Photographing Waterfalls: 6 Tips To Get You Started - Digital Photography School

Photographing Waterfalls: 6 Tips To Get You Started

Some of my favourite landscapes to photograph are waterfalls. The smoothness of the water against the hard, sharp edges of the rocks or striking greenery that surrounds them can make for very pleasing compositions. Just follow these simple tips and you’ll be sure to get some great shots.

1. Time it Right

Photographing waterfalls 1

The best time to photograph waterfalls is after rainfall. This make the waterfall flow in full force, and the rainwater also helps saturate the foliage in the trees or on the rocks which creates a beautiful luminous green colour. Mud can also get washed into the river giving you a beautiful rustic gold and brown colour to the water which helps make it feel more surreal – almost like it’s been painted.

2. Get there Early

Photographing waterfalls 2

Unless the waterfall you are photographing requires a lot of effort to get to, it will likely attract crowds. One of the best ways to avoid this is to arrive very early in the day to stand a chance of having the place to yourself. But if you do find that it’s busy just try to wait for a gap in the flow of traffic or get close and crop out the people in the picture.

3. Don’t Forget your Tripod

Photographing waterfalls 3

Photographing waterfalls 4

If you want to get the water looking smooth you’ll need a tripod so that you can have a slow enough shutter speed to capture the motion effect for the water whilst still keeping the rocks or trees sharp. Depending on the speed of the water, you can adjust your shutter speed to capture the desired effect. The first image above was taken at 6.0s whilst the second image was taken at 1.0s. Keep in mind that you may have to use ND (neutral density) filters to ensure you can have slow enough shutter speed.

4. Look for People

Photographing waterfalls 5

Adding people into your photos can help bring it into context and tell more of a story. I had already got a few shots of this waterfall in Vietnam without anyone in it, but instead of just heading back to the hotel, I waited around until this couple arrived and stood on the bridge. For me this made the composition much more interesting than just an empty scene. So, don’t be afraid to add people into your image, but just make sure that you are either using a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld or you are using a tripod.

5. Add foreground points of Interest

Photographing waterfalls 6

Another way to make the waterfall more interesting is to add something in the foreground as the viewer’s point of interest. This first image would have been quite dull without the rocks in the foreground, and they also help create a stunning sense of motion in the water as the stream has to flow around it. So don’t settle for the first angle that you get, instead look around to see if there is anything interesting which can enhance the composition.

6. Be Careful

Photographing waterfalls 7

Make sure you are extra careful when walking on rocks near waterfalls. The last thing you would want is to slip and damage your camera or even worse cause yourself injury. So take care when walking near a waterfall and make sure when you use a sturdy tripod which can support the weight of your camera. I would also advise you to have a plastic bag to cover your camera, as you usually get lots of water spray, and a cloth to wipe away water from the front of your lens.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Kav Dadfar is a travel and landscape photographer based in London, England. He spent his formative years working as an art director in the world of advertising. His images are represented by 4Corners Images, Getty, Axiom Photographic and Alamy. Connect with him on his website and Facebook page.

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Cramer Imaging

    Those are some beautiful pictures of silky waterfalls. The waterfall on that last one looks a bit surreal. It is very much a stylistic choice. I had a professor that once told me that the ideal shutter speed to capture moving water at (including waterfalls) is 1/15. Fudging a bit to the right or left is acceptable, like when the camera picks 1/13 instead of 1/15. Having tried this approach and being pleased with the results myself, this would be what I would recommend to anyone not wanting to do silky water or not having the gear to do so. I would still recommend the tripod as this shutter speed is still to slow to not display motion blur from a hand hold.

  • http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/ Thomas Schmidt

    Very interesting article and really nice photos!
    Last year I did an experiment with a little waterfall and various shutter speeds. My conclusion there was that the photo shot with 1/10 was the one I liked most. This matches the suggestion of Cramer Imaging above.

    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/2012/08/little-waterfall.html

  • kathleen kelleher

    Truly beautiful pictures.well done.

  • http://tonycarlson.zenfolio.com Tony

    Just the very topic I’ve been practicing. Below is the link. All the falls in this series are from a nearby State Park called Cloudland Canyon. The other little series of cascades are of simple little creek I found in the woods. After all the rain we’ve had in the Southeast, I plan to get out and find more.

    http://tonycarlson.zenfolio.com/p985854991/h6c2d87f8#h6c2d87f8

  • Danny

    Technically all of these photos were spot on..

    But personally, I would like to see this fad of softening the water, calm down a bit. For me it detracts from the beauty of the falls, by altering reality too much… They no longer look like true waterfalls, but like they came from a cotton candy machine.. Just my personal preference.

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    Also, don’t forget to look for details:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/07/abstract-water.html

  • Jeff Manghera

    This is a good example of how helpful it would be to provide details on the settings for each shot. Specifically, which ND filter was used.

  • http://www.saiyyam.com Vanita
  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Didn’t know about the mud being washed bit at all! Lovely pictures.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • ratkellar

    Shutter speed depends on the waterfall. I agree with Danny about too much “silk” in waterfall pictures. It seems unnatural. Certain waterfalls (usually with greater drops) are more interesting with a shorter shutter speed to catch the power of the falling water. The long exposures seem to call out the surroundings more. I generally take a continuum of exposures.

  • http://www.guigphotography.com Guigphotography

    Great article and nice to see number 4 included. Never really see that in this kind of article. I’m of the same mind as Danny and ratkellar, though I guess it’s a perpetual favourite (and in no way detracts from the article – it’s a just a subject thing). Great examples too!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/9260862149/

  • Josh

    I have spent a lot of time hanging out near waterfalls and while I’ve got a lot to learn and struggle mightily with composition, there is a lot of fun that can be had by trying both VERY long (20s) and VERY short shuttle speeds (1/4000s).
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlais/sets/72157634598511452/

    Great article!

  • Albin

    Sorry, but just don’t like the smoky water fad. Doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen in this world, but more like scenery from a video game (they don’t make black velvet paintings any more, do they?) To me the technique spoils what would otherwise be stunning images.

  • Ron Despres

    Sometimes, you just have to photograph waterfalls with people around. I found this situation at Multnomah Falls in Oregon. I went up front and used a wide angle zoom, 10-24 and was pleased with the results. The article presented very good information. Thanks.

  • Geof

    Nice reminder article.
    The timing of which, could not be better. Tomorrow I am off to Vik (traveling from Reykjavik), planning to hit some of the foss(es) on the way down.

    Merci

  • Peter

    Good article Kay. But I’m surprised you didn’t mention a polarising filter. You don’t like them? I think it’s an essential thing to bring along to at least see how it may benefit the image.
    Peter P,.

  • Ross

    Well I love the silky water effect. Just thought I’d stick my hand up to balance out the likes and dislikes.

    I just wish there were some waterfalls near me.

    I do have an ND500 filter for just such occasions.

  • aRTy

    I like silky waterfalls! It may not be how they looked in real life, but the photos are peaceful to look at.

  • Sylvia Kirk

    Good article. But you missed the most important gear after the tripod: the circular polarizer! It gets rid of the reflections of gray sky on wet leaves and rocks so the colors look warmer and more natural.

    Also: don’t shoot waterfalls when it’s sunny. The froth with sun on it can’t be correctly exposed if the water and leaves are correctly exposed.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bull_rhino Scott

    Many times I’ve been disappointed in the images that accompany the articles. Not so in this case. These are beautiful. Though the comments above about best speeds are not a bad starting point, saying there is a right speed for waterfall shots is like saying there is a best speed for driving your car. It very much depends on the situation and the effect you are going for. For those who say they don’t like the soft effect of long exposures on water I say, bully for you . . . who cares what you like? Do you think that now that you have told us that some will suddenly say “oh, he’s right. I used to love that look but now that I know that he/she doesn’t like it I don’t like it any more. I guess I’ll change my shooting style just in case there is ever someone out there that doesn’t like the way I do it.” If there is a style of shooting you don’t like, then don’t look at it and don’t do it. Spend your time taking and enjoying what you do like.

  • Kiran

    Nice article.
    This is my first waterfall photo with a Canon S1 IS, point and shoot, No tripod (put my camera on a rock).
    The image is slightly overexposed. As other people said exposure of 1/10~1/15 should have been good for this image ..

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/110935179623208429347/albums/5899586534355793697/5899586542367614690?pid=5899586542367614690&oid=110935179623208429347

  • http://none diane cronin

    hi their have just been looking at your waterfalls they are great wish I could take them like that ,went to Yorkshire a few years ago to as Gath falls near haws and they were rolling the coulours were lovely .

    from Diane

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/36921275@N08/8178040913/ Daniel

    I think the most important is the exposition time. Increasing it does not always improve photography …

  • http://www.photosofrockart.com David

    The issue for me has always been the photograph rather than the waterfall. I just don’t want to go out and take a photograph of a waterfall so I can say hey I was there, here’s my photograph. I want to create a photograph of interest that INCLUDES a waterfall. Never has this been more of a challenge than a recent hike I did on the Coast of Oregon that included 16 waterfalls (at least). When you are taking images of 16 waterfall along a 1.5 mile trail, you are pretty much forced to start thinking about your compositions. How can I make THIS one more interesting, more unique, a little bit more special. A hike I could normally do in 30 minutes took 2.5 hours.

    And the choice a realistic stream of water vs the ‘silky’ effect simply wasn’t there for me. This hike was in a veritable rain forest, and at the end of the day. The amount of available light simply didn’t allow for anything else than movement. I would have had to slam my ISO to 4-5000 to stop motion.

    BTW, the trail was Sweet Creek Falls Trail, about 20 miles inland of Florence OR.

    http://www.photosofrockart.com/sweetcreekphoto.html

  • ScottC

    Incredible examples in this article. I love waterfalls but need to work on them a bit….

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4720852956/

  • http://lynnharrisonphotography.com Lynn

    I love photographing waterfalls, cascades and rapids. Thank you for your article. I always have room for improvement. Here is one of my shots: http://www.lynnharrisonphotography.com/waterfalls/files/spruce%20flats%20falls%202.html

  • http://www.dwfischer.com David Fischer

    There are two schools of thought on sharpness of waterfalls, as others have pointed out. My own general guide is the greater the volume of water (and action) the shorter the exposure should be. Sometimes a waterfall with just a dribble of water can be transformed into something beautiful by a long exposure. However, I always allow for exceptions either way — shoot both long and short exposures and choose later!
    On the subject of people, I prefer my landscapes and waterfalls depopulated unless the people REALLY add to the picture. Small waterfalls have an uncanny attraction for people who just want to stand in the middle of the river and ruin the picture.

  • Michael Shake

    I would also add that a circular polarizer works great. It not only helps to get a slower shutter speed but reduces glare and reflections on the water surface. I photographed hundreds of waterfalls and would agree the best time is in the morning or just before sunset. The light is so much nicer then. You will have less extremes in dynamic range at those times of day as well. Always use a tripod and a remote shutter release. I also bracket my exposures, 3 exposures, 2 stops apart and I shoot in Aperture priority mode and usually at f/16 to f/22. I bracket in case parts of the waterfall get blown highlights, you can either blend the exposures manually or in software like Photomatix. If your trying to get it in one single exposure then get your exposure reading on the waterfall near the crest where it is almost always the brightest and try to avoid composing the sky in the shot. Using f/16 to f/22 normally gives you a slow enough shutter speed to blur the water and it also allows you to include very close objects in the foreground and get all of the photo in sharp focus. High volume waterfalls require a lot less time to blur the water and to me, actually look better if the water is frozen while the low volume waterfalls look better with more time, it lets the water fill in the photo more. A shutter speed of 1/2 to 3 seconds is normally more then enough to blur water on the majority of waterfalls, more time then that will smooth it out even more and give you less detail in the water, personal choice I guess.

  • Keshab Shrestha

    WOW, really blasting pictures….

  • Ankur Jaiswal

    Which lens is ideal for the photography of waterfall.
    Thanks in advance.

    Regards,
    Ankur

  • ramel

    very useful tips. here is my shot after reading your tips. many thanks.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rrifani/9684039598/

  • Sue

    A 7th tip – bring mosquito/bug repellent! :-)

  • Rye

    Watch out for water vapour and moisture :)

  • Dave Lister

    Know where the sun will be. Some falls are better photographed in the morning or in the afternoon. If sun is behind your waterfall the sky will be very bright compared to the fall itself making it hard not to blow out the sky.

Some older comments

  • ramel

    September 16, 2013 12:24 pm

    very useful tips. here is my shot after reading your tips. many thanks.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rrifani/9684039598/

  • Ankur Jaiswal

    July 18, 2013 08:21 pm

    Which lens is ideal for the photography of waterfall.
    Thanks in advance.

    Regards,
    Ankur

  • Keshab Shrestha

    July 16, 2013 05:19 pm

    WOW, really blasting pictures....

  • Michael Shake

    July 16, 2013 04:16 am

    I would also add that a circular polarizer works great. It not only helps to get a slower shutter speed but reduces glare and reflections on the water surface. I photographed hundreds of waterfalls and would agree the best time is in the morning or just before sunset. The light is so much nicer then. You will have less extremes in dynamic range at those times of day as well. Always use a tripod and a remote shutter release. I also bracket my exposures, 3 exposures, 2 stops apart and I shoot in Aperture priority mode and usually at f/16 to f/22. I bracket in case parts of the waterfall get blown highlights, you can either blend the exposures manually or in software like Photomatix. If your trying to get it in one single exposure then get your exposure reading on the waterfall near the crest where it is almost always the brightest and try to avoid composing the sky in the shot. Using f/16 to f/22 normally gives you a slow enough shutter speed to blur the water and it also allows you to include very close objects in the foreground and get all of the photo in sharp focus. High volume waterfalls require a lot less time to blur the water and to me, actually look better if the water is frozen while the low volume waterfalls look better with more time, it lets the water fill in the photo more. A shutter speed of 1/2 to 3 seconds is normally more then enough to blur water on the majority of waterfalls, more time then that will smooth it out even more and give you less detail in the water, personal choice I guess.

  • David Fischer

    July 15, 2013 02:06 am

    There are two schools of thought on sharpness of waterfalls, as others have pointed out. My own general guide is the greater the volume of water (and action) the shorter the exposure should be. Sometimes a waterfall with just a dribble of water can be transformed into something beautiful by a long exposure. However, I always allow for exceptions either way -- shoot both long and short exposures and choose later!
    On the subject of people, I prefer my landscapes and waterfalls depopulated unless the people REALLY add to the picture. Small waterfalls have an uncanny attraction for people who just want to stand in the middle of the river and ruin the picture.

  • Lynn

    July 13, 2013 11:48 am

    I love photographing waterfalls, cascades and rapids. Thank you for your article. I always have room for improvement. Here is one of my shots: http://www.lynnharrisonphotography.com/waterfalls/files/spruce%20flats%20falls%202.html

  • ScottC

    July 13, 2013 06:54 am

    Incredible examples in this article. I love waterfalls but need to work on them a bit....

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4720852956/

  • David

    July 13, 2013 05:15 am

    The issue for me has always been the photograph rather than the waterfall. I just don't want to go out and take a photograph of a waterfall so I can say hey I was there, here's my photograph. I want to create a photograph of interest that INCLUDES a waterfall. Never has this been more of a challenge than a recent hike I did on the Coast of Oregon that included 16 waterfalls (at least). When you are taking images of 16 waterfall along a 1.5 mile trail, you are pretty much forced to start thinking about your compositions. How can I make THIS one more interesting, more unique, a little bit more special. A hike I could normally do in 30 minutes took 2.5 hours.

    And the choice a realistic stream of water vs the 'silky' effect simply wasn't there for me. This hike was in a veritable rain forest, and at the end of the day. The amount of available light simply didn't allow for anything else than movement. I would have had to slam my ISO to 4-5000 to stop motion.

    BTW, the trail was Sweet Creek Falls Trail, about 20 miles inland of Florence OR.

    http://www.photosofrockart.com/sweetcreekphoto.html

  • Daniel

    July 12, 2013 09:16 pm

    I think the most important is the exposition time. Increasing it does not always improve photography ...

  • diane cronin

    July 12, 2013 06:38 pm

    hi their have just been looking at your waterfalls they are great wish I could take them like that ,went to Yorkshire a few years ago to as Gath falls near haws and they were rolling the coulours were lovely .

    from Diane

  • Kiran

    July 12, 2013 02:52 pm

    Nice article.
    This is my first waterfall photo with a Canon S1 IS, point and shoot, No tripod (put my camera on a rock).
    The image is slightly overexposed. As other people said exposure of 1/10~1/15 should have been good for this image ..

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/110935179623208429347/albums/5899586534355793697/5899586542367614690?pid=5899586542367614690&oid=110935179623208429347

  • Scott

    July 12, 2013 01:52 pm

    Many times I've been disappointed in the images that accompany the articles. Not so in this case. These are beautiful. Though the comments above about best speeds are not a bad starting point, saying there is a right speed for waterfall shots is like saying there is a best speed for driving your car. It very much depends on the situation and the effect you are going for. For those who say they don't like the soft effect of long exposures on water I say, bully for you . . . who cares what you like? Do you think that now that you have told us that some will suddenly say "oh, he's right. I used to love that look but now that I know that he/she doesn't like it I don't like it any more. I guess I'll change my shooting style just in case there is ever someone out there that doesn't like the way I do it." If there is a style of shooting you don't like, then don't look at it and don't do it. Spend your time taking and enjoying what you do like.

  • Sylvia Kirk

    July 12, 2013 10:45 am

    Good article. But you missed the most important gear after the tripod: the circular polarizer! It gets rid of the reflections of gray sky on wet leaves and rocks so the colors look warmer and more natural.

    Also: don't shoot waterfalls when it's sunny. The froth with sun on it can't be correctly exposed if the water and leaves are correctly exposed.

  • aRTy

    July 12, 2013 08:32 am

    I like silky waterfalls! It may not be how they looked in real life, but the photos are peaceful to look at.

  • Ross

    July 12, 2013 08:18 am

    Well I love the silky water effect. Just thought I'd stick my hand up to balance out the likes and dislikes.

    I just wish there were some waterfalls near me.

    I do have an ND500 filter for just such occasions.

  • Peter

    July 12, 2013 08:05 am

    Good article Kay. But I'm surprised you didn't mention a polarising filter. You don't like them? I think it's an essential thing to bring along to at least see how it may benefit the image.
    Peter P,.

  • Geof

    July 12, 2013 07:16 am

    Nice reminder article.
    The timing of which, could not be better. Tomorrow I am off to Vik (traveling from Reykjavik), planning to hit some of the foss(es) on the way down.

    Merci

  • Ron Despres

    July 12, 2013 05:29 am

    Sometimes, you just have to photograph waterfalls with people around. I found this situation at Multnomah Falls in Oregon. I went up front and used a wide angle zoom, 10-24 and was pleased with the results. The article presented very good information. Thanks.

  • Albin

    July 12, 2013 04:19 am

    Sorry, but just don't like the smoky water fad. Doesn't look like anything I've ever seen in this world, but more like scenery from a video game (they don't make black velvet paintings any more, do they?) To me the technique spoils what would otherwise be stunning images.

  • Josh

    July 12, 2013 04:07 am

    I have spent a lot of time hanging out near waterfalls and while I've got a lot to learn and struggle mightily with composition, there is a lot of fun that can be had by trying both VERY long (20s) and VERY short shuttle speeds (1/4000s).
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlais/sets/72157634598511452/

    Great article!

  • Guigphotography

    July 12, 2013 01:49 am

    Great article and nice to see number 4 included. Never really see that in this kind of article. I'm of the same mind as Danny and ratkellar, though I guess it's a perpetual favourite (and in no way detracts from the article - it's a just a subject thing). Great examples too!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/9260862149/

  • ratkellar

    July 12, 2013 01:14 am

    Shutter speed depends on the waterfall. I agree with Danny about too much "silk" in waterfall pictures. It seems unnatural. Certain waterfalls (usually with greater drops) are more interesting with a shorter shutter speed to catch the power of the falling water. The long exposures seem to call out the surroundings more. I generally take a continuum of exposures.

  • Mridula

    July 10, 2013 09:37 pm

    Didn't know about the mud being washed bit at all! Lovely pictures.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Vanita

    July 10, 2013 01:10 pm

    Here's a handheld shot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saiyyam/7947307422/

  • Jeff Manghera

    July 10, 2013 02:54 am

    This is a good example of how helpful it would be to provide details on the settings for each shot. Specifically, which ND filter was used.

  • Jeff E Jensen

    July 10, 2013 02:42 am

    Also, don't forget to look for details:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/07/abstract-water.html

  • Danny

    July 9, 2013 10:39 am

    Technically all of these photos were spot on..

    But personally, I would like to see this fad of softening the water, calm down a bit. For me it detracts from the beauty of the falls, by altering reality too much... They no longer look like true waterfalls, but like they came from a cotton candy machine.. Just my personal preference.

  • Tony

    July 9, 2013 09:01 am

    Just the very topic I've been practicing. Below is the link. All the falls in this series are from a nearby State Park called Cloudland Canyon. The other little series of cascades are of simple little creek I found in the woods. After all the rain we've had in the Southeast, I plan to get out and find more.

    http://tonycarlson.zenfolio.com/p985854991/h6c2d87f8#h6c2d87f8

  • kathleen kelleher

    July 9, 2013 04:46 am

    Truly beautiful pictures.well done.

  • Thomas Schmidt

    July 9, 2013 04:28 am

    Very interesting article and really nice photos!
    Last year I did an experiment with a little waterfall and various shutter speeds. My conclusion there was that the photo shot with 1/10 was the one I liked most. This matches the suggestion of Cramer Imaging above.

    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/2012/08/little-waterfall.html

  • Cramer Imaging

    July 9, 2013 03:20 am

    Those are some beautiful pictures of silky waterfalls. The waterfall on that last one looks a bit surreal. It is very much a stylistic choice. I had a professor that once told me that the ideal shutter speed to capture moving water at (including waterfalls) is 1/15. Fudging a bit to the right or left is acceptable, like when the camera picks 1/13 instead of 1/15. Having tried this approach and being pleased with the results myself, this would be what I would recommend to anyone not wanting to do silky water or not having the gear to do so. I would still recommend the tripod as this shutter speed is still to slow to not display motion blur from a hand hold.

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