What is it about waterfalls that attracts and mesmerizes us so much?
There seem to be a number of natural phenomena and natural formations that universally attract human beings. Waterfalls are definitely one example. Sunsets are another.
I will leave it to experts that study human behavior and evolution to debate why this is so. Since (most) photographers are human, they are naturally attracted to waterfalls and the numbers of pictures of waterfalls that are taken everyday is huge.
During a recent trip with Michael Reichmann and several other dear photographer friends, the subject of waterfalls came up repeatedly. We were in the rain forest areas of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and each time that one of us stopped to photograph “yet another waterfall”, someone would start the conversation about the subject again.
It was even mentioned that in England photographers are automatically disqualified if they submit a photograph of a waterfall to a contest. While I do not know if this is true, it certainly emphasizes the fact that there are huge numbers of waterfall pictures taken all the time, and the vast majority of them are immensely boring.
So, I took this as a personal dare: Could I, in a few days, produce at least 2 or 3 images of waterfalls that I (and hopefully others) would consider good images?
THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME
Upon reflection, I quickly realized that the vast majority of photographs of waterfalls I have seen look very much the same. I believe that this “sameness” comes from the intense multi-sensory experience of being near a waterfall. Let me explain:
Being near a large waterfall is quite exciting. There is the noise of the rushing water, the humidity in the air, the water spray, the smell of the earth, the movement of the water and the visual beauty of the scene. It stimulates all our senses, and I believe that this extreme stimulation makes it much more difficult to concentrate purely on the visual elements to bring them to a nice conclusion in a two dimensional print that does not contain any of the other sensory experiences of the moment.
Add to this the usual precarious footing on a slippery surface and you have many elements contributing to a bad capture.
Even if a waterfall is small, all the senses are still quite excited, albeit in a more subtle way; but the difficulty of a proper capture still remains.
When we are excited, we seem to believe that simply capturing the thing head-on will excite the viewer just as much as the real experience excited us.
Unfortunately, capturing a subject like this head-on is likely to yield just another boring waterfall image.
WORKING BY EXCLUSION / INCLUSION
I often find that the most important elements in a photograph are those that are not present in the final image. I call this “working by exclusion” or “working by inclusion”.
When working by exclusion I look at a scene in front of me and I frame it as I think it ought to be captured. I then start to move the camera and/or change focal length to start excluding elements inside the image one by one. At some point, the image falls completely apart. But, if I bring back in the last element I excluded, I find that I have an optimum image in terms of expression, simplicity and composition. Using this methodology I can usually capture a vastly superior image than what I started with.
Sometimes, when my expressive self tells me that the scene requires a “busy” image, with lots of elements in it, I do the opposite: I keep bringing more and more elements into the image, one at a time, until the whole thing looks too busy and breaks apart. Taking out the last element produces an optimal “busy” image.
In my view, waterfalls are particularly suitable for the “working by exclusion” or “working by inclusion” techniques.
By simply observing other shooters on this trip, I noticed that there was a tendency to shoot from the same vantage point. Given the usual restrictions of slippery rocks and rushing water, I noticed that most photographers tend to place themselves as perpendicular and as close as they can to the waterfall.
I also started thinking about lens of choice and after remembering some memorable waterfall images from the great masters and observing the group further, I began to have a hunch that humans have a tendency to use lenses that are too wide when they shoot a large segment of a waterfall (they should be working by exclusion, but they are not) and lenses that are too long when shooting waterfall details (they should be working by inclusion, instead of working by initial visual instinct).
Therefore, my next thought was:
Could I produce better images by changing the location of my tripod completely versus what my instinct was initially telling me, and could I shoot better images by working by exclusion and inclusion?
You be the judge, but I believe that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES!
A FEW WORDS ABOUT WATER
I believe that it is imperative to never overexpose water. In my opinion, it is absolutely crucial to expose the water in such a way that there are absolutely no areas with blown highlights. Whether one decides to use a short exposure to freeze the action, or a long exposure to give the water a softer feel, preservation of all the shading is crucial to achieve the proper feel for the liquid. I cannot even begin to tell you how many waterfall (and other water) images I have seen that fail miserably because the (overexposed) water looks like a dead white splotch with no shading.
While the level of blur or no blur in the water is purely an artistic decision, I tend to gravitate towards exposures between 1/3 and 1/10th of a second.
All the images in this article were shot using a PhaseOne DF camera with a P65+ back.
Figure 1 represents my first attempt at changing the vantage point. The image is straight out of the camera before performing any edits.
I did not place myself at the rock nearest to the water, as parallel as possible to the waterfall, even though this was my first instinct. I also did not shoot with a wide angle lens. I decided to place myself much farther away (about 35 meters) from the intuitive location, and very high above the ground (which was higher than the rock to begin with) by using a very tall tripod and standing on top of two stacked milk crates. The camera was at least 10 feet above the ground.
This way, the camera was pointing down and I was shooting with the 75-150 mm lens on my PhaseOne DF camera. This unorthodox position yielded the following image:
Note that the image is slightly overexposed, as I always expose to the right. Also, please note the shading and texture in the water.
The image in Figure one represents my best intuitive guess on how to frame the image. I tried to place the log in front in a prominent position, but not too close to the bottom, and I tried to include all the elements that I thought belonged in the image. Unfortunately, I believe the image is a failure.
For my second attempt, I decided to start working by exclusion. Surprise! Working by exclusion actually forced me to change the aspect ratio from portrait to landscape. It also dramatically improved the composition and the drama. The final image is shown in Figure 2, and I believe it is a huge improvement over the “intuitive original”.
The second image in this article started the opposite way, I decided to place myself significantly lower than the spot where my intuition originally called for. This particular spot also happened to be farther to the right and less centered than intuition dictated.
After pondering the scene for a while, I first mounted, looked through and decided to capture the whole scene with the 28 mm lens. However, since I had discovered a natural human tendency to shoot too wide, I went against my intuition again, and I took off the 28 mm lens and mounted the 45 mm lens on the camera instead.
My first exposure (unedited) is shown in Figure 3, and represents how my mind’s eye first told me to frame the image.
Although I found the image quite exciting when looking at it on the P65+ screen, I decided to be disciplined and try to improve it working by exclusion / inclusion.
The final image, which again I believe is much improved in terms of composition, sheer power and excitement is shown in Figure 4.
Finally, Figure 5 shows an image that was taken at an oblique angle from the opposite side versus what my intuition dictated (again, an unorthodox vantage point). It also reflects a smaller portion of the waterfall at a longer focal length (45mm) than I had originally planned (28 mm).
The exact composition was determined working by exclusion. This image is a bit surprising to me, because I hardly ever make (or see) images where a key diagonal line goes from top left to bottom right. I almost always see successful images with diagonals going the opposite way.
In any case, I consider this to be a minimalistic, yet quite successful image.
I love a challenge. Whether self-imposed or not, challenges force us to take things to a higher level in order to succeed.
What I have learned from this exercise is that any “tried and true” and “tired” subject can certainly be brought to new light and the possibilities for new and exciting images from any subject are truly infinite.
I have also been able to prove once more that as good as intuition and experience can be, it always pays off to be more disciplined, more meticulous, more thoughtful and more determined when shooting landscapes.
About Mark Dubovoy
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of printing technology and photography. As such, he is a regular writer of technical articles for The Luminous Landscape, PHOTO Techniques magazine, and a lecturer at various workshops.
His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao Japan.