Waterfalls are one of nature’s wonders for landscape photography. But achieving beautiful waterfall photography can be frustrating.
When I’m in front of a waterfall I want to get the smooth silky water and the classic motion blur with a long exposure. That can be tricky.
In this photography tips article, I’ll share six tips for breathtaking waterfall photography that I’ve learned on the field.
1. How to Stay Safe When Photographing Waterfalls
You will find yourself in slippery terrain when learning how to photograph waterfalls. Human presence is very limited and so nature grows luxuriant and free.
Every rock, leaf, tree is wet, muddy or full of moss and lichens. So keep in mind to constantly watch your step. Photographing waterfalls can be a dangerous field.
Depending on the season, water streams and waterfalls can be big and powerful. The rage of streams full of water can make you lose your balance or drag your equipment away.
Also keep in mind that the closer you get to a waterfall, the more water spray and air flow there will be. Your camera gear and equipment could be damaged while capturing that long exposure waterfall.
To keep your camera safe, use a plastic bag to protect it, the front lens or any filters. I found a practical solution with hair shower caps found in hotels. They’re very light and get the job done.
2. Try Composing Your Shots From the River
It’s an old truth: if you want good photographs you need to move your feet. The problem with water photography is that you are moving in a super-wet and slippery terrain.
So, once you take all precautions needed, you have to wet your feet to cross streams.
You might find a rock that will be awesome as foreground or as platform for your tripod. Or you want a better angle and give your beautiful waterfall photograph all the justice it deserves.
Another good reason to wet your feet is one of the most obvious.
There is a high probability that the waterfall photography composition will work better from the river.
You can use the stream itself as an element of interest guiding towards the waterfall. Its rage, its path, its structure – it all works.
I often use fishing boots. This is a good solution if you don’t like to wet your feet or legs. There are also different sizes and lengths. Some you can even hook to your belt or, even better, overalls. So you can immerse yourself to your waist.
3. What Gear Do You Need for Waterfall Photos
I assume that you want to achieve motion blur, soft and silky water, or something similar. Here’s what you’ll need.
The most obvious accessory for water photography is a sturdy tripod to avoid camera shake. It’s very typical for my tripod to be in the middle of the stream with rushing water from the waterfall everywhere.
It’s absolutely necessary to have a firm anchor for the camera. And it’s better to have spikes at the end of the tripod’s legs for mud.
A tripod also allows you to take your photographing waterfalls to a new level – by using longer exposure photography. This is one of the best gear tips on how to take pictures of waterfalls.
Using a circular polariser filter or CPL is fundamental for waterfall photography. Every landscape photographer should have one.
It does a great job in waterfall photography and in water photography in general. With a CPL you can get interesting exposure times because you a good CPL you’ll lose almost a stop of light.
These exposure times are what make long exposure photography for your waterfall photography possible.
The CPL removes reflections from non-metallic surfaces. This means eliminating the reflections from green tree leaves and water pools.
This means you can see the bottom of the stream where you are shooting waterfall photography. You will see the rocks below the water with their beautiful colours.
Another little piece that I find necessary is a remote shutter. You are already in a not so well balanced position so why risk a blurry image?
A remote shutter also means you don’t have to be so close to your camera all the time. I can always use a 2-sec delayed shot, but I prefer an old-fashioned remote with a cable.
It cost me a fraction of the ones that use radio waves, Bluetooth, IR or WiFi and it doesn’t need batteries. Also, I don’t want to risk my phone to control the camera.
You can also wrap it in a little plastic bag secured with duct tape and you’ll have no worries if it falls in the water.
I’m a huge fan of long-exposure photography. But for photographing moving water, neutral density filters are not always useful. So this next piece of equipment is not strictly required but can be useful in some cases.
You have to be careful if you decide to use an ND filter. You are most likely in a tight canyon, in a low light scenario. So using an ND filter will produce a very long exposure waterfall photograph.
I will say a 20-30 seconds exposure. Or even more, if you go with a very dense filter like a 10-stop ND filter.
The result will be very smooth and silky water movement indeed, but everything else will be blurry. I’m thinking leaves on the trees around the waterfalls here.
Their movement could ruin every effort to get a good composition. And you will lose also any chance to have details in the waterfall itself.
Sometimes it is interesting to let a few drops of water mark the flow of the waterfall. It can help to create great interest around the waterfall itself.
In some cases I also use a GND filter to control the light hitting the camera sensor. I use these when my scene is not completely in the shade and I need to manage the sunlight.
This way I can decide which element to emphasise and which to hide, because it’s not interesting.
4. How to Compose Waterfall Shots
If you are wondering why I have not yet talked about which lens to use for waterfall photography, you are right to wonder.
The perfect lens for photography waterfalls does not exist, as in any other photographic field. Lens choice is part of the composition you want. So it’s up to you.
For example, you may want to use your super-wide lens to bring in all the elements of the scene. Not a bad idea. Be careful though. Your waterfall could get lost in the sea of details.
Or in some cases. you might want to focus the viewer’s eye on one powerful subject. Again, not a bad idea. Just make sure the waterfall is still recognizable.
When you first arrive at your waterfall, don’t set up your tripod straightaway. Instead try to walk around, bend down, change your perspective, change your point of view, etc.
This is what I usually do. I walk around to check where I can easily and safely go and try to look at every angle. Next I grab my camera and I repeat the same thing.
It’s a mental process: I try to look at every corner. Especially if it’s my first time in that place. I climb rocks and fallen trees. I approach the waterfall and leave it several times.
If I’m not shooting a waterfall exposed to the light, I have the time to find and improve my waterfall photography composition. The light or rather the shadow will not change much. It will always be manageable.
What I always worry about is an anchor point in the foreground for the viewer’s eye. Something that will guide them in reading the image from the foreground to the background. To the waterfall.
This point of interest could be an autumn’s leaf, a beautiful rock with soft and green moss. Or the S-curved shape of the stream. There is always a sort of S-curve composition with streams and rocks.
Next, I try to avoid the sky. As mentioned before, you are in a tight canyon. All the scene could easily be in the shade. It might be difficult to manage the correct exposure with a triangle of light at the top.
The little piece of the sky would also disturb the exposure meter and it would be a point on which the eye would lean to read the scene.
I can use physical elements to guide attention or I can use light to create different planes. Rocks, trees, branches are always my friends when I’m creating my composition.
Otherwise, I can use the light to achieve the same thing and give a tridimensional impact.
I always use the rule of thirds and I try to put elements on those four points. When I’m happy with the composition in camera it’s time to think of the technical part.
5. Camera Settings For Waterfall Photos
It is only in this moment that I set up my tripod, then the camera. And I let the magic begin.
I choose a focus point, usually a rock or a detail in one of the lower third of the rule of thirds. Choosing between Aperture Mode or Manual Mode is only a matter of taste.
But I usually find myself in Aperture Mode. So shooting at f/9.0 or f/10 or even more, I’m pretty sure that everything is in focus.
If you decide to use manual mode, start with the lowest ISO (this is ISO 100). Also, keep in mind that a slower shutter speed will make the water appear silky smooth.
Now comes the CPL. I spin the filter four or five times to be sure of the effect. I prefer to spend some time checking the effect, so I check the live view of the camera while spinning.
In the end I take a few test shots and check the histogram. I check the foreground, the light reflections, the greens from vegetation.
I also check the sharpness of my elements of interest. And I take more test shots if I have to change anything. And every time I read the histogram.
I try to manage the highlights and the whites right in the field; you can’t manage them in post-processing. If I burn the highlights I cannot recover them in Lightroom.
These are so important for the waterfall and all its details. Even silky water can have fascinating details like tiny water drops.
These can give impact and movement to the image.
Overall, I try to have a well balanced and truthful histogram. It will most likely be a little to the left, to the shadows. It’s okay, it’s consistent with the scene.
Otherwise, if the histogram shifts to the right I try to change the light coming to the sensor using a GND filter.
The beauty of modern filter holders is that they can turn 360 degrees and so allow us to shape the light as we want.
I put on an ND filter only when I want to be sure to smooth the water’s movement, to have the right amount of motion blur.
An exposure time of four or five seconds is well enough with a stream or fall with a good amount of water and movement.
If the result is okay, then I take another last shot. That’s the shot that I know I built myself with a simple but effective mental and practical process.
6. What to Watch Out for in Waterfall Photography
Waterfalls aren’t difficult subjects, you can shoot waterfalls in any weather conditions. I prefer to avoid heavy rain because I have to face the splashes of water that come from the waterfall.
The raindrops can turn everything into a real nightmare.
It’s a constant game of patience. I put the camera in position and the front lens or filter will be completely wet. So I dry it and try to protect it. When I’m ready to shoot the little drops return to ruin everything.
In short, protect your lens, but be ready to clean it up many times if you shoot when it’s raining.
There is also another aspect to keep in mind when you want to take pictures of waterfalls. And this is especially relevant if you want a long exposure waterfall photograph and motion blur.
You have to divide the waterfalls into two big categories. Those that are at low altitude or at hill level and those that are higher up.
In late spring the waterfalls of low or medium altitude are more loaded with water and are more swollen. Those that are in the narrow gorges in the middle of a forest.
The snow up high is melting down and goes quickly in the streams. So the waterfalls will be more scenic but also more dangerous.
In spring those that are higher up in altitude could be icy, so that makes them much dryer. You have to wait until summer when the snow at high altitude melts so you can see them full of water.
In the summertime, low-altitude waterfalls are easier to dry up because rivers begin to feel the temperature of the sun and so there is less water.
My favorite moment to go hunting for waterfalls is autumn after a rainy day. The temperature has already started to cool down and it’s raining more often. This will increase water flow.
Autumn also helps with those vibrant and intense colors. The leaves begin to fall from trees and they turn red, orange, yellow in color. They are an excellent point of attraction for compositions.
Furthermore, using the CPL accentuates these bright colors.
These are my few tips for beautiful waterfall photography. Some of these points might be scary, like always needing to watch your step. But remember that you are going into nature so your primary goal should be to be safe.
Be cautious but enjoy the beautiful spectacle of nature on your own or with your friends or other photographers.
Having fun and enjoying your time photographing will lead to more appealing pictures of waterfalls.