Beginner’s Guide to Waterfall Photography

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There are few things more majestic than a flowing waterfall, whether it’s on the Niagara river or the little stream behind your house. There are many ways to photograph these natural wonders, and I’ve compiled a few tips, tricks, and techniques to help you get waterfall images that do justice to their elegant beauty.

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Equipment Choices

The equipment you need will depend on what type of photo you want to make. But you probably won’t make that decision until you are on location, so here is what I usually keep in my camera bag if I’m planning on shooting a waterfall.

  • Tripod – As with most forms of landscape photography, a tripod is your best friend. It will allow you to compose your scene very precisely and give you the flexibility you need if you decide to shoot long exposures.
  • Circular polarizing filter – This is an essential piece of equipment when photographing water to allow you to remove reflections and glare from the water’s surface. You might not need this if the frame is filled with the waterfall, but you will want it handy if you decide to include a pool of water in the foreground. It will remove the reflection and allow you to see through the water to any interesting rocks underneath.
  • Neutral density (ND) filter – If you decide to shoot a long exposure and it happens to be the middle of the day when there is a lot of light, you will need this gray-tinted piece of glass placed in front of your lens. It blocks some of the light from hitting your sensor, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed. These are sold in varying strengths, and can be stacked for different levels of light absorption.
  • Lens cloth – Useful for cleaning water spray off of your lens or filter. I like to use little pieces of ShamWow for absorbing water drops. They are helpful for cleaning water off the rest of your camera too, and even your tripod legs when you are done.

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Camera Settings

The camera settings you use will depend on what kind of photo you’re after:

Silky waterfalls

To create that silky smooth blur popular with waterfall photography, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed for a long exposure. With your camera mounted firmly on a tripod, set it to shutter priority mode (usually “S” or “Tv” on your camera’s mode dial) and set your ISO as low as it will go (usually 100). Then, select a shutter speed between one half second to four seconds to achieve a nice amount of blur.

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Experiment with different shutter speeds to get the amount of blur you want. The best shutter speed will depend on how fast the water is moving, so getting the shutter speed just right takes a bit of experimentation. If you cannot get a slow enough shutter speed for the effect you want, use a smaller aperture so that less light enters the camera. That will allow you to select a longer shutter speed. If you still need a slower shutter speed, that’s when you can use a neutral density filter to block some of the light.

Keep in mind that when using a long shutter speed, if there are any plants or trees in your frame they may have an opportunity to move if there is any wind, and then everything in the image will be blurry. For this type of a scene, it is usually better to photograph earlier in the day when there is little wind.

Freezing the motion

Especially interesting when photographing violent falls, this requires just the opposite technique – you want a fast shutter speed to capture a brief moment and suspend the water’s movement in the air. Use shutter priority mode and select a faster speed such as 1/500th of a second or faster.

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For this technique you wont need a neutral density filter and you might even be able to get away without using a tripod. If you are in a low light situation, to get a fast shutter speed you may need to use a larger aperture such as f/5.6 to let more light in, and you can increase the ISO to 200, 400 or as high as you need to go to allow a fast shutter speed.

Detail shots

Instead of getting a broad landscape style shot, you might want to close in on an interesting rock, plant, or other detail of your scene. For this, compose your shot (use a tripod if possible) and turn your camera to aperture priority mode – “A” or “Av” on your mode dial. This will allow you to have control over the depth of field, or how much of the picture is in focus from front to back.

The aperture value is shown as an f-stop. F-stop numbers are a little confusing because the smaller numbers represent a larger opening and vice versa. I find it helpful to think of it as a fraction. F/8 is smaller than f/4 because 1/8 is smaller than 1/4.

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Small apertures let less light in, but they increase the sharpness in the foreground and background. Large (or “wide”) apertures, on the other hand, mean that only part of the picture is in focus, while the rest becomes soft and out of focus.

Look at your scene and decide what you want in focus and what should be blurry. If you want to isolate your main subject, choose a large aperture (small f/number) such as f/4 or f/2.8 to make the background out of focus. If the background is important to the picture, choose a small aperture (large f/number) like f/16 or f/22 to make the entire scene sharp and clear.

Composition

There are many compositional techniques to employ when creating waterfall images. First and foremost, remember the rule of thirds and how your eye is drawn through the image. Use the leading lines inherent in flowing water to create visual pathways for the viewer to follow, remembering that corners are very strong entry and exit points in the frame. Pay attention to both the foreground and background, and don’t forget to pay attention to what’s around the water, as well as the falls themselves.

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Field techniques and summary

  • When you arrive at any scene, the first thing to ask yourself is, “What makes this place unique?”. Pay special attention to that quality.
  • Bracket your shots to make sure you get the best possible exposure – this means taking several pictures using different apertures and shutter speeds, and also making several different images using the camera’s exposure compensation (+/-) to brighten or darken each shot to a different degree. See your camera’s manual for specific instructions on how to use these features.
  • Shoot in the uncompressed RAW format to allow for more flexible fine tuning in post processing. RAW images must be processed with a compatible photo editing program, or software that was included with your camera.
  • Experiment – most of all, don’t get stuck making the same type of photograph all the time. Try to make a long exposure, a fast exposure, some detail shots, and try different perspectives so you come home with a variety of images from your photo shoot.

Gear mentioned in this article

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Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Paul Conrad

    Great tips from a great photographer.

    Thanks Anne for sharing the simplicity and beauty of capturing waterfalls.

  • gantico

    to inspire further discussion about waterfall photography, I’d like to share my short timelapse film “Waterfalling in love with Iceland”:

    https://vimeo.com/80565712

    For many cases I shot with a variable ND filter, with exposures from 1/10″ to 1″, but for one waterfall in particular I went to 1/1000 sec because I wanted to freeze the rocks falling with the water.

  • Michael Owens

    Nice article – and the inclusion of settings for various scenes is a great and valuable addition. Thanks!

  • Joe Shelby

    I did find one time that it was just too bright for where and when I was, the National Zoo’s man-made falls, at 12:00. No amount of low ISO, wide app, and ND filter collection was going to make these falls the silky images you see above.

    So I tried a different route and instead got as fast as I could.

    I quite liked the result…

  • John Craft

    Thx! Also check 99PhotoTricks website for more cool tutorials.

  • smcilree

    I am happy to see included freezing the motion of the waterfall. It seems that has become a neglected option in favor of making every image of moving water smooth and creamy. IMHO smooth and creamy water is in danger of becoming cliche.

  • Great article.

    I sometimes struggle with waterfall photos, because the photos turn out to bright even if I use the lowest ISO and set the brightness to the darkest level possible.
    Very frustrating.

  • Andrea Jones

    Great article! Thank you for your info!

  • Great tutorial, thank you!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    wow very cool! Looks like a lot of work. I haven’t personally tried time lapse, how many frames are in this one? And how long to build it afterwards?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Cool shot, but you want a “small” aperture not a wide one. ISO 100, f/22 or f/32 and add a 4-8 stop ND and you can pretty much shoot up to about 10 seconds in bright sunlight. Do the math using the f/16 rule which states – in bright sun your exposure at f/16 will be one over the ISO. So ISO 100, 1/100th.

    Change the aperture to f/32 if your lens has it – you can get about 1/25th.

    Add a variable ND filter and you can go down several most stops to:
    1 = 1/12th
    2 = 1/6th
    3 = 1/3rd
    4 = 2/3rds
    5 = 1.33 seconds
    6 = 2.6 seconds
    7 = 5.2 seconds
    8 = 10.4 seconds
    9 = 20.8 s
    10 = 41.6 s.

    Does that help? The key is closing the aperture and the darkest ND filter. I found using my variable one I could get exposures up to 30 seconds but 5 was enough for silky water. http://www.herviewphotography.com/2013/08/08/waterfall-photography-tips.html

  • Joe Shelby

    “small”, “wide” – just vocabulary and I always get it backwards. I knew what I meant re: the numbers.

    I knew what to do. I did not at the time have the things I needed (re: ND filter darker than just 4 stops, tripod, and most importantly, TIME – I had a 2 year old with me wanting to go see animals…). It was *very* bright outside (this was noon in late July, a bad time (and time of year) for many things one might want to do in photography) so no matter that I got to f/28 (the max for the lens I had), the scene was still utterly bleached out even at 1/3rd a second exposure. I was there to capture animals and my kid’s reactions in action – the waterfall was just a “hey, lets shoot this while we’re here” moment.

    The article talks about the silky approach, which I have done in other places (Great Falls Park along the Potomac, the New York side of Niagra after sunset). I just posted my picture as an alternative approach when the “silky” is not possible, trying to demonstrate that there are other effective ways to photograph a waterfall than just that long-exposure sheen. Not every falls can look good being captured this way, but it may be worth the try.

    What is clear is that generally it is best one or the other – either very spot-precise, or very silky – capturing the middle way actually leaves the least interesting impression. It may be good for “hey, this is what it usually looks like”, but photography isn’t always about being “usual”.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Ah gotcha, you had a lot going on, I get it. Yes I agree one extreme or the other does work best for waterfalls.

  • DMontague

    My favorite place to photograph waterfalls is Ricketts Glen near Scranton, PA. Over 20 waterfalls along a 3 mile trail. The falls are deep in the small canyon so the light is very soft and even.
    http://www.montague-photography.com/Landscapes/Mountain/i-zGsQ9PB/0/XL/AR0A7340-XL.jpg

  • gantico

    Thanks Darlene. It was indeed a lot of work. I shot over 57.000 raw picts for 180 timelapse sequences, but only 70 of them went in the final editing. It took me several full months of work, spanned in arc of two years. You can get an idea from this backstage video:
    https://vimeo.com/80414217

  • WowIndescribable

    One of my favorite ideas for photographing moving water (waterfalls, river rapids) is one I have never tried yet. But it was introduced to me many years ago at the Nikon School of Photography and I remember the sample pictures (from film) being very intriguing. I see no reason why it wouldn’t work very well with digital.

    Essentially a long exposure on a tripod where you use a gel filter holder and a strip of colored gels (basic colors, red, blue, yellow or whatever you want). The strip should be enclosed in a metal slider so it is stiff and has weight. The first and last gel should be black/opaque. You position the strip into the filter holder vertically with the first opaque gel covering the lens opening. Then, open the shutter and let the strip drop. It should end at the last opaque gel after first allowing light into your lens sequentially through each of your colors. Close shutter.

    Anyone ever done this type of thing?

  • WowIndescribable

    …using something like this, only a little more modern and updated:

    http://www.vintagephoto.tv/slider.shtml

  • Christie

    As far as I’m concerned, smooth and creamy water is already a cliche and a very bad one. I dislike it heartily and hate seeing that it is STILL being recommended. That milky effect almost always absolutely ruins waterfall photos no matter how good the photographer–that is, see the photos used as illustrations here. All of them would be far better without the milky effect.

  • smcilree

    Actually, you can do the same thing without the filters. You start by making three exposures on a tripod. You take them into Photoshop and pull the red channel out of one, the blue channel out of the next, and the green from the third. Then you combine the three into a single image and there you have it.

  • Wonderful tutorial. I even love the videos in the comments. 🙂

  • Swati Chauhan

    Recently took this photograph during a visit to Tamil Nadu:

    http://www.swatichauhanphotography.com/#/portfolio/travel-street?i=531

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