6 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls
A deafening roar as you approach; a damp, decaying wood smell emanates from its base; vibrant green lichen lines the rocks around you and a swift fine mist drifts through the air. Waterfalls are the most magical places, igniting all of your senses, and are a beautiful subject to photograph wherever you are in the world.
Capturing waterfalls is not easy, and to get those extra special images you need a combination of things to come together perfectly, along with a great sense of adventure. Here are my top 6 tips on how to master photographing waterfalls.
#1 Weather & Preparation
Usually we can’t be too picky of weather conditions when it comes to photographing our subjects. But when it comes to waterfalls, generally the worse the weather is, the better photos you are going to get. Photographing waterfalls in sunny conditions creates intense shadows and distracting reflections. Capturing them on overcast and rainy days gives you even light throughout the scene, little to no reflections, and the opportunity to decrease your shutter speed. My must have items along with your photo gear on a waterfall shoot are: rubber boots (wellingtons) and/or waders, an umbrella, an air blower, a dry sack or two and a Gore-Tex jacket.
#2 Scouting & Composition
With waterfalls we’re generally quite restricted to where we can photograph from; usually a man-made viewpoint is all that is offered. Waders and rubber boots open up the rest of the area for you to scout out locations and select a few compositions (while keeping safety in mind at all times). Challenge yourself to get a variety of compositions: up close, from far away, telephoto, wide-angle, and try to incorporate some foreground into the scene. Whether you choose a rock, log, small tree, or any other natural feature, having this as your foreground is going to anchor your image, allowing the eye to go there first before drifting up into the waterfall.
#3 Shooting Settings
This will vary a lot depending on what type of shot your going for. Ideally a longer exposure is going to create that beautiful silky smooth water so shutter speed is a priority. Keep the ISO as low as possible to prevent noise. If you’re shooting a close-up of a waterfall, select an aperture of around f/7.1-f/9 to maximize sharpness while still allowing a slower shutter speed on an overcast day. Shooting wide-angle with foreground features will require an aperture of f/16, to allow the objects and the waterfall to be in focus. This will provide you with an even longer shutter speed, but be careful not to overexpose the water. A fast-moving waterfall will only require a shutter speed slower than 1/15 of a second, while slower moving waterfalls will require a shutter speed longer than 1 second. For that additional smoothness in the water, decrease your shutter speed even further: 8 seconds will guarantee a smooth waterfall and some interesting patterns and textures. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
#4 Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density filters are a must have for shooting waterfalls. An ND, as they are known, reduces the amount of light being let into the camera sensor and will allow you to slow the shutter speed down even more, guaranteeing that silky water effect. Capturing waterfalls at a fast shutter speed overwhelms the eye and doesn’t allow it to settle anywhere in the photo, so an ND filter is a great investment. Be cautious of buying cheap ND filters as they will cause colour casting, giving the scene a purple or pink tone. For all my waterfalls, I use the LEE Filters Little Stopper (6 Stop ND) and the Big Stopper (10 Stop ND). For those on a budget, the Hoya NDX400 HMC (9 Stop ND) filter is a great choice.
#5 In the Field
Safety is your number one priority when it comes to shooting waterfalls, so try to avoid going alone and make sure people know where you’re going. The area surrounding waterfalls is slippery at the best of times. Fun is priority number two. Go exploring and take care not to damage any of the natural surroundings. Don’t be afraid to get dirty and wet! Protect your camera equipment as much as possible: an umbrella will prevent spray from coating your lens and filter in between shots, and use a dust blower to dry them if they get wet. If you think you’re going to get soaked, take a few dry sacks to keep any gear and important belongings dry.
You’ve experimented with capturing waterfalls at different shutter speeds and with different compositions. Now you’re home and you want to give your waterfall images that extra wow factor. It’s important to keep your scene looking as natural as possible but for it to resemble the sight, smells and feelings from seeing it with your own eyes. Adding contrast will separate your shadows and highlights, emphasising the waterfall in your scene. Increasing the clarity will increase the contrast in the mid-tones in your scene, adding some depth to rock features and making any greenery sharper. Vibrance and saturation are two vital additions to your processing. For me, the camera never captures the true colours of the scene so play around with increasing both of these until you get something that resembles exactly what you saw. Set yourself a limit with the saturation, as it’s easy to go overboard when it comes to processing colours.
Experiment with new ideas, shutter speeds and compositions both in and out of the field. Your limit is your imagination.