8 creative tips for shooting waterfalls

30 Jul

8 Tips For Shooting Waterfalls

Photographing waterfalls can be a tricky endeavor – especially when shooting in conditions where the light can change drastically depending upon the weather conditions. If you’ve ever struggled to get the waterfall shot you envisioned, you’ve come to the right place. This article will cover everything from basic tips to more advanced techniques to make shooting waterfalls a breeze.

Choose the Right Gear for the Job

The most important piece of gear that you will need beyond a camera and lens is a sturdy tripod. This is an absolute must when shooting longer exposures. Here’s a list of a few more important pieces of gear that will come in handy in the field:

  • Tripod: Any time you’re shooting long exposures a tripod is a must
  • Selection of lenses: I generally try to cover a focal range of 16mm to 300mm to give myself a number of options in the field
  • ND filter: I typically don’t use ND filters as I generally shoot fairly short exposures, but they can come in handy depending upon the lighting conditions and the type of water texture you hope to achieve
  • CPL: I always use a circular polarizer when shooting waterfalls as it can really help give the vegetation more ‘pop’ – the above image is an example of where a CPL can make big difference in terms of how the foliage appears in your photo and it can also help enhance the appearance of wet rocks and reflections in the water
  • Remote Shutter Release: This isn’t a necessity but it certainly can make shooting waterfalls a bit easier
  • Rocket Air Blaster and Lens Cleaning Cloths: Let’s face it; you’re going to get wet. Using these two products, plus a waterproof housing (or zip lock baggies) can help to keep your lens and camera dry while shooting
  • Bag of Rice: You never know when disaster may strike, so I always bring a large bag or canister of rice with me in the event that my camera decides to take a dip  

Shoot in Diffused Light

If you’ve ever tried to shoot a waterfall in direct sunlight then you’ll know how difficult it can be. Shooting with an ND filter can help to resolve some of these issues but shooting in diffused light is the best solution to the problem. When planning a waterfall shooting trip I always take a look at the weather forecast and check sunrise/sunset times before heading out to a location.

In general, I’ve found that shooting during the hours just after sunrise offers the best results as morning light can provide some impressive shooting conditions. The image you see here was shot about 3 hours after sunrise at Metlako Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, OR.

Choose the Shutter Speed

It seems like it was only a few years ago that using extremely slow shutter speeds while shooting waterfalls was all the rage, but lately I find myself using shorter shutter speeds to really capture the texture in the water. The rate at which the water is falling dictates how quick or slow of a shutter speed you will need to use when shooting in lower light conditions. To give you an idea, the above image (Panther Creek Falls, WA) was shot at a shutter speed of 1/4 second to freeze the water and capture some of the texture as it cascaded down the rock face.

Choosing a longer shutter speed will soften up the water a great deal and in some cases that’s just what the scene calls for. It really all comes down to personal taste. Experiment with the shutter speed while you’re out in the field – the more options you have the better!

Save the Foliage

If you’ve ever shot a waterfall on a breezy day you know that it’s nearly impossible to utilize slower shutter speeds while simultaneously ‘freezing’ the foliage in the frame. You almost always see motion blur in the vegetation surrounding the waterfall.

To solve this problem I always take at least two exposures: one for the waterfall at your favorite shutter speed to obtain the right amount of water texture, and an additional exposure taken at a much faster shutter speed to freeze the foliage in place. In the above example I blended two exposures together to get sharp foliage along with the amount of water movement I was trying to achieve with the longer exposure.

Choose Your Composition Carefully

Choosing a strong composition can be challenging when shooting waterfalls. Here are a few of the key guidelines that I follow when shooting images like the one you see above:

  • Find a leading line or an ‘S’ to work with in your composition
  • Let the water flow guide you to the focal point
  • Shoot downstream of the waterfall to add depth
  • Utilize rocks and other elements in the scene to guide your eye to the focal point
  • Don’t be afraid to try out several variations – I always shoot at least 3 or 4 compositions at any given location

Think Outside of the Box

One of my favorite things to do while shooting waterfalls is to think outside of the box in regards to composition. Taking an abstract approach to shooting a waterfall can lead to some really fun results. Use different focal lengths and experiment with tighter compositions that may only show a small portion of the waterfall.

I always try to shoot at least a handful of abstract shots while I’m in the field because let’s face it: it’s just plain fun to get the creative juices flowing!

Adjust Your Exposure

Getting the exposure right can be a tricky business when shooting waterfalls. When using longer shutter speeds it’s very important to constantly meter your exposure to make sure that you aren’t losing detail in the water by clipping your highlights. Check the histogram to make sure that you are staying to the left or dead center in your exposure. As the light changes you will have to do this quite often so definitely keep an eye on it!

Provide a Sense of Scale

Waterfalls come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s often difficult to provide a sense of scale while shooting them. Adding a human element to your photo can really bring a whole new sense of wonder and scale to your image. Special thanks to Max Foster for snapping this photo of me at Spirit Falls, WA.  


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