The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Waterfalls
Shooting subjects that naturally occur in nature can result in some of the most breathtaking photos. They can also be some of the most difficult subjects to shoot as well. Photographing waterfalls takes a ton of practice but if you follow the right steps you can be a pro!
Waterfalls are one of those subjects that always have been and likely always will be a popular landscape photograph subject. However, if you aren’t crystal-clear with your photographs, that rushing water can just look like a blur.
Photographing waterfalls can be a major plus for any photographer, but sometimes it takes a little practice and a little patience.
You will find that there is a lot of trial and error involved. However, there are also a number of great, proven tips that can help you make sure your photos are as breathtaking as the waterfalls are in real life.
Consider these waterfall photography tips when you are setting out on your next photographing adventure to help get you started. From there you can tweak and make slight changes until you figure out your own unique approach to capturing waterfalls in your own style.
There are so many ways to shoot waterfalls and to create stunning works of art off of these beautiful, natural elements. So, start with these tips and you can tweak them in order to meet your individual photography style.
How to Photograph Waterfalls With the Right Camera
The right camera is essential to shooting waterfalls, and it is the first and most important step to getting that perfect photo. You need a camera that can shoot on manual. That is it.
There are many people who think that neutral density filters are essential for photographing waterfalls, but they aren’t necessary. They can actually make the photograph worse.
When you put a dark neutral density figure on your lens, it can counteract with a still sun. This is especially true if you are shooting when the light is right overhead. This will also give you “hot spots” and dark shadows that will absolutely take away from your final result.
Another thing you will need with your camera, is a tripod. This will help you if you want to actually be able to see the water running. When looking for a tripod, make sure that you invest in a sturdy, heavy-duty tripod that can withstand being out in the woods.
Waterfalls are never easy to shoot or set-up in, so your run-of-the-mill tripod may not be able to handle it.
Photographing Waterfalls: Choosing the Right Time and Place
Another way to avoid hot spots and dark shadows in your waterfall photos is to shoot at the right time of day. Instead of shooting when the sun is at its brightest, consider sunrise and sunsets. Morning and evening are the best time for nice, even light.
This is also a great way to avoid that harsh, flat light that can again take away from the look of your final product. Cloudy days are also great days to photograph waterfalls.
Another thing to remember is that most waterfalls are located deep in canyons, which means the sun will mostly be blocked, and the waterfalls will mostly be in the shade. This gives you the opportunity to shoot with a long exposure that will deliver nice, even lighting.
Keep this in mind when planning the time of day you want to photograph in. If you’re shooting a waterfall that is facing east, shoot in the late afternoon instead of the early morning, to prevent the light from catching right on the falls.
If you are shooting a waterfall that faces west, shoot it in the early morning.
How to Photograph Waterfalls That Stand Out
Exposure is one of the most difficult components involved with photographing waterfalls. The exposure is what keeps the waterfall from looking like a blur, especially when you have a faster-moving, raging waterfall on your hand.
Want to know how to photograph waterfalls that really wow? Exposure is your key.
This is where manual settings are most helpful. Here’s how to get your camera ready to capture waterfalls.
Use a Small Aperture
A small aperture helps keep everything in sharp focus. It can also help you get a longer shutter. Depending on your shot and the conditions, you may need to tweak the aperture, but you should start with f/16 then go smaller if you don’t have a slow enough shutter.
You may need to go really small, but don’t just always use the smallest aperture possible, otherwise you may lose some sharpness in your image—and you need this to capture any waterfall.
Use a Slow ISO Speed
Set your ISO on your camera as slow as it will go. Typically, this is around 100. Remember, lower ISO speeds produce less noise, and since you’re using a longer shutter speed, you will need this to cancel out any noise. This will also help you capture a more dynamic range with your shot.
Determining shutter speed when photographing a waterfall is another thing that is going to take a great deal of experimentation. Try to start with two seconds, but note that you may range anywhere from 1 to 30.
Take a test photo and if you find you are losing a lot of detail in the shadows, then try a slower shutter speed. If you are losing details in the highlight, then try a faster shutter speed.
If there is not enough blur in the photo to showcase movement, then you want to slow down the shutter speed.
For big, raging waterfalls, try to keep the exposure under 1 second. Between ¼ to a full second will help showcase the movement and detail in the waterfall without giving that blur effect.
If you have a smaller, more trickling waterfall, use longer exposures. Try for exposures between ¼ seconds and an aperture as high as f/22.
One of the things that really stands out in great waterfall photographs is when you can see, and almost feel the movement of the water—the right exposure is your key to a great final product.
Choosing a Lens
Take both wide-angle and telephoto lenses with you when you go to photograph waterfalls. Remember, you don’t want to get too close to the waterfall, as there is so much water backsplash that it can damage your camera.
A telephoto lens will help you photograph from a distance, and a wide-angle lens will work if you are trying to capture smaller waterfalls.
Post-Processing and Exposure
When shooting waterfalls in this way, you are going to have a lot more control over the final image. However, you can still tweak the RAW file, especially if you aren’t happy with the exposure. You can edit back to ensure proper exposure, especially if you are slightly overexposed from choosing the right shutter speed.
Focus on shutter speed in the moment and rest-assured that you can tweak things, particularly with the blur, later on.
Time-lapsing Waterfall Photography
Time-lapsing your waterfall photograph can be a tricky endeavor but if you have the right lighting and settings you can create some magical movement.
Below is a video from one of the most stunning waterfalls I have seen. I captured about 500 images and created a time-lapse in AV mode . I will share a guide soon on the specifics behind this time-lapse.
Tips on How to Compose Your Shot When Photographing Waterfalls
A waterfall is something you really need to compose visually ahead of time before you take the actual photo. So, before you set up your tripod, consider these tips when setting up the shot.
- Try to shoot at an angle, instead of directly in front of the waterfall. Look at any great image of a waterfall and you will see how dramatic of an effect this can have.
- Don’t stay committed to the idea of shooting the entire waterfall and the surrounding area. Consider zooming in with a telephoto lens and capturing one small area of the waterfall. It can result in a unique final product that many people don’t consider.
- Don’t forget about the foreground elements. The trees, rocks, flowers and other natural elements in the forest provide a great contrast to the rushing waterfalls.
- Consider framing the waterfall with a foreground and completely removing the sky from the frame. Sometimes, too much sky can take away from the drama of the waterfall, especially if they are similar colors.
- Try a mid-range zoom between 24-70mm to take images of portions of the waterfalls. When doing this pay close attention to your composition.
- Scale can be hard to capture on photos. Use people to showcase scale and how big and powerful waterfalls can be.