By David Long
Waterfalls seem to grab the hearts and minds of people. Go to any location that has one or more waterfalls and it is pretty much a guarantee that they will be a major attraction, if not the main attraction, of the area. However, as beautiful as waterfalls are, it is not so easy to capture that beauty with a camera. It is easy to produce pictures of waterfalls; it is not so easy to produce powerful images.
Waterfalls provide their own unique set of problems that requires a unique set of solutions. This article is about those unique problems and the solutions that allow photographers to produce images that communicate the power and beauty that is inherent in the waterfalls that stand before their lenses.
An unusual topic to start this set of “best practices” with, but I shot waterfalls for years from “outside” of the water. Sometimes this was great, but on other occasions I could not get the angle I wanted or there was brush or trees in the way. I finally bought a pair of waders and immediately felt liberated. There is nothing better than walking up a stream or into a shallow pond and getting exactly the perspective I am looking for. I like waders better than waterproof boots and/or socks as I can hike comfortably with water up to mid thighs versus calf level. You will find these invaluable in many other water landscape venues as well.
Weather plays a huge part in producing great waterfall images. Quite simply, waterfalls do not photograph well in nice, sunny weather. The best time to photograph waterfalls is in overcast weather. Some waterfalls will photograph best in light overcast. Light overcast produces a scene that is gentle but which still has enough power to bring out the colors in a scene.
Other waterfalls photograph best in strong overcast. Strong overcast can produce a very moody image with a power to convey that sense of mood in an image. In fact, very powerful waterfall images can even be produced in rainy weather.
You are not always blessed with perfect waterfall weather. For those times, be aware of when the waterfall is nicely shaded or when the sun is not hitting it directly.
Don’t even think of photographing a waterfall without a tripod. A large part of the nature of waterfalls is the movement of the water. This movement is most often captured with shutter speeds that are slow enough that clear images cannot be produced with a handheld camera.
What shutter speed should be used to blur the falling water? That seems to be the first question that people usually ask about shooting waterfalls. However, there is no such thing as one correct shutter speed for shooting waterfalls! Rather, the proper shutter speed is a function of several factors.
- The amount of blur desired
- The volume of water
- The speed of the water
In short, the best shutter speed varies from one waterfall to another. Here are my recommendations.
- For large waterfalls with huge volumes of tumultuous water, where it is desired to freeze the violent nature of the falling water, 1/100 second is a good shutter speed with which to start. If you are looking for a silky affect, a starting point may be 1/8-1/4 of a second.
- For smaller waterfalls or waterfalls with less water where it is desired to produce a dreamy look, a shutter speed of 1/10 second (fast flow) to 1 second (very minimal flow) is recommended. Anything longer tends to destroy all texture in the water and make the falls look extremely “soft”.
Take shots at different shutter speeds and examine the results on the camera monitor.
- Polarizing Filter – Objects that are wet tend to produce glare. This is particularly an issue with waterfall shots because the rocks and vegetation near the waterfall will be wet and will almost certainly have a certain amount of glare. A polarizer will remove the glare. In addition, a polarizer has a secondary effect. By removing the glare, the color saturation will improve.
- Neutral Density (ND) Filters – Since shutter speed can be critical to achieving the desired look of a waterfall, it is important to have a set of 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters that allow you to cut the amount of light entering the lens. This allows you to achieve slower shutter speeds even during the brightest part of the day
- UV Filter – One of the major challenges in photographing waterfalls has to do with water getting on the lens (or the filter in front of the lens). Powerful waterfalls can drop huge amounts of water that produces a mist. In other cases, the weather may produce fog, drizzle, or rain that gets on the lens. All of this can be exacerbated by wind. A partial solution is to place a clear (UV) filter in front of the lens while the equipment is being set up. Once you are ready to go, the filter can be removed in order to take a clean shot.
Identifying and capturing strong composition is an extremely important part of creating powerful waterfall images.
- Curves can make or break a waterfall image. Waterfalls that have water that flows or falls in such a way as to form curves tend to create much more interest than waterfalls where the water simply falls straight down. In essence, graceful curves add an element of elegance to a waterfall.
- The second major component of waterfall composition is the environment surrounding the waterfall. This is extremely important to many waterfall shots. By itself, falling water is not always that interesting. Rather, it is the surrounding environment that gives waterfalls much of their character. Therefore, why not include some of that environment in the image to bring out the waterfall’s character. The surrounding mountains, rocks, trees, vegetation and even buildings and dams can make the waterfall image come alive.
Getting the right exposure can sometimes be a challenge when photographing waterfalls. Probably, one of the biggest problems is that it is easy to overexpose the highlights in the water. When this happens, the detail in the water is lost, and the water becomes just a big area of pure white with no detail. The solution for this problem is to use spot metering on the brightest part of the falls and take a test shot of the waterfall and check the histogram on the monitor of your digital camera. If the histogram is cut off on the right side, the highlights have been overexposed and the exposure needs to be decreased.
Make sure you familiarize yourself with the best time of day for your photo adventure. Even though early morning and late afternoon are usually the best times for lighting, they may not be optimal for the waterfall you have chosen. Understanding which direction you will be shooting and how much of the waterfall scene is in the shade can be important pre-trip planning.
Normal waterfall shots take in the whole waterfall but being creative can provide some stunning results. Resist the urge to immediately set up at the most traditional view and instead walk around the entire waterfall looking for different angles. If you have the right clothing (see previous clothing section) you might find a better shot in the run off from the falls or from behind or to the side. You may also want to zoom in and shoot just a portion of the falls that is uniquely interesting. Take the traditional shot, but challenge yourself to find a view that you have not seen before.
Lens Selection – what lens you chose can dramatically affect the look of the shot
- Wide angle (14mm-24mm) – created more distance between items, stretches objects and provides broad depth of field
- Short telephoto (35mm-70mm) – produces the most realistic representation of the scene
- Longer telephoto (100mm-400mm) – compresses the scene and created depth of field issues that need to be addressed with higher apertures or focus stacking
White Balance – you can adjust your WB in camera, but with today’s post processing, I recommend shooting in RAW and leaving it on “auto” and adjusting afterwards. Overcast conditions tend to create a bluish tint that I remove in the saturation portion of the HSL panel in Lightroom, as I like my water white.
Post Processing – there are a couple tips in post processing to complete your waterfall image
- To see images the way you shot them, it is important to calibrate your screen on a regular basis. I do mine once a month with a Spyder5 from Datacolor
- Often you will get a bluish tint in the water. I like my waterfalls white so I will use the pointer in the saturation slider of the HSL panel to take some of this blue out
- Because the eye always goes to the brightest portion of the image, I use the pointer on luminance slider to brighten up my water if needed
- Every waterfall is going to have some bright and dull spots. I use the adjustment brush and radial filter to even out these to produce a more uniform water
Conclusion – waterfall scenes can be some of the most dramatic in landscape photography, as stand-alone images or as part of an overall scene. Employing these “best practices” will help you create memorable images and make for a more enjoyable photographic trip.
Dave has lived in New England and has been doing environmental landscape photography for the last ten years. From the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont to the seacoast locations in Maine and Massachusetts, he looks for iconic locations during the best seasons with incredible light. He also strives to have each image communicate not only what is seen, but also how the location feels.
Dave lives in Shrewsbury, MA and speaks at camera clubs throughout New England on landscape photography and has recently published seven e-books (available on BlueHour Photo Venture’s website) for self-guided tours of New England and St. Augustine locations.