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Home Composition How to Photograph Waterfalls: The Ultimate Guide

How to Photograph Waterfalls: The Ultimate Guide

Waterfalls are some of the most picturesque landscape features to photograph, and if you’re hoping to get into landscape photography professionally, capturing those perfect waterfall images is like a rite of passage. But, waterfall photography comes with its own unique set of challenges since it can be difficult to achieve the long exposures necessary to create that creamy blur of fast-moving water in the daylight.

So, what do you do for this type of photography? Let’s start with the most important point–safety. 

Safety First

Because you’ll be hiking in the woods, and when you arrive at your scene, you’ll be focusing on the waterfall, you need to make sure you stay safe. Getting great pictures of waterfalls isn’t worth risking your life. All the normal safety rules for hiking apply: 

waterfall in a remote area.
Since capturing spectacular waterfall images means hiking into remote areas, you’ll want to make sure you stay safe.
  • Bring a first aid kit that minimally includes bandaids, moleskin, triple antibiotic ointment, insect bite ointment, sunburn relief, and pain relievers; 
  • Carry plenty of water and drink frequently to stay hydrated; 
  • Be sure to dress appropriately and bring warm clothing in case the weather turns; 
  • Take a multitool or Swiss Army-style knife; 
  • Bring a paper map in case your cell phone dies or map apps don’t work where you are; 
  • Don’t forget your cell phone with GPS location; 
  • Always carry a headlamp or other type of light (make sure the batteries are charged); 
  • Bring shelter (i.e., a tent) if you’re hiking for more than a day; 
  • Bring a power bank for recharging GPS, smartphone, headlamp, and compact camera, particularly if you’re gone for more than one day. 

Once you’re all set for safety, the next thing to consider is what gear you will need when photographing waterfalls. 


What Kind of Gear Do You Need? 

The most essential gear you’ll need for stunning waterfall pictures is a camera that can shoot on manual mode. You’ll also want a tripod. If that’s all you can afford right now, that’ll work just fine to photograph waterfalls. That is, that’ll work with a little planning.

Since waterfalls are often located at the bottom of canyons, you can plan for a time of day when you don’t have sunlight hitting the water. If you get there in the morning or late in the afternoon, you’ll have enough shadow that you can take long exposures for a great creamy blur. If you’ve got a little room in your photography budget for a few more things, here’s a list that will make your job a bit easier:

bag, camera, lenses, and tripod for photographing waterfalls.
Photographing waterfalls, like any other subject, requires the right gear.
  • Polarizing filter: A circular polarising filter, or CPL, will help you remove any reflections from non-metallic surfaces, like the reflections from green tree leaves and water pools. That will enable you to see the bottom of the stream in the image or the rocks below the water. Additionally, with the CPL, you’ll lose almost a stop of light, and that will help you get interesting exposure times. This accessory item is good for many other photography niches too. 
  • Remote Shutter:  This will help you avoid camera shake and blurry images. It also means you don’t have to be so close to the camera to get your shot. And, with the use of a cable instead of Bluetooth, IR, or WiFi, you won’t need batteries. And, you won’t risk dropping your phone in the water. To protect the remote shutter, you can wrap it in a little plastic bag to protect it. 
  • ND Filters: An ND filter is short for neutral density filter. It can be used in low light scenarios to produce very long exposures for waterfall photography. The denser the filter the longer the exposure, even more than 30 seconds with a very dense filter. That long exposure results in a silky and smooth water movement, but if you go too long, everything else in the image will be blurry. So, dial it back a bit to let a few drops of water mark the flow. That will generate great interest around the waterfall itself. 
  • GND Filters: These are graduated neutral density filters. These help control the light hitting the camera sensor that can help when you’re not completely in the shade. They help manage the light and give you more flexibility in deciding which element to emphasize and which to hide. 
  • Camera Bag: Choosing the right bag to carry your equipment is crucial for waterfall photography. You want a bag that can fit all of your equipment as well as keep it dry. And, you have to consider your comfort as well. You also need enough room for water, snacks, your phone, and any extra clothing, since you’ll be hiking to get to your subject. The right bag should evenly distribute the weight on your back, and a great feature is a bag with a day compartment for your personal items that is separate from where you store your camera equipment. 
  • Lens Hood: This is another item that is helpful for many photography niches. It helps reduce flares and it adds an extra layer of protection for the front of your camera lens element against impacts. 
  • Rain Sleeve: Since you’ll not only be hiking, but you’ll be near water, this will give you extra protection against water and dust. 
  • Lens Cleaning Kit: It’s dirty out in the woods, so you’ll want to bring a kit that will help you dust off and dry your equipment. A microfiber cloth, a rocket air blower, and a lens pen are the essential parts of your lens cleaning kit. 
  • Extras: It always pays to bring extra batteries and memory cards since you won’t be able to run out and get more if you need them. 


Compose Your Shot

Before you begin setting up, you want to walk around and look through your viewfinder to explore the possible angles and camera positions. You want to think about the angle you should use. It’s often better to have some kind of angle rather than shooting directly in front of the falls. You’ll also want to plan some close up shots, so look for areas where you can zoom in. Also, be sure your shot has some interesting foreground elements, like rocks and flowers or other plants. 

waterfall with colorful foliage.
When composing your shots, you’ll want to include interesting elements around the waterfall.

Getting Set Up on Scene

The choices you make for setting up on scene are very important. You need to decide if you want to stay back from the waterfall to capture the entire view or would you like to be in closer for more detail. You want to consider what you want included in the foreground as well as what might be distracting and should be eliminated. When you decide on your location and how close you want to be, you’ll want to examine your subject more closely. 

You also want to consider the natural lines of the waterfall with this type of photography. You’ll need to pay attention to the shape of the waterfall and how the curve draws the viewer’s eye through the image. If it doesn’t look like your waterfall has a curve, scope out a different angle or shoot from the side. You also want to be sure to include something in the frame that isn’t moving, like rocks or foliage.

Once you find the right location to include what you want, set up your tripod and add any filters you want to use–it’s usually good to use at least a polarizing filter, but keep the ND filters ready should you need them. After you’re set up, it’s time to start shooting. 

waterfall in a hidden tropical jungle.
When composing your waterfall scene, you’ll want to consider how the curves of the waterfall lead the viewer’s eyes throughout the image.

Camera Settings for Shooting Waterfalls

The next thing you need to know is what camera settings you should use for photographing a waterfall. Shooting waterfalls is all about getting the right exposure. That means getting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings just right so you can capture the waterfall in all its glory.

Aperture

Of course, your exposure settings for shooting waterfalls, like other subjects, always depend on the lighting conditions, but in general, you’ll want to shoot in Aperture Mode, or if shooting in manual mode (which is recommended), set your aperture to the narrowest setting. That will give the maximum depth of field.  A larger depth of field helps you keep more of the waterfall in focus, and you can use a slow shutter speed with a narrow aperture for great effect. 

Shutter Speed

There’s no single correct shutter speed with waterfall photography. But, if you want to capture the moving water, choose a slow shutter speed for a long exposure. Somewhere from 0.3 seconds up to several seconds usually works best. If you’re shooting in automatic mode, you can set your camera to shutter priority. But, if you’re shooting in manual mode, a good rule to photograph waterfalls is to start with a shutter speed of 1 second.

If that works, great. If not, move your shutter speed up from there until you get the desired level of blurring. Once you’ve achieved that, you can adjust the other settings to get the perfect exposure for shooting waterfalls. Again, you can also use a neutral density filter (ND filter) to lengthen your exposure time.

landscape view of waterfall.
A slow shutter speed lets you create that creamy waterfall blur.

ISO

To capture those stunning waterfall photos, you usually want your ISO as low as it will go, typically around ISO 100. ISO 100 will reduce your camera’s sensitivity, and allow you to use a slow shutter speed without overexposing the waterfall. It also reduces the level of digital noise in your photos. 

White Balance and Highlights

When you want to photograph waterfalls, you should manage these settings in the field rather than trying to fix them in post-production. There are some exposures that you can’t recover in the post-production process, and highlights and white balance are so important for photographing a waterfall. Even silky water can be shot so that you can see the smallest details. To achieve this, keep your histogram well balanced. You will likely want to move it a little to the left–toward the shadows. A GND filter can help if it keeps shifting to the right. 

Shoot in RAW

With almost any kind of photography, shooting in RAW gives you more flexibility with post-production processing. This particularly true with your waterfall photos. For most images, it’s likely you’ll need to do some post-production processing. For that, you’ll want that added flexibility by setting your camera to shoot in RAW..


How the Season Affects Your Choices

As a matter of fact, the time of year does make a difference for waterfall photography. In the late spring, those waterfalls at a lower altitude are full, which will make them more scenic, but also more dangerous. Those at higher altitudes could still be icy, which will make them dryer, but more difficult to access.

photograph of a frozen waterfall in winters.
Waterfalls in winter can provide you with a surrealistic waterfall photograph.

In the summertime, the low-altitude waterfalls can dry up because of the intense sun and heat. Autumn brings more rain along with cool temperatures, and that will increase the water flow. Also, the changing colors of the leaves will make for great accent features. The wintertime brings ice and the waterfalls can freeze over, but those ice falls make for great images as well. And, sometimes the falls are not completely frozen, making for some stunning photographs. 

These tips will help you get started on photographing those spectacular waterfalls. Before you know it, you will be experienced in this photography niche. And, the bonus is you get to enjoy the great outdoors too. Remember to stay safe, bring the right gear including your camera and a tripod. Compose your shot, set up correctly, and adjust your aperture (narrow), shutter speed (slow) and ISO (ISO 100) for the available light. Also, consider what kind of shot you want and whether it is the appropriate season for what you want. This kind of photography is exciting and rewarding. With a good camera, a tripod, and the right motivation, you’ll be on your way to getting great waterfall photographs. 

waterfall in Cao Bang, Viet Nam.
You can avoid the winds generated by a waterfall by adjusting your camera settings or relocating.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How can you handle the breeze around the waterfall?

Heavy flows of water can create their own wind. To resolve this problem, you can try adjusting some of your camera settings, like increasing the shutter speed, but that may through off your other settings. You can try raising your ISO settings or increasing the aperture, but both of those solutions can create other problems. Ultimately, the best solution might be to relocate to a place where the breeze is less of a factor.

How to avoid blurry water when photographing waterfalls?

You might not want to blur the movement of water, preferring instead to freeze the motion. To do that, you would increase your shutter speed to capture the movement. Shutter speeds of 1/1250 can be used to freeze the movement of the water. The blur effect is produced by using slower shutter speeds for longer exposures. Freezing the motion can create an image that emphasizes the intensity of the water flow, while blurring the action creates a pleasing effect.

What’s the best time of day for shooting waterfalls?

The best time of day for photographing waterfalls is generally either the early morning or late afternoon. Since most waterfalls are at the bottom of a canyon, shooting at these times of day will allow you to capture the falls without direct sunlight hitting the water. That produces a more even exposure and allows you to use slower shutter speeds. That generally produces better shots, and makes for cooler temperatures while hiking as well. Alternatively, you can wait for an overcast day for the same reason. 


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