A Night At A Waterfall

When you get a good night at a photo subject, it makes sense to shoot it in as many ways as possible. That’s especially true for some of the waterfalls that I hike to. When the subject is miles away from the nearest road, it’s not like I can just pop over any time I want and shoot it another way. So I cram as much as possible into the session.

Image 1

Image 1 is a perfect example. Typically, I’ll shoot a few shots to capture the pinpoint stars first. In the first image, I shot an exposure for the sky at ISO 1600, 25 seconds, and f/2.8. Then I shot a couple of frames for the waterfall at ISO 400, 15 seconds, and f/5.6. During these exposures, I light painted the waterfall using my workhorse LED flashlight. Very often, I’ll attach a colored gel filter to the light, but I didn’t do so for this shot. (I captured all of these images on a Nikon D800 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens.)

In Photoshop, I stacked the waterfall shots as layers and changed the Blend Mode to Lighten so that all of my light painting would show up. Then I processed it to make the falls look the way I wanted, using the typical contrast and color adjustments. The next step was to take a black Brush and paint over the sky so it wouldn’t show up in the final composite.

Image 2

Next, I processed the shot for the sky as desired, ignoring everything that was happening to the waterfall. After I got the sky looking the way I wanted, I used the black Brush to paint over the waterfall so it wouldn’t show it in the final composite.

The next step was to stack the two frames—the one for the sky and the one for the waterfall—as layers in Photoshop. When I changed the Blend Mode to Lighten, the properly processed sky showed up with the properly exposed waterfall in a single frame. Magic!

Back at the waterfall that night, I knew I wanted to get in as many shot scenarios as possible. After capturing the pinpoint stars, the next step was star trails. For those, I shot 39 frames at ISO 200, 4 minutes, and f/4. For the processing, I stacked those frames in Photoshop as layers and, as usual, changed the Blend Mode to Lighten so that all of the streaks would show up from each frame. I then flattened the file and combined it with the shot for the waterfall to create Image 2.

Image 3

Image 4

For nearly all of my night subjects, I try at least to get a simple shot with both pinpoint stars and star trails. However, I’m always looking out for other possibilities. This waterfall happened to be ideal for steel-wool light painting, as it was close enough and safe for me to stand at the top. Images 3 and 4 show the steel-wool painting added to the other shots. The process was the same—stack the steel-wool frames as layers with the other frames and change the Blend Mode to Lighten.

Image 5

For Images 5 and 6, I light painted the waterfall using a yellow-orange gel filter mounted in a GelGrip™. I thought it would look good to match the color of the burning steel wool, as if the fire from the sky is coloring the water. I think I like the shots better without the colored water, but the point is that I wanted to capture as many possible variations as I could during my night at the falls.

I shot all night long at this waterfall, capturing a dozen or so different compositions and variations in addition to those shown here. Not all waterfalls or other subjects offer as many possibilities, but you want to squeeze as much as you can from everything you shoot.

Image 6

There are only so many hours in the night, after all!

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