One of life’s simple truths: you can’t walk past a waterfall without taking a photo of it. That would just be wrong!
But you don’t often get a chance to go back and do it over again, either, so you’d better make sure you get it right. Waterfalls are elusive creatures – and by that I mean that getting to them often requires a certain amount of effort, such as a long drive and/or a long hike. If you don’t get the right shot the first time you either have to hike in again or forget the whole endeavor. And waterfalls that aren’t secluded have the annoying extra problem of being surrounded by a lot of other people, most of whom are also trying to capture that perfect photo.
Here’s how to guarantee you’ll come home from that hike with plenty of beautiful waterfall pictures.
First off, you’ll need a camera with the ability to select aperture or shutter priority mode. Even better if your camera allows you to use manual mode. Something else you can’t do without is a tripod. Have you ever seen those beautiful shots of waterfalls that look misty and almost ethereal? Those photos are shot at slow shutter speeds, and are impossible to capture without a tripod.
Leave your super long lenses at home. For waterfall photos (and most landscapes) you’ll need a wider angle zoom lens, such as 16-85mm or something in that range.
Bring a polarizing filter. This will help eliminate unwanted glare and reflections in the water, and can also help prevent washing out of the sky, which is almost inevitable when shooting at slow shutter speeds.
Don’t get caught out by the seasons. Waterfalls almost always look best in late spring or early summer, so you’ll be disappointed if you wait until the fall and make the one hour hike to an otherwise beautiful waterfall that’s now running like a garden hose in a kiddie pool. So choose your location carefully and plan your trip for the time of year when the falls are expected to look their best. When in doubt, call park services (if there is one) and ask a ranger.
If you have to drive to your destination, it might be a good idea to camp there or find a place to stay overnight so you can get up early, pack your gear, and arrive at the falls in the early hours of daylight. Or bring a flashlight so you can shoot just before dusk and hike out after sunset. The lower light makes it easier to take the longer exposures needed to capture the silky water. Also, the light has a slightly warmer tone at those times of day, and if you’re going to do all that work to hike out to and photograph a waterfall, you need to make sure it’s done in the most beautiful light possible.
Overcast days are also good for waterfall photos, since the clouds help filter out the bright sunlight that can cause images to look too contrasty. Because waterfalls appear mostly white, there is a lot of natural contrast in the scenery that can tempt a camera’s meter into underexposing the water. The even, flat light of an overcast day will do a lot to improve your waterfall images.
The camera settings you use are as important as the equipment you take.
First, pick the lowest ISO possible (on most cameras this is 100). A lower ISO gives you a better image quality, but it also allows you to slow down the shutter speed enough so you can capture the motion of the water. Set up your camera on your tripod and experiment with different shutter speeds. Your aim is to try and pair a slow shutter speed (1 to 2 seconds, or possibly even slower) with a fairly large f number. This will allow you to capture movement in the water while maintaining a greater depth of field, which will prevent any important elements from falling out of focus.
Try different combinations of shutter speed and aperture (f-number) until you find a combination that correctly exposes the waterfall (ie it’s not too dark and not too bright).
Of course, there’s no rule that says you absolutely must capture the motion of the water. Make sure to take plenty of shots at a higher shutter speed, too, so you can decide later which version you like better. Moving water shot with a slow shutter speed conveys tranquility, while water shot with a higher shutter speed can convey a greater sense of power. If your subject is a big, fast-moving waterfall that might be just what you want in your finished photo.
If your camera has a manual or bracket setting, use it. Get a few exposures at the shutter speed and aperture your camera suggests, then take a few shots at the next slowest shutter speed and then at the next highest. This will give you a series of slightly different exposures to choose from when you are home and ready to print your images.
Most DSLRs will allow you to shoot in RAW rather than in JPEG format. The advantage of RAW is that it can capture details in highlights and shadows that would otherwise be lost in the basic JPEG format. Slow shutter speeds that capture beautiful movement in water have the disadvantage of creating “blown-out” (white) skies, which will detract from the overall beauty of the scene. Shooting in RAW with an exposure compensation of -1 or -2 EV will capture detail and color in the sky but give you a slightly underexposed photo. Because it was shot in RAW, though, you can easily use Photoshop Elements to correct the exposure and bring out the details in the shadows without losing those in the sky.
Apart from the litter that has probably been left at your beautiful scene by some careless hiker, pay attention to elements – natural or otherwise – that may detract from the beauty of the image. Bare limbs, debris in the water, gawking hikers and other distracting things should be angled out of the photo or physically removed, if possible (though not the gawking hikers, because that would get you in other kinds of trouble).
Alternately, make sure you pay attention to the elements you do want to capture – namely the water. Different parts of the waterfall move at different speeds, from a gentle trickle to a cascade. Experiment with shutter speed in these areas, and see what kinds of results you end up with. Experiment with angles, too – you can make a towering waterfall look even more impressive by shooting from ground level up. You can even make a smaller waterfall look imposing with the same technique.
Fortunately, your waterfall isn’t going to go dashing off into the trees like a deer or a squirrel, so take your time, move your tripod around, experiment with different camera settings and points of view and bring home plenty of photos. It probably won’t be easy to get back to that waterfall if you’re not happy with your pictures, so spend as much time there as you can. And watch out for that slippery rock.