, which I’d have to wipe or air-blow off from time to time.
For long exposure photos in bright conditions, I might also add an additional darkening filter, which is known as the neutral density filter. I have a B+W 72mm Neutral Density Filter, which is made of glass and darkens the scene by another three stops.
That said, I don’t do this often because compounding the filters can introduce vignetting on the corners of the photo as well as some additional distortions to the overall image as light has to pass through even more glass. Besides, it’s a hassle to have to screw on yet another filter (especially since the circular polarizer itself can be spun).
Conclusion / Final Thoughts
So as you can see from this in-depth treatment of all the things that I have considered from our waterfall photography experiences, it’s very easy to go down the digital photography rabbit hole.
That said, I personally think it’s worth falling into the rabbit hole if you…
- want to be a professional and make money off your shots
- plan to spend lots of time postprocessing photos in Photoshop or Lightroom and working with RAW images
- would rather spend more time in one spot for that perfect shot
- still encounter situations where the smart phone doesn’t get the job done satisfactorily
I don’t think it’s worth going too deep down the rabbit hole if you…
- are trying to maximize limited travel time
- don’t want to spend more money than you have to on equipment
- are trying to get the best of pro camera benefits in the mid-range to low-range but not fully commit to the high-end
- the smart phone serves the majority of your photographic needs
Of course, how far down the rabbit hole is considered deep is a matter of debate. However, I hope that this treatise exposes you to the rich world of digital photography.
Indeed, this article only provided the photographic considerations that I’ve noticed and acted upon for my particular requirements as they pertain to hiking to lots of waterfalls. At the end of the day, everyone has different needs even for a niche topic like waterfall photography.
There will undoubtedly be errors along the way, but often times I’ve found that the greatest teachers are the mistakes (as painful as they may be sometimes).
That said, I hope the tips, techniques, and concepts that I’ve acquired through direct experience that I’ve shared on this page will help guide you towards minimizing those mistakes.
More importantly, I hope that it has helped you to ask the right follow-up questions so you can continue to navigate your way through the digital photography rabbit hole.
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