How to Shoot HDR Waterfalls

Final Image
Final Image

There is something about shooting waterfalls that is a lot of fun…Maybe it is because I like to hike around in the woods, and the waterfalls themselves are the endpoint, or maybe it is just the pure beauty of the falls themselves. Whatever it is, I do enjoy it. There are plenty of guides on how to do shoot waterfalls and HDR, so I felt I’d combine two and add my two cents to the collection of wisdom.

First, a little jargon: A High Dynamic Rance image contains more information than image sensors are capable of collecting. The dynamic range of a sensor refers to the range of light intensity a sensor can detect. For any given sensor, any light brighter than the range the sensor can detect is interpreted as white, and anything darker as black. You may have noticed that when taking pictures indoors during the day, windows appear to be white in a picture, but with your eye you can distinguish objects outside and inside. This is because the dynamic range of the human eye is greater than that of a camera. An HDR image is a combination of multiple images taken at different shutter speeds that are then combined to create an image with more dynamic range than the sensor can detect in any single image. HDR softeware combines the well exposed elements of each photo while removing the overexposed and underexposed elements. After the HDR is created, software then attempts to tone map the image–that is compress the HDR image into a form that is usable for print or on-screen display, as both print media and screens like sensors can only display a limited dynamic range less than what the human eye can see.

Waterfalls offer a particularly great opportunity for using HDR, as it is often times difficult to properly expose waterfalls such that the water is not “burned out” or “blown out” (that is completely white) and the content around the water fall is not utterly black or so dark one cannot see it anyways. HDR’s offer a great solution to this as you can expose the white water and the surrounding content and combine these elements for some beautiful landscape photography. So with no further adieu, we’ll begin.

What you will need:

  • A camera (most any point and shoot camera will work if it has a manual mode)
  • A tripod
  • HDR Software (this guide uses Qtpfsgui)

What you might want to have handy, though not essential to the task:

  • Neutral density filters — these are basically smoked glass that will reduce the amount of light coming into the camera a specified number of stops. ND2 means it reduces the light 1 stop, ND4 means it reduces the light 2 stops, etc. They are designed to allow for long exposure when light is abundant.
  • Circular polarizers — these filter out polarized light, which is caused by haze and flat surfaces usually as glare.
  • A cable release — a wired or wireless remote of sort

The trick to getting a silky or fluffy looking fall is a long exposure, at least 1/4 of a second or more. You’ll want to set the camera on a tripod for this. The best conditions to shoot waterfalls in when they are not in the sun, but this is not always possible. I like to go early in the morning or in the evening to shoot because this allows for good lighting conditions without lots of shadows and also allows for longer exposures. This is not, however, always possible.

First, set the camera on the tripod. Use solid ground such as a rock, hard clay, or concrete if possible, especially when shooting with a long zoom. Boardwalks and raised walkways will cause vibrations if there is a lot of pedestrian traffic and this will make the focus of your image soft. Avoid mud and soft ground. I’ll explain why later.

Second, you’ll want to evaluate the shot.

  • Is the sun out? If so, you might want to add a neutral density filter to the camera. I use an ND4, ND8, or both together which nets an ND32.
  • Is there glare coming off the water or rocks? This is almost always the case if you are shooting with cloud cover as the water on the rocks reflects the sky or on days when the sun is directly overhead. In that case, add a circular polarizer and adjust it until it filters out the glare

Third, set the camera.

  • You’ll want to set it to manual mode. Set the camera to the lowest possible ISO setting and smallest possible aperture (i.e. the “f” number, a higher number means a smaller aperture and thus a slower shutter speed). DSLR’s will a “kit” lens will do f/22 or smaller. Point and shoot cameras may only use only go to f/8 or f/9.
  • Almost always when shooting a waterfall there is hardly ever an instance where I am able to capture a waterfall and all its surrounding detail in one exposure, so I use what is called a “bracketing”.  This is basically where the camera takes 2 or more (I use 3) exposures, one that is balanced, one overexposed, and one underexposed. Most DSLR’s have a program to do this automatically called Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB), so you’ll have to consult your manual on how to set the camera. Basically, the camera does a biased exposure above and below the detected metered exposure. For shots with lots of contrast (typically, the sun is overhead), I set the bracket for +/-2 stops. For low contrast situations, maybe only +/-1 stop. For point and shoot and some DSLR’s you may have to do this in manual mode by setting the aperture then adjusting the shutter speed manually so that you get the same results.

Fourth, take some test shots.

  • The great thing about waterfalls is the subject does not apparently change between each exposure. See if the exposure comes out correctly. DSLR’s using a program almost always comes out nicely on the first try. If you are shooting manually make increase the shutter speed if the shots are too bright or decrease if they are too dark until you find a shutter speed that exposes the image correctly. Note that speed.

Fifth, take the shots.

  • Once the camera is set you’ll want to use a cable release for DSLR’s. This minimizes touching the camera and thus pictures should be clearer. If you are using a built in bracketing program, hold down the release and it will take 3 consecutive shots. If you don’t have a cable release, you can set a timed release. On most new DSLR cameras, you can set it on a timed release and it will automatically take 3 shots when the timer runs down.
  • On point and shoot cameras or when manually exposing the image, you’ll have to manually adjust the shutter speed between each shot, which requires you to touch the camera. Start with a faster shutter speed than the well exposed image to underexpose, and then take several shots incrementally decreasing the shutter speed until you pass the well exposed speed noted earlier. Do so delicately, and this is also why you want to be on solid ground. The tripod may be sturdy, but if you are mushy ground the tripod can move by touching the camera. When you have exposed several shots, you may want to delete the shots that are really bright or really dark, as these will not help much in post processing. You’ll want several exposures, something like these:
    Bracketed Exposures
    Bracketed Exposures

Sixth, post processing

Once you’ve got your images captured, transfer them to your computer and combine them using some sort of HDR software.  A great free program that works rather well is Qtpfsgui. What this means, I have no idea, but this software is a free program that runs on Windows, OS X (Mac) and Linux OS’s. The results it produces are pretty amazing–better than many commercial products aimed at the same sort of application. The program also supports RAW formats for most popular DSLR camera.

You’ll want to click “New HDR” to start. It will ask you for your input images. Select the images you want to use and it will load them. If you think your tripod may have moved during shooting, select “Auto Align Images”. This takes some time, so be prepared to wait if you do. The best thing is to avoid moving the tripod.

HDR Wizard 1
HDR Wizard 1

Click “Next” to create the merged image. The next screen allows you to edit the images slightly. I selected “Fit in Window” here to show the full image for editing. Use “Anti Ghosting” if a part of the image moved such as a limb blowing in the breeze or something like that. The software will attempt to remove such things. The preview mode gives you a snapshot of one image relative to another, which is useful for finding “ghosts”.

Editing Tools
Editing Tools

Click “Next.” The next screen is to select the algorithm to merge images. I use the first one as it suggests.

HDR Wizard 2
HDR Wizard 2

Click “Finish” to produce the HDR image. When it is done, the resulting image looks flat. That is OK! The last step gives it the pizzazz you see in other HDR images. If it looks too bright or too dark, select a different “Mapping” Gamma. The nature of HDR images does not allow all the information available in the image to be displayed on a screen, thus the reason for tone mapping, which attempts to compress the available information into something viewable on a screen.

Merged HDR
Merged HDR

Click “Tonemap the HDR”. This will pull up the tone mapping screen.

Tone Map
Tone Map

You’ll want to set the “Result Size” to something small for previewing, and something large for the final product, as rendering can take a while if you use large images. Click “Apply” at first to get a preview on the right.

Select the “Operator” you want to try. It will read give a synopsis of what it does, and depending on your desired result, you may want to try a couple of different methods.  I like the effects “Mantiuk” and “Fattal” give. The best thing to do is experiment with the various operators and see which one works.

After you have adjusted the Operator to the settings you want, set the image to the largest setting in “Result Size” and select apply. This will take a while now, depending on the speed of your computer, the operator, and the size of the image. I’ve tried some and they took several minutes to render on some of the operators, so be patient!

The last thing you want to do is set the levels so that the image does not look as flat. Click the “Adjust levels” button and slide the two sliders.

Adjust Levels
Adjust Levels

The last thing to do is save the image. You have several options here, but unfortunately they are all 8-bit options, so if you want to do any more post processing in another program, you’ll have to live with one of these. For most cases, this is probably enough. If you want to save the HDR image without the tone mapping, you can do so in one of several 16 bit formats. Otherwise your image is ready for whatever you want to use it for!

Final Image
Final Image

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