Sarah Howard Photography
How to Photograph Waterfalls
Posted on 30th December, 2018
There is something magical about waterfalls. They can evoke feelings of power and strength, but also calm and serenity. Whether they are large and powerful or small and delicate, they're one of the most photographed of all subjects for the landscape photographer yet also a highly challenging one. Lighting and exposure can be difficult, and getting a good shot is not as straightforward as you might think but with careful planning and the right conditions it’s possible to get some wonderful images.
Research and planning
As with any landscape shoot, the better prepared you are the more you increase your chances of success when you get to your location. The Internet offers a pool of information so this should be your first port of call for ideas on where to go and how to get there. Check out local tourism sites and walking sites for maps. Websites like Flickr and 500 px are a great starting point when looking for images and getting inspiration.
Once you have decided on where, the next decision is when. The time of day and time of year are both important considerations. Chances are, that if you visit a waterfall location mid summer the water levels will be low and there may not be much, if any water in your waterfalls! Mid winter can produce some fantastic conditions if you are looking to capture frozen falls but otherwise the spring, when the surrounding woodlands are bursting forth with fresh green leaves, or autumn, with its lovely colours, tend to be the best times. Avoid going to visit a fall after heavy rainfall – there will be too much water and spray will be a big issue, soaking your equipment and making photography very difficult.
Light and time of day
This is vitally important. Waterfalls photograph better in overcast conditions, particularly if they are situated in a woodland environment. Cloudy days are perfect as the light is soft and diffused and contrast levels are low enabling us to see detail more easily. A sunny day will bring with it harsh light and in turn, bright reflections and deep shadows thereby creating exposure issues.
Whilst the human eye is capable of seeing detail in areas of both shadow and highlight, the camera sensor has a limited dynamic range, therefore if the difference between the two is too great, it will not be able to capture detail in both areas in a single exposure. Aside of making exposure easier, an overcast day will also give you more saturated colours.
If the waterfall is in a popular location, going midweek or earlier or later in the day will minimise your chance of getting too many people in your shots.
What equipment will I need?
Tripod – a sturdy tripod is essential for landscape photography. Not only will it enable you to have longer shutter speeds without risk of camera shake, it will also help you when composing your image, by slowing you down and making you think about how you set up your shot.
Cable or remote release – in order to minimise camera shake further, ensure you use a cable release. If you don’t have one, the next best option is the timer function on your camera.
Hot shoe spirit level – whilst some tripods have an inbuilt spirit level but not all, so a hot shoe spirit level will prove useful when composing your image to help ensure it is straight.
There are a number of filters that you will find useful in waterfall photography. The first is a polariser, which has two functions; one is to minimise reflections which can be distracting, and
by doing so, you are more able to see the river bed which will add another dimension to your image. Often, there are some great rocks to be found lying just beneath the surface of the water. A polariser will also reduce the amount of light entering the lens by two stops, thereby reducing your shutter speed and enabling you to show movement. While looking through the viewfinder, rotate the filter and look to see the reflections disappear and colours to
look more saturated.
The second filter is a neutral density filter, which also helps deal with brightness levels. These are available in various strengths and depending on how much you want to slow down the movement of water will dictate the one you choose.
A graduated neutral density filter might also prove useful if you have sky in your shot, and will allow you to balance the exposure between brighter and darker areas of the scene.
Which lenses you take with you will depend on your desired composition and what you hope to achieve. If you are looking to include not only the waterfall but also its surroundings and a good amount of foreground then a wide-angle lens is essential. If you’re working with a cropped sensor, a 12 -24mm would be a good choice here, or a 17-35mm on a full frame. Be aware of lens distortion with wide-angle lenses although it can be used creatively to maximise foreground interest and increase depth of field.
A mid range zoom lens, such as a 24-70mm, will be fine if you are shooting far enough away from the waterfall, allowing you to include all or part of a waterfall as desired. Sometimes you might want to isolate a portion of the falls, or to capture the detail in moving water swirling around some rocks, for example.
Lens cloths – these are a must. Quite often you will find spray a problem especially as you get closer to the falls, and there’s nothing worse than finding water spots on your images when you get home!
Appropriate clothes and footwear – this will depend on the time of year you visit to some degree but for the best shots you may have to get your feet wet! Wellies or at the very least, waterproof walking boots are advisable. Be aware that rocks can be very slippery, and water deeper than you think, so tread carefully! Waterfalls are often found in shady woodland surroundings and although it may be a warm day it can feel quite cold so make sure you take warm layers and waterproofs.
Things to consider:
Before doing anything take your time to absorb the scene before you. Waterfalls are a beautiful natural creation so stop, look and admire. Consider your emotional response to what lies before you – is it the size or power of the waterfall, or its delicate nature, or is it the setting in which it sits that drew you to it? Seek to capture this in your image. Every waterfall is unique and has its own character, so take time to find your composition and show it at its best.
Look for foreground interest such as mossy rocks to draw the eye in. Consider including the flow of water into the river from the fall, rather than just photographing the waterfall itself. Rather than try and capture the entire scene, zoom in with a telephoto lens and focus on a small section of the fall. Try different angles, from the side of the falls rather than directly face on, and try shooting from low down to maximise the foreground interest.
Remember that everything that you include in your image should play a part, so leave out anything that doesn’t add to its impact. Often on a cloudy day, skies can be very uninteresting so consider leaving them out. Before making your image, check around the edge of the viewfinder and make sure nothing has sneaked in at the side that you did not want. Live View can prove useful when composing your image and also for focusing.
Assuming you are shooting in RAW and not jpeg format, use auto white balance as this can be corrected later in your post processing software. If you are shooting in jpeg format then you can experiment with the white balance at the time, a cloudy setting will give a warmer tone to the image, whereas a sunny one will make it appear colder with more of a blue tone.
Use the lowest possible ISO primarily for image quality and maximum detail, but also as a higher ISO setting with make the camera more sensitive to light and therefore increase the shutter speed, which you may not want.
Work in Aperture Priority mode
Ultimately, whilst we need to be aware of our shutter speed, as this will dictate the appearance of the waterfall, depth of field should be the main consideration. An aperture such as F11 or F13 will allow for slower shutter speeds to give that silky look, and will also give you a greater depth of field as possible. Try not to go too small, F22 will actually cause lens diffraction, resulting in a softer image, and the prolonged exposure is likely to cause highlight blow outs.
There is no such thing as the perfect shutter speed; it depends on the volume of water, how fast it is moving and the result you want. A shutter speed of 1/250 second will freeze the water, giving more of an action shot, whereas a shutter speed of 1/30 second or slower, will give you a flowing movement. If the shutter speed isn’t as slow as you want, you will need to use a neutral density filter, as mentioned above, to reduce the amount of light entering the lens and slow it down. Be careful not to overdo it and have such a long exposure that you are left with nothing but a ‘cotton wool’ effect that no longer resembles water. Some degree of trial and error is inevitable but practice makes perfect! Remember too if you are leaving the shutter open longer to obtain motion blur, that if it’s a breezy day any foreground grasses, leaves or branches of trees will also be blurred.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Whilst the effect of silky water is difficult to resist, sometimes it doesn’t depict the true mood of a waterfall, which may be raging and powerful. Try taking some shots with fast shutter speeds also, capturing spray in the air and stopping the rush of water in its track.
Due to the nature of the subject and also the fact that waterfalls are often found in woodland areas, obtaining a correct exposure can be tricky as the dynamic range can be greater than the camera is able to capture. That’s why shooting on a cloudy day is best as it’s then than the tonal range of the scene is at its lowest. It’s important to try and capture the flow, motion and colours of the water in your image but over exposure can become a problem with large volumes of water concentrated in certain areas. Always use the histogram to check to ensure that you have retained as much detail as possible in both the highlight and shadow areas.
It is always a good idea to bracket your exposures each side of the suggested exposure by one or two thirds, and opt for a faster speed if you start to clip the highlights.
In many situations, the waterfall in your image will not dominate the scene so using Matrix or Evaluative metering should be sufficient to give you a decent exposure. If the waterfall dominates then it’s more tricky. Use your spot or partial metering mode in this case to isolate the exposure reading on just the water. The camera will try to make the water a mid tone so by adding a stop or a stop-and-a-half of exposure the water will come out white and the rest of the scene should also be correctly exposed, as long as its within the five stop range. Anything more and your camera will not be able to cope. Another method is to take a meter reading of the two extremes of tones in the frame and then set your meter between the two or find something in the frame that a mid tone (grey rocks or green foliage for example, that are in the same light as the falls) and meter from them.
One final option is to take a series of photos at different exposures, both over and under that suggested by the camera, and combine them afterwards using High Dynamic Range software, Lightroom or Photoshop.
So, whilst a lot of preparation and thought is required, as far as landscape photography goes, waterfalls are one of the great joys. It isn’t easy but practice makes perfect and your efforts will be rewarded. So give it a go. And don’t be afraid to get your feet wet!