Waterfalls are one of nature’s wonders. And like all the wonders they attract photographers. But achieving beautiful waterfall photography can be frustrating because what you see is not always what you get.
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 article, I’ll share with you 6 tips for breathtaking waterfall photography that I’ve learned on the field.
1. Stay Safe
You must consider that while taking pictures of waterfalls you will be in a very slippery terrain. Human presence is very limited and so the 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.
Also, 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.
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. Get Your Feet Wet
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 would like to reach that rock that will be awesome as foreground or as platform for your tripod. Or you would like to get a better angle and give your beautiful waterfall 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 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. Pack the Right Gear
I assume that you want to achieve motion blur, soft and silky water, something like this. Here’s what you’ll need.
The most obvious accessory for water photography is a sturdy tripod. It’s very typical for my tripod to be in the middle 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.
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 without anything else because you have to keep in mind that with a good CPL you’ll lose almost a stop of light.
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, ND 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. I will say a 20-30 seconds exposition. Or even more, if you go with a very dens 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. Composition, Exposure, Shoot!
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 waterfall photography 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 recognisable.
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 well 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 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.
Otherwhise 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.
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.
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.
5. Try and Fail
Waterfall photography is an infinite trial and error process. We need to control the composition, the light, the photographic technicalities. And in all this we must also be careful not to hurt ourselves or go home completely wet.
But there is something positive about this game of waterfall photography. We don’t have to manage continuous changes of light or conditions. So we have all the time to try, make tests, make errors, review and learn from our mistakes.
Read the scene and the elements, try to understand why the scene is worth the effort. Put the elements together in a way that drivers attention where you want it to be.
If the scene or composition does not work, start again. Learn to read your histogram and and adjust your camera settings for a good exposure.
It’s not strange for me to go home with one or two hundred shots of a waterfall. And out of these hundreds of shots I might only choose one or two to be my “Shots of the Day”.
6. Things to Keep in Mind for Waterfall Photography
Waterfalls aren’t difficult subjects, you can shoot waterfall photography 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 rain drops 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 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 quick 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 favourite 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 colours. The leaves begin to fall from trees and they turn red, orange, yellow in colour. They are an excellent point of attraction for compositions. Furthermore, using the CPL accentuates these bright colours.
These are my few tips for beautiful waterfall photography. I know that some of these points might be scary, like always needing to watch your step. But remember that you are going into the nature so your primary goal should be to have fun.
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.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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