The ever-changing nature of waterfalls makes it one of my favorite things to photograph. I love that they are always in motion, never remaining the same. But, this same characteristic of waterfall also makes them a complex and challenging subject to photograph. To help you prepare, I’ve to put together a list of tips and techniques I use to make the most out of photographing waterfalls. Let’s dive in.
Waterfall Photography Cheat Sheet
1. Visit at the Right Season
Waterfalls can change strikingly from one season to the next. This mainly hinges on the water source that’s fueling the waterfall. For instance, waterfalls that are filled mainly with melted snow can disappear in the warm summer months. In this case, you’ll want to shoot the waterfall in the late spring, when the water source hasn’t run out yet.
Before you head to a waterfall to shoot, do your research. Find out what its water source is and make sure that it will have plenty of water in the time that you visit it.
2. Follow the Light
Lighting conditions are another factor that can determine the timing of your waterfall shoot. Diffused light is the ideal condition for waterfall photography, as it will bring out detail in the water. You can find diffused light during the golden hours, at sunrise and sunset, or during overcast days.
Avoid visiting waterfalls to shoot in intense sunlight. This light will cause severe shadows that could conceal large portions of the waterfall. It will be virtually impossible to work with this level of extreme contrast in photography.
3. Shoot in Manual Mode
For photographers who aren’t yet experienced in using manual mode, waterfall photography is an ideal project to start with.
The main aspect of waterfalls that sets them apart from other types of subjects in motion, like people and wildlife, waterfalls move consistently and predictably.
Thus, with waterfalls, you have time to study the scene and plan your composition before actually taking the photo. This also means you’ll have more time to adjust all three exposure settings using manual mode.
If you don’t feel ready to shoot in manual mode just yet, begin with shutter priority mode. In this mode, you’ll pick the ISO setting and shutter speed while the camera automatically sets the aperture.
This will help you get accustomed to adjusting the shutter speed. Plus, you’ll start to understand the connection between the amount of time that the shutter is left open for and the amount of motion that gets captured in the shot.
In shutter priority mode, know that low light settings can be difficult. In low light, the camera may set the aperture to its maximum value. This will result in a shallow depth of field, and the areas in your foreground and background may be out-of-focus.
This downside to shutter priority mode gives you a great excuse to work with manual mode. Once you learn how to manage the three exposure settings, you will have greater control over the quality of all of your images.
4. Use Slow Shutter Speeds to Capture Motion
To create the soft, silky quality of water you typically see in most waterfall images, you’ll need to use slow shutter speed. The particular shutter speed will vary depending on the speed and size of the waterfall you’re trying to photograph.
For larger, faster waterfalls, my exposure is often less than a second, between 1/4 and a 1 second. At this range, you can capture the movement of water along with its subtle details.
For smaller, more delicate waterfalls, I typically aim for the longest exposure I can get. This can be anywhere from 5 seconds to several minutes long.
When photographing waterfalls, I suggest you start with shutter speed. Once you’ve determined the right shutter speed setting for your desired result, move on to your aperture and then your ISO.
5. Use the Lowest ISO Possible
Your ISO dictates how much amplification your camera will apply to the data recorded by the camera’s sensor. Increasing your ISO will result in a brighter image while decreasing it will result in a darker image.
However, while increasing your ISO will make your image appear brighter, it will also enhance the appearance of the noise present in your photo. A low ISO setting generally leads to a higher quality image. Thus, when shooting waterfalls, it’s often best to select the lowest ISO setting, typically ISO 100.
6. Use a Narrow Aperture / High F-stop
The aperture setting determines how much of your image will be in sharp focus. A narrow or large aperture will keep a large area of your image in sharp focus, while a wide or small aperture will keep a smaller area of your image in sharp focus.
For most waterfall composition, I typically use f-stops between f/9 to f/11. However, f I want to emphasize objects in my foreground, I typically shoot with f/11 or higher. Using a high f-stop ensures that your foreground remains in focus, as well as the waterfall itself.
Another way to keep objects in both your foreground and background in sharp focus is by focus stacking. Focus stacking is a technique that allows you to combine several shots with different points of focus into one composition. Doing so will enable you to produce an image with every element in sharp focus without needing to use narrow or large apertures.
That said, is your goal is to create an ethereal, other-worldly effect, rather than a realistic depiction of your waterfall, opt for wide aperture or a low f-stop number. I recommend using apertures below f/8. This will leave some, if not most elements within your frame to appear soft and blurred, creating the effect you want to create.
7. Shoot in Raw
When you’re photographing waterfalls with a DSLR camera, it’s wise to shoot in RAW format. This format will give you the most editing options and, ultimately, a higher quality image.
RAW images offer a much larger dynamic range and color gamut than JPEG images. For example, RAW photos are capable of capturing 281 million different colors, while RAW images are only capable of 16 million.
Due to the high dynamic range often associated with waterfall photos, RAW photos capture more accurate and representative photos than JPEGs.
RAW photos are also more flexible when it comes to editing your image. This is ideal for waterfall photography because it will allow you to enhance and adjust your image until you achieve your photographic goals.
Resource: RAW vs JPEG: The Full Story
8. Shoot with Both Wide-Angle and Telephoto Lens
Taking both a wide-angle and telephoto lens on a waterfall shot will give you a breadth of compositional options.
Wide-angle lenses offer a wide perspective, ideal for capturing vast landscapes and broad sceneries. I like using a 16-35 mm wide-angle lens because it gives me a broad range to work with when I am composing my scene.
Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, limit the viewing experience to a small area of a scene. This creates a more subtle and intimate depiction of the waterfall. Telephoto lenses are also useful when photographing lenses that are far away. A telephoto lens like the Nikon 70-200mm enables you to photograph from a distance while capturing detail.
9. Bring a Tripod
A tripod is an essential tool in waterfall photography. To capture the water’s movement, you need to work with slow shutter speeds. This enables the sensor to record soft textures as the water moves across your frame.
Like with most images that require the use of slow shutter speeds, you will need a tripod. Without one, it’s almost impossible to use slow shutter speeds without it resulting in a blurry image.
You can use just about any tripod to secure your camera near a body of water. But, if you’re planning to photograph on the stream or any place where the tripod will get wet, I suggest bringing a sturdy, waterproof tripod.
For this, I suggest bringing a carbon fiber tripod. Not only will a carbon fiber tripod, not rust, they are also light and easy to carry when you’re trying to reach your waterfall. The Manfrotto 190 Go! M-Series is a great lightweight carbon fiber option that is built extremely well and is not as expensive as other carbon fiber tripods. This tripod is great for testing different angles. It has a side extending arm that allows you to shoot in any direction and the tripod legs can be extended completely flat allowing it ultimate versatility when composing your image.
Another great option is the Benro Mach3, Benro is a trusted and reliable tripod brand in the photography community that continuously delivers high-quality tripods and ball heads. I enjoy this tripod because it is extremely long which is great for positioning in the water to ensure your camera is safe from the stream. In addition, this tripod is extremely light and easy to adjust.
Although you’re using a tripod, don’t forget that you can still move around. Remember to try out new angles and perspectives. You can scout your location ahead of time to help with this – take test shots before you mount your tripod and plan out the best angles for your composition.
Just like your camera, your tripod needs to be carefully cleaned after it’s been used in an outdoor shoot. Especially near a waterfall, the tripod can get dirty with sand, grit, and other debris.
10. Photographing Waterfalls Without a Tripod
If you’re attempting waterfall photography without a tripod, try to find a stable object to position your camera up against. A relatively flat stone that you can find around a waterfall is a great option.
It’s likely that you won’t be able to focus your lens by looking through the viewfinder in this situation. You can counteract this by activating your cameras’ live view mode, using autofocus, and a large aperture. This will help you minimize the possibility of an out of focus image.
Photographing a waterfall without a tripod requires a great deal of body control. Even small movements can throw off your entire composition. So, stay closely in tune with your body as you shoot.
If possible, use a remote shutter release to prevent any movement that can cause camera shake. Otherwise, use a light touch of your finger on the shutter release button – press it softly.
11. Utilize ND Filters
Neutral Density filters help you achieve that silky water effect you’ll typically see in waterfall images. ND filters filter light wavelengths from reaching the camera sensor, allowing you to shoot with slow shutter speeds under bright light without overexposing your image.
You can find ND filters in varying densities to keep out a specific number of exposure stops.
3-stop and 6-stop ND filters are typically the most useful for shooting waterfalls. If you have the funds to purchase one, a 10-stop ND filter can add an interesting effect to your images.
As you shop for camera filters, make sure to select the right thread size for your lenses. Specifically, ensure that the filters are compatible with the lenses that you plan to use during your shoot.
12. Use Circular Polarizing Filter
Polarizing filters reduce distracting glare commonly seen on wet objects surrounding the waterfall. It can also help minimize reflections in the entire image for a clearer, better quality composition.
Further, similar to ND filters, polarizing filters can take your exposure down by one or two stops, enabling you to shoot at slower shutter speeds.
If you need to purchase a filter, we’d recommend starting with a circular polarizer. I suggest you use a CPL that allows you to turn and adjust the intensity. I recommend using either the Hoya Pro-1 CPL Filter or the B+W CPL Filter. Both of these options are easily adjustable and fit an array of different lens sizes. In addition, they both perform exceptionally and cause little to color distortion.
13. Use Remote Shutter Release
Using a remote shutter release is a great way to avoid shaking the camera when you press the shutter button. When buying a shutter release it is important to check if your camera has wireless functionality. If you are trying to avoid spending a lot on a wireless shutter release, I suggest the Amazon Basics Wireless Remote or a branded wireless remote such as the Nikon Wireless remote.
If you do not have wireless functionality the Pixel Wireless Shutter Release is compatible with nearly every camera. This shutter release functions both wireless and wired and has an LCD screen for ease of use and maximum control.
14. Protect Your Feet
It can be hard to resist getting in the water while shooting a waterfall scene for new and exciting perspectives. But, you need to wear the proper footwear to do so.
To photograph a waterfall with ease, I suggest wearing quality waterproof shoes. These shoes are not only designed to handle wet environments but will also provide you with a better grip on slippery terrain.
Warm environments are going to be the most practical for this type of footwear. For colder environments, consider using wellington boots. Also known as Wellies, these boots are perfect for any environment and are comfortable enough to wear as you like. They’ll do the job well and even come in an insulated variety for colder climates.
15. Use Thigh Waders for Deep, Cold Water
If you’re dealing with deep water or cold temperatures, hip waders are your safest bet. These heavy-duty shoes will keep the moisture out so that your feet stay warm and dry. You can wear a pair of thick, warm socks with your hip waders for comfort.
When choosing waders it is important to consider how deep and how far you will get into the water. If you bring plan on going in deep water than chest-high waders are best. I recommend OXYVAN Wader. These waders are well built, with great boot traction, and comfortable belt and suspenders make it easy to wear for long periods of time.
I typically don’t get in the water too deep which is why I recommend Allan Wader, I enjoy these because the straps are durable and easy to use. Plus they have built-in boots which means I don’t have to worry about having waterproof shoes because these waders will protect me.
In cold weather, you may also encounter ice at your waterfall scene. For extra protection, bring along Kahtoola NANOspikes. These traction cleats that fit over your boots are portable when compared to crampons. I prefer going with Nonospikes over the microspikes because then walking over slippery rocks spikes can make it harder to balance. I find the nano spikes over greater traction and balance.
In warm weather, you don’t have to worry as much about your water-friendly footwear. An old pair of sneakers, river sandals, or rain boots will be sufficient.
16. Protect Your Gear
As we’ve said before, you’re likely to get wet when you’re shooting waterfalls. You typically won’t be swimming in the water, but water droplets and mist can accumulate on your lens. This means you will have to continue cleaning your lens throughout your photoshoot.
You can keep moisture off of your camera lens with a lens hood. The Veatree collapsible lens hood is not the traditional lens hood but the versatility and adjustable nature is my favorite feature. It allows you to determine how much coverage you need and the compact nature makes it easy to store.
Also, don’t take your lens cap off until it’s time to create the composition. After planning your composition, wipe off the lens with a clean microfiber cloth, and start shooting.
If you have a weather-sealed camera body, you may think that you’re in the clear. But, it’s crucial to have an extra protective layer no matter what camera body you have. A rain sleeve is a useful option that covers your camera and the head of your tripod. For extreme conditions, a full camera cover like the Peak Design Shell Cover is likely your smartest option to avoid water damage to your camera.
There are many inexpensive rain covers that will protect your camera from mist and water while you are shooting. Keep in mind that these are not very durable and not great for extreme weather conditions. When purchasing a plastic cover make sure it is heavy-duty and built to last longer than a simple plastic cover.
More durable options are made of nylon or other waterproof materials that will protect your camera even during harsh conditions. Another great option is the Ruggard DSLR Parka is durable and also acts as a hand warmer to keep your hands protected and warm.
17. Shoot in Both Landscape and Portrait Format
Many photographers are inclined to stick to either landscape or portrait format. But, switching between the two can give you more variety in the quality of your shots. If you’re frustrated by having to reposition your tripod as you switch between the formats, try using an L-bracket. This handy tool attaches to your camera and when mounted on a tripod will allow you to switch from landscape to portrait mode with ease and vice versa.
The brightness of objects in an image may not be your first priority as a landscape photographer. But, brightness can make or break a composition and must be managed thoughtfully.
18. Add Depth By Including Elements in Your Foreground
It’s easy to focus on the waterfall and leave your foreground empty. But adding interesting elements in your foreground can help elevate your photos in many ways.
For instance, including rocks, fallen leaves, or bushes in your foreground is a great way to convey a sense of depth. Elements in your foreground will often appear bigger relative to other elements within your frame. Since larger objects are perceived to be closer than smaller objects, this difference in scale can help enhance the three-dimensionality in your image.
Foreground elements are also a great way to guide your viewer’s eyes through your image. Perhaps the most common way photographers do this is by adding compositional elements such as leading lines and s-curves or by creating secondary frames.
For example, you can add a leading line in your foregrounds such as a bridge, a path or a fallen log to direct the viewers’ eyes to the waterfall.
Another way to use the foreground to highlight your subject is by adding a second frame within your composition. Think of shooting the waterfalls between trees or rocks. Positioning your subject inside these frames is especially useful when photographing wide scenes. The secondary frame keeps your viewer’s attention in a smaller area and prevents it from wandering loosely around the wide frame.
19. Avoid Placing Bright Water at the Edges of the Frame
Many images of waterfalls feature flowing water positioned in the foreground. This is fine, as long as you do not place the flowing water at the edge of your frame. Otherwise, the white water will draw the viewer’s eye outwards and away from your focal point.
When using moving water as a foreground, try taking a few steps back to position the water a little closer to the center of the frame.
In instances when you are unable to do so, consider using post-processing tools to lower the brightness of the white water. To do this, you can use Photoshop sliders such as curves, levels, or tools such as vignette and dodge and burn.
20. Watch Your Highlights
Waterfalls are bright, reflective subjects. So, I recommend marginally underexposing the waterfall. Doing so will preserve as much detail as possible. While this may leave parts of your scene underexposed, you could almost always recover the rest of the digital information in post-processing if you are shooting in RAW using a DSLR.
Keep in mind that it’s ok to have your light source slightly overexposed when shooting with backlighting. This is especially true if you plan to include the sun in your picture. Just be sure not to go overboard with the highlights as you shoot waterfalls. Doing so will eliminate some of the details in the water, which you can’t get back in the editing process.
21. Get Wet
It’s human nature to want to stay dry and comfortable. But, you can get incredible waterfall photos by standing in the stream around the waterfall. From this angle, you can hone in on interesting objects in the foreground, as well as shoot from extremely low angles.
Be careful and take all safety measures needed to move around the waterfall. Be sure to wet your feet for traction, too.
Once you feel safe and comfortable in the stream, you’ll find that the stream itself is a fantastic compositional tool. The long, winding nature of a stream, and well as its relationship to the waterfall, can add meaning and balance to your image.
22. Include a Reference Item
One of the biggest challenges of photographing waterfalls is that it can be difficult to demonstrate its scale. To provide a sense of scale, include a reference point to your composition.
Plants, rocks, bridges, and wildlife are all great examples of elements you can use to demonstrate the immensity of the waterfall.
Including a Reference Item is also a great wat to create a more unique and engaging image. Many waterfall photos tend to look very much alike and the use of interesting objects is an effective way to overcome this.
Adding a reference point in your composition immerses the viewer into the scene in a way that can turn a mediocre photo into an engrossing one.
23. Find a Focal Point
Waterfall scenes typically contain plenty of detail, which is why it’s important that your composition has a clear focal point as not to confuse your viewers.
Some examples of focal points commonly used in waterfall photography are rocks, bridges, a person, and the waterfall itself. Scout your location and don’t stop until you find an interesting focal point. Doing so will ensure you create a photo that’s well balanced and engaging.
24. Edit Your Image
Let’s say that you’ve completed your waterfall shoot. You navigated the camera settings and composition perfectly. Now, the final step is to edit the RAW image files.
It’s one thing to take a photo, quite another to edit it to perfection. Editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom are valuable investments to your images’ quality.
You can upload RAW files into Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop and make drastic changes to your image quality such as saturation, contrast, color balance, sharpness, and countless others.
To edit my images, I primarily use Photoshop. But, you may want to try out both of these editing platforms to see which one works best for you.
If you don’t like Photoshop and Lightroom or are looking for a free version, there are a few options. The best free option is GIMP, it offers most of the same mid-level photo editing features that Photoshop and Lightroom offer. Although it is lacking in the more advanced features, for most people this free software is sufficient.
Other free photo-editing options include Ashampoo Photo Optimizer which offers decent editing tools but not as much as GIMP or photoshop.
If you are looking for basic features and are comfortable with Adobe then Photoshop Express Editor is another great option. Keep in mind that it is a trimmed down version of photoshop that is completely web-based but it great for adjusting features like exposure and white balance.
25. Pay Attention to the Trees
While using slow shutter speeds is great for capturing the movement of the waterfall, it can cause problems with the surrounding terrain. Even the subtlest wind can make the leaves and branches of trees surrounding the waterfall to appear soft and blurry.
One way to fix this is by taking multiple image of the waterfalls with varying shutter speeds.
Once you’ve gotten that perfect shot of the waterfall, take a close look at the surroundings in the image. If there are moving elements in your frame, take a shot with a fast shutter speed to freeze that motion. Try playing with your settings in the 1/100 range, or even faster.
If you need more light, remove your ND filter. You may also need to widen your aperture and boost your ISO to achieve the necessary shutter speed. Just take care that your image sharpness isn’t lost. Once you’re at home, you can combine these images using Photoshop and layer masks.
Practice will improve your waterfall images more than any expert tip or strategy. So, research local waterfalls that you can access easily.
Go out and shoot these waterfalls several times throughout the year. You’ll discover how the falls change with the seasons and appear in different light conditions. You can also become accustomed to the area surrounding the waterfalls and scout interesting foreground elements, like rocks, leaves, and logs. Simply put, with practice and experience, you take your waterfall photography to new heights.
In this post, we’ve explored how to harness the movements of waterfalls to create compelling images. While your safety is always the number one priority, don’t be afraid to take risks. Just remember that learning photography is just as much about studying as it is about practicing. Trial and error is the best way to help you learn. So grab your gear and begin on your hunt for a dazzling waterfall to photograph.