The Otways | Waterfall Photography: Tips & Advice - Geoff Piper

January 13, 2019

Jurassic Falls || Otways National Park

Jurassic Falls || Hopetoun Falls, Beech Forrest, Victoria, Australia August 2018 || Shot with my Nikon D850 & Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 36mm, f/10, 1/6", ISO 50, Lee Filter System with Circular Polarizer and 3 stop ND graduated filter

The Otways | Waterfall Photography: Tips & Advice

I went to The Great Ocean Road of Australia in August 2018 mainly to shoot the 12 Apostles, but I quickly added The Otways National Park and its many waterfalls to my list due to their proximity to Port Campbell where I stayed. I heard The Otways was home to some of the most stunning waterfalls in Australia, if not the world; but, it wasn't until I began exploring the park that I realized just how many incredible waterfalls can be found there! It feels endless. I went to Hopetoun Falls, Lower Kalimna Falls, Triplet Falls, Little Aire Falls and Beauchamp Falls over the course of four separate days, but I needed weeks to cover the rest.

The Great Ocean Road and The Otways in August receive tons of rainfall and see heavy storms. True to form when I visited, the conditions varied wildly and almost every day had some form of rainfall. The weather changed from warm and dry, to hail storms in frigid conditions, thick fog, sudden downpours, and cycling back to warm and dry. This rapidly changing climate improves waterfall photography so I would say August may be the best time to go to The Otways to shoot.

My favorite moments in The Otways included foggy drives, along winding roads to arrive at locations and find myself completely alone in the forest, and braving  relentless downpours along the trails and at the falls. The storms and constant rains made for massive flows, maximized the waterfall experience and added drama and mood to my results.

During my time in The Otways and while shooting on location, I had tourists, new friends and colleagues, and even a client or two, ask me to give them lessons on how to capture waterfall images. I dedicate this blog to those requests and this topic.

Let's get started!

Waterfall Photography

Waterfall photography represents one of my favorite photography sub-genres and offers two types of action styles separated based upon shutter speed: (1) frozen action (i.e., fast shutter speeds), or my personal favorite (2) soft, dreamy, smooth water action (i.e., slow shutter speeds). Depending on which type of action you want to capture, as well as your gear and its ccapability, you may prepare and shoot differently.

Waterfall photography requires....WATER! And the more the better usually--until its a dangerous flood haha. I jest a bit on this point as this should be intuitive and obvious. However, you would be amazed how many folks with whom I have spoken, when discussing and viewing either their photos or mine, have not understood or wondered how I got my shot to look the way it does. Here are a few of the shots I took during my time in The Otways:

Misty Falls || Otways National Park

Beauchamp Falls || Nikon D850, Nikon (f/4) 16-35mm @ 22mm, f/10, 1″, ISO 50 & Lee circular polarizer

Jurassic Falls || Otways National Park

Hopetoun Falls || Nikon D850, Tamron (f/2.8) 24-70mm @ 36mm, f/10, 1/6, ISO 50 & Lee circular polarizer

Secret Hideaway || Otways National Park

Kalimna Falls || Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 32mm, f/10, 0.4″, ISO 64, Lee Circular Polarizer

Ancient Flows || Otways National Park

Hopetoun Falls || Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 31mm, f/10, 1/5, ISO 50 & Lee Circular Polarizer

Weather & When to Go:

The best time to shoot waterfalls occurs during and right after storms and rains! Yes--you and your gear will get wet in this type of photography so get ready and ENJOY it! :)

I practiced on many waterfalls during their dry times and of course my results were less than ideal: puny, anemic and boring. So, pick a location, do your research on the weather and seasons for the spot(s) and head out when it rains or soon thereafter. Don't miss the epic flows just to stay dry.

I use at least three separate weather apps when planning a shoot: (i)  The Weather Channel (iOS | Android), (ii) Weather Underground (iOS | Android) and (iii) WeatherRadar (iOS | Android), but there are many other great ones to leverage.

I think storms add drama to the scene because of the flows they cause and their impact upon light sets different moods. When storms occur I seize upon them, act quickly and head out to shoot. Just be prepared for the conditions and of course be careful when taking on storms.


What to Bring:

Rain / Water Gear:

All weather gear--since the best time to go is during or right after  storms and rains, bring all of your rain gear (i.e., appropriate body coverings and gear coverings) (note--the same applies even if it is not storming or raining because the environment will naturally be wet, change, and splashing will occur);

Lens cleaning materials--many times mist, dirt, grit, grime, rains, silt, mud...on and on... can be flung into the air by the rushing water, your own movements, and a myriad of other ways, and land on your camera and lens--be prepared to keep the camera and lens clean, dry and free of any foreign elements);

Cloths and a towel--to wipe down the camera, tripod and other gear during shooting to avoid water damage, in case of emergencies, and immediately after shooting--I always wipe down thoroughly after each shoot especially when shooting waterfalls as your gear is expensive and should be treated with utmost care to maximize its output quality and lifespan); and

Proper footwear--your strong hiking boots that can withstand wading and being submerged (some of the best shots require getting into the waterways--be careful as it can be INCREDIBLY slippery in waterways and on rocks with moss etc. but enjoy it and getting wet) and/or flip flops (depending on the temperature of the water and season of the location).

Camera:

You can accomplish waterfall images with just about any kind of camera. I use DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and believe these bodies achieve optimal shots but I have seen many other cameras perform well too. The specific type of camera is not as important in this sub-genre as the techniques to employ. However, I recommend DSLRs, mirrorless or medium format cameras for the best results due to their sensor capabilities, rugged builds and overall quality of results.

Tripod & Trigger Shutter Release:

Every waterfall photographer should have a tripod and likewise landscape photographers' best friend is a tripod. Tripods are critical to have especially if your goal is soft, dreamy, smooth waterfalls (due to the need for slower shutter speeds). I recommend carbon fiber tripods because they are lighter, more rugged, durable and impervious to water (getting wet is unavoidable under the conditions). Always, and I MEAN ALWAYS, make sure your tripod is sturdy, immobile and grounded before placing your camera on it, and check the tripod again after the camera is locked into place! I cannot stress this enough. I have lost cameras before with major accidents attributable to poor tripod placement and lack of proper vigilance (probably getting excited about the scene and shooting and not paying attention---avoid this!). Keep in mind, water constantly moves and shifts, rocks are slippery and move as well over time. You should constantly monitor your camera's stability on the tripod and your tripod's stability of placement. Also, make sure the water flow does not move your tripod, even if slightly, because that movement will ruin your result (i.e., movement will reduce sharpness and cause blur). Also, if using a tripod and slower shutter speeds, you should invest in and it is wise to use a trigger shutter release (whether wired or wireless) to minimize camera shaking and maximize sharpness.

Filters:

You can accomplish great waterfall pics without the use of filters (totally possible without them). But, if you are interested in capturing the vibrant colors including the surrounding area, seeing the bed below the running water, or shooting in really intense light settings that cause glare, you will need to bring a polarizer. Hundreds of types of polarizers fill the market. I currently use Lee Filter Systems and their circular polarizer. Specifically, a polarizer does a few things when shooting water and waterfalls:

(1) adds saturation;

(2) removes glare;

(3) cuts through the water (i.e., allows you to see into the depths of water and elements underwater);

(4) reduces the amount of light getting into the camera (i.e., stopping down by the intensity of the filter's glass); and

(5) offers effects that are nearly impossible to replicate or mimic in post processing. Adjust your polarizer to the desired impact and then your camera's shutter speed for the desired result. I watched this video when I bought my Lee system and believe Lee and Joe Cornish do a great job explaining filters and polarizers for this type of shooting.

If you are interested in the gear I use while shooting, I have a detailed list of my gear located at this link. Feel free to reach out to me to ask me about my gear or yours--I am always happy to give advice or provide direction.

Camera Settings & Techniques:

Shutter Speed:

The type of action you want to capture in your water and waterfall dictates what to choose for this setting: 

Freeze Action: If you want to freeze the action in time, I have found (and depending on your camera so approximately) anything above 1/125 of a second should freeze the motion. I choose 1/125 when hand help to eliminate any hand shake or blurring I might cause by my hands. This general rule applies to all photography in my view. An argument could be made that some people and some cameras can handle even slower speeds prior to noticeable blur, but at some point (i.e., roughly 1/80th or slower) the human body can no longer keep the camera steady enough (especially with modern high quality sensors in DSLRs and mirrorless cmeras) to remove hand shake and therefore blurring. This is why a tripod may be needed.  

Dreamy Water: If you want dreamy, soft, smooth water to create the appearance of motion, then use slower shutter speeds. It does not take shutter speeds of 10, 20, or 30 seconds although those lengths can yield some magical results if controlled in camera and in post. The speed of the flow of the water may also impact your shutter speed and the result. I have found the smoothing effect arrives around 1/10 of a second and found my best results between 1 to 3 seconds. The longer the shutter stays open, the more effect, and the more water blur, motion and dream--note there is a point where the speed is too slow and washes out the scene, avoid this. In the end, the shutter speed is a matter of personal taste and individual goal so I leave it to you to choose how much of the effect you would like to add. I recommend shooting on a tripod at all times for this type of photography anyway (given the conditions and to minimize blur).

Aperture:

Your choice of aperture will depend greatly on the type of lens you use (i.e., in order to maximize your shot's sharpness given your gear), and the amount of light in your scene. I shoot between f/8 to f/11 usually given my camera bodies and lenses to maximize sharpness. Since this setting is usually a fixed value for me for each lens, I work the light under the conditions to adjust the shutter speed accordingly. Also, since I am usually set up on a tripod, I can go with slower shutter speeds and then more easily accomplish the dreamy blurred water effect. The smaller apertures (higher f stops) work in my favor two ways then: (i) to maximize sharpness, and (ii) limit light entering the camera hence allowing even slower shutter speeds and increasing the dream. :)

ISO:

In general, I shoot with as low an ISO setting as I can to minimize noise and grain in my shots. Depending on conditions, I may go up to ISO 100, but generally I stick with ISO 64 or lower (my Nikon D850 allows me to do so a nice feature so I recommend this body!), which minimizes noise and since I am on a tripod and trying to get dreamy results allows my to slow my shutter. Capturing fast action water given the light conditions may well require you to bump your ISO higher to still freeze action and remove blur.

Waterfall Videos in The Otways, Australia

Due to the extensive nature of my travels in 2018 (i.e., from April through December), I had a limited space in my packing and traveled very lightly. As a result, my capability to capture high quality videos suffered. I just couldn't carry all of that which I needed for high quality videos and sound. But, I did manage to capture some fun iPhone videos on location. I apologize for their sound and quality (mainly due to the noise of the massive flows of the falls and the conditions). I shot these solely as supplements for fun--hope you enjoy. There are some photography tips and tidbits in the videos (if you can hear them!), but you can get a sense of the flows and the setting in The Otways. The Otways and their falls are truly incredible and a must go if you love waterfalls like I do!!

Hopetoun Falls

Hopetoun Falls was an incredible waterfall and my personal favorite! I really loved it. It is a short walk from the parking lot down some stairs (a bit overgrown here and there) and along a fairly well blazed trail through the forest. The logs had recently fallen due to the massive storms in the area. While some locals said this was a bummer, and while I understand they did present considerable challenges to get the compositions I had seen in my research and had hoped for, since its a natural occurrence I believe they are nice additions. Several felled trees and logs adorn the scene in various spots. There are plenty of places at this location to set up and get all sorts of compositions. Tip--do not just stick to the platform, be adventurous, explore the area, but of course be mindful of the flows, the surroundings, wildlife and alert. 

The storms created massive flows which made the falls incredibly noisy even a bit deafening at times when up closer (you'll get a taste in the video). Lush vegetation lined the rock walls and the river bank obviously fed by the massive flows and rains. My polarizer made capturing the vibrant colors easy. I love the pre-historic feel of the scene due to the ferns. I named my image Jurassic Falls for their impact upon the feel.

Kalimna Falls

Kalimna Falls has two parts, an Upper and Lower section. The upper section was closed at the time I arrived due to the massive rains, damage to the area and for safety precautions. Lower Kalimna Falls though was marvelous and offers a neat cave that allows you to walk even behind the falls. The hike to the falls is about 30 minutes to an hour depending on conditions and your hiking strength. Remember to bring water with you for this hike.

The rains steadily pelted me all day during including during my hike and all of my shooting. The rains made it very challenging and forced me to run and seek shelter in the cave many times over the course of the 3 hours there. I had lunch in the cave and that was a treat. Ferns and mosses line the walls here as well and felled logs offers interesting elements to play with in the composition.

Thanks for reading my Waterfall Photography blog post. I will follow up with more waterfall photos and additional insights, tips, tricks and advice from other various locations around the world over time. Stay tuned for those! Here are a few other links to help you find you way to The Otways, their waterfalls and other information on this topic:


Related Links

https://www.visitotways.com/walks-and-waterfalls/

https://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/waterfalls/australia-beauchamp-falls/

https://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/waterfalls/australia-hopetoun-falls/ https://www.visitgreatoceanroad.org.au/lets-go-chasing-waterfalls/ https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/visit/natural-wonders/waterfall-walks-in-the-otways http://ihearthiking.com.au/lower-upper-kalimna-falls/ https://www.otwaysaccommodation.com.au/waterfalls-in-the-otways/

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