How to Photograph Waterfalls
Two Ways to Shoot
There are two basic methods to shooting water falls. The first is a stop action freeze frame type of shot. This is a pretty easy way to shoot a water fall, simply take a photo of a water fall with automatic setting in normal daylight and you have it. All you need is to be sure you have a fast enough shutter speed, depending on how fast the water is moving this can be anywhere from 1/30 second on up.
The second way is to create motion blur with the water, this is what most people are after when shooting a waterfall and what most of this article is about.
When to shoot
Light is the key to all great photos, soft diffused light will give the best results. In the case of waterfalls the less of it the better.
Shooting waterfalls is one of those photo subjects that falls into a category pretty much its own as to the best time to shoot them. An overcast day with a gentle rain in the spring or fall following several days of rain. This will vary with location, but in many areas the flow of water dries up in the summer months and a waterfall without water is just a pile of rocks. Most waterfalls look better with a long exposure to make the water silky smooth (the main criteria being the amount of water flowing, the greater the flow the faster the shutter speed you can use and still get a great shot. With a low water flow, the long exposure makes it look like more water is flowing than really is.
A dark overcast day makes for great waterfall photography and will allow us to slow down the exposure. When the rocks and plants around the waterfall are wet they will appear more saturated and have deeper color, so a nice gentle mist is ideal. A heavy downfall will obstruct you view of the waterfall.
A camera that you can manually set the shutter speed and aperture will work the best. When shooting waterfalls we are basically doing everything wrong according to the auto programs that cameras have, so we need to manually override all settings.
There are two filters that you need for shooting waterfalls, a polarizer and neutral density filter.
Polarizer - A filter used to increase the contrast in skies and reduce reflections on water, glass, and most everything else. If you photograph outside this is an essential piece of equipment. The polarizer filter works by blocking out the rays of light that are bouncing around and coming in at an angle (reflected) and only letting in the light rays coming directly from the subject. (Ok, it’s really more complicated than that, just know that it makes your images better.) Be sure that you get a circular polarizer if you have autofocus or TTL metering or it could cause problems.
Neutral Density – filter (ND filter) creates a reduction in light that is neutral ( does not change the color) for the film or sensor area. This filter is often used to allow for longer exposure times, or larger apertures, where these settings would normally create overexposure in the camera. Neutral Density filters come in different strengths and each reduces the exposure according to it’s strength. Below is a list of typical ND filter markings and their effects.
|Attenuation Factor||Filter Optical Density||f-Stop Reduction||% transmittance|
This is a must have for the long exposures needed to blur the water.
A cable release or wireless remote trigger for your camera should be used anytime you are taking long exposures.
Soft Lens Cloth
Shooting waterfalls is usually a wet situation, either from the weather or from mist and spry from the waterfall itself, be sure to bring a lens cleaning cloth to keep spots off the lens.
On most modern digital cameras you cannot get a motion blur waterfall shot using any of the program settings, they are designed not to blur your photos. I generally recommend shooting in manual mode so that you have complete control of the camera settings.
Again to keep the shutterspeed slow you need to set the ISO to lowest setting that you can (100 on most cameras). This will also give you the sharpest image with the least noise.
Set a small aperture so that you can have a long exposure time and for the greatest “Depth of Field” so that your entire image is in focus.
This is the key to most waterfall shots, getting a slow enough shutter speed to blur the moving water. How long is that? Usually about 1 to 2 seconds will do the trick, longer makes for smoother water. I have water fall shots that are about 20 seconds long. While you are shooting take shots at different shutter speeds (be sure to compensate your exposure with aperture and neutral density filters) and then choose the one you like best, that’s the correct exposure!
Now that you know exactly how to get that nice silky smooth waterfall shot like you see from all the pro’s don’t forget about the composition. Most waterfall shots are landscapes, so our basic rules of landscape composition apply. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into all the composition rules, but I will list some of them for your consideration. Also remember that all rules are made to be broken.
- Rule of Thirds
- Diagonal Lines
- Geometric Shapes
- Leading Lines
- S Curve
Please keep your safety in mind when shooting waterfalls. Wet rocks are slick. Many waterfalls are waterfalls because they are on cliffs and drop-offs, use caution and do not exceed your abilities. Never cross a creek or river if you cannot see the bottom.