Three ways to shoot a waterfall

As we caught our first glimpse of Wailua Falls on Kauai (Hawaii), we admired the dual cascades rushing 80 feet to the still pool below. From our roadside overlook, we stood slightly above and about 30 degrees left of the head of the falls. It was about 7am, and fortunately our group of 9 photographers were the only people peering over the four-foot wall. Lush green foliage on the other side of the wall, grew tall and could or could not be part the foreground. The first question that crossed my mind was what lens to choose, and I first chose a wide angle in order to capture the grandeur of the scene. No, it didn’t work. I could not make my tripod high enough to frame the scene properly. I tried…made the tripod 8 feet tall, but I could not see what I was doing and quickly became frustrated. It would have helped if I were 9 feet tall, but I’m 5’6″! I soon changed my mind and mounted the 70-200 mm lens and focused on the head of the falls and surrounding rocks and foliage.  Our photography instructors, Don Smith and Gary Hart, urged us to work with the head of the falls. “You don’t have to include the whole thing,” they said.

In landscape photography, I always use a tripod, so I can be very deliberate, careful and stable with composition, focus, manual setting decisions and long exposures. Today was no exception. I loved the effect of a long exposure on this Wailua Falls: the rushing water becomes creamy. I combined a small aperture (f22) with a long exposure (.8 second) at 100 ISO and took in the surrounded the source of the falls with visual interest in the rock formation and foliage. If you are wondering about the ghost-like line in the center cascade, that is the edge of the rock formation under the falls.

Wailua Falls
Wailua Falls

Now, let’s try something different and make a comparison. Let’s try to freeze the water motion with a fast shutter speed. I opened the aperture as wide as possible to f 2.8 and zoomed in to eliminate foreground which would have been out of focus.  I also need to increase my ISO, or the sensitivity of the sensor to light. In this photo, you can see how the waterfall appears with these settings: ISO 800, f 2.8 at 1/250 second.

Wailua Falls, with faster shutter speed
Wailua Falls, with faster shutter speed

Satisfied, but with extra time — I decided to try to capture the whole waterfall. With the tall wall right in front of me, I would have to take the camera off the tripod and hand hold it. That means no long exposure if I want a nice sharp image. I would need to keep a high ISO (800) and a shutter speed of at least 1/250 of a second. Instructor Gary Hart crept up behind me and whispered, “tripod alert!”  I assured him I had made a conscious choice to take a few shots without the tripod, and that I increased my shutter speed to make sure that hand holding would not ruin the sharpness of my image. Here is the third way to shoot the Wailua Falls, all with the Nikon 70-200 lens. Now with 2.5 hours of driving, hiking and photography done, it was time for breakfast.

All 80 Feet of Wailua Falls near Lihue on Kauai
All 80 Feet of Wailua Falls near Lihue on Kauai

Author: cathykellyphotography

Independent photographer based in Pittsburgh PA and Naples FL. Nature, landscape and portrait photography. Portfolio includes international work in USA, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Email cathykellyphotography@gmail.com to review work in your area of interest. Nature portfolio includes flowers and wildlife. Prints and digital files for sale. See website: www.cathykellyphotography.com.