Whether you are passionate about photography or just starting out, chances are that many of you are interested in nature or landscape photography. This is indeed an aspect that I find really nice to practice your passion and discover beautiful places. In this article, we’ll talk about photographing waterfalls: how to do this, how to shoot, frame, capture the scene, with what equipment, what you need to know, etc.
We all have in mind the beautiful waterfall pictures with the silky smooth effects on the water, as in movement, and you are probably wondering how to obtain the same results on your pictures? I’ll be giving you here 5 tips for a successful waterfall picture.
You might think that you can take pictures of waterfalls all day long… And yes, this is possible, but depending on the surrounding luminosity, your picture may be very pale with very little contrast. The idea is therefore to choose the right day and especially the right hours to take your picture.
If you try to photograph waterfalls in the middle of the day in full sunlight for example, you’ll run into several problems: the sky may be too white (we will talk more about this below), the water movements will also be too bright (sometimes “burnt” as they say) and your camera may have trouble getting the right exposure between the different parts of the scene. In short, it’s generally not ideal.
On the contrary, the idea is to focus on days when the light is softer, cloudy days for example. The difference of light between your plans will be less important and your photo will normally be better balanced.
As a general rule, a few hours before and after sunset, these famous “golden hours” are ideal for obtaining beautiful, soft and colorful lights. The ambient light will be low and taking the picture will be easier.
Examples of waterfall pictures in undergrowth (left) and during the golden hours (right)
If you’re looking into taking a nice waterfall picture, I would give priority to the undergrowth with vegetation to put in front or in the background. You can also use a polarizing filter to bring out the “green” side of the scene in front of you, as well as to eliminate reflections (water and leaves). We’ll talk about this more at the end of the article.
An essential point, try to avoid windy days as much as possible. You will otherwise end up with some of the foliage blurred during a long exposure.
Last advice, if you have located a good spot not far from where you live for example, arrange to go and see the site at different times of the day to find out where the sun will be and how much brightness you can expect on your waterfall. Depending on the time of day and the type of photo you want to take (long exposure for example), the use of additional photo equipment is required (camera lens filter, tripod, etc.).
This is a rather delicate point to mention as it is probably a matter of individual taste and mainly depends on the time of day. Let me explain. When you decide to take a photo of a waterfall, you have several ways of looking at it:
Either you don’t have any particular equipment at your disposal and you simply want to immortalize the place. In this case, you will take the photo hand-held and the shutter speed will most likely be too fast to achieve a smooth and blurry effect of the scene. You will usually freeze the waterfall, which in my opinion is not very aesthetic and not too much in relation to the reality of the scene (in motion),
To get a more real effect of the scene, so to speak, you’ll have to use a slower shutter speed. For this, you can still get by without a tripod as long as you stay within acceptable hand-held speeds. The best range here is between 1/40 and 1/100. With this exposure time, you will get a slight silky water effect on the waterfall and the water,
Finally, to get the “ghosting” effect of the moving scene (the kind of beautiful pictures you see in reports!), an even slower shutter speed will be necessary, very often below 1/10s. This here is a particular photographic technique called long-exposure photography. The idea is simply to give your picture a stylish effect by shooting the scene very slowly. This necessarily requires the use of a tripod.
In this technique, two points are important to note:
- The amount of blur you wish to obtain: You can indeed decide to give a light blur effect with a shot between 1/10 and 1s, which is more than enough to achieve this effect. On large waterfalls with a very high flow, it may be interesting to apply longer exposure times to give a vaporous effect at the foot of the waterfall, a mystical side to the scene. The more water, flow and peculiarities you have there (rock, vegetation, etc.), the more pronounced this effect will be,
- The time of day and the place where you take the picture: This is a key point because depending on the time of day it may or may not be necessary to use camera lens filters to reduce the brightness of the scene. To make a long story short, in the middle of the day and in sunlight, the light of the scene will often be too strong to obtain a silky effect on a waterfall. You will have no choice but to use an ND filter (neutral density filter). In undergrowth, this point will be less significant as the ambient light will be softer. You will therefore by default have a lower shutter speed displayed on your camera. In the evening or in the morning, the light will also be very soft and you will not necessarily need to use a filter to achieve the motion effect. Want to know more on how to take a long exposure in photography?
Another very important point when photographing waterfalls is the exposure of the scene. You’re going to tell me, like in all pictures, right? In fact, the particularity of a waterfall photo is that, like in landscape photography, you will sometimes have a dark foreground (rock, ground, soil) and a brighter background (usually the sky). In addition to this point, you will also have to manage the overexposure of the water, the white parts (those in swell).
Even if you have a top-of-the-range camera, it may have difficulty managing a correct exposure on a very contrasted scene. You’ll have less trouble in undergrowth where the scene light should be more or less even. Here are a few tips on getting the right exposure.
As a general rule, make sure to focus on moving water (brighter), the idea being to expose to the right as they say. What does this mean in practice? You have a small histogram for each picture that allows you to see the proportion of high and low lights. The highlights (on the right of the histogram) should be your priority to prevent the shadows in the scene from being underexposed. You will otherwise have to do a lot of post-processing work on the computer and will often see noise appear in these areas (not very pretty). In some cases, you may have to do exposure compensation. We’ll talk about this later.
To correctly manage your exposure when you have a sky, you can use a graduated neutral density filter (GND filter), this being darker on the upper part of the filter. You place it on the sky (brighter) to control the exposure of your picture. Concretely, it helps your camera to expose correctly when shooting (instead of adding a gradient filter on Lightroom or Photoshop).
I think this is a crucial point in many fields, including waterfall photography. I could (and I think I will) write an article on each detailed point mentioned below:
- Be careful with your foreground: most of the time you have a foreground on the waterfall picture. Look for a detail or a particular point that catches the eye: a stone, a root, a tree trunk, etc. Highlight it by using the rule of thirds and the golden ratio to catch the eye on this particular point. I will detail these notions in extensive articles. Another possibility is to “bring the waterfall” towards the eye, in other words, to make it look as if the waterfall is flowing over you,
- Watch your background as well: special care will have to be taken regarding your background, especially if it is a sky. It will be necessary to avoid at all costs a burnt-out sky. In the case of undergrowth, you will try to arrange the trees and foliage in the background as well as possible,
- Look for an unusual point of view: Most people are likely to take the picture standing with their tripod. Try moving around the scene in front of you, take a step back, gain height, move to the right or left, put your feet in the water. Just basically find something out of the ordinary. A view that changes is getting down to water level with your tripod, and placing a key element on a key point,
- Use horizontal/vertical lines: We’ll talk about this in detail in another article, but the idea is to use every possible element visible around you to guide the eye in your picture. In the case of waterfalls in the undergrowth, it will usually be a tree trunk entering the water, a dead branch falling towards a specific point, lying reeds, cracks in the ground, etc. You may also notice a U-shape, a C-shape, in short, a curve that will lead the eye towards the waterfall. This will bring dynamism to your image,
- Beware of disturbing elements: What am I talking about here? When you take a picture of a waterfall, you are often focused on it and don’t see what’s around it. You will realize this afterwards, it still happens to me today, that certain elements in the scene disturb the photo as well as your eyes. I recently took a quick shot of a waterfall (without a tripod and with the camera placed on a rock) and later realized that the stem of a taller grass ended up on one end of the waterfall. So yes, it’s not the end of the world and if you don’t have a photographer’s eye, you may never notice it, but the picture would have been better without it, that’s for sure. You can still of course delete this small error in post-production.
Last but not least, the last essential point of the article, the camera equipment that you will (or must) use for your waterfall pictures. We’re talking about photo accessories here, and I invite you to take a look at the “camera accessories” category of the blog for info on camera lens filters, tripods, and help you in your choices and uses.
- A tripod: This is the essential element and the one you should invest in first for this type of photography. You will even use it very often for classic landscape photography as soon as the light goes down, early in the morning or late at night. To shoot long exposures by the sea, it will be the same. I am finalizing an article to choose a tripod. There are all kinds of prices and everything will depend on your means, the weight of your photo equipment and your desires/practices. You can click on this link for quality tripods at affordable prices (between 150 and 300€ approximately). You can try to get out of it if not by placing your DSLR on the ground or on a rock and shooting, but the result will not often be there…we’ll say that it helps anyway!
- Camera lens filters: I talk about them a lot in the “camera accessories” category of the blog and for waterfall photography, they are in my opinion almost essential. The polarizing filter will be necessary to brighten your colors and saturate them, as well as to eliminate the reflections of water (and leaves) and to see, for example, the bottom of the river. All the photos you see of waterfalls, lakes or seaside where you can see the bottom perfectly are made using a polarizing filter immediately after the shooting. And no, for those who are wondering, it will not be possible to eliminate the reflection of the water on a computer, in post-processing. Here below are two essential elements for waterfall photography: an ND filter and a tripod.
The ND filter (neutral density filter) will be necessary in case the light is too strong and you will not be able to get a silky effect with the optimal settings of your camera body. Even if the light is low, an ND filter can be used to increase the exposure time of the picture and give an even more vaporous, mystical effect to the scene. The choice of filter density will of course depend on the situation. The use of an ND filter for this type of photo requires the use of a tripod…
Finally, the GND filter (Graduated Neutral Density) is the filter that will be the least useful in waterfall photography but can be useful if you have a real sky in the background. Since this is often brighter than the rest of the scene, using a GND filter (darker at the top of the filter) will allow you to balance the exposure of your photo when shooting.
Here is a set of GND, ND, polarizing filter and associated filter holder that I recommend with my eyes closed.
|Element||Type||Brand||Use||Series||Find the best price|
|Polarizing filter||Screw-on||Hoya||Daily||HD series||Amazon
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw-on||Hoya||Long light exposure||Hoya Pro ND16||Amazon
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw-on||B+W||Sunset/Sunrise||B+W 1.8 ND||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw-on||Hoya||Sunset/Sunrise||Hoya Pro ND 64||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Square||Lee||Sunset/Sunrise||Lee filter Little Stopper||Amazon
|Filter holder||-||Lee||For square ND filter||Lee foundation Kit||Amazon
|Adapter ring||-||Lee||To fix the filter holder||Choose according to your diameter||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw-on||Hoya||Full day/Very long exposure||ND1000||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Square||Lee||Full day/Very long exposure||ND1000||Amazon
|GND filter||Rectangular||Lee||Depends on the light||Kit 3 GND filters 0.3 / 0.6, 0.9||Amazon|
- A remote control: At the same time that you are going to use a tripod, the purchase of a remote control will be necessary. You won’t go broke here and there are simple models starting at 15€ that work very well. Again, it’s fine if you don’t have it at first, and you can always use the 10s timer on your camera. But for the price, it would be a shame to go without it, wouldn’t it?
- Something to cut the grass: it might make you smile, but the number of times I found myself cutting by hand grass, branches that bothered me… Even in landscape photography, again recently during my road trip to the USA, I had to cut several low grasses that disturbed the composition I wanted to make.
I’m coming to the end of this article where I thought I’d “keep it short”, but I finally had quite a lot to say. Remember that it is essential to think and visualize the scene you are going to take a picture of. Try to really take care of your composition so that you don’t take a picture of a waterfall in the middle of the frame, with the water frozen and the sky completely burnt…you get the idea. I can assure you, I did this several times when I first started taking pictures.
If you travel a lot, I invite you to read the 10 tips for taking great travel pictures. I hope you now understand how to photograph waterfalls? My photos personally turned out much better once I followed these tips. You now have all the keys in hand to capture more beautiful pictures.