Beginning Waterfall Photography :: The Secrets of Sharp Photos


You must get three things right in order to have a chance at making a compelling photo. Perfect focus allows you to create an image that is sharp where you want it to be sharp. Perfect exposure allows you to capture detail in highlights and as much of the shadows as you want without creating any of the technical flaws which can ruin your photo. And a compelling composition leads your viewer through the photo and encourages them to see it the way you intend. Even if the other two aspects are absolutely perfect, a flaw in any of these three aspects will ruin an otherwise good photograph. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to master the skills necessary to achieve perfect focus and exposure.

If you want to learn more about getting the perfect exposure, read my article about the histogram. If you want to learn more about creating compelling compositions I have written an article about the basics of landscape composition and another about making your photos more interesting by creating compelling compositions. If you want to learn how to make sharp photos with your DSLR camera, read on!

Depth of Field

If you master depth of field you can create images which are perfectly sharp throughout the image.

If you focus your camera on a flower, it will be sharp and in focus. But the picture will also be sharp and in focus for some distance in front of the flower and behind the flower. The size of the area that is in focus is called the depth of field and it is determined by the focal length and aperture of your lens when you take the shot. Roughly one third of this area is in front of the flower, with the other two thirds behind the flower. This means you don't necessarily have to focus on the flower for it to be sharp and in focus, it just needs to fall within this area. This is an important concept in landscape photography because you normally want as much of the picture to be sharp and in focus as possible and if you just focus on your subject you will most likely waste some of your depth of field, leading to areas in the foreground or background that are out of focus. But if you don't necessarily want to focus on your subject, where do you focus?

The hyperfocal point is where you focus to make the best use of the depth of field for your current camera settings. You can find the hyperfocal point for your current settings using a depth of field calculator. I encourage you to play around with various settings in the DOF calculator and see how your aperture and focal length affect the hyperfocal point and depth of field. Notice two things in particular: small apertures and short focal lengths increase depth of field. Remember that apertures are expressed as the denominator of a fraction, so larger numbers indicate smaller apertures. f/4 is a large aperture, f/16 is a small one.

The depth of field tells you how much of the photo will be sharp, and the hyperfocal point tells you where to focus to make best use of the depth of field. There are web sites and smartphone apps which will calculate both values for you based on your current aperture and focal length. Since depth of field is so important in landscape and waterfall photography, I prefer wide angles and small apertures for waterfall shots. In addition to maximizing depth of field, a wide angle (18mm or smaller focal length) accentuates foreground details and enables you to get close enough to your subject to eliminate distractions like branches sticking into the frame. So zoom out and step closer! Small apertures also work well with waterfall photography because they are the natural result of long shutter speeds, which I prefer for capturing the motion of water.

Shutter Speed

It can require patience to get sharp photos when using long shutter speeds.

The shutter speed of your camera when you take a photo can also impact its sharpness. Anything that moves while the shutter is open will be blurred, and if you or the camera move during the exposure the entire picture will be blurry. If you take my advice and use a long shutter speed for photographing waterfalls, you will need to use a tripod to steady the camera. Ensuring the camera does not move during the exposure is only part of the challenge, however. If there are trees in the scene, their leaves may be moving in the wind. If you want the entire scene to be sharp you need to be aware of this and take your shot when the wind is calm. It can be quite a challenge on some days to get a shot where the wind does not ruin the sharpness of the leaves. One solution to this problem is to take an exposure with a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the leaves, another exposure with a long shutter speed to capture the motion of the water, and blend the two exposures using Photoshop or something similar.

Manual Focus in Live View

Mastering your camera's autofocus is worthy of an article in itself. In waterfall photography, where you can usually take your time to set up the shot and make sure everything is just perfect, I find it easier to turn off autofocus on the camera and focus manually. You may be a bit nervous about this at first, thinking the camera would do a better job at focusing than you, but that is not the case. Check your camera manual and learn how to turn on "live view", which lets you view the scene in real time on the camera's LCD screen instead of through the viewfinder. Most cameras will not only let you focus using live view, they also have the ability to zoom in to make sure your focus is perfect. Do not zoom the lens to check focus! Zooming the lens changes the focal length, which changes the depth of field and hyperfocal point. Instead, use the digital zoom on the back of the camera to zoom in and check focus. On Canon cameras you will find plus and minus buttons on the back of the camera to activate the digital zoom. If you have a different brand of camera you will need to check the manual to find out how to use the digital zoom.

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