Why in the world would you photograph waterfalls in the rain? I was a little reluctant to take all of my expensive camera gear out into the rain and expose it to the elements, but I think the results were worth it. I went into the heart of Pisgah National Forest to the quintessential Looking Glass Falls. I did a good bit of research beforehand on how to get those milky, silky looking waterfalls. I had always wondered how landscape photographers got that ethereal look to their photographs. What was their secret? Long exposure… I’m not talking about a 5 or 10 second long exposure, I’m talking about a 6 minute exposure. But how can you achieve a six minute long exposure? Wouldn’t that let way too much light in and cause the photo to be dramatically overexposed? Yes it would, unless…
Through the Looking Glass
You have a neutral density filter. A neutral density filter modifies or reduces the amount of light entering the camera and hitting the sensor. It attaches to the front element of the lens. It can also be held there, but who wants to sit and hold a filter for 6 minutes? Not this guy. Now, ND filters come in various shapes and sizes. I use a filter called the Lee Big Stopper. More on that below in the photo geek section. You also need a handy little tool called a shutter cable release. It allows you to press down the shutter remotely and hold it for an extended amount of time without actually touching the camera shutter button. So this means that I can enjoy a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich while my camera is creating magic. I don’t have to sit there holding the cable release. I decided I didn’t even want to hold the umbrella to protect my gear. I used electrical tape to adhere my umbrella to another tripod. A tripod is a must have for shooting long exposure photography because there is no way to hold the camera still enough for 6 minutes to get the scene in clear, sharp focus. The basic idea of long exposure photography is to capture stationary elements in sharp detail, while blurring or slowing down the moving elements. The water continued to move down the falls and over the rocks, while the rocks and trees stayed stationary.
Photo Geeks: Here is where things get really nerdy. The first thing when shooting waterfalls or any other type of long exposure photography is to use the lowest ISO possible, in my case it was ISO 100. The next thing to do is to crank the aperture as wide as possible (F16-F22) which will ensure that your scene has a solid depth of field to capture detail in the entire scene. Have a solid tripod and ballhead, cable release, and ND filter. So the type of filter I used for the shoot as stated earlier is called a Big Lee Stopper. The BLS is a 10-stop ND filter which means that it keeps out 10 whole stops of light. Now you don’t need a 10 stop filter to get this kind of effect. You can achieve the effect with a 2 or 3-stop filter and get similar results. If you put a 1-stop filter on your camera it will see 1/2 the amount of light it regularly sees. If you put a 2-stop filter on it will see 1/4, a 3-stop filter will see 1/8, and a 10-stop filter will see 1/1024 of the light it normally sees which is significantly less. So grab a neutral density filter, your tripod, and cable release and go experiment with long exposure photography.
Quick Tip: Bad weather lends itself well to long exposure photography. It creates mood and interest, and the sunlight isn’t nearly as harsh when the weather is bad.