Waterfalls are one of nature’s most compelling and awe-inspiring sights, not to mention a landscape photographer’s goldmine! Although it may seem tricky, waterfall photography is a lot easier than it looks – so let’s go over 9 tips and techniques that I’ve picked up along the way you can use to get the most out of your next waterfall hunt.
Slow down your shutter speed
When you think of great waterfall photography your mind probably goes straight to the silky white ribbons of water gently moving between the rocks. This is a really easy look to achieve, and it all comes down to your shutter speed. Usually an exposure time of 1 second or longer will create the smooth water effect, but the closer you get to a 30 second exposure the less detail your water streams will have. This is perfect if you want to achieve that surreal, relaxing vibe to your images. One thing to be wary of, however, is a slower shutter speed will result in more light hitting your sensor – meaning a brighter exposure. A smaller aperture (i.e. a higher f stop number) or neutral density filter will help keep your shots correctly exposed.
Use a fast shutter speed to show power and force
Conversely, some waterfalls demand that their power and force be known. While the relaxing vibe of a slow shutter speed is perfect for some falls, there are others that will benefit from a faster shutter speed, as the detail in the water movement will give life and action to your scene. Depending on the flow, a shutter speed between 1/3 and 1/10 of a second still creates a silkiness to the water without killing the raw power. It’s always worth trying a few different shutter speeds, both fast and slow, to find out which one works best for your scene.
Blend multiple exposures of different shutter speeds
Because waterfalls can create wind at their base, often with long exposures comes blurry trees and bushes. For some this isn’t a problem, believing it adds motion and feeling of their image. As a personal preference, I can’t stand it in my shots. An easy way to keep that silky water effect while having everything else sharp is to take a few shots of the same composition at different shutter speeds. Depending on how much wind there is, a shutter speed between 1/50 and 1/200 of a second is enough to keep everything still and sharp, which you can then blend with your slower shutter speed shot in post processing. This is also a good trick to use if you include a person in your shot who is having a hard time keeping still!
As photographers our challenge is to capture the scene as our eyes see it, and sometimes a great view doesn’t always translate to a great photo. Unfortunately waterfalls aren’t exempt from this challenge, and even the most large and powerful falls can seem small on our camera screens. Showing scale is crucial to preserving a waterfall’s marvel and there’s a few tricks we can use to accomplish this. The most popular (at least according to social media) is adding a person into your frame, which instantly reveals the true size of your scene. Remember, the closer your figure is to the fall the larger it will seem. Another one is shooting low to the ground, playing with the psychology that looking up at something creates power. You can also reverse this by using a large or close-up foreground element to make your fall look small.
Find foreground interest
When it comes to creating powerful landscape images, I believe the foreground can make or break a shot. A strong foreground element will add dimension and character to your image. Waterfalls naturally create leading lines, so using the waterfall and the stream to draw attention to your foreground (or vice versa) will not only add visual interest, it will help create depth and give your viewer the illusion that they are standing there themselves.
Use a polariser
I try to avoid relying on gear to get the shot, but when it comes to waterfalls a polariser filter really separates the cream from the curd. Because we’re almost always dealing with wet rocks and leaves, a polariser will take the glare off the scene and add back that much needed vibrancy and saturation. It also allows us to see into the pools of water the falls are creating, truly enhancing the magic of a location.
There’s a lot to be seen from lookout points and viewing platforms; there’s even more to be seen when you get down and dirty. Sometimes the best angle of a waterfall can only be seen by standing knee- or waist-deep in the streams. Especially if your tripod is waterproof, don’t feel restricted by the dry land and get excited about finding new compositions even if it means a pair of wet shoes at the end.
Avoid harsh lighting
The easiest way to instantly improve your waterfall photography game is choosing the right time to shoot. For most of us on the casual hike we end up reaching our waterfall in the middle of the day when the light is at its harshest. Shooting in low light conditions like dawn and dusk, or on cloudy days, will make your shooting and editing life a whole lot easier. Harsh light causes strong contrast with dark shadows and bright highlights, making exposing correctly far more difficult. Softer light situations will create an evenly lit scene and allow you to capture as much detail as you can.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting RAW files over JPEG is super important. When we shoot JPEG we have very little wriggle room when it comes to preserving highlight and shadow details in post processing. Shooting RAW allows your camera’s sensor to capture all the information it can, allowing the flexibility to make sure our dark areas are visible without clipping the highlights of the waterfall, as well as controlling white balance and sharpness manually.
All DSLR and mirrorless cameras – and even some smartphones now – have the ability to shoot in RAW. Refer to your camera’s manual or just Google how to get your particular shooting tool into RAW mode (you will thank me later!)