As a professional photographer, the question I get asked the most is: “What is the best camera?”
It’s simple: The best camera is the one you have with you.
These days, that usually means the small chip lurking behind that tiny plastic lens somewhere inside your cellphone. It’s a not great camera by any means, but you WILL have it with you.
Which is both good news and bad news: Good news because it’s portable, lightweight and always in your hand and you don’t need any knowledge to get acceptable results.
Bad news because you can’t control the shutter speed or the f-stops or the ISO rating of the image and that makes it very difficult to make interesting photographs.
There is a reason everybody does those annoying “everybody-smile-at-the-camera” photos – you really can’t do much else!
Now some of the newer smartphones have begun offering shutter and f-stop and ISO controls on menus, but you need some way to stabilize the camera when out in the woods.
Because blurry photos are NOT usually the result of out-of-focus images, but the result of motion blur from an unsteady camera and/or hand coupled with a low shutter speed.
Because once you drop under 1/60th of a second, camera shake becomes a big issue for most people. But on cellphones, you have no control.
So there is your trade-off: Small camera, plastic lens, no exposure control, but it’s always with you. Big camera, better lens, lots of control, but it’s heavy and not likely to go along on a trip into the woods.
Hey, pick your poison.
But if you want to take your photography to the next level and try your hand at dazzling waterfall photos, here is what you’ll need:
1) A camera that allows you to control the exposure in three different ways – shutter speed, f-stops and ISO – AND has a screw-in tripod mount on the bottom.
2) A tripod or some way of stabilizing your camera. When desperate, I’ve piled up rocks and set the camera on top of them. (But I’m totally nuts.)
3) Shade. Lots and lots of shade. (Can’t have too much shade.)
4) No shade? A neutral density filter of about 3 stops will work just as well.
5) The knowledge of how to slow the shutter speed of your camera way, way, way down to about one-quarter or one-eighth of a second. (On the cheaper cameras, this may be a menu within your camera.)
6) The knowledge of how to control the f-stops because this will be your main way of controlling exposure. (It could be a knob or a dial or even a menu item.)
7) The knowledge of how to lock your ISO rating as low as possible, like ISO 100 or 200. (This is your second most important way of controlling the exposure.)
After that, it’s simply putting your exposure, bracketing, breathing and composition skills to work.
Yes, I said breathing skills. Google it.
Obviously, you are shooting on full manual here – auto exposure ain’t gonna cut it. In fact, auto exposure will make it impossible to do this, so get that baby on manual!
Don’t stand up – there are zero good angles up there. You want to go for a low angle, laying down on the rocks if necessary. Waterfalls look crappy up high and interesting down low.
When hiking, I probably spend half my time laying down or crawling around looking for angles. But like I said, I’m totally nuts. (I probably scare the hell out of the snakes.)
Focus on the water not the rocks. You will want the water to blur, so it looks natural. Which is why you are using a tripod and a shutter speed of 1/4 or 1/8 of a second. (You can probably go up to 1/15th of a second if it is a bright sunny day, but you will get a lot less streaking of the water.)
Also, you will need to expose for the water – not the rocks – otherwise the water becomes just a big white blob. You need detail in that white blob so you can see the streaking water as it bounces off the rocks.
Which means you’ll be looking for darker than normal exposures but bracket, bracket and bracket to see what works best.
I always shoot a boatload of images, move around and shoot a ton more. (This isn’t a “10 photos and I’m done” day.) I shot 94 images in about 20 minutes for this series. The first 10 were horrible as I adjusted the exposures, after that I just had to work on the interesting angles – and my breathing.
MY PHOTO SET UP: The above photos were taken at Fitzgerald Falls on April 3, 2017. Not exactly beautiful conditions since it was too early in the season for green stuff, but nice enough to make the photographic point.
I used a Fuji X100s camera mounted on a small Gorilla-pod. I always take both of them with me when I hike, because they are very lightweight.
The Fuji X100s is a camera with a fixed 24mm lens – so I need to use the foot zoom – and the Gorilla-pod is a small plastic tripod that is flexible enough to wrap around small trees and rocks.
What is great, in my opinion, about this setup is that the Fuji has all the controls on the outside of the camera body on strong metal knobs and therefore very easy to operate. The 3-stop neutral density filter is built right into the lens. But – and I consider this is a design flaw on Fuji’s part – the activation button for the density filter is buried way down in the menus, so I usually do that before I leave the house because I really don’t want to be squinting at menus in the outdoor light.
The Gorilla-pod is cheap and light and short and easy to carry. If it ever gets lost or stolen or broken, I’m buying another on Amazon for $20, so no problem. The Fuji, however, costs around $1,400 so I treat that a little more delicately while out on the trail.
This is important only because you don’t want to get too close to the falls, because – depending on which way the wind is blowing – the water spray will coat you and your camera and the rocks and wet rocks are always dangerous rocks. (Use good judgment – water is not the only thing that falls – and judgment only has one “e.”)
So everything I need to produce great photos weighs about two pounds and fits easily inside my daypack and it’s with me all the time. Much better than shoving a 6-pound Nikon into my pack and throwing a 4-pound Manfrotto tripod over my shoulder.
Now this is NOT a professional setup by any means: If I’m serious, it’s one of my Nikon’s, some lenses and the Manfrotto. But this small and light setup gets the job done and shows that you can get great photographs of splashing, falling water with just a small camera and tripod, a little exposure control and a lot of knowledge.
Knowledge is more important than equipment in every profession.
The results will be much, much, much better quality than a smartphone. (But again, if your idea of a great photo is people grinning at the camera, then a smartphone is just fine.)
So what’s the best camera out there?
Don’t worry, neither you or I can afford it.
– John DeSanto
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