How to Photograph a Waterfall
What kind of gear do you need to capture a waterfall?
Since you’ll be photographing waterfalls during the day and you won’t have to experiment with getting shallow depth of field or use higher ISO values, any camera body that has the ability to change lenses will do just fine.
In this case, understanding the process of capturing waterfalls will have a much bigger impact on the quality of your photos,than your gear. Considering the fact that you won’t be able to come physically close to every waterfall, consider investing in one wide angle and one telephoto lens.
A 24mm or 28mm wide angle lens will allow you to capture every important detail as well as the nature surrounding you, assuming that you’re in the close vicinity of the waterfall. If you’re shooting it from far away, for example from a ledge, a 70-200mm or a 70-300mm lens will do the job and allow you to close in on the action.
The usefulness of lens filters and tripods
There are two main approaches to photographing waterfalls that you could choose and both of them dictate the type of additional gear you should be carrying with you. Since we’re talking about a moving subject, you could either stop its motion or emphasize it.
The most popular option among photographers is the one that will require you to use a tripod to get the best results. It’s the one that will give the water a soft and foamy look, so you’ll certainly be dealing with slow shutter speeds, sometimes up to a minute.
This is where ND filters come into play, since they will allow you to reduce the amount of light coming through your lens and give more control over the length of your shutter speed. They are especially great for shooting waterfalls that are out in the open and exposed to harsh sunlight.
If you decide to stop the motion of a waterfall and use very fast shutter speeds, you won’t need to use a tripod to get sharp photos, since fast shutter speeds increase the stability of your gear.
You could also experiment with polarizing filters for a different look. They will allow you to pull more details behind the water itself by reducing the reflections on its surface. So, the water will look clearer and all the rocks, fish and other objects will be more visible. You will also be able to get slower shutter speeds to some degree, just like with ND filters.
How to achieve a balanced composition
While the waterfall itself, if captured properly, will certainly be the main attraction in all of your photos, it would be a shame not to pay attention to all the details in the nature surrounding it.
Since water is clear and colorless and has a familiar shape, you’ll need to rely on vegetation, stones, ground details, trees and other things to give your waterfall photos an additional layer of depth and showcase the beauty of nature in its entirety.
You should also try to showcase the different transitions in movement of the water and guide your viewer’s eye from the waterfall to the flowing water and to the still water on the shore, give him the chance to experience a range emotions, from the excitement and the might of the water crashing down, to the calmness of the clear water resting peacefully.
If you have the luxury to choose any day of the month to travel to your location of choice, do it on overcast or rainy days. While it will require you to put some extra care in protecting your gear from water, it will allow you to get more dramatic and contrasty images than during the sunny days, so it could be a worthy trade off if those types of photos appeal to you.
Exposure settings needed for waterfall photography
Your exposure settings will always change depending on the type of waterfall you decide to photograph, how well lit your environment is and what effect you’d like to achieve. Firstly, make good use of your tripod if you want to avoid noise in your photos and work with low ISO values.
That same tripod will also allow you to set a darker aperture like f/8 or f/11 to maximize your sharpness and depth of field, but don’t be afraid to open up the aperture if your ISO value ends up being to high or your shutter speeds to low for the look you’re trying to get.
If you want to capture the perfect motion in water and without any blur, use shutter speeds of 1/800 sec and up, depending on how fast the waterfall moves and the amount of light you have at your disposal. Here is where opening up your aperture will help you get cleaner photos, but albeit with some reduction in overall sharpness.
If you want to give the water a more dreamy and less defined look, start with a shutter speed of around 1/8 sec and go lower from that depending on your preferences. If your photos appear too bright, close down your aperture or use an ND filter. Also, use the built in timer function or a remote to avoid any camera shake during your long exposures
The editing process
There are a couple things you could do in photo editing to improve your waterfall images. First, adjust the color temperature so the foamy parts look pure and white. If necessary, add some saturation, but be careful not to overdo it, since the best part of waterfall photos is the serenity and drama they are trying to convey and you don’t want colors that are too intense.
Increase the sharpening and the contrast to emphasize the textures on rocks and the trees and also, try experimenting with vignetting effects. They will give you the option to intentionally darken the corners of the photos, putting even more focus on the waterfall itself.
And again, enable that RAW format and make using it your second nature. Your photos will thank you.
We hope that this article has managed to inspire and encourage you to grab a backpack, your favorite pair of shoes, put a camera around your shoulder and start exploring nature in search of all the beautiful waterfalls, big or small, known to men or yet to be discovered.
Learn how to use the methods we’ve presented you with effectively, how to make the most out of your photos or simply find your own techniques. The beautiful thing about waterfall photography, as well as nature photography in general, is that you’ll always have the ability to experience it in your own way and transfer those feelings into your images.