4 Tips for Shooting Drop Dead Gorgeous Waterfalls - Digital Photography School
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4 Tips for Shooting Drop Dead Gorgeous Waterfalls

Waterfalls are a very popular subject for landscape photographers. The draw to their natural beauty is clear, but sometimes coming home with the best shots is harder than you might think. As the curator for the Google+ Photography theme, #WaterfallWednesday I get asked how to take better pictures of waterfalls every week. So let me share some tips with you.

1. Your gear is good enough
The first thing most people suggest you need in order to shoot waterfalls is a complete quiver of neutral density (ND) filters to get a long exposure. Forget that! Let’s start with a camera that can shoot on manual and a tripod. That’s all you need. The biggest problem with slapping a dark ND filter on your lens is still the sun. When it’s bright overhead, you have bright “hot spots” and dark shadows that don’t look great. The light is harsh and flat. The best thing to do is show up at sunrise and sunset. Waterfalls are often in deep canyons, so as long as the sun is behind the mountains with the whole waterfall in the shade, you can achieve a long exposure with nice even light. In fact, you can plan ahead to maximize this. If you think about it, if the waterfall you’re wanting to shoot is facing east, sunrise would not be the best time of day because it will catch the light right on the falls. So an east facing waterfall will be best shot in the late afternoon.

2. Read the waterfall
How long does the exposure actually need to be? I think the answer varies like people’s taste in fast food. Personally I categorize waterfalls into two different categories. There are the falls that rage with so much water they take your breath away. The others are dainty and delicate. So keeping in mind I don’t want the waterfall to be a detail-less blob of white water, you need to set the exposure appropriately.

This waterfall was very full and the light was low. At 1.6 seconds, I let this exposure go too long leaving the water without details.

 

On Manual, I usually start with the slowest ISO my camera can go, 100. Then I set my aperture small enough to maximize focus, usually around f/8 to f/10. Then I see what kinds of shutter speeds that nets.

For the big falls, I try to keep my exposure under a second. Anything between ¼ to a full second will show the water’s motion and still retain all the detail in that movement.

Small stringy waterfalls just love putting on a show with longer exposures. These shots look great when you can go as long as possible. Don’t be afraid of the small aperture police who say you will lose sharpness. Photography is always about compromises and in this case, the slightest loss in sharpness only visible when viewed at 200% is greatly outweighed by capturing the water’s movement. Don’t be afraid to use f/22 if you need it. I try to shoot for exposures 1-4 seconds long at these kinds of waterfalls.

3. Save the Trees
Have you ever tried to shoot a waterfall with a long exposure and noticed that the leaves on the trees and plants move with just the slightest breeze? You’ve probably seen people take a bracket of a landscape to compress the dynamic range of light into a single image. We can do the same thing here, only we’re compressing time. After you’ve bagged your shot of the waterfall, look around the edges of the photograph and you see if the plants are soft and fuzzy. If they are, you have to play this mental gymnastics to switch into a sports mindset of shooting to freeze motion. You need something in the 1/100 or faster range. You can open up the aperture, but make sure you don’t loose your maximum focus. If that’s not enough light, you need to start boosting your ISO until you can achieve that shutter speed.

Back home, you take the two exposures and blend them back together using layer masks in Photoshop. I’ll save that topic for another blog post.

I blended two shots together to keep the leaves sharp because they were moving in the breeze.

4. Head out when it’s cloudy

One way you can buy yourself some more camera time is to hike on overcast rainy days. You get all the benefits of shooting when the sun is low, with the freedom to shoot all day. I also find you get much better color when it’s overcast so things like mossy rocks or autumn leaves really pop.

One pitfall you need to avoid on cloudy days is including the sky. Depending on the waterfall, if you can get up high to shoot down on the falls, eliminating the sky from the shot, you will avoid getting a boring grey sky over your waterfall.

On this overcast day, I choose to get in close and focus on the details to exclude the sky from the shot.

Like anything in photography, it takes practice and experimentation. Get out there and put some of these tips to practice. Please share some links to your latest shots in the comments.

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Eric Leslie is a pro photographer from northern California. He has a stubborn curiosity to explore with his camera and he's the father of five boys. Keep up with his latest wedding photography and photography tips at Google+ and Facebook.

  • http://www.andredesignz.com/ Andredesignz

    I like it :)

  • Buck

    nice where is it?

  • Thoughtsonly

    I think your composition could have been better a bit more closer to the fall

  • Adam Welch

    Excellent collection of tips. I always made the mistake of shooting water in harsh mid day sun until it dawned on me to shoot in lower light to save the highlights.

  • Christina Kostova

    I like it but I need more light and saturation maybe…

  • lili

    nice where is it?Until now I did not notice these things. I’m glad you’ve mentioned. I
    understand what you mean. I must thank you for this article
    ???? ? ???? ?????Otomatik Kap?larupvc ??? ? ?????

Some older comments

  • Eliane

    July 26, 2013 07:36 pm

    Here's a collection of breathtaking waterfalls:
    http://www.dreamstime.com/cascading-rcollection19859-resi239750

  • Jordyn Murdock

    July 10, 2013 02:21 pm

    @jeff there are backpacks to carry tripods!

  • Jeff Cooper

    June 11, 2013 04:39 am

    Hi and thank you for the deeper yet easy-to-understand tips. One question. Often one has to hike to capture waterfalls. What sort of tripod do you lug around for that purpose? Not seeking a brand endorsement (but wouldn't mind). I'm sure you understand the issue: I've been on hikes that require all four limbs in spots and it's tough enough to carry the camera and lenses. So what to do about tripod?

  • Jeff Cooper

    June 11, 2013 04:35 am

    Hi and thank you for the sophisticated yet easy-to-understand tips. One question. Often one has to hike to capture waterfalls. What sort of tripod do you lug around for that purpose? Not seeking a brand endorsement (but wouldn't mind). I'm sure you understand the issue: I've been on hikes that require all four limbs in spots and it's tough enough to carry the camera and lenses. So what to do about tripod?

  • Naila

    April 9, 2013 10:42 am

    I tried to take some waterfall photos, but the Potomac River Great Falls is more of a whitewater rapids with hundreds of mini-waterfalls.
    https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/12816_4005411672758_1953054728_n.jpg

  • svagale

    November 7, 2012 03:25 pm

    its always so relaxing to see waterfalls, especially early mornings and late afternoons

  • Maxx

    June 21, 2012 11:35 am

    Welcome for comment. This photo was taken last week

    [eimg url='http://specialmoments.co.cc/upload/IMG_5590.JPG' title='IMG_5590.JPG']

  • James

    June 19, 2012 02:15 am

    A camera with manuel controls and a tripod are the two most important things for shooting waterfalls, followed by the lighting. I put the lighting third because you can not capture the image without the camera and because of all the ways you have to deal with bright and contrasty lighting(circular polarizers, nd, split/graduated nd, photoshop, hdr, etc),
    There are many times where your time is limited and you try to make you for the poor lighting in other ways.

  • Mark

    June 18, 2012 02:57 am

    @Alex, I certainly would not leave it at home - just toss it in your camera bag. After all the idea is not to abandon one technique for another but to add to them, the ND's are just a tool in your set nothing more, nothing really special about them - they should be thought of as the means to an end.

  • Dan McCarragher

    June 12, 2012 06:19 am

    Thank you for the tips. I welcome comments and suggestions on a waterfall I shot in NC.[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/danmccarragher/7177664643/' title='1748a' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7217/7177664643_940529b6d5_c.jpg']

  • Eric Leslie

    June 9, 2012 02:02 am

    @Larry I just visited Toketee Falls last April and it is a really beautiful waterfall. There really is only a single comp available there from the viewing platform. A vertorama is a great choice there!

  • Ann Bertschin

    June 8, 2012 10:32 pm

    Learning and practicing . . . this is a waterfall 10 minutes from my home, an old mill that an arsenist saw fit to burn a few years ago. Interested in some C&C. Thank you.[eimg url='http://flic.kr/p/bVetS2' title='bVetS2']

  • Ken Bee

    June 8, 2012 08:53 pm

    Very good advice indeed - especially getting close to keep the grey (read near white) sky from meddling with contrast. I have a passion for trying to capture patterns in the water as it falls, rather than just its fall. Experimenting with shutter speeds pays dividends, i.e taking several frames at different speeds from the same spot. The dreamy velvet mood is not always best.

  • Larry Reavis

    June 8, 2012 04:33 pm

    I hiked into Toketee Falls on the North Umpqua in Southern Oregon........because of my handicaps, my shooting position was a considerable distance from the falls. I shot 3-exposure HDR, in a vertical panorama style, enabling me to stitch together an image with exquisite detail.

  • WhatiMom

    June 8, 2012 02:23 pm

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/62347689@N04/7165145297/' title='Lac La Martre Falls' url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8017/7165145297_3bc8b52b49.jpg']
    Nikon 5100
    Exp. 1/30 sec.
    f11
    ISO 200
    Lens 28-300
    CS5.1
    Thanks for your tips for making good waterfall photos. We have an amazing waterfalls fairly close by and I have to takes tons of pictures every time I go there. Hopefully my pictures will get better and maybe show more variety. This picture was taken at 9:44 p.m.


    Nikon 5100
    Exp 1/160
    f11
    ISO100
    Lens 28-300
    This was taken earlier at 7:56 p.m. There are 2 separate waterfalls with an island in the middle.

  • steve coleman

    June 8, 2012 11:24 am

    Why is no one talking about polarizing filters? I love shooting on overcast days and the circular polarizer can really bring out the color. Anyway, here's one of mine. Its a shot of Taughannock Falls north of Ithaca NY. One of the prettiest waterfalls in the US that nobody knows about.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=342165862506019&set=a.249379938451279.71501.220101031379170&type=3&theater

  • Eric Leslie

    June 8, 2012 01:58 am

    @Rick Yeah, I did glaze over how to properly set the aperture for achieving maximum focus. I didn't dive into that so much because there are already tons of articles that explain how to do that. I did infer that I start at f/8 with the intention of achieving maximum focus. So if f/8 isn't small enough, I will go stop it down until I can achieve that. You're right, scenes with a close foreground object need a wider DOF. I constantly reference a DOF calculator app on my smart phone to make sure I don't make mistakes using the hyper-focal point focusing. Image #3 was used as an example of a shutter speed that went too long causing the water to loose its detail.

    That said, no need to call the diffraction police because I'm willing to use f/22. No it's not as sharp as f/7.1 but it doesn't matter. I have never been told any of my images were bad because I used f/22. In fact no one has a clue, even when it's printed big. Photography is often about compromises. I will always choose the sharpest f-stop possible, but that will always get trumped when I want to get the whole scene in focus. Some like to focus stack and use sharper f-stops and that's fine, but I like to keep my post processing to a minimum. You've basically made my point by admitting you're a fan of my photos, yet you don't agree with the techniques I use to create them? The means to create a great image doesn't really matter in my mind, there are just great images.

  • Eric Leslie

    June 8, 2012 01:46 am

    @Danny I hear ya. In fact my Mom tells me that all the time. For me, photography isn't always about capturing "reality", it's about making something beautiful. Of course that's all going to be different person to person.

  • Mike Nelson Pedde

    June 7, 2012 04:19 pm

    Excellent suggestions, and some beautiful images! Thanks for sharing them. There is another option for shotting 'slow' shutter speeds w/o using neutral density filters, and that's shooting the same image (moving water in this case) multiple times at a higher shutter speed and then stacking the images together. One can do the same thing with film, but digital is a lot simpler. There's an example of that here:

    http://www.wolfnowl.com/2010/12/photographing-moving-water/

    Mike.

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfnowl/5247091090/' title='Clover Point' url='http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5167/5247091090_6cb3d74e0d_z.jpg']

  • Steve

    June 7, 2012 08:50 am

    There's something to be said for nd filters, especially when it's cloudy and you're excited about shooting when suddenly the sun breaks out directly on the falls you're trying to shoot.

    Thanks for writing up the tips!!

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevelig/7161293109/' title='Outlet Trail Falls' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7105/7161293109_afec1c44b2.jpg']

  • EnergizedAV

    June 6, 2012 10:52 pm

    Will be putting these points to good use. Thanks.

    http://exartizoimages.com/p828326955/e10e44c13

  • John

    June 6, 2012 10:25 pm

    I was really into photographing waterfalls for about 3 months towards the end of last summer and into the early fall. Then, winter came, it got cold, and I got less motivated to hike out to these natural beauties.

    I'm hoping to get started again soon and thanks for these tips to help me on my way - I have a lot to learn when it comes to shooting waterfalls and hadn't even considered the two fold approach to freezing the leaves which often will get blurred by the smallest of breezes.

    Great post and awesome set of images to accompany it!

  • Better Photography

    June 6, 2012 10:25 pm

    Beautiful images, Eric. Thanks for the tips!

  • Blair Smith

    June 6, 2012 08:58 pm

    Here is a waterfall shot I took the other day
    [eimg url='undefined' title='undefined'][eimg url='C:\Users\psiess\Desktop\waterfalls' title='C:\Users\psiess\Desktop\waterfalls']

  • Sachin Verma

    June 6, 2012 07:31 pm

    Amazing photos :)
    Here is something I shot

    http://www.photo-roll.com/2012/04/chadwick-falls-shimla/

  • Rick

    June 6, 2012 03:42 pm

    Eric, while normally I'm a fan of your work (here and on G+), I do need to take issue with you on a couple of things. First of all, image quality at f/22 almost always suffers and is usually apparent even at 100% resolution. And second, you seem to arbitrarily pick f/8 or f/10 as a starting point for choosing an aperture. For my money, aperture setting is as important as shutter speed for waterfalls. Are you just shooting the falls, or are you shooting something in the near foreground, with the falls in the background? How will you treat that rock/tree/fern that's halfway between your camera and the falls? Those are all questions that need to be answered before setting an aperture. And regarding shutter speed, my approach is to get just enough to show flow and still include detail. I'm not sure that image #3 shows any detail at all in the water.

  • Kevin

    June 6, 2012 03:39 pm

    I have been experimenting with different settings and I love the part you mention about 'hot/bright' spots from direct light. Something to better plan. Here are a couple I like from my collection:
    [eimg url='https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/562275_156126044520507_155374617928983_214446_730401501_n.jpg' title='562275_156126044520507_155374617928983_214446_730401501_n.jpg']

    [eimg url='https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/601442_156124541187324_1773196064_n.jpg' title='601442_156124541187324_1773196064_n.jpg']

  • Hans Purwa

    June 6, 2012 02:45 pm

    Thanks for the tip!!!

    I just recently shot waterfalls at Watkins Glen.

    Check it out

    http://hanspurwa.com/2012/06/06/watkins-glen-state-park/[eimg url='http://hanspurwa.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/shot_raw_mg_9130_0479_v2.jpg' title='shot_raw_mg_9130_0479_v2.jpg']

  • Hans Purwa

    June 6, 2012 02:44 pm

    This is great, I was just shooting waterfalls this last weekend and I saw this post. Love the pics and thanks for great tips.

    if you guys interested check out the shot I did last week.

    http://hanspurwa.com/2012/06/06/watkins-glen-state-park/

  • Danny

    June 6, 2012 12:56 pm

    Sometimes fads overtake the world like a bad virus... Personally I would like to see long exposures of moving water come to an end... Whether it is the ocean, rivers, or waterfalls, I find exposures that depict what was actually seen to be much more attractive than making them all look like cotton candy...

  • raghavendra

    June 6, 2012 12:04 pm

    wow, some amazing waterfalls
    like the tip read the waterfall

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Mei Teng

    June 6, 2012 10:35 am

    Great tips and beautiful set of images. I like photographing waterfalls either in the late afternoons or on cloudy days.

  • Scottc

    June 6, 2012 10:18 am

    Great photos to back the article up!

    The Rhinefalls in Shaffhausen, Switzerland:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157625080444990/

  • Dennis Mitchell

    June 6, 2012 09:05 am

    Spent the day up in Missouri with a friend of mine shooting waterfalls at some of the old mills in the area. But thought I'd share something a bit different of moving water.[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/61352669@N06/5898960187/' title='Welcome Home Salute!_1024' url='http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5264/5898960187_d5c4948ed6.jpg']

  • gipukan

    June 6, 2012 08:02 am

    Good tips!

    Mine were taken w/o nd.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/7131559781/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5732563899/in/photostream/
    and
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5733108588/in/photostream/

  • Eric Leslie

    June 6, 2012 08:00 am

    @Erik That is a very sage piece of advice. Especially somewhere like Yosemite where the big granite features change so much depending on the sun's angle.

  • Leslie L

    June 6, 2012 07:29 am

    Terrific tips. I love experimenting on waterfalls. I took this photo about an hour from where I live in Virginia. About 15 minutes from The Homestead.[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/busyme/7276702360/' title='Falling Springs Waterfall' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7072/7276702360_e44b6b2941.jpg']

  • EnergizedAV

    June 6, 2012 06:58 am

    While driving to a shoot early one morning, my wife spotted this waterfall. At the end of the long work day, we made a point of taking a breather and a walk down to it. What a joy it was!
    Thanks Eric, we'll be putting these points to good use.

    http://exartizoimages.com/p828326955/e10e44c13

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    June 6, 2012 04:05 am

    Hi

    Great post and fantastic tips! Thank you so much for sharing! I would say scoping out the waterfalls during different times of the day would be a good tip as well. This shot of Bridalveil Falls looked pretty blah first thing in the morning, but came to life later in the afternoon as the sun started to pernetrate the mist from the falls.

    Also, prepare to get wet! :-)

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/bridalveil-falls/

  • Lara White

    June 6, 2012 02:47 am

    I've always loved gorgeous misty waterfall images, great tips!

  • Steve

    June 6, 2012 02:12 am

    Natural waterfalls are great but to be a bit different a man made one:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-from-Almeria-Spain/G0000jFpMNMP99Fs/I0000rAt4qAFqvSU

  • Eric Leslie

    June 6, 2012 01:51 am

    @Alexx, I would never leave it at home. I still use one from time to time. I'm just trying to teach people how to walk without needing their ND crutches :)

  • Alexx

    June 6, 2012 01:48 am

    Wow. Amazing photographs and tips. I was headed to go see some waterfalls and I was going to use my nd filter all day, but this post says otherwise, so I guess I'll leave my nd filter at home, eh?

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

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