Photographing waterfalls: Tips to get the best images

July 17, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

You might notice that I enjoy photographing waterfalls. So how do you go about getting great shots of waterfalls? Well, it's actually pretty easy and it is one of the easiest genres of landscape photography to break into. So here are a few tips I have learnt over the years. 


Let's start with the basics. Firstly, you don't need to rely on the golden hour for the best light. In fact, I find the best time to be overcast and rainy days. Waterfalls and their surrounds also often look best when the rocks and vegetation are damp from recent rain. It's gives a sparkle to everything. In saying this, be prepared to work in the wet. Good wet weather gear for yourself and for your camera is advised. Most high end mirrorless and DSLR cameras feature weather sealing, but this does not mean they are waterproof. And all of this weather sealing does nothing to protect the objective at the end of your lens from spray and rain. So bring plenty of absorbent cloths and remember to constantly check and clear your lens of any moisture. There is nothing worse to getting back and finding your images ruined by droplets on the lens (and often these droplets don't show up easily on the back of the camera).

Notice how this image appears dull and lifeless? Notice how the rocks stand out and distract they eye? Try and avoid dry conditions and wait for the sun to disappear. Sunlight through canopy into areas of deep shadow can ruin an image. 


Moving on to technique, you will want to use a small aperture most of the time. Depending on whether you want to focus stack your images or take a single exposure, you will generally need to use an aperture of between f/8 and f/18. In doing, you can achieve a couple of different effects. If your exposure is longer than 5-6 seconds, the water will start to resemble glass, with long ribbons of white trailing from the falls. The downside of a very slow shutter is that you risk creating blur in the image when the wind blows through any vegetation. If you keep your exposure between 1.5 to 3 seconds, you will generally maintain an appearance of movement on the surface of the water. You can also keep most vegetation sharp at this setting (assuming it is not blowing a gale). I find this setting works best as it helps convey speed and movement in the flow of the water. 


Nelson Falls, Tasmania

A shutter speed of between 1.5 and 3 seconds maintains movement in the water and conveys a sense of speed and power in the flow as you see above. 


Talking gear, you will probably want to invest in a neutral density filter set and a circular polariser. The neutral density filter will let you use a slower shutter speed in brighter light conditions to help convey the two effects described above. Aim for a 3 stop neutral density filter. A neutral density filter however is not always essential, as waterfalls tend to be located in areas of natural shade, meaning you will already be using a fairly slow shutter speed to begin with. This is where the circular polarizer filter becomes more important. A circular polarizer will help you cut down on reflections and sheen on the water and give the water a 'clear' look. It also has the added advantage of making any surrounding vegetation appear more vibrant and colorful. To top everything off, it goes without saying that you will need a tripod. You can't handhold images taken at shutter speeds slower than 1/25 if you want the images to be sharp. 


Lamington National Park, Australia

The best images are those using a different perspective. Get down low and create a leading line towards your subject. Place something interesting in the foreground.


Moving to composition, try and make your images three dimensional. Many falls look good in standard horizontal compositions but the most interesting images are those which build to the falls, usually by use of a leading lines and placement of objects in the foreground. Depending on the scene, you can also apply other techniques such as isolation, negative space and aspect ratios. So get your feet wet and experiment. Move around and find new angles. Focus stack your images so they are sharp all the way from the foreground to the background. Try different shutter speeds. Most importantly, leave nothing but your footprints. 






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