Taking great pictures of waterfalls requires certain techniques and equipment. Once you begin to see the results you desire, the motivation for capturing waterfalls can become an obsession! Add the brilliance of fall foliage or frozen water and you will have some spectacular and original images.
Most of all, it is really not that difficult to make great images with a few essential tips and gear. We are dealing with an already spectacular subject, so here’s a guide to take your waterfall photos from good to great!
First and foremost, be aware of the dangers of hiking near waterfalls:
- The rocks can be extremely slippery.
- Over time, moss develops on them and you may not even see it in dry weather.
- Trails may erode based on the volume of water.
- Be aware of how close you get to the edge – as they say, it is closer than it appears!
People get seriously injured and die from not taking the proper precautions by getting caught up in the momement and being awed by the beauty of their surroundings, or just trying to be the next Instagram star. Don’t be that person we read about in the news!
1. Waterfall Conditions
Let’s break down the basics of a waterfall:
a. Moving water
b. Rocks and landscape
c. Foliage that changes seasonally
d. Weather conditions
e. Time of day
Ricketts Glen State Park, PA, on a sunny fall day. Canon 18-135mm, f/14, 3.2 sec, ISO 100
Now let’s get into a little more detail about each point and how it may affect your photography:
a. Moving Water: The volume of water produced in a waterfall depends on the season. There might be an endless supply of gushing water or just a mere trickle. Typically in the beginning of Spring and after snowmelt, there is an abundance of gushing water. This will also happen after a major rainfall and weather event, such as a hurricane. This can be also be regional. In most cases, the water flow eventually decreases. So, how does this affect your photos?
– A sheer abundance of water in the Spring may look good captured at a high / fast shutter speed, but may look like a giant “blob” if you slow it down.
– When the water volume is moderate or light, it is easier to get the silky, highly desirable look that is done by slowing down the shutter speed. However, this is also a matter of taste – you have to experiment with settings to get the desired amount of detail or blur in your water.
– A fast shutter and/or a large depth of field (high f-stop number) will produce a lot of detail in your image. If you are trying to focus on a specific part of the scene, a wide aperture (small f/#) will allow you to focus in and blur out the more undesirable parts of the scene.
b. How you compose the scene will make a difference on the final result of your image. Simple changes, such as moving up, down, to the left or right or you image can eliminate distracting objects (and people).
You may also want to ADD a few elements to enhance the seasonality of the image. For example, place a few newly-fallen brightly colored leaves on a foreground rock to draw the viewer into the scene and encapsulate the season – Fall in this instance.
c. Perhaps the most enjoyable time for shooting waterfalls is in the fall. The stunning colors can also illuminate the water and adds a new layer of interest and warmth. However, don’t forget about the other seasons, if you are so fortunate!
For example, if you live in a climate with freezing temps in winter (like most of us!), frozen waterfalls are a special scene. After a long, cold and bleak winter, some simple green foliage is a welcome sign of life in Spring, which also brings an abundant supply of water.
d. Weather conditions may affect the flow of water dramatically in the most natural occurrences of water flow. For example, in mid-summer without much rainfall, many streams and rivers will not produce the supply of water that is adequate for capturing decent waterfall shots.
On the contrast, if a major storm just blew in, there might be so much water flowing out that it may be dramatic and editorial, but not exactly ideal for a beautiful and calming capture.
e. Time of day can dramatically influence the results of your photos, depending on location. For example, if you are deep in the woods with a heavy forest canopy, the time of day will not matter very much. However, if there is a beautiful river waterfall in a gorge without a lot of tree cover, it will look harsh and blown out most of the day. Think of the Grand Canyon as a prime example and scale down from there.
Top of Fulmer Falls at Childs Park, Poconos, PA, Autumn. Canon 18-135mm, f/18, 3.2sec, ISO 100
2. Recommended Gear – What you should bring with you
Depending on the type of image you want to create, your equipment needs may vary. For example, if you just have your smartphone and want to do a quick “selfie”, you will achieve this with the waterfall moving in real time.
In order to capture the silky-water effect, a tripod is required, unless there is a surface to put your camera that is absolutely still. However, your composition will be compromised. So, here’s what you will need for maximum flexibility and artistic freedom:
Not only will this allow you to stabilize the camera and create long-exposure images, but it will force you to slow down as really compose the shot you want. Here are my recommendations:
I’ve had my MeFoto tripod for over five years and it’s been through water, rocks, mud, sand, wind and falls and it’s still sturdy as heck and supports a 400mm lens. Check them out on Amazon.
There are lots of great options for camera phone tripods. I would go for this sturdy Aluminum tripod, which also includes a remote for selfies!
b. Neutral-Density (ND) Filters.
Time of day and weather conditions are important factors to consider when photographing waterfalls. However, plans don’t always work out as expected. Perhaps you’re on a road trip and happen to spot a scenic spot with some moving water, but it is quite bright outside.
What can you do? Tack on your ND filter!
When you create a long-exposure image, the shutter is open for a longer period of time, allowing more light to enter. The ND filter is a gray filter that blocks out some of the light hitting your sensor.
It has a number on it, 2, 4, 8, 10, which is the darkness level. The higher the number, the darker the filter. They can also be stacked if you only have one or two filters.
Ultimately, for every stop of ND filter, the light entering the camera is cut by half. In order to maintain the same exposure, the shutter speed needs to be doubled.
Here is a four-pack bundle of filters from Neweer, which is highly popular and worth trying. They are not the best, but definitely worth having, especially if you are just starting out.
Make sure you get the right size – check your lens diameter (will be in “mm”). These are 67mm to fit my 18-135mm and 10-18mm wide angle lenses.
If you have a very expensive lens, I would recommend better filters. Tiffen makes a quality GLASS filter, which is a steep upgrade from the resin Neweer lenses.
c. Circular Polarizer Filter.
This will remove reflections from the water’s surface. A good time to use this is when you have a pool of water or river rocks in the foreground.
The CPL filter will allow these details to show through under the water. If you are filling the frame with the waterfall, the ND filter is a better choice in this instance.
Minnewaska State Park, NY, Fall. Canon 10-18mm, f/22, 1.25 sec, ISO100, with CPL filter.
The CPL filter cuts through water to show colorful leaves on the bottom of the lake.
d. Lens cloth.
Waterfalls often produce water spray, that will eventually make it to your lens. The same will happen if you are shooting in fog, near the ocean, on a windy day.
It is always advisable to clean your lens before and during shooting.
These lens cloths are great to have with you at all times.
3. Camera Settings
Now that you know what type of gear is needed, let’s get into the camera settings. They will be different, depending on what type of effect you are going for.
a. Silky Water
This is a good approach to take when the water flow is average or low. Here in the Northeast, summers get hot and dry and the volume of water decreases.
In order to create the silky water effect, you will need to slow down your shutter speed, typically one second or longer. When you add the ND filter, as described above, this will also alter you shutter speed time. There is no easy answer because the result will depend on your personal taste and the lighting conditions. However, the ISO should always be set to the lowest number possible (usually 100).
Next, set your camera to Shutter Priority mode (Tv or S) and select a shutter speed. Start with one second and adjust from there. The setting for one second will look like 1″. This is easiest setting to experiment with shutter speed.
Another way to control the shutter is to stop down the Aperture (Av), which decreases the size (diameter) of the lens aperture, reducing the amount of light entering the lens. The larger the number, the smaller the opening and the longer the shutter will need to remain open. It will also make more of the scene in focus. I usually start with f/11 and stop down from there, i.e., f/13, f/18, and so on.
Ultimately, you will want to move to Manual mode (M), whereas you are in total control of the settings. Based on what you’ve learned here, you know the ISO should be set at 100. Start with and f/stop such as f/11. Finally, adjust your shutter speed. Start with one second and move up or down from there.
Factory Falls in Autumn, Childs Park, Pocono Mountains, PA. Canon 18-135mm, f/11, 1.3sec, ISO 100
b. Freezing Water
After a storm or after a big thaw in the springtime, there is typically a large volume of water. A slow shutter might make the water look like a big white “blob”, so you might try freezing the motion. This is good news if you do not have filters or even a tripod with you. You can even capture the water droplets surrounding a strong current for a realistic and powerful effect.
If you don’t have a tripod with you and you’re in the forest, you will need to increase the ISO. Start with ISO 200 or 400. Use a larger aperture to get a faster shutter speed. This will depend on your lens, but a good average is f/5.6.
c. Creative Shots
You may be on a hike near a stream and come across a small “waterfall” that is worth capturing, but the rest of the scene might be surrounded by a bunch of branches.
What to do?
Compose your shot – with the tripod – and use Aperture Priority (Av) in order to adjust the depth of field. If you are zooming in on the detail, a wider aperture (smaller number) such as f/5.6, or wider, f/4, might help to focus directly on the subject.
Raymondskill Falls, PA
f/22, 4sec, ISO 100
If you come across some falling water surrounded by beautiful moss or leaves, you might want to capture all the detail.
Here, with the tripod, stop down the aperture, start with f/8, then move to f/11, to capture more of the detail in the scene.
In this image, we have a low flow of cascading water, some beautiful green moss, and a large accumulation of golden leaves (looks like Alder leaves) to capture the fall season.
4. Other Considerations
Decide on what makes the location unique. You will probably be in awe upon first arrival, but make sure to walk around and get some different viewpoints. This will also allow your photo to stand out from others.
Depending on your camera, you may have the ability to shot in RAW file format. This will allow you to adjust your settings in “post”, also known as post-processing.
RAW format provides the most detail and the most flexibility. A program such as Adobe Lightroom is very popular for post-processing your images. You can even apply the same adjustments to all of your files, known as batch processing.
Ricketts Glen State Park, PA
Canon 18-135mm, f/22, 4 sec ISO 100
Photographing waterfalls is a lot of fun and will be extremely rewarding as your skills progress. Experiment with long and short exposures, try different filters, and focus in on details when possible. Be sure to pack your bag with lens cloths.
And remember, safety is a priority – rocks and mud around moving water are slippery – wear the right gear. I’ve even used my tripod to help stabilize myself in certain instances!
Most of all, be patient and have fun!
Check out more tips about Fall Photography on my blog!
Note about Child’s Park in Poconos, PA: These photos were taken BEFORE a major winter storm caused a great amount of destruction from fallen trees. To date, the park is still closed.
I recently visited and posted about Shohola Falls, which is about 15 miles from Raymondskill Falls.
Love the first photo on this blog of Deer Leap Falls, Childs Park, PA? You can order it here. There is a large number of items to choose from – postcards, stickers, magnets, metal prints, bags and more, fulfilled by Redbubble.
Got a tip for taking photos of waterfalls? What are some of your favorite waterfalls to photograph? Let us know in the comments below!
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