6 Tips for Photographing Waterfalls
Recently I made a trip to the Oregon coast, and if you’re not aware, Oregon is abundant in waterfalls and rushing streams. So I set up and did a few examples for you on some tips for photographing waterfalls. However, these tips also apply to any moving water including: streams, rivers, waves on the beach, rain, or a fountain. So take them and apply to any situation where you have a chance to photograph water.
This is what we’ll cover in this article:
- What equipment I recommend – camera essentials, tripod, remote trigger, filters
- Creating a focal point – something in tack sharp focus
- Camera settings – what shutter speed and ISO to use
- The best time of day to get out and photograph
- How to shoot in bright sunlight if you can’t get out at the optimal time of day
- How to get something different than the usual kind of shots
Let’s go over them one by one.
#1 RECOMMENDED EQUIPMENT
Shooting waterfalls or any moving water is pretty simple in terms of equipment needs. I recommend you have a minimum of the following:
- a camera that can do long exposures, up to 15 seconds or so
- a sturdy tripod that can hold the camera still for that long
- a remote trigger to fire the camera (but if you don’t have one you can use the timer set to 2 second delay)
- a Neutral Density filter to cut down the amount of light
#2 CREATE A FOCAL POINT
Because moving water often looks best when you use long exposures to blur it, and make it appear mystical and magical, you want to make sure you get at least one thing tack sharp in your image. Select a focus point that isn’t moving such as a big rock or a tree that is in or near the water and focus on that spot. That way even though the water is blurry it will give the viewer something to anchor on as the eye is naturally drawn to areas of sharpness in your image.
In the image above notice the rock is sharp, as is the tiny leaf on top of it. The bright colors of the moss, and the sharpness of the rock, lead the eye right there. Our eyes normally scan left to right, top to bottom, just as we do when reading a book. So the flow of the water leads your eye to move to the right but the sharpness and focal point of the rock bring you back to that area.
#3 CAMERA SETTINGS
When photographing moving water your settings may vary depending on the look you want, see below for examples at a variety of settings. As you will be using a tripod you can choose pretty much any shutter speed you want. This is what I recommend for a starting point, then experiment by adjusting the shutter speed/aperture combo up and down.
- Mode set to Manual so you can adjust all three exposure settings
- ISO 100 or as low as it goes. Helps avoid noise in your images.
- White Balance, I usually set to one of the camera presets like Daylight or Shade. I choose the one most applicable to that scene, or that fits the look I want to achieve (warmer or cooler)
- Shutter Speed, I’d recommend deciding if you want to freeze the water droplets for a suspended animation look, or if you want to have it appear misty and wispy. If you want frozen droplets, use 1/500th of a second to start, then adjust faster if need be. If you want misty, soft, water than start at half a second (1/2) and try a few slower to see which you prefer. I find that at some point it starts to all look the same so 30 seconds may look pretty much the same as 5 seconds. Depends on the water speed, lighting, etc.
- Aperture is pretty much going to fall where it needs to be to make a correctly exposed image. If you want slow shutter speeds you’re likely going to need your smallest aperture like f/22 or f/32 if your lens has that setting. That’s fine just set it to make sure you get a good exposure and remember to check the histogram.
Below is a series of images from the same set as the one above, but taken with different shutter speeds. Because I was there in the late evening it wasn’t a problem getting slower shutter speeds. Is one better than the other? That’s left to personal taste and intention, in my opinion. So one is not better, they’re just different. You, as the photographer, get to choose how you want it to look. I chose the one above because the water was misty and blurry, but the trees weren’t moving as much as in the 6-second exposure (notice the double image of the tree branch in the last of the series below).
#4 BEST TIME OF DAY TO PHOTOGRAPH WATERFALLS
Whenever possible get out and shoot at the edge of daylight, meaning sunrise to 1-2 hours after sunrise, or dusk until sunset. This tip applies not only when photographing waterfalls but landscape photography in general. The amazing photos you see in magazines and books are usually take within those hours. Those who are prepared to stay late, or get there early, get the best images.
This sometimes requires a bit of planning if you are travelling. If you’re aiming for sunset, plan to get their two hours before the listed sunset time. That will give you plenty of light to still work with before it gets dark. For the morning, try and arrive before the sun hits the horizon. Depending on how far north you live, that could be really early. Are you the early bird prepared to catch the worm, which in this case is some stunning images?
The image you see at the very top of the page was taken practically in the dark. We got there and it was pretty late already but there was enough light to still see so off I went! Remember you have a tripod so exposure times are not an issue. What can become an issue is your companions waiting in the car blowing the horn, yelling “are you done yet?” as you wait for your 4 minute exposure to finish. But don’t hesitate to keep photographing even into the night. Just keep the ISO low (even though instinct tells you to crank it up because it’s dark) and come prepare with a lot of patience to sit and wait.
#5 HOW TO HANDLE SHOOTING IN BRIGHT SUNLIGHT
Have you ever heard of the Sunny F16 rule? It’s an old rule of thumb that photographers used to use if they forgot their light meter or their camera battery was dead. In the “old days” of film, cameras would still fire without a battery, you just didn’t get the benefit of the built-in light meter. This is what the F16 rule states, and it’s pretty accurate:
When shooting in bright sunlight your exposure will be f/16 at one divided by your ISO – meaning if you are using ISO 100, your exposure will be: ISO 100, f/16, 1/100th of a second.
“So what” you ask?
Well, what that means is that it will be impossible to get those gorgeous creamy white waterfalls in midday bright sunlight. Follow with me as we do a little math. Adjust the aperture to the smallest available on your lens, let’s say you have f/32. That is a shift of 2 stops from f/16 to f/32. So to keep the same exposure (amount of light hitting the sensor) you can also adjust the shutter speed two stops slower. That will give you 1/25th of a second. NOT slow enough for misty, magical water I’m afraid.
What’s the solution?
Buy yourself a Neutral Density Filter. It’s simply a dark grey filter that blocks the light, just like putting sunglasses on your lens. They are available in different densities ranging from one stop to about 8 or 10. Some brands offer variable versions that have two pieces of glass, which when rotated against each other get darker or lighter. I have one of these Variable ND filters.
Let’s look at some examples of how it works. The images below were taken without the help of the ND filter. Notice the slowest shutter speed possible was 1/20th of a second. **Note: my image was actually slightly underexposed so a proper exposure would have been at ISO 100, f/22, 1/40th, pretty close to the f/16 rule!
The water is starting to look misty but not quite. After adding the filter, adjusted to different densities I was able to take the following images. I was quite happy with the 5 second exposure so stopped there. I did take one at 10 seconds and it was almost identical so I deleted it.
Here’s another example – the last three in the series below were only possible with the filter. See if you can guess the shutter speeds for each of the images below.
I do find that at very darkest point of my ND filter it tends to add a color cast that doesn’t appear with less density. It also makes the image have a little less contrast. This may vary with the type of filter you purchase. Just do some tests to find out the idiosyncrasies of the one you are using. Don’t cheap out and get the least expensive one as they tend to be prone to more color shifts and sharpness issues.
#6 TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Waterfalls are a commonly photographed subject. Trying to come up with a unique image can be challenging. So let’s think outside the box a little bit and consider what the “norm” is and how you can do something just a little different.
Can you get behind the water? Or for flowing water, can you get into the middle of it safely? The image below was taken from behind this tiny stream of water (I hesitate to call it a waterfall, it was more like a sprinkle) from a high camera angle looking down. The light skimming of the wet rocks and the moss covered tree roots caught my eye. I did get a little damp as did my camera so if you attempt this sort of thing wear the right clothes and have a rain cover for your camera and your bag. I also used a slightly faster shutter speed (1/25th) because when I slowed it down there was so little water falling it almost disappeared!
What other ways can you get a unique angle? How about framing the waterfall with a natural frame? Is there an overhanging tree bough? Or in the case of the image below, a manmade structure, to frame the subject behind or through. I’m not 100% happy with the image because the columns could be sharper, but I shot it at f/16 for a minute. It was already almost totally dark and we had to walk back down the hill to the car, so I wasn’t keen on staying much longer. It also looked sharp on the camera screen and I didn’t zoom in to check it.
Lesson – learn from my mistakes! If it’s an important shot check the focus and sharpness on the camera by zooming in as far as the preview will go. The small screen is deceptive! It looks sharp on there but when you view it larger it doesn’t always measure up.
SUMMARY AND ACTION PLAN
Okay so now your mission is to go find some moving water. It doesn’t have to be a waterfall it could be a fountain or even a fish pond that has a flowing stream. Make sure you have the necessary gear and give this a try. Experiment and try different settings. Then come back and share them in the comments section below.
If you have some images you’ve done in the past of water please share those also, and tell us how you achieved it. Indicate your camera settings and tell us about the image.
Neutral Density Filters
- Promaster 77mm variable ND filter (1-9 stops approx.) This is the one I use. Of course you’ll need to buy the size that fits your lens. If you have more than one lens you may need more filters, or buy the largest size and get some step-down rings to fit the larger filter on the smaller lenses. If you aren’t sure what filter size you need, look inside your lens cap, it will tell you the filter size.
- Another option is to get a set of filters, each a different density
- You can also get the drop in style filters that will work with any lens size, you just need to get an adapter ring to attach the holder, for each lens
If you don’t have a tripod I recommend reading Stress Free Tips for Buying a Tripod before you go shopping.
Here are a few I’d recommend:
Books with more on waterfalls of Oregon and Washington and how to photograph them.